Information Note
Division for the Advancement of Women


I. Introduction

Violence against women is a problem worldwide, occurring, to a greater or lesser degree, in all regions, countries, societies and cultures, and affecting women irrespective of income, class, race or ethnicity. The many forms of violence to which women are subject include battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, dowry-related violence and other traditional practices harmful to women, killings in the name of "honour", non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution and violence perpetrated or condoned by the state.

All these forms of violence go beyond oppressive behaviour or discrimination generally, and constitute harm which results from force or coercion. Moreover, they are not examples of random victimization, but are associated with inequality between women and men, and strategies to perpetuate or entrench that inequality.

Knowledge about the forms, incidence, causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women, as well as measures to confront it, has greatly developed over the last twenty years. Much of this can be attributed to the work of the United Nations which has transformed what was once perceived as a domestic criminal problem, into an issue deserving of sustained and priority international attention. Critical to this transformation have been the efforts of non-governmental organizations within United Nations forums, and particularly the cycle of world conferences, which characterized violence against women as an issue of human rights.

  1. World Conferences on Women in Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi: 1975 – 1985
  2. Initially the development of policy within the United Nations with regard to violence against women was concentrated on violence against women in the family. The World Plan of Action adopted by the first World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975 did not refer explicitly to violence, but drew attention to the need for the family to ensure dignity, equality and security of each of its members. The 1980 Conference in Copenhagen, which marked the middle of the United Nations Decade for Women, adopted a resolution on "battered women and violence in the family" and referred to violence in the home in its final report.

    At the 1985 Nairobi World Conference, and especially at its parallel non-governmental forum, however, violence against women truly emerged as a serious international concern. The Forward-looking Strategies adopted by the Conference linked the promotion and maintenance of peace to the eradication of violence against women in both the public and private spheres. The Conference included violence as a major obstacle to the achievement of development, equality and peace, the three objectives of the Decade.

    A number of areas of special concern, including "abused women", "women victims of trafficking and involuntary prostitution" and "women in detention and subject to penal law" were identified. Governments were urged to intensify efforts to establish or strengthen forms of assistance to victims of violence through the provision of shelter, support, legal and other services and to increase public awareness of violence against women as a societal problem

  3. From Nairobi to Beijing

At the outset, the United Nations institutions devoted to the advancement of women and those concerned with crime prevention and criminal justice were addressing the issue and focused on violence against women in the family as a first priority.

In 1985, the General Assembly adopted the first resolution on domestic violence based on a recommendation of the Commission on the Status of Women to the Economic and Social Council and the outcome of the Sixth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders.

The implementation of the 1985 resolution included the 1986 Expert Group Meeting on Violence in the Family, with special emphasis on its effects on women. This Meeting adopted concrete recommendations with regard to legal reform, police, prosecutor and health sector training, social and resource support for victims. It also made clear that domestic violence was a global phenomenon which was significantly underreported.

This publication described the manifold contexts and manifestations of violence against women; and also showed that violence may be tolerated and, indeed, condoned, by the community or the State. Economic, social and political developments were seen as well as ethnic, religious, communal and political conflicts to contribute to and/or exacerbate violence against women,.

With a growing understanding of the link between gender and violence, the approach to the issue within the United Nations shifted. First, it became clear that violence in the family was not the only form of violence against women. Second, the gender-based nature of violence against women and its linkage to subordination, inequality between women and men, and discrimination, led to its categorization as a matter of human rights.

CEDAW is the treaty body established to monitor the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Convention makes no explicit reference to violence against women, but does address trafficking in women, the exploitation of prostitution and sexual harassment in the workplace.

In a number of recommendations, the Committee made clear that gender-based violence falls within the meaning of discrimination against women. In 1989, the Committee adopted general recommendation 12 on violence against women which recommended that States include information in their reports to the Committee on the incidence of violence against women. In 1990, general recommendation 14 addressed female circumcision and other traditional practices harmful to the health of women.

In 1992, the Committee adopted general recommendation 19, which defines gender-based violence to be violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately and declares it to be "a form of discrimination against women that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men". The general recommendation makes clear that "states may be …responsible for private acts if they fail with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation".

The Commission on the Status of Women is the intergovernmental body charged with the formulation of the international policy framework to ensure the advancement of women. In 1987, the Commission identified violence against women within the family and society as falling within the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies’ priority theme "peace". In 1991, the Commission recommended the development of an international instrument on violence against women. A draft declaration was prepared by an expert group which also made further recommendations, including the appointment of a special rapporteur on violence against women, the strengthening of CEDAW and the formulation of optional protocols to the Convention.

The World Conference on Human Rights was key to the recognition of women’s human rights. Women activists from around the world focussed on this Conference as the forum in which to raise the historical disregard for of women’s enjoyment of human rights, and particularly the failure to recognize gender-based violence as a central human rights issue.

In the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the human rights of women and girls were declared to be part of human rights. The adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was deemed a priority, and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences was mandated.

The Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 1993. The Declaration defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life." It outlines steps States and the United Nations, its agencies and programmes, should take to address gender-based violence against women, and makes clear that States should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination, and should exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons.

Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (1994)

In 1994, the Commission on Human Rights created the first gender-specific human rights mechanism and appointed Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy of Sri Lanka as the first Special Rapporteur on violence against women. Her mandate is to seek and receive information on violence against women and to recommend measures to eliminate violence. In her reports she has covered, inter alia, military sexual slavery in wartime, rape in the community, domestic violence, trafficking and forced prostitution of women, women’ s reproductive rights. She has also embarked on missions to Member States of the United Nations to investigate and propose strategies to address gender-based violence against women.

IV Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 1995

    The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action identified 12 critical areas of concern which require urgent action to achieve the goal of gender equality.

    Violence against women constitutes one of the critical areas of concern, as does women and armed conflict. Both these critical areas are interlinked with another critical area – human rights of women. The Platform adopts the definition of violence against women contained in the Declaration, but also highlights forms of violence against women not explicitly mentioned in that instrument, such as violations of the rights of women in situations of armed conflict, particularly murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and forced abortion, coercive or forced use of contraceptives, female infanticide and pre-natal sex-selection.

    Three strategic objectives are established by the Platform for the elimination of violence against women: integrated measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women; the study of the causes and consequences of violence against women, as well as the effectiveness of preventive measures; the elimination of trafficking in women, and the provision of assistance of victims of violence due to prostitution.

    V Beyond Beijing

    Work on violence against women has continued in the United Nations, and is no longer the concern of its women-specific institutions. Much of this is a result of the policy of mainstreaming a gender-perspective into all the policies and programmes of the United Nations as adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women and reaffirmed by ECOSOC’s agreed conclusions 1997/2. Mainstreaming has meant that more and more relevant policies, programme formulation and delivery, in all areas, including human rights, refugee protection, humanitarian relief, peace-keeping and peace-building and health, take into account differential impacts on women and men so as to promote the interests of women on a basis of equality with men.

    The political bodies of the United Nations have continued to adopt resolutions on gender-based violence against women, such as trafficking in women, violence against women migrant workers and traditional practices affecting the health of women and girls, such as female genital mutilation. The issue is also addressed by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and United Nations Human Rights treaty bodies now pay close attention to the various forms of violence against women in their concluding comments/observations on implementation of their respective treaties in States parties. Other human rights special procedures, including thematic and country specific rapporteurs, now take up the issue in their work.

    Particular progress has been made with regard to gender-based violence against women in armed conflict, with sexual violence being the subject of several indictments issued by the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In September 1998, the latter Tribunal issued a conviction on crimes against humanity and genocide, including through acts of sexual violence, and thus adopted the first definition of rape in international law.

    The Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted in Rome in June 1998, recognizes gender-based crimes and makes provision for the application of gender-sensitive justice both through the selection of judges and the establishment of a Victims and Witnesses Unit which must be staffed by individuals with expertise in trauma, including that related to crimes of sexual violence. The recently established Tribunal for Sierra Leone also addresses gender-based crimes and provides for gender-sensitive justice.

    The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women will enter into force on 22 December 2000. It will entitle individual women and groups of individual women to petition CEDAW with respect to violations of the Convention. It also allows the Committee of its own motion to inquire into grave or systematic violations, including all forms of violence against women.

    All parts of the United Nations system, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) now have specific policies and programmes with regard to gender-based violence.

    The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has developed legal and policy directives to ensure recognition of violence against women as the basis for claims of refugee status while the issue also became the subject of UNHCR policy directives and codes of practice on the treatment and protection of refugee women.

    A resource manual on strategies for confronting domestic violence has been prepared under the supervision of the United Nations Centre for Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Other parts of the United Nations system and its related entities, such as the International Labour Organization and the World Health Organization, addressed specific forms of violence against women within their specific mandates. UNICEF has drawn increasingly attention to the rights of the girl child and issued a report on "Domestic Violence against Women and Girls" in 2000. UNIFEM administers the Trust Fund in Support of Action to Eliminate Violence against Women providing financial support for projects to eradicate gender-based violence, as well as mounting innovative regional and international advocacy campaigns involving grass-roots activists on the issue.

    VI Beijing+5

    From 5-9 June 2000, the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly met to agree further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Amongst the achievements in implementation recognized by Governments was the fact that many forms of violence against women and girls, whether occurring in public or private life, had become the subject of national-level legislation, policies and programmes. Governments noted that States have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence, whether perpetrated by the State or private persons and provide protection for victims.

    Governments recommended more specific or focussed actions than those of the Platform and also addressed areas which had emerged or become more prominent since the Beijing Conference, including marital rape, crimes of honour and crimes of passion, and racially motivated violence. An international zero tolerance campaign on violence against women, as well as support for public campaigns to enhance public awareness of the unacceptability and social costs of such violence were also advocated. Strategies to address the growing incidence of trafficking in women, such as the establishment of a national co-ordinating mechanism, for example a national rapporteur to report on data, root causes, factors and trends, were also agreed.

    The conclusions of Beijing+5 testify to the fact that gender-based violence against women is now viewed as a matter of serious concern by the international community, with many forms being regarded as serious violations of international legal standards. This represents a significant shift in attitude from that which existed within the United Nations when violence against women first emerged as a matter of international concern. This shift in approach has set the stage for the development of important international strategies to address the various forms of violence against women. It has also set the stage for legal and policy change at the domestic level.