Violence against women is the most pervasive form of human rights abuse in the world today. It includes assault, battery, rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and murder. It is not a new phenomenon. It is not tied to poverty or economic upheaval. It is not related to the social displacement of peoples. Instead, it cuts across social and economic situations and is deeply embedded in cultures around the world—so much so that millions of women consider it a way of life.
Over the past decade, national and international groups have turned a spotlight on the hidden brutality of violence against women. They have called on the international community to value a woman’s right to be free from violence as a human right. This focus on violence against women has spurred the development of strategies and programs to address the problem. Still, efforts to eradicate violence remain in their infancy and most societies continue to consider violence against women a private, so-called “family” matter.
The highest percentage of violence against women occurs at home. A recent World Bank analysis indicates that one-quarter to one-half of all the world’s women have been battered by an intimate partner. Regional studies confirm the level of violence. Statistics from Latin America show that between 26 and 60 percent of adult women have been beaten at least once in their lives. In Asia, 60 percent of all women have been assaulted. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 422 percent of women report being battered regularly by an intimate partner.
Data on rape provides another chilling picture: one out of five women worldwide is a victim of rape. Most know their attackers. Young girls are the most frequent targets. 40 to 60 percent of all known sexual assaults are committed against girls aged 15 years and younger. And although rape as a weapon of war has been internationally condemned since the Nuremberg trials following the World War II, armies continue to use it in conflicts around the world. In 1992, as many as 20,000 women were raped in the first month of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Rwanda, between 2000 and 5000 rape-related pregnancies were reported in 1994. Over the past 10 years, mass rape has been documented in Peru, Myanmar, Liberia, Cambodia, Somalia and Uganda.
Female infanticide and sex-selective abortions are also forms of violence against women. Demographers estimated that 60 million women are “missing” from the populations of South and West Asia, China, and North Africa, as a result. In India, particularly the northern regions and in China and the Republic of Korea, genetic testing for sex has grown into a booming business. A recent study of amniocentesis procedures in a Bombay hospital that 95.5 percent of aborted fetuses are female. UNICEF reports anecdotal evidence of the practice of female infanticide in some Asian communities.
Another fatal practice, “dowry killing” occurs in India. There, women are killed because they cannot meet the dowry demands of husbands’ families. More than a dozen women are reported killed each day in dowry-related incidents—higher than 5,000 per year.
Female genital mutilation, practiced in at least 28 countries, mainly in Africa, is another form of violence against women. Considered a rite of passage for young girls, an estimated 130 million women and girls alive today have undergone the operation, which is not only painful but also often results in a life-time health-related problems.
The international community has a role to play in reducing the violence against women. The 1979 approval by the United Nations of the Convention on the Elimination of Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) marked a significant beginning in addressing the problem. Today, 160 countries have ratified the convention. Although it is a milestone in international efforts to reduce violence against women, nearly one-third of the signatory countries have declared that they will not be subject to several CEDAW provisions. These include equal rights to nationality and citizenship, equal ownership of family property, and an equal role in marriage and family life.
At the national level, many countries have constitutions and laws intended to protect women against violence. Constitutions include bans on violence against human beings and the right to the integrity of the body and the right to life. Most prohibit discrimination against citizens.
Brazil’s new constitution requires the state to combat violence against women. Colombia declares violence in the family destructive and provides for penalties by law. Equality under the law is written into most constitutions. Some refer specifically to women, like the constitutions of China, Greece, and Poland. These types of provisions are important because in the absence of other laws or regulations, they can be used to protect women from violence.
National laws that protect against violence are usually part of the penal code. However, only 44 countries worldwide have laws that specifically protect women against domestic violence. Of these, some have expanded the law to cover cultural practices. For example, 12 countries have now criminalized the practice of female genital mutilation.
Most countries have laws against sexual assault and rape. The problem lies, however, in the level of protection guaranteed by the law. Efforts to reform rape law have been ongoing for decades and have centered on determining what constitutes rape to be a criminal offence. Twelve Latin American countries still allow a rapist to escape prosecution if he marries his victim.