2014 Castan Human Rights Report: Gender-based violence – beyond the first 20 years

By Heli Askola

Despite many advances in preventing gender-based violence, one in three Australian women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence and roughly one woman a week is killed by their partner or ex-partner. As some commentators have pointed out, these figures dwarf the incidence of ‘one-punch assaults’ or shark attacks that allegedly require urgent and special intervention by the state.

Photo: Stephanie Amesse
Photo: Stephanie Amesse

Gender-based violence is a widespread problem and one of the most pervasive human rights abuses, both in Australia and globally. It includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse perpetrated by individuals (such as family members), harmful customary practices (for instance ‘honour killings’) and violence committed by the state on the basis of gender.

Australia has adopted a National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (2010-22). The plan is a welcome development. The First Action Plan (2010-13) was about laying a foundation for long-term change and many valuable initiatives have been started. The Second Action Plan (until 2016) aims to build on this work, strengthening the implementation of violence reduction measures. The effectiveness of the plan will depend on the dedication of the federal and state and territory governments to adequately fund both services for victims of violence and comprehensive prevention strategies, in particular those aiming at long-term change in attitudes towards gender-based violence. Significant change requires sustained commitment to meeting the targets of the National Plan.

Recognition that gender-based violence is an international human rights issue is a relatively recent development. Although the elaboration on women’s rights as human rights started in the 1970s, abuses occurring in the private sphere, such as domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, did not feature in human rights instruments such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Gender-based violence finally became a shared rallying point for women all around the world in the early 1990s. In December 1993, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly; in 1994, the UN created the post of Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences; in 1995, the Beijing World Conference on Women declared violence against women a global concern.

In the last 20 years gender-based violence has emerged as a major challenge for international human rights law. In many societies, women are more likely to fear threats and violence by non-state actors such as family members than state actors such as the police, and international human rights law has struggled to cover these private acts. Some international and domestic experts see gender-based violence as a form of discrimination against women, arguing that unequal power relations underlie violence against women. Others have successfully applied human rights law – which most commonly covers individual-state relationships (e.g. freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment) – to women’s experiences. Using these strategies, great strides have been made to turn some traditionally neglected atrocities, such as rape in conflict, marital rape and trafficking for exploitation, into mainstream human rights issues.

Despite these advances, many challenges remain. Gender-based violence remains ill-defined in international human rights law and its causes and consequences are not always properly understood by international and domestic human rights actors. There still exists no international human rights treaty explicitly prohibiting gender-based violence. In practice, violence against women is also considered difficult to address – it is deeply ingrained and often seen as politically sensitive, culturally specific and divisive. These issues are often compounded with regard to women who experience multiple discrimination, such as indigenous women or women with disabilities.

Gender-based violence can nullify a victim’s ability to enjoy her human rights. The effects of gender-based violence extend beyond the physical and mental consequences to immediate victims, their families, communities and society as a whole. States have a duty to ensure that all individuals in their jurisdiction are protected from violence. This duty requires states not only to refrain from engaging in or encouraging gender-based violence but to actively protect victims, prosecute and punish perpetrators and engage in long-term prevention strategies. The eradication of gender-based violence requires deep commitment to social change, most notably adjustment in the attitudes of men and boys regarding gender inequality and adaptation of institutions and structures of power to take gender-based violence seriously.

The adoption of the National Plan signalled Australia’s commitment to reducing gender-based violence and provides a framework for working towards its elimination, but we are far from having reached the its aims. Meeting the due diligence requirements of international human rights law obliges governments to put the money where their mouth is. It is therefore essential that the Second Action Plan, which runs until 2016, is backed up with sufficient funding and effective implementation measures by both the federal and state and territory governments.

This piece is featured in the 2014 Castan Human Rights Report. You can read the full report and download a pdf here.

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Further reading

National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022,http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2012/national_plan.pdf

Alice Edwards, Violence against Women under International Human Rights Law (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

Linda Murray and Lesley Pruitt, Ending violence against women is good for everyone,http://theconversation.com/ending-violence-against-women-is-good-for-everyone-11659

Bianca Hall, New laws will also hit domestic violencehttp://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/new-laws-will-also-hit-domestic-violence-20140125-31f9i.html

Leslie Morgan Steiner: Why domestic violence victims don’t leave,http://www.ted.com/talks/leslie_morgan_steiner_why_domestic_violence_victims_don_t_leave.html

Castan Centre

The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law seeks to promote and protect human rights through the generation and dissemination of public scholarship in international and domestic human rights law. In pursuit of this mission, the Centre brings the work of human rights scholars, practitioners and advocates from a wide range of disciplines together in the Centre’s key activities of research, teaching, public education (lectures, seminars, conferences, speeches, media presentations, etc), applied research, advice work and consultancies.

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