The rights of women – and men – are set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants that provide the legal bedrock of international human rights law. Both Covenants assert that State Parties have responsibilities to ensure that men and women have an equal right to the enjoyment of all rights. Women’s rights are further elaborated in the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including the right to participate in the workplace and in public life, to freely choose a marriage partner, and to benefit from public health and education.
And yet…these treaties are silent about domestic violence, the most pervasive and damaging form of physical and pyschological abuse suffered by women around the world.
For many years, domestic violence was considered outside the bounds of human rights concerns because the direct perpetrators were private parties – in many cases husbands, lovers, brothers, or fathers – rather than agents of the state. Treatment that if inflicted by state officials might qualify as torture was at best considered a criminal act and at worst dismissed as normal and culturally acceptable behavior.
The failure of human rights instruments to name and address the problem of domestic violence can be readily explained: during the initial period of human rights standard-setting, human rights norms and laws were applied only to governments. Because government agents rarely abuse women in ways comparable to domestic violence (with custodial abuse being an important exception), violence against women was overlooked (and excluded from consideration) within the human rights paradigm. That perspective was radically altered in the 1990s. Stephanie Farrior recounts the history of that shift and the role of human rights organizations in developing what is now widely known as the “due diligence argument.” A due diligence approach to women’s human rights underscores the government’s responsibility to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons. A government, thus, is responsible not only for the actions of its own agents – which may include law enforcement personnel, military, or civil authorities – but it is also has a duty of diligence to create and enforce laws that will reduce the risk of abusive behavior. A government that fails to take such measures may be derelict in its human rights duties – or worse, complicit in human rights abuse.
Due diligence has become the prevailing legal standard for assessing the adequacy of government action, and since 1993 it has featured prominently in international efforts to address violence against women. It has likewise been used to establish government responsibility for the continuing practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). In 2013, the annual report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women focused on state responsibility for eliminating violence against women.
For more information:
Stephanie Farrior, former Director of the Legal Program and General Counsel for Amnesty International, explains the legal argument for characterizing private, gender-based violence as a human rights violation in her narrative on the due diligence standard.
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- UN Treaty Collection. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979.
- A brief history of the origins of Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). (Note: Includes description of the role of non-governmental interest groups.)
Mechanisms for Implementation of Legal Standards and International Policy
- UN Division for the Advancement of Women. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, treaty body charged to monitor implementation of CEDAW.
- United Nations Economic and Social Council. “The Due Diligence Standard as a Tool for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.”Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.” (E/CN.4/2006/61).
Reports and Policy Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- Chinkin, Christine. “The Duty of Due Diligence.” Ad Hoc Committee on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO), 2010.
- Benninger-Budel, Carin. Due Diligence and Its Application to Protect Women From Violence. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
- Farrior, Stephanie. “The ‘Due Diligence’ Standard and Violence against Women.” Interights Bulletin, 14, No. 4 (2004): 150-151. (Note: A special issue focused on women’s rights in the 21st Century.)
- Farrior, Stephanie. “State Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses by Non-State Actors.” Proceedings of the 92nd Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, 209 (1998).
- Freeman, Marsha A., Christine Chinkin, and Beate Rudolf. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- Amnesty International. “Factsheet on Women’s Rights.” 2005.
- Center for Reproductive Rights. See Female Genital Mutilation: a Matter of Human Rights. An Advocate’s Guide to Action. New York: Center for Reproductive Rights, 2006.
- Equality Now. (Note: See, for example, the 163-page “Guide to Using the Protocol On the Rights of Women in Africa for Legal Action,” produced collaboratively by Equality Now and Solidarity for Africa Women’s Rights.
- The Stop Violence Against Women website (STOPVAW), a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, is a forum for information, advocacy and change in the promotion of women’s human rights around the world. The site includes case studies, reports and advocacy tools.