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Cosmetic changes on violence against women?

For 15 years the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has helped bring VAW into the public domain as something more than a ‘private issue’. But have all these conceptual breakthroughs trickled down to the ground, asks Manjima Bhattacharjya

I wasn’t there but it’s one of those historical moments you always feel a bit wistful about having missed. The Vienna Tribunal was a conference (1) strategically planned parallel to the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993, where 33 women from across the world gave moving personal testimonies about their experiences of abuse and violence. In the home, in conflict zones, by those they loved, by the State that was supposed to protect them -- violence in all its hues, bringing out into the open and to the doorstep of the United Nations human rights machinery that “women’s rights were human rights” and existing mechanisms had failed miserably to protect them.

The Vienna Tribunal resulted in three crucial developments: one, it led to the explicit global acknowledgement that violence against women was in violation of women’s human rights; two, it led to the adoption of the UN Declaration on Violence Against Women by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993; and three, it led to the creation in 1994 of a special mechanism to monitor and report on violence against women across the world: a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences (UNSRVAW).  

It has been a decade-and-a-half since these events, considered milestones in the struggle against violence and a victory for women’s movements worldwide. The position of the Special Rapporteur has since been held by distinguished feminist scholars and experts on the theme: Radhika Coomaraswamy from Sri Lanka who served three 3-year terms (1994-2003) and Yakin Erturk from Turkey who will be finishing her second term (2003-2009), and generated a collection of 14 annual reports, 32 country mission reports and 11 communication reports. What have been the highlights of this impressive body of work? What have been the gains of having the UNSRVAW? What have been the disappointments, the challenges? And where is it going?  

Not just another report

A reflective document titled ‘15 Years of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences’ released earlier this year looks at these questions by doing a detailed and critical review of the 15 years of the mandate. An independent initiative of the current SRVAW Yakin Erturk (such reviews are not part of the system), the review is divided into five major sections (2) other than a brief introduction and conclusion. 

The report is available for free public access and one can click on the link ( to read the entire document, so I will not go into a detailed analysis of what is a 64-page extremely concise, well referenced and crisp document. Instead, I will only comment on some important contributions of the mandate, and what it has really meant for the women’s rights movement.  

Significant contributions  

The work of the SRVAW has strongly contributed to how ‘violence against women’ is understood, not just by the State or within the UN system or international human rights law, but also by women’s movements themselves – those who are often beleaguered with the everyday necessities of responding to cases of violence on the ground and rarely have the time, ability or mind-space to document, reflect or theorise on what they work against every day. Having a dedicated person to conceptually grapple with the many-headed monster that is violence against women has helped bring it into the public domain and within mainstream debates as something more than a ‘private issue’ or occasional ‘law and order problem’.  

Moreover, it has consistently probed and highlighted the ‘causes and consequences’ of violence against women – how it is linked to structural inequalities at all levels; the continuum of violence that exists across boundaries: in private and public spaces, in peacetime and in conflict, in countries that are poor/rich or from the global North or South, by a range of actors, individuals, State and non-State actors; and links it has to broader issues like globalisation and militarisation. The shades and nuances it has imbued to a complex issue like violence against women are commendable.  

It has also brought some amount of feminism into the United Nations, by mainstreaming some feminist ideas within law and the international human rights discourse. While the jury is still out on whether this has only led to the blunting of radical politics and added to the junk-pile of ‘gender rhetoric’, the language and the approach of the SRVAW has stood out as strongly feminist, putting women and their rights at the centre. For example, the stress on patriarchal structures and systems as underlying violence, questioning the moral pillars that law stands on especially in relation to sexuality, questioning protectionism within the law/State, rooting for an empowerment rather than victim approach, or critically evaluating cultural practices that discriminate and justify violations against women’s rights. The SRVAW was among the first to redefine what ‘family’ could mean in law and introduced the idea of diverse family forms (3) in its 1996 model domestic violence legislation; this is reflected in domestic violence legislations in many countries.  

The other significant difference it has made is in the generation of data on violence in all its forms, particularly in the extensive documentation of violence perpetrated by the State and non-State actors like army, militia, armed opposition groups as well as peacekeeping forces. This has been crucial in exploding the myth of violence against women being a minor issue in reality and just something women’s groups exaggerate about. The SRVAW has invited, sought and actively gone out and gathered concrete data from countries – data that has often been very revealing and shown biases and misconceptions of various governments in understanding and dealing with violence. An example cited in the review is that of how domestic violence has been linked to alcoholism and drugs, and not patriarchal ideologies, which has led to misdirected responses and resources. Or in case of reproductive health policies, which have been formed in States “not from an accurate reading of women’s health needs but perceived moral requirements of the community”. 

In demanding such data, the SRVAW has stumbled across a crucial problem – the lack of gender analysis, absence of disaggregated data and relevant statistical indicators to track violence against women as well as its links with various other trends. In response to the SRVAW’s call for the development of indicators monitoring violence against women and State responses to it, the General Assembly proposed in 2004 that the UN Statistical Commission propose possible indicators on violence against women. Recently a web database was launched by the UN that attempts to gather data from across the world on violence against women under its umbrella. Still in its nascent stages, the database (at is an ambitious but promising development.  

The position of the Special Rapporteur has so far been filled by non-Western women, which has also made a difference. There have been no efforts on their part to hide ‘cultural practices’ that violate women’s rights in the global South, but at the same time, there has also been attention given to violence against women in the West. Some country reports bring out problems within countries assumed to be more ‘gender friendly’ or where discrimination and violence against women was popularly thought of as being virtually impossible. For example the country report on Sweden, famous for its strong ‘equal opportunities approach’, noted with concern high levels of domestic violence, the under-representation of women in senior positions of private enterprise and the worrying condition of specific groups of women in the country, such as migrants or women of the Sami tribe. Similarly, Netherlands, often complacent with its ‘gender mainstreaming approach’ has been critiqued, illustrating the universality (and yet the contextual particularities) of the many facets of violence against women.  

Finally, the SRVAW has made a systematic case for the responsibility of the State through the idea of ‘due diligence’ which puts the onus on the State to prevent, investigate, punish and provide compensation for violence against women whenever it occurs. It is on this point however, that the inherent problem with the mandate emerges.  

A paper tiger? Ground realities 

In reality, States are not bound to take cognisance of their comments or recommendations, and some States simply don’t, depending on their might within the UN system. Kalyani Menon Sen, feminist activist for many years, points out, “In the Indian context, all international mechanisms including the various SRs are hamstrung by the fact that we have a strong government and strong support from many other countries. India has been able to get away with not inviting SRs (on racism, on child rights for example) despite repeatedly being asked to do so.”

Procedurally, the SRVAW undertakes specific country missions (a matter which most States are sensitive about) only on being invited by the State. Informal requests for visits get formalised through this invitation only after which they are ‘allowed’ to undertake a mission (4). The SRVAW may write to a State if there is a complaint or any matter that comes to their notice and warrants intervention (like Radhika Coomaraswamy did after the Gujarat riots in 2002), but at the end, it is the prerogative of the States whether it replies or not (India, in the case of Coomaraswamy’s communication, chose not to reply). Now this might sound like yet another paper tiger mechanism, all bark and no bite, but activists are still thankful that some mechanism exists to question the State. Menon Sen concurs, “Reports from SRs are still useful in keeping up the pressure and in confronting the Government of India in international fora like CEDAW or now the HR Council.” 

Besides, responses differ from State to State; some countries do actually take these recommendations and run with them. “After all these years in the UN, I see a huge difference in the way India and China are able to shrug off these issues, while other smaller countries who are either dependent on the UN donors or are eager to ‘show good’ are far more open to discussing these things. For instance I have seen good and positive responses to the SR report in Cambodia and Vietnam, in terms of immediate policy action,” informs Menon Sen, “But in India, as far as violence against women is concerned, it is as if enacting the Domestic Violence Act has taken care of everything. Things we raise are dismissed as isolated incidents. Reports from SRs are simply ignored.” 

Syeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission and former member of the National Commission for Women, feels that at the macro level, it may have an influence, but at the micro level, there is little that a Special Rapporteur can do. “It has mostly helped in raising more awareness and given a tool to fight for more resources to implement action against violence against women – an agenda that is anyway low in priority in the system. In some cases it has also helped in framing legislation, like in the domestic violence legislations. But,” Hameed continues, “I’d like to see how the life of the dalit, tribal or minority woman – individual cases -- changes. The media picks it up, and an awareness is raised, but it does not necessarily change things.”  

Women’s activists in India working on violence for many years are also cynical about the real benefits of such endeavours that are only a part of international human rights politics. Much of their disappointment relates to the lack of political will on the part of the State to take women’s rights as a priority, whatever the pressures from ‘outside’ may be.

According to Shakun and other members of the Bangalore-based women’s rights group Vimochana (which also runs a crisis intervention centre, Angala), one of the key goals of the mandate of the SRVAW which is “To expand the State obligation beyond prosecution of private actors to encompass protection from violence…” has not been met in India. She states, “Here, the State has failed to meet the obligation in letter and spirit. While the Domestic Violence Act has finally been enacted, with the meagre financial outlay for the Act at central and state levels, the Act has remained largely ineffective.”  

Shakun elaborates, “State contribution in providing legal, health, safety and shelter requirements for survivors remain unmentionably inadequate. The State has been content with pushing the responsibility of provision of services to survivors to NGOs and other non-State organisations. It is also regressing in its stated stand on violence against women with a backlash from vested interest groups. The recent debate on the need to ‘review’ pro-women laws is a case in point.”  

Hameed also echoes this frustration, “Through my term at the Planning Commission I have used every power at my disposal to bring these issues to the fore and make some systemic changes. But our hands are tied in so many ways. For example, there is no way to penalise a state, one of our states, that has done absolutely nothing -- allocated no funds, done nothing to implement the Domestic Violence Act. There is no instrument to penalise them because of the federal nature of our system. So it is painful for us, who want to see some things happen in our lifetime. But maybe we will have to only plant the seed and hope it bears fruit for future generations.”  

The challenge of implementation 

It is this challenge of implementation on the ground and accountability of States that is indeed the most worrying aspect, even in the opinion of the Special Rapporteurs themselves. The first decade of the mandate was more or less dedicated to standards setting and raising awareness. At the end of her term, Radhika Coomaraswamy noted that “the next decade should focus on strategies for more effective implementation”. The review also admits that “much remains to be accomplished in terms of compliance, implementation and accountability”. 

This decade has been marked by greater emphasis and concrete efforts to focus on implementation and follow-up of reports. Erturk, for example, has asked to complement the violence against women mandate with “a sustainable funding source from which funds can be channeled for implementation of recommendations made following country visits”. This proposal is under review. Also in the pipeline are efforts to create some sort of a framework for follow-up, to track if recommendations in country mission reports are being implemented. Implementation is where the thrust lies now – but is there really any point in that when the mandate itself is not empowered to demand accountability? 

Moreover, the overall accountability and deference of States towards the UN and human rights instruments also seems to be waning. Hameed points out, “The UN is not a strong instrument any more in the world, especially because of its ties and relation with the USA. The USA, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza … nobody actually puts them in the dock. What about other kinds of excesses in countries like these or in the USA which are not taken up or condoned? Countries use this as an excuse to ignore issues raised by the UN.” 

Madhu Mehra, Executive Director of Partners for Law in Development (India) and Regional Council Member of the Asia Pacific Forum for Women, Law and Development (Thailand), who assisted in the research and drafting of the 15-year review, agrees that the human rights discourse has lost some steam but feels that this does not mean such mechanisms are no longer necessary. She says, “Governments are much harder to make accountable today because of the big bogey of terrorism on which you can blame everything. Plus there are other issues too – fragmentation of the human rights movement because of issue-based advocacy, a focus on UN reform, activism being so donor-dependent and so on, a combination of reasons – all of which has led to a declining relevance of human rights mechanisms. Yet I feel they are all the more relevant today. Countries don’t declare ‘emergencies’ anymore – they are too sophisticated to do that – but constituencies within the country live in emergencies all the time. It is more complex now and therefore more relevant to have such forums.”      

Suneeta Dhar, who has worked with UNIFEM for many years in the past, most recently managing the UN Trust Fund Against Violence Against Women, feels that the position of the Special Rapporteurs needs to be made stronger. She says, “The Special Rapporteurs are profound people who have made an enormous contribution to knowledge in deep ways. No doubt it’s a very important position, but look at the odds they work against! On the one hand they work in very tight situations, with barely any resources or funds to support their missions, sometimes having to fall back on their own resources or ability to generate support for their work. And on the other they have such high expectations to live up to. They are independent, autonomous voices (5), and it takes a lot to be able to say what they say. The positions of all the Special Rapporteurs need to be strengthened, because they are such a valuable mechanism.” 

Mehra is in agreement, “It is very important to have something like this, it is the only procedure that is available across the world to anyone 24X7 from any State regardless of whether the State has signed a relevant treaty.”  

What lies ahead

The appreciation for the work of the mandate is evident, but the disappointments are also loud and clear. Pramada Menon, sexuality rights activist and co-founder of the women’s human rights organisation CREA says, “In 1994 it was a huge thing to have someone looking at the issue systematically and putting it on the UN agenda. More so to have all this information and data coming in from all parts of the world, especially countries in the global South, which never may have been able to negotiate such a space to talk about their issues on a global platform. It was exciting at the time. But now, more needs to be done – for example, in terms of how issues of sexuality are placed within the mandate. There has been some coverage of crimes against sexual minorities but it has been a huge fight to include violence against sexual minorities or even women in sex work. Where is the space for violations against them? It is almost as if it is only for ‘good’ women! Which ‘women’ are we talking about? It’s a category we have to explore more. What has happened is fine but broadening the mandate is what is more important now.” 

At the end though, it is with mixed feelings that the women’s rights movement looks at the work of the SRVAW. While the last 15 years have given us a plethora of conceptual breakthroughs, good ideas and greater awareness, they haven’t really trickled down or translated into ground realities – ironically, something that isn’t really in the hands of the SRs themselves. Hameed says gently, “We are better-off for having a Special Rapporteur. Efforts that people make are heroic and we expect good things to happen. But it doesn’t always happen.” It is difficult to argue with Shakun then when she says, “The SR has been effective to the extent that the violations, the loopholes in State policies get visibilised at the UN (but) the SR mandate in bringing effective -- and not just cosmetic -- policy changes by member-States remains unfulfilled.”  


(1) Coordinated by the US-based Centre for Women’s Global Leadership with the involvement of hundreds of women’s rights activists from around the world.

(2) The first section is a historical overview of how the mandate came into being and a look at its ‘scope’: what are the aims it has been set up to achieve, what are the tools at its disposal, what comes under its purview and what does not, what has been its reporting mechanism and so on. The second section is an exhaustive overview of the four broad thematic areas in which it has made key contributions in this period: domestic violence, trafficking and migration, armed conflict and the intersection of reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS and violence against women.

The third section addresses ‘compliance, implementation and accountability’ – areas the mandate has always struggled with, given that it is not legally binding for a State to actually respond to the UN’s special mechanisms. It recalls efforts by the SRVAW to set standards for the State so that they can put into place (in terms of legal measures, policy, data collection, schemes, support services, awareness campaigns and so on) an anti violence agenda, what their responsibilities are to not only address but prevent violence against women and provides various models within which to implement many of the measures that are recommended to States. The fourth section takes a step back and undertakes a more academic analysis of the conceptual advances that are believed to have been made in understanding ‘violence against women’ and defining it within jurisprudence and in the broader human rights discourse. The last section, titled ‘Potentials and Challenges’ touches upon some of the under-explored themes that need to be consolidated in future, and the ‘unfinished business’ of implementation that both Special Rapporteurs opine remains the biggest challenge ahead.

(3) The definition of the family has been expanded by the mandate to encompass intimate-partner and interpersonal relationships, including non cohabitating partners, previous partners and domestic workers. This has allowed inclusion of “wives, live-in partners, former wives or partners, girl-friends (including girl-friends not living in the same house), female relatives (including but not restricted to sisters, daughters, mothers) and female household workers” to be recipients of State protection.

(4) Last year Israel denied entry to the ‘Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Palestinian Occupied Territories since 1967’. The SRVAW was denied entry here in 2001

(5) Erturk, for example, has expressed concern in her reports over the pattern of sexual exploitation by UN Peace Keeping Forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the lack of mechanisms within some UN agencies to address allegations of sexual abuse. She has recommended a transparent process of investigation and prosecution through public court hearings for such cases. 

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009