Women, Violence against

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Women, Violence against

The term violence against women refers to gender-based aggression, which disproportionately victimizes women and girls. Sexual assault, battering by intimates, sexual abuse of children, sex trafficking, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy, and often prostitution and pornography are considered included, as are dowry burnings, honor killings, female infanticide, and female genital mutilation. When a woman or girl is violated or killed because she is female—due, for instance, to misogyny or sexual stereotypes or gendered roles of masculinity or femininity—she is subjected to violence against women. Such attacks often occur on the basis of sex combined with race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and age, exacerbated by poverty and economic dependence. Likened to a war on women, violence against women, pervasive if largely invisible outside recognized wars, is surrounded by victim blaming, shaming, denial, and a culture of inevitability. It often explodes during armed conflict and genocide.

Most acts of violence against women are formally illegal but largely ignored by local, national, and international legal systems. Human rights instruments and peremptory norms binding on states guarantee equal protection of the law and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. To explicitly combat violence against women and ineffective law enforcement against it, the Organization of American States (OAS) promulgated the Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women in 1994. The United Nations committees that interpret the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) have determined that officially ignoring violence against women violates these conventions. The Beijing Platform for Action calls on states to take strong measures against these acts. Although some action has been taken regionally in Europe and Latin America against official violence against women in the form of rape in custody, little has been done anywhere to stop the widespread pattern of violence against women that is pervasive and officially condoned.

International humanitarian law and the laws of war have long prohibited rape and enforced prostitution in both domestic and international armed conflicts, yet those provisions too have seldom been enforced. Women targeted for genocide were violated in sexspecific ways during the Holocaust, yet the Nuremberg Tribunal did not recognize these atrocities as such. Genocide was defined in the Genocide Convention (1949) that emerged from that experience, specifying abuses inflicted with intent to destroy peoples as such; sexual violence was not specifically listed. Concepts of crimes against humanity emerging from this era also did not include widespread and systematic assaults on the basis of sex, nor did they focus on atrocities committed on the basis of sex combined with race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. Most violence against women, in war as well as peace, has thus been committed with effective impunity.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, this pattern began to change in the international system. Beginning in 1991, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim women survivors spoke out against the mass rapes systematically inflicted on them as a weapon of the genocidal onslaughts directed by Serbian forces against their communities. By the turn of the century, they had civilly sued Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, for genocidal rape and won under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ACTA) in the United States. Their case established sexual acts of violence against women as legally genocidal under international law for the first time. Also during this period the International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted perpetrators for rape and other sexual atrocities as war crimes and as crimes against humanity, specifically as slavery. The tribunal eventurally indicted Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, for genocide. The International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) made greater strides, convicting Hutu leaders of rape and other sexual atrocities against Tutsi women as genocide in its breakthrough Akayesu opinion. As a crime against humanity, rape was there defined internationally for the first time, as "a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under conditions which are coercive."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) built on these advances. Under its Rome Statute (1998), the definition of genocide remained the same, permitting interpretation of killing, serious bodily or mental harm, destructive conditions of life, and measures to prevent births to encompass gender-based violence when committed for genocidal purposes. The ICC definition of crimes against humanity expressly included "rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity," when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack knowingly directed against a civilian population. Gender-based persecution through such acts was also recognized as a crime against humanity. This implementation of international law, emancipated from hostilities recognized as armed conflict, together with doctrines of universal jurisdiction and other devices available in some national courts, offers hope that the legal impunity that has long marked violence against women may be coming to an end.

SEE ALSO Female Infantacide and Fetal Murder; Rape; Reproduction


Commission on Human Rights (1994). Preliminary Report Submitted by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. E/CN.4/1995/42. Available from http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf.

Commission on Human Rights (1996). Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. E/CN.4/1996/53. Available from http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf.

Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1992). General Recommendation 19. UN Doc. CEDAW/C/1992/L.1/Add.15. Available from http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recomm.htm#recom/19.

Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belem do Para) (1994). 33 I.L.M. 1534.

Kadic v. Karadzic. 70 F3d 232 (1995).

MacKinnon, Catharine A. (2004). "Genocide's Sexuality." In Political Exclusion and Domination, ed. Stephen Macedo and Melissa Williams. New York: New York University Press.

Prosecutor v. Akayesu. (1998). ICTR-96-4-T

Russell, Diana E. H., and Nicole Van de Ven, eds. (1976). Crimes against Women: Proceedings of the International Tribunal. Millbrae, Calif.: Les Femmes.

Catharine A. MacKinnon

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