(WOMENSENEWS)– Not long ago, I visited an organization in Cambodia that provides services to victims of gender-based violence. The head of the nongovernmental organization confided to me that all of her funders from the United States and Europe had earmarked their money for anti-sex trafficking efforts. But what she really needed, she said, was support for domestic violence programs. Whenever she could, she used some of the human trafficking funding to respond to domestic violence.
The media, academics and “big thinkers” are currently focused on sex trafficking and other high-profile issues such as sexual assault in conflict zones. To be sure, these are grave concerns. But they shouldn’t take our eyes off the most pervasive form of violence against women – domestic violence.
Worldwide, almost one-third (30 percent) of women who have been in a relationship have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner. Globally, as many as 38 percent of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners.
Sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one. Police, prosecutors and other government officials don’t need to wait for an international human rights treaty to be finalized before filing domestic violence charges. They don’t need to wait until their country passes a new or better piece of legislation that addresses domestic violence specifically.
‘Already a Crime’
That’s because, in some 190 countries, it is already a crime to assault another person. You can’t hit your boss or your neighbor – anywhere in the world – without risking criminal prosecution. So, too, you shouldn’t be able to beat your wife or girlfriend. We don’t need more laws on the books. We need to implement the laws we’ve had for decades.
In the domestic violence context, effective implementation of the laws means that no incidents are treated as minor. Often, in both the developing and developed world, police and prosecutors only bring domestic violence charges once the violence becomes extreme; murders, rapes, disfiguring acid attacks. Most of the sensational cases could have been prevented if law enforcement had intervened earlier.
As I know from 13 years as a specialized domestic and sexual violence prosecutor, when a woman is murdered or seriously injured by her partner, it is never the first time he has attacked her. It starts with black eyes and broken fingers and moves up the ladder to the crimes that make the news. By prosecuting lower level crimes and addressing intimate partner violence before it escalates, we will save women’s lives around the world.
Putting victims at the center of our thinking is essential for making the laws work.
For example, after Brazil passed a new law in 2006 to establish special courts and stricter sentences for domestic violence offenders, Sandra Gomes Melo, an attorney and policewoman, knew that the law’s success depended on how well it was implemented. She worked in a women’s police station, one of more than 300 such precincts in the country designed to make reporting crimes and getting assistance easier for women, and created a Women’s Mobile Police Unit to provide services to women in underserved communities, the countryside and inaccessible areas. “In my police station, the law would be a reality,” she pledged.
While there are differences in how violence against women is handled in the United States and many other countries of the world, the U.S. experience confirms that simply passing new laws is not enough. Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, but domestic violence did not automatically decrease. It was only after attention turned to implementing the law — in the form of advocacy, raising awareness and trainings for law enforcement — that domestic violence went down.
Between 1993 and 2010, the rate of intimate partner violence declined 67 percent, even as reporting increased. The example of the Violence Against Women Act shows that putting attention on implementing the laws is as important as passing them in reducing violence.
Governments must be held accountable for implementing all the laws that are available to protect women. It is not enough to pass laws or sign treaties; we must follow through and focus resources and attention on thorough implementation. With an emphasis on implementation, we will achieve our shared vision of a safer world for our mothers, daughters, sisters and friends.