Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 4

Violence against Women

"Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development, and peace."

Kofi Annan,
United Nations Secretary-General

Violence against women takes various forms. It includes: domestic violence, rape, trafficking in women and girls, forced prostitution, and violence in armed conflict, such as murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy. It also includes honour killings, dowry-related violence, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection in favour of male babies, female genital mutilation, and other harmful practices and traditions.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993, testifies to the international recognition and understanding that violence against women is a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women.

The Platform for Action, adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, identified violence against women as one of the 12 critical areas of concern requiring special attention of governments, the international community and civil society.
During its forty-second session in 1998, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women proposed further action and initiatives to be taken by member states and the international community to end violence against women, including the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in all relevant policies and programmes. Among the agreed conclusions of the session were measures to support the work of non-governmental organizations, to combat all forms of trafficking in women and girls, to promote and protect the rights of migrant workers, especially women and children, and to encourage coordinated research on violence against women.

Response by the
International Community

Since the Beijing Conference five years ago, important steps have been taken at the international level towards eliminating violence against women:

  • An Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 6 October 1999, gives women the right to seek redress for violations of their human rights, including gender-based violence.
  • Model Strategies and Practical Measures on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the Field of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice were adopted by the General Assembly in 1997.
  • The Statute of the International Criminal Court, adopted in June 1998, specifically addresses gender-based crimes, as do the Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
  • A draft protocol to a new treaty — the proposed United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime — focuses on trafficking in human beings, especially women and children.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence, especially wife battering, is perhaps the most widespread form of violence against women. In countries where reliable, large-scale studies on gender violence are available, more than 20 per cent of women are reported to have been abused by the men with whom they live.

Rape and domestic violence lead to the loss of more healthy years of life, among women ages 15 to 44, than do breast cancer, cervical cancer, obstructed labour, war or motor vehicle accidents, according to the 1993 World Development Report of the World Bank.

In response to the Beijing Platform for Action, UN member states and the international community have sought ways to address domestic violence more effectively:

  • Many states have adopted legislation recognizing that violence by a husband should be treated in the same way as violence by a stranger. In Sweden, such acts are defined as gross violations of a woman's integrity and attract more severe punishment than in cases of the same acts directed against strangers.
  • Austria, Belarus, Bhutan, Hungary, Mexico, Portugal and the Seychelles have, for the first time, criminalized sexual violence against women by their husbands.
  • In Sri Lanka, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has worked in close collaboration with authorities and non-governmental organizations to prevent domestic violence through public education using the media and workshops intended to sensitize the judiciary and law enforcement officers.
  • Belarus, Poland, Russia and Zimbabwe are among the states that have sought to introduce services, such as shelters, refuges and "hot lines", to support victims of violence.
  • States including Algeria and Brunei Darussalam have introduced domestic violence units within their police departments.
  • Iceland has introduced a two-year experimental project aimed at violent men entitled "Men of Responsibility".  The project is monitored on a day-to-day basis by the Icelandic Red Cross and will be evaluated on its completion.


Trafficking in women and children, most often for commercial sexual exploitation, is estimated to generate up to $8 billion each year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The huge profits reaped by the perpetrators, increasingly linked to organized crime, have turned this trade into a rapidly growing global menace.

Poor women and girls are among the key target groups of traffickers, because of their marginalization and limited economic resources. Some are willing participants because of the promise of higher incomes and an escape from poverty. Others are coerced, many into prostitution against their will. To combat this:

  • The Philippines has launched an initiative, in cooperation with civil society and other Governments, which involves training and the development of procedures for front-line agencies combating trafficking in women and children.
  • As part of its investigation of organized crime, the Lithuanian Police established a Division to Combat Trafficking within the Police Department.
  • China has introduced amendments to its criminal code with regard to the abduction of women and children and forced prostitution.
  • In border areas, Myanmar has created eight vocational centres for women and girls in order to stop trafficking.
  • The Netherlands has appointed a national rapporteur to provide a comprehensive overview of data on trafficking in women and on methods of prevention.
  • Albania and the Russian Federation have launched education campaigns directed at potential victims.

Female Genital Mutilation

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), it is estimated that between 85 to 114 million women and girls, most of whom live in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

The practice of FGM, or "female circumcision", refers to the removal of all or part of the clitoris and other genitalia. The extreme form, infibulation, involves the removal of the clitoris and both labia and the sewing together of the vulva, leaving only a small opening to allow the passage of urine and the menstrual flow.

This mutilation of girls has significant short-term and long-term consequences. It is extremely painful and may cause infections and death as well as difficulties with childbirth and an increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS. This practice reflects a prevailing social consensus that the virginity of girls and women must be preserved until marriage, and that their sexuality must be controlled.  Men in these cultures often will not marry uncircumcised girls or women whom they view as "unclean" and "sexually permissive".

Since the Beijing Conference, actions against FGM include:

  • As a part of an international advocacy campaign, UNFPA appointed Waris Dirie, an activist and fashion supermodel, as a Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, in September 1997.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed training materials and conducted workshops to raise awareness among nurses and midwives in the African and Eastern Mediterranean region in an attempt to solicit their active involvement as advocates against FGM.
  • Tanzania is one of ten countries where female genital mutilation is practiced widely to have enacted laws to criminalize the practice.  Penalties include fines and imprisonment. The other nine countries are: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, Togo, Cote d'Ivoire and Egypt.
  • Countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, which all have immigrant populations that practice this ritual, have passed similar statutes to seek to eliminate it.
  • Nigeria has set up a Vesico-Vaginal Fistula theatre and rehabilitation centres to provide care for under-aged married women affected by female genital mutilation.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/D—May 2000