Special Rapporteur Urges International Community to Step Up Efforts to Combat Sexual Violence
Thursday, November 1, 2007 4:16 PM

Violence Against Women

YAKIN ERTURK, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said her report addressed how culture-based discourses and paradigms had been used to justify violence against women, thus confining the problem to a cultural realm.  Such discourses diverted attention from the inequality that allowed systematic violence against women.  No society had yet achieved gender equality; thus, violence against women, which was embedded in gender inequality, remained universal.  Compromising women’s rights was not an option.  The challenge was to respect and prize cultural diversity, while at the same time develop common strategies to resist oppressive practices in the name of culture.

She referred to missions she undertook last year, starting with Turkey, where she focused on suicide among women in the eastern regions.  There was good reason to believe there had been forced suicides and murder among the recorded female suicides.  In many cases, family members and society bore varying degrees of moral responsibility, as the link between rigid patriarchal oppression and violation of women’s rights had been all too clear.  In the Netherlands, native Dutch women were still affected by gender inequality and that was reflected in labour market participation patterns, gender wage gaps and representation in decision-making.  Domestic violence committed by a current or former male partner was the most prevalent form of violence against women in the Netherlands.  The regulation of prostitution had also not eliminated violence, nor had it strengthened the ability of women in the sex sector to pursue their interests.  In Sweden, there had been some deficiencies in the protection of women exposed to violence, while the vulnerability of women in prostitution had increased following the criminalization of the buying of sex and pimping.

Turning to missions she had undertaken this year, she said violence against women in the private sphere in Algeria was pervasive, yet largely invisible.  The trauma of violence that occurred during the “black decade” meanwhile continued to haunt many women.  In Ghana, female genital mutilation remained prevalent in various parts of the country, despite its criminalization, and women accused of witchcraft had often violently been driven from their communities.  The dramatic situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where sexual violence had been a defining feature of armed conflicts, needed urgent attention.  The situation was most acute in South Kivu, where foreign non-State armed groups had committed sexual atrocities of unimaginable brutality, aimed at the complete physical and psychological destruction of women.  Impunity for crimes against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was massive.

Looking to 2008, she said that she would visit Tajikistan in January and Saudi Arabia in February.  She had also made requests to visit Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.  Her next thematic report to the Human Rights Council would focus on indicators of violence against women and on State responses to such violence.  Such indicators were needed to generate reliable statistics and to monitor efforts to address the problem.

The representative of Turkey, underlining the high priority his country assigned to violence against women -- in particular domestic violence -- asked what the Special Rapporteur might recommend to raise public awareness of the problem. 

The representative of Portugal (on behalf of the European Union) enquired about best practices, non-State actors, and the “intersection” between culture and violence against women.

The representative of Canada asked what could be achieved with common indicators. 

The representative of Mexico also asked about indicators. 

The representative of Nigeria, noting that violence against women based on culture existed in his country and elsewhere in Africa, asked what the Special Rapporteur could contribute to ensure that education on that issue was given proper attention, particularly in rural areas.

The representative of Algeria said the Special Rapporteur’s report on her country, and its recommendations, were awaited with great interest.  The Algerian authorities were doing their utmost to combat violence against women, and a national strategy had been prepared. 

The representative of Indonesia raised a question on women in decision-making roles, notably in Parliament.

The representative of the Netherlands expressed deep appreciation for the work of the Special Rapporteur, and drew attention to a national policy paper on the emancipation of women in her country.

In her reply, Ms. ERTÜRK said she had visited 14 countries so far -- covering different cultures and legal traditions -- and all had in common gender inequality and violence against women, albeit in different forms.  She had also found an eagerness to tackle the problem, but with varying degrees of success.  Her reports on Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ghana would be submitted in March, and today she had only given very preliminary observations.  Domestic violence existed in all countries, regardless of the level of development, education and wealth.  There was an interpersonal aspect to domestic violence, but the structural aspect should not be overlooked, as such violence was rooted in gender inequality.  More work needed to be done on changing attitudes, on understanding power, and on raising awareness in society at large.  Punishment for domestic violence had to be looked at carefully, as women were often reluctant to complain because they did not want their husbands or partners to be imprisoned.  And, increasingly, countries were looking to more innovative solutions to address the matter, for instance through restraining orders.  On the other hand, violence in the public sphere could be addressed with more punitive measures.

Regarding non-State actors, she said the human rights system was still very State-centric; non-State responsibilities had to be handled with more vigilance.  Organized non-State actors such as corporations and financial institutions had taken steps to address violence against women, but armed groups were more difficult to deal with.  The international community needed to address the problem.

Turning to indicators, she said it was very difficult to measure violence against women as the definition of the term itself was controversial.  Much work was already underway on indicators.  Her report would try to suggest basic comparative indicators, with an emphasis on developing such mechanisms at the national level.  The many nuances between severity and recurrence of violence against women also needed to be looked at.

The Special Rapporteur called education a human right as well as a citizen’s right; it was unacceptable that all women throughout the world did not have access to education.  Cultural reasons could not justify such a situation.  The report on Ghana would address how that country had been using incentives to encourage education for girls.  That said, the fight against violence against women could not be achieved by formal education alone, as such violence could be found among the educated as well.  It was a matter of changing mentalities.  The State had to be engaged with communities and society, and not accept what was said to be cultural and traditional.  Cultural norms and values used to uphold human rights violations had to be challenged.

Excerpt published in: Third Committee Calls on International Community to Focus on Upcoming Review of Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing: Rapporteur Calls for New Standards Of International Law to Protect Refugees Fleeing Hunger, Press Release, Department of Public Information, United Nations, U.N. Doc. GA/SHC/3894, 25 October 2007.