Considering a Human Rights Perspective in addressing the Issue of Global Violence Against Women

Lorelei Bachman


Over the past several years, the world has watched the ongoing conflict in Syria paying particular attention to human rights violations against innocent civilians and children.  Activists and organizations such as Human Rights Watch who have been actively documenting the violence have observed a particular set of violations being imposed on Syrian women by extremist opposition groups that have no foundation in Syrian law, but are being enforced nonetheless.


Of particular concern is that prior to the conflict, none of these restrictions were applied, signifying a current reversal in the rights of women.  Dress restrictions include forced veiling and the wearing of head and face coverings.  Mobility is restricted by women’s confinement to the home that results in the inability to take children to school, seek medical care or buy groceries.  Furthermore, women and their children are unable to flee their homes during bombing raids without a male relative to accompany them.  Failure to comply with these rules has resulted in physical violence against women and victimization of their families, in addition to detainment. 


What makes the situation so complex is the fact that these violations of basic human rights when applied to women, are neither under government or opposition control; rather, the control is held by the militia and extremists, who will not relinquish it (Yackee, 2014).


In her essay Women’s Rights as Human Rights, Charlotte Bunch describes similar abuses worldwide wherein women are subjected to humiliation, starvation, terrorism, mutilation and even murder simply by virtue of their gender (Bunch, 1990).    Despite an increased focus on human rights violations since World War II, the discussion has continuously overlooked experiences that pertain to women specifically. Feminists have highlighted the need to include the experiences of women and bring greater visibility to their plight for recognition and protection.


Through the dialogue of leading theorists in the field of Women’s Rights, a discussion the advantages and disadvantages of including Women’s Rights in the Human Rights forum, societal influences that may be influenced by the participation of governments and what obstacles stand in the way of the inclusion, is long overdue.


While the international community has attempted to define what the term Human Rights encompasses, much of it has been in historical relation to what is going on in the world.  Therefore, the term is somewhat variable and does not belong to any one group (Bunch, 1990). Without a concrete definition, it is difficult to state that human rights are universal, specifically that they include women. For example, Natural Scholars believe human rights exist simply as entitlements of being a human being.  However, Deliberate Scholars reject the inherent assumption of rights and instead posit that human rights are societally agreed upon.  This realization of human rights will take time and will only occur if worldwide agreement exists as to what those rights should be.  Constitutional law serves deliberate scholars as a governing set of values that will serve well in the interim (Dembour, 2010).


Taking the defensive side, protest scholars represent the underdog in fighting the injustice served upon the poor, oppressed, underprivileged minority.  The battle is ongoing, as the oppressed never truly have the upper hand.  The real source of human rights lies in social struggles.  And lastly, discourse scholars discount that human rights are inherent and feel they are only an issue inasmuch as they are discussed (Dembour, 2010).


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights broadly defined the term in 1948 as one that entitles all human beings to “the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Furthermore, the declaration also includes the right to life, freedom of expression, social, cultural and economic rights including participation in culture, food, the right to work and to receive an education (Burn, 2011.  Amnesty International, 2013).   


In the United States, author Evan Stark has challenged domestic violence advocates to reframe violence against women as a violation of basic human rights.  In the article Reframing Violence against Women as Human Rights Violation, Stark notes that the “protect and punish” model used by authorities focuses on isolated acts of violence against women and therefore does not attack the problem at its source neglecting the systemic causes of violence (Libel & Parekh, 2009).


Stark’s theory points to coercive control, a method of subtle personal attacks meant to intimidate, control manipulate and isolate, harming the liberty of women; a term encompassed in the definition of Human Rights, but being thwarted in the private sphere.


Coercive control is used by men to prohibit women from enjoying a full quality of life, developing their personality, citizenship and freedom.  In this light, human rights are violated and Stark stresses that women’s freedom should extend to the private realm, an area usually considered untouchable by political institutions.  Because coercive control is not carried out by governments but rather by individuals, it is considered private conduct according to traditional activists, outside their breadth of expertise and enforcement.  They argue that since the abuse is a private matter, the state is not responsible.  However, in 2007, The United Nations report on Violence against women expressed that “states have a duty to prevent acts of violence against women; to investigate such acts when they occur and prosecute and punish perpetrators: and to provide redress and relief to victims.” (United Nations, 2007).


Limited public and organizational awareness exists in the U.S. in regards to international human rights.  An exceptionalist mindset declares their participation unnecessary on an international scale (Libel & Parekh, 2009).  In addition, several excuses are given by overseas governments to exclude women’s issues from a human rights agenda: 1) gender discrimination is of lesser importance than larger issues such as survival; 2) women’s abuse usually occurs in private, removing it from state control; 3) women’s rights are not human rights; and 4) issues of women’s abuse threaten to overwhelm other human rights abuses which demand priority (Bunch, 1990).


Violence against women is defined as any act including physical, verbal, violation of the physical body or self (Campbell, 1995).  In light of Stark’s theory of coercive control, other ramifications of abuse in the private sphere do extend to greater society.  In addition to being a serious cause of death worldwide, injury and long-term health problems such as disability, depression, substance abuse and increased doctor and hospital visits, once could argue that private abuse does have an effect on healthcare and governments whether they care to recognize it or not (Al Habib, Nur & Jones, 2009).


Author Karen Morgaine describes how tying domestic violence to the criminal and civic justice system through arrest and prosecution has not only failed to reduce the incidence of violence in the United States but also increased the dangers to women without targeting the underlying cause.  By broadening the scope to the government level as an issue of human rights, Morgaine discovered that many administrators running domestic violence organizations receive funding from government and private organizations.  As a result, they are not interested in restructuring what women’s rights under the umbrella of human rights would entail, thereby shifting control to the victims themselves (Morgaine, 2011).  Many feel that their titles as Domestic Violence workers would be lost or obscured through a Human Rights shift.


While participants in the domestic violence groups Morgaine studied felt a human rights focus could broaden the scope of aid by creating more unity within communities and social movements, many felt that immediate safety was the most important concern, addressed through 911, a place to stay and safety for families who require protection.  Many leaders expressed a disconnect between domestic violence workers who have been at the ground level for decades and those who speak of a human rights paradigm shift without any real program to back it up.  Because the United States has failed to mesh with other nations over human rights concerns, skepticism exists about forming any type of coalition unless it could be initiated at the grass roots community level (Morgaine, 2011).


“I think of what I said earlier, that the human rights framework makes us understand or at least helps us understand that we have a collective responsibility for the conditions that exist in our communities, collective responsibility for addressing them.  I think that men have a role in holding other men accountable and I think that’s one way in which some of the models that have sprung up have worked with male allies”  (Morgaine, 2011.  Interview 29).


While the theory of patriarchy has been used as a basis for explaining violence against women, it has been plagued by criticism.  And yet, when viewed in the light of gendered social arrangements, it redirects the focus to different patriarchal structures that occur in various cultures (Hunnicutt, 2009).  Perhaps this could illuminate what influence governments have in certain cultures and what social norms and customs may contribute to upholding human rights for women and opposing violence.  While a woman’s risk of violence is highest with a heterosexual partner, men’s risk of violence if highest in robbery, assault and violent death.  This indicates that violence and how it plays out, falls along gendered divides. 


In societies where gender is highly stratified, men are not punished for the victimization of women because the authorities turn a blind eye to it.  Where women are socialized in traditional gender roles with a high emphasis on marriage, this ideology both encourages remaining in an abusive relationship and may inflict social disdain for attempting to leave it, for the core of the woman’s identity is tied up in her role as a wife and mother (Hunnicutt, 2009). 


Because patriarchal systems are intertwined with other systems of domination, they should be viewed comprehensively as part of a wider network.  Often, women are complicit in maintaining structures that support male dominance, although this does not condone violence itself  (Dinnerstein, 1976).  Male power systems often juxtapose the values of masculine aggressiveness while simultaneously opposing violence against women (Killmartin & Allison, 2007).  Some theorists believe women are just as aggressive than men but play out that aggression according to gender socialization such as verbal or manipulative acts in contrast to battering (Gordon, 1988).  Important to note is that in countries where male power structures are less evident and women and men enjoy equal status, the prevalence of violence is very low (Kumaralingham, 2005). 


The Campaign for Zero Tolerance for Violence Against Women is an example of the EU’s efforts to raise public awareness about the prevention of domestic violence and further push to eradicate all forms of violence.  Prior to this, efforts came in the form of recommendations, discussions and conferences that did little to affect policy reform (Montoya, 2009).  In 2002, the Council of Europe broadened its definition of violence against women and included goals states could implement, develop and put into practice while monitoring their progress.


The Government of Singapore has also worked to broaden its definition of violence against women to include “any act causing continual harassment with intent to cause or knowing that it is likely to cause anguish to a family member” (Kumaralingham, 2005).  In addition to looking at social theory as a catalyst to violence, UN literature also recognizes individualist theory, which accounts for violence due to personal factors such as mental illness, substance abuse or conditioning by growing up in a violent home.  The family, as a unit with potential for conflict and disagreement is recognized as another area where violence may occur.  In a study that tracked domestic violence in over ninety communities around the world, the strongest predictors of domestic violence could be broken down into four factors: 1) Sexual and Economic inequality, 2) Violent conflict resolution, 3) male dominance and 4) divorce restrictions for women (Levinson, 1989).


In conclusion, violence against women continues all over the world.  The push to include women’s rights under the umbrella of human rights could serve to heighten the agenda on the prevention of violence and the aid in the implementation of laws that would serve and protect women.  While definitions of Human rights vary according to theories and cultures, clearly, there exists a cross over in the atrocities women face and those classified as human rights violations (Johnstone, 2006).  Though governments have made strides to address these concerns, barriers still exit in the form of traditional cultural practices that uphold patriarchal systems, gaps in legislation, formulating programs that range from the government to community level in assisting and enforcing proposed measures.  The broad inclusion of countries in forming a coalition would serve, in time, to define and make rights universally accepted, challenging social norms that perpetuate disempowerment and subjugation of women. 


From the literature presented, the majority of women’s rights fall under the umbrella of civil liberties but must be viewed in light of a large web that perpetuates their vulnerability through cultural and societal norms such as socioeconomic standing and traditional gender roles, to name a few.  The real costs to states and governments in the form of increased health care and emotional needs should be considered as evidence that women’s rights deserve high attention and should not be trivialized by the fact that abuses often occur in the private sphere.


Organizations formulated to protect and serve women must continue to enforce and monitor agendas with specific aims of eliminating discrimination against women and securing a uniform standard of well being for all citizens.




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