WOMENAID INTERNATIONAL

LEGAL STEPS TO CRIMINALIZE 
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

In recent years some countries have taken significant steps towards improving laws relating to violence against women.  For example: 

In July 1991, Mexico revised its rape law in several important ways.  A provision was eliminated that allowed a man who rapes a minor to avoid prosecution if he agrees to marry her.  Now judges are required to hand down a decision regarding access to an abortion within five working days. 

On 9 June 1994, the Organisation of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence against Women (also called Convention of Belem do Para), a new international instrument that recognises all gender-based violence as an abuse of human rights.  This Convention provides an individual right of petition and a right for non-governmental organisations to lodge complaints with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. 

In Australia, a National Committee on Violence against Women was established to co-ordinate the development of policy, legislation and law enforcement at the national level as well as community education on violence against women. 

In 1991, the Government of Canada announced a new four-year Family Violence Initiative intended to mobilise community action, strengthen Canada's legal framework, establish services on Indian reservations and in Inuit communities, develop resources to help victims and stop offenders, and provide housing for abused women and children. 

In Turkey, a Ministry of State for Women was established, whose main goals are, among others, to promote women's rights and strengthen their role in economic, social, political and cultural life.  Legal measures are being adopted towards the elimination of violence against women.  The establishment of special courts to deal with violence is envisaged.  Psychological treatment for abused women is also planned, along with the establishment of women's shelters around the country.  Specially trained female police officers could provide assistance to victims of violence. 

In Burkina Faso, a strong advertising campaign by the Government as well as television and radio programmes on the unhealthy practice of genital mutilation were launched to educate and raise public awareness about the dangerous consequences of such an "operation".  A National Anti-Excision Committee was established in 1990 by the present head of State.  Today, the practice of genital mutilation has been eliminated in some villages of Burkina Faso.  In others, there has been an incredible drop in the number of girls excised: only 10 per cent of the girls are excised compared to 100 per cent 10 years ago. 

Some countries have introduced police units specially trained for dealing with spousal assault.  In Brazil specific police stations have been designated to deal with women's issues, including domestic violence.  These police stations are staffed entirely by women. 

ENSURING THAT LAWS ARE OBEYED 

These examples illustrate some steps taken at the national level towards the eradication of violence against women.  Combating and eradicating this scourge require enhanced and concerted efforts to protect women at the local, national and international levels. 

States have tended to adopt a passive attitude when confronted by cases of violations of women's rights by private actors.  Most laws fail to protect victims or to punish perpetrators.  Passing laws to criminalise violence against women is an important way to redefine the limits of acceptable behaviour. 

States should ensure that national legislation, once adopted, does not go unenforced.  State responsibility is clearly underlined in Article 4 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which stipulates that "States should exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons." 

Any approach designed to combat violence must be twofold, addressing the root causes of the problem and treating its manifestations.  Society at large, including judges and police officers, must be educated to change the social attitudes and beliefs that encourage male violence. 

CHALLENGING TRADITIONAL ATTITUDES 

The meaning of gender and sexuality and the balance of power between women and men at all levels of society must be reviewed.  Combating violence against women requires challenging the way that gender roles and power relations are articulated in society.  In many countries women have a low status.  They are considered as inferior and there is a strong belief that men are superior to them and even own them. 

Changing people's attitude and mentality towards women will take a long time - at least a generation, many believe, and perhaps longer.  Nevertheless, raising awareness of the issue of violence against women, and educating boys and men to view women as valuable partners in life, in the development of a society and in the attainment of peace are just as important as taking legal steps to protect women's human rights. 

It is also important in order to prevent violence that non-violent means be used to resolve conflict between all members of society.  Breaking the cycle of abuse will require concerted collaboration and action between governmental and non-governmental actors, including educators, health-care authorities, legislators, the judiciary and the mass media. 

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