In my 10 years of activism on violence against women, I’ve focused my attention on Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries with hellish landscapes for women. Both nations are shortlist regulars for buzzy “worst places on earth for women” lists.
But I’ve also met Indian women who’ve survived forced marriage or lost their best friend to dowry death, mothers from Mexico who lost daughters to “femicide,” and a rural health nurse who reports rape rates in Native Alaskan villages she serves at close to 99 percent.
In the United States, my own sister was groomed for trafficking at 14, nearly suffocated by a boyfriend at 16 and raped at 18. Lists of the “worst places” mask the reality that women face extreme violence — in war zones, in their homes, at work — everywhere in the world, at a rate of 1 in 3 by the United Nation’s estimation. The law has failed women. It’s time for a U.N.-level treaty, one that sets minimum standards and creates far more rigorous structures for implementation and monitoring.
During last week’s U.N. 59th Commission on the Status of Women, governments and activists celebrated many hard-won triumphs of the global women’s movement. They also lamented the ongoing impact of violence against women and pushed for better enforcement of laws on the books.
But current laws contain canyon-sized gaps. More than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is legal. In 31 U.S. states, if a woman delivers a baby conceived by rape, her rapist maintains parental rights. A patchwork of treaties, resolutions, recommendations, declarations and U.N. campaigns exists to address these types of issues, but most are not legally binding; enforcement is discretionary.
Worse, governments often become active participants in the abuse, for instance arresting women who report violence. In 2013, a Somali woman was sentenced to 365 days for “false accusations” after allegedly speaking to a journalist about rape by government soldiers. The primary evidence used against her was the notoriously degrading, arcane “finger test” for rape. That same month, the new President of Somalia met with 27 foreign ministers in Europe and North America, courting aid dollars to rebuild a “new Somalia.”
Think that doesn’t apply to you and your loved ones? If you like to travel, think again. Consider the case of 31-year old Australian Alicia Gail who was drugged and gang raped in the United Arab Emirates. When she reported the attack, she was jailed for having extramarital sex, which under the UAE’s legal code, includes rape. Again, this is not a violation of international law.
The definitive international treaty on equal rights for women, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), doesn’t even contain the word “violence.” A CEDAW Committee member recently explained in a public forum the omission was intentional: “Violence against women was considered a personal matter at the time, so we didn’t include it.”
Many women’s rights advocates point to a plethora of existing laws and encourage focus on their implementation. Implementation is key — but it’s hard to implement law that doesn’t exist.
“Implementation of what?” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Rashida Manjoo has challenged, calling for a U.N. treaty. “We don’t need more soft law. It is time for hard law on violence against women.”
Only a United Nations treaty, one that addresses issues like marital rape, outlawing arrests for “false accusations” and parental rights for rapists has a chance of getting through to governments who don’t intrinsically value women’s security — but do prioritize their reputations among U.N. member states. That’s where a treaty just might create leverage. Simi Kamal of Pakistan’s Aurat Foundation, in a presentation for Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights said: “Governments have not been serious. … There is definite need … to have strong enough international instrument that human rights and women activists can use.”
Today, women’s rights advocates globally must engage in fight after fight to construct piecemeal legal protections, often risking their own security. How about giving these women some backup? In her presentation to the Carr Center, Enkhjargal Davaasuren of Mongolia’s Monfemnet said, “A standard that is internationally agreed upon makes it much easier to hold the national government accountable.”
Harvard legal scholar Beth Simmons has described the power of treaties thusly: “Treaties change the priorities of governing leaders, the reasoning of courts … and the likelihood that mobilization will succeed in realizing them … the consequences locally can be profound.”
Women’s security cannot continue to be optional for nations. Acts of violence against women have societal reverberations far beyond the terrific impacts experienced by individuals, sending shock waves of subjugation through generations of females. They function as hate crimes, the collective oppressive impact far greater than even the sum of individual acts. An unequivocal legal boundary will not end violence against women. But, as Jackie Jones of the European Women Lawyers Association says of a potential treaty, “We need it for every single woman and child on the planet. More is never enough — but it’s a very, very good start.”