Violence affects the lives of millions of women world-wide, in all socio-economic and educational classes.  It cuts across cultural and religious barriers, impeding the right of women to participate fully in society.  Violence against women takes a dismaying variety of forms, from domestic abuse and rape to child marriages and female circumcision.  All are violations of the most fundamental human rights. 

In a statement to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995, the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said that violence against women is a universal problem that must be universally condemned.  But he said that the problem continues to grow.  The Secretary-General noted that domestic violence alone is on the increase.  Studies in 10 countries, he said, have found that between 17 per cent and 38 per cent of women suffered physical assaults by a partner. 

In the Platform for Action, the core document of the Beijing Conference, Governments declared that "violence against women constitutes a violation of basic human rights and is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace". 

The issue of the advancement of women's rights has concerned the United Nations since the Organisation's founding.  Yet the alarming global dimensions of female-targeted violence were not explicitly acknowledged by the international community until December 1993, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. 

Until that point, most Governments tended to regard violence against women largely as a private matter between individuals, and not as a pervasive human rights problem requiring State intervention.  In view of the alarming growth in the number of cases of violence against women throughout the world, the Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 1994/45 of 4 March 1994, in which it decided to appoint the Special Rapporteur on the violence against women, including its causes and consequences. 

As a result of these steps, the problem of violence against women has been drawing increasing political attention.  The Special Rapporteur has a mandate to collect and analyse comprehensive date and to recommend measures aimed at eliminating violence at the international, national and regional levels.  The mandate is threefold: 

  • To collect information on violence against women and its causes and consequences from sources such as Governments, treaty bodies, specialised agencies and intergovernmental and non-governmental organisation, and to respond effectively to such information; 

  • To recommend measures and ways and means, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences; 

  • To work closely with other special rapporteurs, special representatives, working groups and independent experts of the Commission on Human Rights. 

Some females fall prey to violence before they are born, when expectant parents abort their unborn daughters, hoping for sons instead.  In other societies, girls are subjected to such traditional practices as circumcision, which leaves them maimed and traumatised.  In others, they are compelled to marry at an early age before they are physically, mentally or emotionally mature. 

Women are victims of incest, rape and domestic violence that often lead to trauma, physical handicap or death.  And rape is still being used as a weapon of war, a strategy used to subjugate and terrify entire communities.  Soldiers deliberately impregnate women of different ethnic groups and abandon them when it is too late to get an abortion. 

The Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth Conference on Women declared that rape in armed conflict is a war crime - and could, under some circumstances, be considered genocide.  The then UN Secretary-General, Boutros-Ghali told the Beijing Conference that more women today were suffering directly from the effects of war and conflict than ever before in history.  "There is a deplorable trend towards the organised humiliation of women. including the crime of mass hate", the Secretary-General said. "We will press for international legal action against those who perpetrate organised violence against women in time of conflict." 

A preliminary report in 1994 by the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, focused on three areas of concern where women are particularly vulnerable:  

  • In the family (including domestic violence, traditional practices and infanticide);   

  • In the community (including rape, sexual assault, commercialised violence such as trafficking in women, labour exploitation, female migrant workers, etc.);

  • By the State (including violence against women in detention as well as violence against women in situations of armed conflict and against refugee women). 

In the Platform for Action adopted at the Beijing Conference, violence against women and the human rights of women are two of the twelve critical areas of concern identified as the main obstacles to the advancement of women. 

Governments agreed to adopt and implement national legislation to end violence against women and to work actively to ratify all international agreements that relate to violence against women.  They agreed that there should be shelters, legal aid and other services for girls and women at risk, and counselling and rehabilitation for perpetrators. 

Governments also pledged to adopt appropriate measures in the field of education to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women.  The Platform called on media professionals to develop self-regulatory guidelines to address violent, degrading and pornographic materials, while encouraging non-stereotyped, balanced and diverse images of women. 

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women is the first international human rights instrument to exclusively and explicitly address the issue of violence against women.  It affirms that the phenomenon violates, impairs or nullifies women's human rights and their exercise of fundamental freedoms. 

The Declaration provides a definition of gender-based abuse, calling it "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life". 

The definition is amplified in Article 2 of the Declaration, which identifies three areas in which violence commonly takes place : 

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence that occurs in the family, including battering; sexual abuse of female children in the household; dowry-related violence; marital rape; female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women; non-spousal violence; and violence related to exploitation; 

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence that occurs within the general community, including rape; sexual abuse; sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; trafficking in women; and forced prostitution; 

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs. 

The importance of the question of violence against women was emphasised over the last decade through the holding of several expert group meetings sponsored by the United Nations to draw attention to the extent and severity of the problem. 

In September 1992, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women established a special Working Group and gave it a mandate to draw up a draft declaration on violence against women.  The following year, the United Nations Commission for Human Rights, in resolution 1993/46 of 3 March, condemned all forms of violence and violations of human rights directed specifically against women. 

The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993, laid extensive groundwork for eliminating Violence against women.  In the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, Governments declared that the United Nations system and Member States should work towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private; of all forms of sexual harassment, exploitation and trafficking in women; of gender bias in the administration of justice; and any conflicts arising between the rights of women and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism. 

The document also declared that "violations of the human rights of women in situation of armed conflicts are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law", "violations of the human rights of women in situation of armed conflicts are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law", and that all violations of this kind - including murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy - "require a particularly effective response". 


Domestic violence: Violence against women in the family occurs in developed and developing countries alike.  It has long been considered a private matter by bystanders - including neighbours, the community and government.  But such private matters have a tendency to become public tragedies. 

In the United States, a woman is beaten every 18 minutes.  Indeed, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among women of reproductive aged in the United States.  Between 22 and 35 per cent of women who visit emergency rooms are there for that reason. 

The highly publicised trial of O. J. Simpson, the retired United States football player acquitted of the murder of his former wife and a male friend of hers, helped focus international media attention on the issue of domestic violence and spousal abuse. 

In Peru, 70 per cent of all crimes reported to the police involve women beaten by their husbands. 

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto strongly defended a 35-year-old mother of two who was severely burned by her husband in a domestic dispute.  "There is no excuse for such a behaviour", the Prime Minister declared after visiting the hospitalised victim.  "My presence here is to send a message to all those who violate Islamic teachings and defy laws of the land with their inhuman treatment of women.  This will not be tolerated". 

According to the Special Rapporteur's report, many Governments now recognise the importance of protecting victims of domestic abuse and taking action to punish perpetrators.  The establishment of structures allowing officials to deal with cases of domestic violence and its consequences is a significant step towards the elimination of violence against women in the family.  The Special Rapporteur's report highlights the importance of adopting legislation that provides for prosecution of the offender.  It also stresses the importance of specialised training for law enforcement authorities as well as medical and legal professionals, and of the establishment of community support services for victims, including access to information and shelters. 

Traditional practices: In many countries, women fall victim to traditional practices that violate their human rights.  The persistence of the problem has much to do with the fact that most of these physically and psychologically harmful customs are deeply rooted in the tradition and culture of society. 

Female genital mutilation:  According to the World Health Organisation, 85 million to 115 million girls and women in the population have undergone some form of female genital mutilation and suffer from its adverse health effects.  Every year an estimated 2 million young girls undergo this procedure.  Most live in Africa and Asia - but an increasing number can be found among immigrant and refugee families in Western Europe and North America.  The practice has been outlawed in some European countries. 

In France, a Malian was convicted in a criminal court after his baby girl died of a female circumcision-related infection.  The procedure had been performed on the infant at home. 

In Canada, fear of being forced to undergo circumcision can be grounds for asylum.  A Nigerian woman was granted refugee status since she felt that she might be persecuted in her home country because of her refusal to inflict genital mutilation on her baby daughter. 

There is a growing consensus that the best way to eliminate these practices is through educational campaigns that emphasise their dangerous health consequences.  Several Governments have been actively promoting such campaign in their countries. 

Son preference: Son preference affects women in many countries, particularly in Asia.  Its consequences can be anything from foetal or female infanticide to neglect of the girl-child, in favour of her brother, in terms of such essential needs as nutrition, basic health care and education. 

In China and India, some women choose to terminate their pregnancies when expecting daughters but carry their pregnancies to term when expecting sons.  According to reports from India, genetic testing for sex selection has become a booming business, especially in the country's northern regions.  Indian gender-detection clinics drew protests from women's groups after the appearance of advertisements suggesting that it was better to spend $38 now to terminate a female foetus than $3,800 later on her dowry 

A study of amniocentesis procedures conducted in a large Bombay hospital found that 95.5 per cent of foetuses identified as female were aborted, compared with a far smaller percentage of male foetuses. 

The problem of son preference is present in many other countries as well.  Asked how many children he had fathered, the former United States boxing champion Mohammed Ali told an interviewer: "One boy and seven mistakes". 

Dowry-related violence and early marriages:  In some countries, weddings are preceded by the payment of an agreed-upon dowry by the bride's family.  Failure to pay the dowry can lead to violence.  In Bangladesh, a bride whose dowry was deemed too small was disfigured after the husband threw acid on her face.  In India, an average of five women a day are burned in dowry-related disputes - and many more cases are never reported. 

Early marriage, especially without the consent of the girl, is another form of human rights violation.  Early marriage followed by multiple pregnancies can affect the health of women for life. 

The report of the Special Rapporteur has documented the destructive effects of marriage of female children under 18 and has urged Governments to adopt relevant legislation. 

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