Sheila Dauer

(WOMENSENEWS)–Amnesty International aims to force governments to recognize their complicity in gender-based violence when they fail to create or enforce laws against it.

As the latest step in this, the London-based human rights organization this month launched an international campaign to raise awareness of violence against women as a human rights violation.

“Amnesty International has been working onholding governments accountable to prevent, punish and investigate violence against women by state and non-state actors,” said Sheila Dauer, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at Amnesty International U.S.A., based in New York City. “This campaign will take on that issue.”

Amnesty’s launch of this campaign builds on its previous work to hold states accountable for violence against women.

During preparations for a year-long campaign against torture in 2001, the organization seized on the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment–a United Nations human rights treaty–as an opportunity to demonstrate the severity of domestic violence and to urge governments to protect women from its cruelty. Amnesty declared that domestic violence, when combined with state inaction, is torture.

“If you look at what happens in domestic violence and what happens in torture they are convergent,” said Dauer.

Amnesty International uses the idea of intentional harm–when combined with discrimination, and with state acquiescence–to draw the connection between torture and domestic violence.

The Convention Against Torture defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.” In addition, it declares that states are responsible for acts of torture inflicted “at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

At least 1-in-3 women and girls worldwide has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. As recently as six years ago, only 44 countries out of 193 in the world had laws against domestic violence and only 17 countries outlawed marital rape, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report.

Only three nations have legislation that specifically addresses violence against women as a category of criminal activity in itself, according to a 2003 report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women.

Domestic Violence Is Form of Discrimination

Amnesty’s decision to define gender violence as torture builds on advances in international law, which hold states accountable for the actions of private individuals. For example, in 1992, the committee that oversees the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women declared that gender-based violence, including violence committed by private individuals, is a form of discrimination that states must take measures to eradicate. That same year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which monitors nations’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, clarified that states must protect everyone from torture, whether inflicted by governments or non-state actors.

Whether she lives in Sri Lanka or South Dakota, a woman is far more likely to suffer violence in her home or community than at the hands of her government. In the past two decades, under the rallying cry “women’s rights are human rights,” activists have been working to extend the reach of human rights law beyond state abuses of power to family members and neighbors who brutalize women.

“There has to be government action or acquiescence present to be a human rights violation,” said Morton Sklar, executive director of the U.S. affiliate of the World Organisation Against Torture. “What’s happening now . . . is a greater acceptance of the idea that non-state actions do constitute human rights violations . . . because governments let these acts happen.”

In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that governments are duty-bound to stop violence against women. Later that year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which requires states to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish gender violence. The 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women produced the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which includes the assertion that domestic violence is a human rights violation.

“The fact that anyone characterizes domestic violence as a human rights issue is a success of the women’s human rights movement,” said LaShawn Jefferson, director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, based in New York City.

Making Than Words Lead to Action

Though significant in their recognition of women’s right to be free from violence, U.N. declarations are not binding agreements.

And while treaties, such as the U.N. Convention Against Torture, are binding on the states that ratify them, the committees that oversee implementation do not have enforcement powers. They do require countries to report on efforts to meet treaty obligations. Amnesty and other human rights groups work through U.N. oversight committees and in the court of public opinion to compel states to match their human rights rhetoric with action to protect women from violence.

“These frameworks are absolutely indispensable to the effectiveness of our work,” said Jefferson. “It’s an important process that governments step back and publicly comment on the state of women’s rights. Otherwise it would just not happen,” she added.

Besides advocating that national governments address domestic violence, Amnesty’s current campaign will also identify the roles that local governments and parallel authorities–such as tribal elders and religious leaders–play in addressing violence against women in their communities.

In preparation for the campaign, Amnesty International met with organizations working on domestic violence in the United States and abroad. They’ve found that, for many domestic violence organizations, international law is a new approach to advocacy.

“The reception we get is ‘We’ve never looked at the international human rights framework . . . let’s look at this,'” said Zaynab Nawaz, program assistant for Amnesty International U.S.A.’s Women’s Human Rights Program.

Amnesty’s national week of student action to stop violence against women, which begins March 29, reflects their commitment to working at both the national and local level. The event focuses on the murders of more than 370 young women in the cities of Juarez and Chihuahua Mexico since 1993. Student activities will lobby Congress to pass a resolution on the issue while connecting with local organizations working to end gender violence.

Through this dual approach, aimed at governments on the one hand and grassroots activists on the other, Amnesty aims to bring home the message domestic violence constitutes a pandemic human rights violation–and that it has to stop.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer and law student living in Long Beach, Calif.

For more information:

Amnesty International–
“It’s In Our Hands: Stop Violence Against Women”
(Adobe PDF format):

World Organisation Against Torture
Violence Against Women Programme:

Human Rights Watch–
Human Rights Watch Work on Domestic Violence: