Violence against women is a world-wide problem. It is not regional and it does not discriminate. It affects women of all cultures and religions. Even though statistics might be lower in Europe and The Americas, it is mostly due to them being more developed countries, women and girls might have more access to education and are possibly more able to report incidents of violence. Like any other forms of violence, it depends on the country’s conditions, the underlying societal norms, culture and religion of the population. Many factors come into play.
For instance, according to the WHO’s Violence Against Women Prevalence Estimates report of 2018, the estimated lifetime prevalence of physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence among ever-married/partnered women aged 15–49 was highest among the Least Developed Countries, at 37%. The regions of Southern Asia (35%), Sub-Saharan Africa (33%), Northern Africa (30%), and Western Asia (29%) have the highest prevalence rates of lifetime intimate partner violence in this age range. However, other regions have an estimate lower than the global average, which was 27% in 2018. The Americas with 25% are the closest to the global average, while the lowest rate is seen in Southern Europe with 16%.
Statistics can be deceiving when analyzed regionally, because one can lose perspective of an individual country’s problems and eventually assumptions are made. This can be seen in the
European Parliament’s report titled “Femicide, its causes and recent trends: What do we know?”, which was published in November 2021, where it compared the regions and provided data on the countries with the highest prevalence. In Africa, South Africa has the highest rate of femicide with 9.46 per 100,000, while Algeria has the lowest with 0.37. On the other hand, in The Americas, Venezuela and Belize have the highest rates with 10.71 and 8.67 respectively, while Chile and Nicaragua have the lowest with 0.97 and 1.6 respectively.
It must be noted that these numbers have changed because of the pandemic, and that statistics are not always accurate because, unfortunately, in some countries and regions, these incidents of violence are not reported or recorded. It may depend on the country’s political conditions; some countries are not capable of attaining this information, recording it adequately, or updating it. Also, violence against women, especially sexual violence, in some cultures and societies remains a taboo and is strongly stigmatized. Therefore, disclosure may be challenging in societies where survivors are likely to be blamed for these incidents. In other societies, women and girls may also be afraid of reporting. Underreporting is a real problem.
Causes of Violence Against Women
Like the World Development Report of 2011 states, violence and conflict arises “from political, security, and economic dynamics.” These include extreme poverty, economic stagnation, poor government services, high unemployment, environmental degradation, among many others. Attacking these root causes help deter violence and conflict. Researchers have found strong associations between violence against women and low household income, low educational levels, consumption of alcohol and drugs, and past learned behaviors. These past learned behaviors maybe be linked to underlying societal norms, traditions, culture, and religion. However, it has also been found that employment and increased status of women do not necessarily reduce this violence and may increase it in culturally conservative areas. This shows that cultural and societal norms play a huge role in violence against women, political and economic factors are not the only ones at play.
Religion and Culture
The idea that violence against women is only seen in Africa and the Middle East is a complete myth. It should not be a fight between the East and the West, or the Northern Hemisphere versus the Southern Hemisphere, nor Muslims versus Christians. It affects every region, every religion, and every culture one way or another. For example, domestic violence exists at similarly high levels in every culture.
Christianism can be as patriarchal and discriminatory towards women as any other religion, like Islam, Buddhism, or Judaism. A study of the attitudes of 26 religious groups in Australia actually showed that fundamental Christian groups were among those with the strongest patriarchal attitudes (empirical research in the US confirms that religious fundamentalism is associated with more traditional gender beliefs); while Islamic respondents held the third most patriarchal attitudes; and Buddhists, Jewish people and people with no religion held the least patriarchal attitudes on average. Also, religion in itself is not bad, it does not cause violence, but people use it to justify their behavior. Extremism, radicalism, and justifications are the problem. Interpretation of religious texts and/or practices play a huge role in influencing the way people of a certain religion act.
For instance, the Bible itself does not explicitly state that women are inferior to men, but some interpret it to depict a clear power struggle between men and women where women are expected to follow men’s demands or be punished. This is seen in Latin America, where the “machismo” culture is so dominant, that men often use religion to justify their behavior and women living in these conditions, other than being afraid of speaking out, often decide against a divorce because it is frowned upon among Roman Catholics.
Therefore, even though the image that comes to mind to many Western individuals when they think of VAW is Muslim women in their garments, the image that must come to mind is just the image of any women or girl, of all races, all religions, all culture, from all any place in the world.
Regional Protection of Women’s Rights
The Latin American, European and African regional systems have all enacted legal instruments that address discrimination and/or violence against women. Latin America’s Convention of Belém do Pará entered into force in 1995, Europe’s Istanbul Convention in 2014, and Africa’s Maputo Protocol in 2005. However, these instruments address each region’s troubles.
Belém do Pará and the Inter-American Court’s legal standards, including the State’s reinforced due diligence to prevent, investigate and sanction violence against women (Art. 7.b), have served as examples to the rest of the regions. Europe’s Convention, other than defining violence against women as possibly physical, sexual and/or psychological like Bélem do Pará, it also addresses topics like stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation. It also defines gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” It, therefore, clearly covers more individuals than Belém do Pará, even though the Inter-American Commission and Court have applied it to girls, members of the LGBTI community, and women members of other vulnerable groups like Indigenous Peoples.
Finally, the Maputo Protocol, even though it has not been widely ratified and even though it does not address violence against women directly, it can be seen as an aspirational document that recognizes women’s current struggles and discrimination. It addresses traditional values and practices that impede gender equality, including forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
Importance of an International Legal Instrument
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and entered into force in 1981 when it was ratified by twenty countries. Currently, 189 countries are State Parties, another two are signatories (Palau and the US) and only six countries have not taken any action regarding the Convention (Holy See, Iran, Niue, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga). Unfortunately, even though it has become one of the core human rights treaties, it has been highly criticized due to the reservations many countries have made. Arguably, many reservations go against the object and purpose of the treaty, as stated in Art. 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
Most reservations have been made to three articles: 2 (pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake…), 9 (grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality), and 16 (eliminate discrimination against women and ensure equality in all matters relating to marriage and family relations). For example, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco have entered reservations to Article 2 based on Shari’a. Therefore, even though it has been highly signed and ratified, it has not reached the status of customary international law completely. This is still a long way to go.
Taking into consideration the amount of reservations and seeing how this convention does not address specifically violence against women, there have been talks of developing a treaty that addresses violence against women. However, many highlight how difficult it would be to enact an instrument that is not aspirational, but binding, and that all countries around the world would be willing to sign and ratify. Even though this might be true, it would be a step towards the right direction. In 2012, the UN Human Rights Council first adopted a resolution on accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women. Finally, in 2020, at the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, leaders pledged to ramp up efforts to fully implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, including ending all forms of violence and harmful practices against women and girls.
Regions around the world have taken the initiative to start, but the international community must follow. It would be impossible for all countries to reach a consensus on an instrument like this, but the effort must be made. A slow progress is better than not at all, and more when women around the world need help.
We must destroy myths. We must stop using religion, culture, and traditions as justification for violence against women. Women’s individual human rights must be respected, over a group’s collective cultural or religious rights that negatively affect these individual rights. Even though many beliefs, practices, and norms are engraved in society and everyday life, it is our job as advocates to educate and give a voice to those women that are most affected. We should follow in the footsteps of some regional systems and promote the creation of an international instrument that addresses violence against women.
Author Biography: Sabrina M. Rodríguez is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, with an emphasis in International Relations, and a second concentration in French from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. She is a joint-degree student, also pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs, with an emphasis in International Security Studies, at the Elliott School of International Affairs.