Violence against women and girl children is a global phenomenon which cuts across geographical, cultural and political boundaries and varies only in its manifestations and severity. Gender violence has existed from time immemorial and continues up to the present day. It takes covert and overt forms including physical and mental abuse. Violence against women, including female genital mutilation, wife-burning, dowry-related violence, rape, incest, wife battering, female foeticide and female infanticide, trafficking and prostitution, is a human rights violation and not only a moral issue. It has serious negative implications on the economic and social development of women and society, and is an expression of the societal gender subordination of women.
The United Nations recognizes the urgent need for the universal application to women of the rights and principles with regard to equality, security, liberty, integrity and dignity of all human persons as enshrined in various international instruments, notably the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women. Violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace, as recognized by the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.
The Social Development Summit (Copenhagen, 1994) made the following recommendations regarding violence towards women in its Action Plan: 1. To promote and protect people's rights; 2. To create policies and programmes designed to protect workers, women in particular, from sexual harassment and violence; 3. To eliminate all forms of violence and apply fully the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, especially at a national level; 4. To encourage the prompt ratification of the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; 5. To encourage educational systems and the media to improve understanding of all aspects of women's social integration, including the elimination of violence; 6. To introduce and apply concrete policies, public health and social service programmes, to prevent and eliminate all forms of violence in society, violence at home in particular; 7. Countries should pay special attention to violence derived from traditional or habitual harmful practices and from all forms of extremism; 8. To fight against the traffic in women and children, adopting coordinated measures at national and international levels.
The "Fifth Commitment" of the Social Summit reads that "among other things efficient measures (will be adopted) through the promulgation and application of laws and policies designed to fight and eliminate all forms of discrimination, exploitation, bad treatment and violence against women and girls, in accordance with the relevant international instruments and declarations".
The UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on Violence Against Women at its 48th session. It calls on States to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women, whether they are perpetrated by individuals or by the State and its agents.
At the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), more than 900 women's NGO's from around the world, as well as intergovernmental organizations such as UNIFEM, put women's human rights, including violence against women, on the agenda. This strategic objective also formed part of the Platform for Action of the UN Fourth World Conference for Women (Beijing, 1995). More and more women's organizations have begun to identify widespread militarism within their societies as a primary determinant in the exercise of violence against women. Organizations such as People Opposing Women Abuse in South Africa note the direct causal relationship between the institutionalized racism of apartheid and the violence that occurs on the societal level – particularly affecting women. Similar findings have been noted by the Coordinadora Nacional de la Mujer SalvadoreÃ±a, which opened the first support centre in El Salvador working to raise women's consciousness and to enable women to understand their situations within the broader context of war and militarism.
The use of popular education techniques such as street theatre of illustrated magazines has become an effective mechanism by which women's groups have been able to reach that segment of the population which often finds itself at greatest risk from violence – marginalized women who are often denied access to formal education. Groups such as the Women's Action Group in Zimbabwe and the SPEAK Collective in South Africa produce written materials using popular language to encourage women to share their experiences and to break their silence around the issue of violence against women.
In 1994 Rio de Janeiro held the First Exposition of City Experiences Defending Women from Violence. Some twenty projects participated in the event, which was organized by the Nucleus of Public Policies and Women's Studies, of the Brazilian Institute of City Administration (IBAM), with the support of the Ford Foundation. City organizations filled out a form describing their experience and an interdisciplinary commission evaluated each application, granting three awards, each of US$10,000, to: Casa de Apoyo a la Mujer Victima de Violencia of Diamdema, Sao Paulo; Centro de AtenciÃ³n a la Mujer (CAM) of Londrina; and Casa Rosa Mujer of Rio Branco. La Casa de Apoyo Viva MarÃa, de Porto Alegre and the project La Salud Mental en CuestiÃ³n, de Santos, Sao Paulo, received honourable mentions.
Recognizing the importance of law enforcement in combatting violence against women, women's group in Latin America and the USA, in particular, are taking appropriate action. For example, the Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, has developed curricula, training manuals and technical assistance programmes for police officers, criminal and civil court judges and prosecutors to recognize and respond to the needs of women affected by domestic violence. A women's group in Pakistan, the Simorgh Collective, is producing a booklet documenting the experiences of rape survivors, health workers and lawyers in an effort to educate the public about the issue of rape and the need for reforms in the law. (In Pakistan, the law known as the Hadood Ordinance, stipulates that a woman's charge of rape can only be substantiated if the testimony of four adult male Moslem witnesses is obtained. If she is unable to substantiate her claim successfully, she may be charged with adultery and subject to corporal punishment or imprisonment).
The Leading the Way Out project – an international gathering of women from around the world working to end violence against women – consisted of a series of workshops and strategy sessions held in Northern California in May 1991 by the Global Fund for Women. The project was designed to: 1. Strengthen the capacity of women-serving organizations to confront and combat violence against women; 2. Facilitate a cross-cultural exchange of ideas, information and technical skills among people working with women confronting situations of violence; 3. Encourage the development of new leadership by enabling promising young or inexperienced women to become part of an international network; and 4. Illustrate the potential strength of women as a collective force to discourage violence and violent behaviour by identifying and developing specific strategies for collective action.
Governments should openly condemn all forms of violence against women and children, in particular girls, and commit themselves to confronting and eliminating such violence. To stop all forms of violence against women, all available media should be mobilized to cultivate a social attitude and climate against such totally unacceptable human behaviour. Governments should set up monitoring mechanisms to control depiction of any form of violence against women in the media. Violence being a form of social aberration, governments should advocate the cultivation of a social attitude so that victims of violence do not suffer any continuing disability, feelings of guilt, or low self-esteem.
Governments should enact and regularly review legislation for effectively combatting all forms of violence, including rape, against women and children. In this connection, more severe penalties for acts of rape and trafficking should be introduced and specialized courts should be established to process such cases speedily and to create a climate of deterrence. Female infanticide and female foeticide should be openly condemned by all governments as a flagrant violation of the basic right to life of the girl-child.
The hearing of cases of rape should be in camera and the details not publicized, and legal assistance should be provided to the victims. Traditional practices of dowry and bride price should be condemned by governments and made illegal. Acts of bride-burning should likewise be condemned and a heavy penalty inflicted on the guilty.
Families, medical personnel and the public should be encouraged to report and have registered all forms of violence. More and more women should be inducted in law enforcement machinery as police officers, judiciary, medical personnel and counsellors. Gender sensitization training should be organized for all law enforcement personnel and such training should be incorporated in all induction and refresher courses in police training institutions. Mechanisms for networking and exchanges of information on violence should be established and strengthened. Governments should provide shelters, counselling and rehabilitation centres for victims of all forms of violence. They should also provide free legal assistance to victims.
Governments must develop and implement a legal literacy campaign to improve the legal awareness of women, including dissemination of information through all available means, particularly NGO programmes, adult literacy courses and school curricula. Governments must promote research on violence against women and create and update databases on this subject.
Community-based vigilance should be promoted regarding gender violence, including domestic violence. At the national level, governments should promote and set up independent, autonomous and vigilant institutions to monitor and inquire into violations of women,s rights, such as national commissions for women consisting of individuals and experts from outside the governments.
Governments which have not done so are urged to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to ensure full gender equality in all spheres of life. The states parties to these Conventions must comply with their provisions in order to achieve their ultimate objectives, including the eradication of all harmful traditional practices.
NGOs should be active in bringing all available information on systematic and massive violence against women and children, in particular girls, to the attention of all relevant bodies of the UN, such as the Centre for Human Rights, the Commission on the Status of Women, and Specialized agencies for the necessary intervention. Such information should also be shared with the governments concerned, women's commissions and human rights organizations. Women's organizations should mobilize all efforts, including action research, to eradicate prejudicial and internalized values which project a diminished image of women. They should take action towards raising awareness among women about their potential and self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the factors for perpetuating discrimination.