"Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated."
-Vienna Declaration and Program of Action (1993)
The above quote from the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights expresses the global sentiment towards the human rights of women. However, the very fact that it needs to be expressed indicates that the world still has much work to do in reaching this standard of achievement. Indeed, violence against women can be found worldwide, in virtually every country and society. There has been considerable progress in guaranteeing the full rights of women and ending violence against women, but much still needs to be done.
Violence against women takes many forms, some associated particularly with warfare and others occurring in peacetime. Some, moreover, are universal in character, while others are culturally specific.
Rape and sexual assault against women are all too common in conflict situations. Although rape during war is frequently characterized as an individual crime or as part of the "spoils of war" of soldiers, the reality is quite different. In fact, rape during wartime is frequently an integral aspect of the conflict. It can be used as a way to supress opposition and terrorize or intimidate populations. Further, it is sometimes an integral tactic of so-called ethnic cleansing, to drive out women of a particular ethnicity, along with their families. And, women may be impregnated as a way of altering the ethnic balance of a territory, as in Bosnia-Hercegovina (where non-Serbian women were impregnated by Serbian men and forced to give birth to Serbian children). Not only does this alter the ethnic balance, but it also may bring shame upon the women who are abused in this fashion.
Refugee women are particularly vulnerable to various forms of violence, especially rape. As in the case of conflict, women may be raped and sexually assaulted for political or ethnic reasons, as various factions attempt to punish or terrorize members of competing groups. Women are also vulnerable to sexual extortion by police and immigration officials in their country of refuge, who may condition safe passage or access to documents on sexual favors. While international and domestic laws prohibit rape and sexual exploitation, refugee women are frequently unable to gain access to legal systems.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has promulgated two sets of guidelines related to violence against refugee women: "Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women" in 1991 and "Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response" in 1995.
Female refugees who have fled their home countries to escape violence directed against them as women have have had difficulty in gaining asylum on those grounds. Rape carried out within a political context is frequently viewed as a personal, rather than a political, injury. Further, since gender is not specifically included in the 1951 refugee convention, claims to persecution based on gender are frequently denied. This has changed somewhat as the international community has begun to recognize women as a particular social group, in which membership can lead to discrimination or violence. Gender-based claims come in two categories: instances where the type of harm experienced is particular to the person's gender-such as rape or female genital mutilation-and situations where women have experienced violence or discrimination because of their gender.
Relevant organizations include:
Center for Gender and Refugee Studies - Legal information on gender-related asylum claims.
Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children - Advocacy organization for women and children refugees.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - Primary international body with a mandate to protect refugees.
All over the world, women are kidnapped, lured, bought, sold and traded as instruments of the sex trade. In many instances, socioeconomic conditions lead families to sell into prostitution or forcibly marry girls. Frequently, girls and women will be offered an attractive job in cities or foreign countries, only to find themselves forced into prostitution. Or, they receive false marriage offers which also lead them to being sold into prostitution. Once in a foreign country or a locality far from home, these women and girls have few rights or opportunities to escape from such bondage.
Trafficking in people is a violation of international law, as laid out in the 1949 Convention on the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Trafficking in women was also addressed in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Both of these conventions require state parties to stop such trafficking. Unfortunately, all too many countries fail in their obligations to stop trafficking and to prosecute those who engage in it.
Relevant organizations include:
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - Works to oppose all forms of sexual exploitation.
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women - Works to protect the human rights of migrant women. Web site includes international documents on trafficking in women.
Captive Daughters - Works to end sex trafficking.
Millions of girls and women, primarily, although not exclusive, in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to female circumcision, or what is also frequently called female genital mutilation. The actual physical extent of the procedure varies in different social contexts, from so called "Sunna" circumcision to excision to infibulation. The practice is very much culturally rooted, the intent of which frequently is to somehow ensure the "purity" of women before marriage or to "control" their sex drive. Sometimes it is based on tradition, with the practice continuing almost solely because it has become entrenched in society. It is frequently women who enforce the practice and impose female circumcision on their daughters, afraid that even though they are aware of the pain and risks that are associated with such procedures, their daughters may not be perceived as marriageable, thus dooming their life prospects.
There is some controversy over what terminology to use, the argument being that the term female circumcision reflects the cultural context of this practice, whereas the more inflammatory term female genital mutilation reflects a judgment about the practice, thus cutting off debate and discussion. However, some Western states-including the United States and Canada--have officially recognized such practices as human rights abuses, and have recognized the fear of being subjected to them as grounds for refugee status.
Relevant organizations include:
The Female Genital Mutilation Education and Networking Project - Provides information, including an extensive bibliography, on female genital mutilation.
The United Nations has been at the forefront in settings standards in the area of women's rights. There have been four world conferences on women in the preceding decades that have attempted to address core issues affecting women around the world. In 2000 there was a follow-up conference to the 1995 Beijing conference. The UN has passed several conventions to protect the rights of women, in particular the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified by 166 countries.
Recently, under the terms of an optional protocol to CEDAW, women gained the right to take complaints directly to the UN. Further, a committee has been set up to monitor treaty compliance and investigate allegations that states are not living up to their treaty obligations.
In October 2000, the UN Security Council took the unprecedented step of having an open debate on Women, Peace, and Security. It noted that women are particularly affected during war and called for a global assessment of the impact of war on women. It also called for the greater inclusion of women in international decisionmaking and peacemaking.
Relevant UN links include:
The Human Rights of Women - A reference guide to United Nations documents on women's human rights.
UNIFEM - The United Nations Development Fund for Women promotes women's empowerment and gender equality. It recently published Progress of the World's Women 2000. Includes links to information on the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women.
UN Resolutions on Violence Against Women - From the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
World Health Organization - Provides information on women's health issues, including violence against women.
BIBLIOGRAPHY - A list of books and articles on global violence against women.
About.com - Women's Issues - 3rd World - Comprehensive Internet portal to a wide variety of women's rights issues.
Amnesty International's Work on Women - International human rights organization. This page focuses on the work of the organization on women's rights issues.
Equality Now - Promotes local, national, and international action on a variety of women's human rights concerns. Publishes the newsletter AWAKEN: A Voice for the Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation.
Global Fund for Women - Provides grants to local organizations outside of the US to promote development and the protection of the human rights of women.
Hieros Gamos - Legal issues portal provides links to women's rights resources.
Human Rights Watch - Section of the Human Rights Watch 2001 World Report devoted to women's human rights.
Interact - Implementation of practical actions to reduce and stop the practice of using children in armed conflict in Africa.
International Women's Rights Action Watch - Monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Madre: An International Women's Human Rights Organization - Supports community-based human rights, development, and health organizations.
Women Building Peace - Campaign to include women in peacebuilding.
Women's Caucus for Gender Justice - Advocates the inclusion of gender issues in the International Crminal Court and other international bodies.
Womens Human Rights Net - Online resource with information on many global women's human rights initiatives.
Women's Human Rights Resources - Compilation of legal documents and bibliographic material on women's human rights, from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.
WomensNet - Central gateway to women's rights organizations affiliated with the Institute for Global Communication (IGC).
Working Groups on Girls - Coalition working to ensure that girls' rights are included in the women's rights agenda.