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Violence against Women: An Integrated Human Rights Approach

Posted on: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Keywords: Combating Violence Against Women, Women's Health

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is an annual global campaign that begins on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The 16 days continue through World AIDS Day (December 1), and end on Human Rights Day (December 10).

Violence against women reflects global trends, mediated by histories and conditions specific to each region of the world, including colonization, war, migration, neo-liberalism, and religious fundamentalism. Most acts of violence against girls and women including psychological abuse, battery, dowry-related violence, marital rape, and female genital mutilation are perpetrated within the family. But women are also exposed to gender violence in the public sphere, including sexual harassment, rape, trafficking, and forced prostitution. During wartime, armed forces regularly target women for rape, forced pregnancy, and sexual mutilation. Today, the World Health Organization estimates that one in three women worldwide will experience physical and sexual violence in her lifetime.

Violence against women is most commonly understood as the kinds of psychological, physical, or sexual violence described above. But when an analysis of violence against women is placed within a broader human rights framework, we see that poverty, poor health, hunger, and the denial of sexual rights and reproductive rights are forms of violence as well. Such a concept of violence also reveals the interconnectedness and root causes of women's human rights violations. Violence against women is a product of combined social, economic, and political forces and is rooted in pervasive gender inequality that is reinforced at governmental, institutional, and interpersonal levels. As such, sexual violence that occurs in situations of armed conflict cannot be extricated from abuse that occurs in the home, or the systematic denial of economic resources and land rights to women worldwide.

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Domestic Violence

Violence committed against women by male family members and sexual partners is the leading cause of injury to women worldwide. Around the world, more women between the ages of 15 and 44 are killed or disabled by gender-based violence than by cancer, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. In many families and communities, violence is an accepted way for men to assert control over women and relieve tension. Domestic violence often escalates when men feel their traditional gender roles threatened as a result of rapidly shifting social dynamics or when men experience heightened anxiety because of economic crisis, migration, natural disasters, political upheaval, or war. Such events generate vulnerability and stress for all family members, but women are further threatened by the increased likelihood of male violence during periods of crisis.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence permeates private and public spheres, in and beyond traditional war zones. It is exacerbated by armed conflict, militarization, economic and political agendas that violate women's human rights, and pervasive discrimination and inequality based on gender, race, class, sexual identity, culture, and religion. According to the World Health Organization, sexual violence encompasses rape on an individual level and widespread, systematic rape in the context of war; sexual slavery; forced pregnancy, abortion, sterilization, marriage, and prostitution; sexual harassment; and violent acts against the sexual integrity of the women, including female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM, which is often performed against a woman's or girl's will, threatens the sexual, reproductive, and psychological health of at least 2 million women and girls per year.

Sexual violence preys on women's sexual and reproductive capacity: because women are situated at the center of both family and cultural reproduction, they become strategic targets when the aim is to eradicate a people. Around the world, armed groups use sexual violence as a standard tool for the torture, humiliation, and control of civilian populations. Rape and other forms of sexual violence such as forced pregnancy have been used in wars throughout history and across the world to trigger a chain reaction of devastation that destroys not only individual women, but entire communities.

Women who have been displaced by political or economic violence are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. In Colombia, where at least three million people have been displaced as a result of the country's 40-year conflict between the army, paramilitaries, and guerillas, women are consistently exploited and abused by all sides. Women and children make up the majority of those who have been displaced. Most are relegated to urban slums where they face ongoing violence, lack basic services, and contend with multiple manifestations of social disintegration, including domestic abuse and drug addiction. Throughout the country, armed groups use women's bodies to assert their power, terrorize communities, and displace families from their land. Women are kidnapped, forced into sexual slavery, raped, mutilated, and killed, while young girls (and boys) fleeing violence are kidnapped or coerced into joining different armed factions with promises of food, shelter, and safety. In Colombia, as elsewhere, widespread impunity persists for sexual crimes, based on the long-held assumption that rape and other forms of sexual violence are crimes of passion, as opposed to human rights violations and war crimes.

Following revelations of mass rape in the Former Yugoslavia, and the use of rape as a weapon of war in the Haitian coup d' etat in the early 1990s, women's organizations, including MADRE, came together to press the Organization of American States and the United Nations to recognize rape not as a "private" crime against honor or decency, but a form of torture and a war crime. Due to aggressive lobbying by the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice (now the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice), the International Criminal Court (ICC), established by the 1998 Rome Statute to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression will now prosecute rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, and sexual violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the silence, shame, and ignorance that continue to surround sexual violence still make sexual crimes some of the hardest to bring to trial, as evidenced by the track record of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda. 

Indigenous Women

In most of the countries where MADRE works, gender-based violence has a long history rooted in the European conquest and colonization of Latin America and Africa, whereby rape was used as a means to destroy Indigenous Peoples and pacify the resistance of enslaved Africans. Indigenous women in both regions, and other women around the world, continue to be brutalized by armed conflict, neo-colonialism, and neo-liberal economic policies that stem from over five centuries of European and US intervention.

As the most marginalized sector of Latin American and African societies, Indigenous women are effectively denied access to most public services, including education, medical care, police protection, telephone service, and transportation that could prevent or redress violence. In fact, public services are themselves a site of violence against Indigenous women. For example, in numerous Latin American countries, poor and Indigenous women seeking professional healthcare have been forcibly sterilized. Many rural Indigenous women do not speak their country's dominant language, and therefore have limited or no access to public education, mass media, and the courts.

When the rights of Indigenous Peoples are violated by neo-liberal economic policies, Indigenous women who end up shouldering the burden created by displacement and shrinking government commitments to health care, education, and food security are disproportionately affected. Moreover, the militarization that often accompanies free-trade agreements and corporate investment violate Indigenous women's human rights. For example, the Bush Administration doubled military aid to Mexico in an attempt to become less dependent on Middle-East oil and protect current and potential investments by US corporations. As a result, Indigenous Peoples who live on land coveted by US oil companies witnessed a sharp rise in the number of soldiers in their communities. Indigenous women then reported dramatic increases in rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, and other abuses at the hands of the Mexican army.

Neo-liberalism: Exacerbating violence on all fronts

Neo-liberal economic policies, including Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and free-trade agreements, both of which encourage privatization of critical services and utilities have intensified poverty, urbanization, migration, and women's employment, inducing rapid changes in traditional social structures wherever they are implemented. Violence against women is one manifestation of men's attempts to reassert traditional authority and cope with economic crisis.

But many other forms of violence are inflicted upon women and families as a result of neo-liberal reforms. Privatization of hospitals and schools and the displacement of peasant farmers by agribusiness have meant life-threatening deprivation for poor women and girls, who are less likely than boys and men to receive costly medical care, schooling, or scarce food. In Latin America, user fees at privatized clinics and hospitals mean that millions of women can no longer afford treatment. Men are also affected by privatization, but women's lower status means they are less likely to have access to the little care available. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, more women than men suffer from HIV/AIDS, but almost all hospital beds are filled by men.

As neo-liberal reforms displace small farmers and their families from their land, many migrate to urban areas in search of employment. In Latin America, many young women have migrated to border towns or the outskirts of large cities to work in export manufacturing sweatshops, or maquilas. Employment, however, is no guarantee that they will be free from the domestic abuse that is often linked to women's economic dependence on men: the sector most emblematic of Latin America's role in the global economy is also the most notorious for the abuse of women. Maquilas mainly hire women who earn less, work longer hours, and are subjected to more dangerous conditions than men. Many of these women have been forced to leave behind social networks that could provide protection from violence. Documented examples of violence against women in maquilas include humiliation, sexual harassment and intimidation, sexual assaults and beatings, strip searches, forced pregnancy tests, termination of pregnant workers, and violence against union organizers.

Neo-liberal economic policies have also drastically cut public services that help prevent gender violence, including education, drug treatment, job training, and women's leadership development programs. They have slashed resources that support survivors of violence and provide alternatives to abusive situations, including counseling, shelters, healthcare, and subsidized housing. In poor communities, birth rates rise as women's access to education, information, and reproductive healthcare diminishes. More children means greater dependency on male wages, which increases vulnerability to male violence.

By increasing poverty around the world, US-driven neo-liberal reforms have compelled many young women into sex work. These same economic policies have also generated the demand for sex tourism, concentrating resources in the hands of men who exploit women's economic vulnerability. Forced into sex work, women have by definition lost the right to choose the terms under which they engage in sex, putting them at risk of rape, physical abuse, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Brazil's sex tourism industry utilizes between 500,000 to two million girls under the age of 18. Thousands more serve as prostitutes in remote mining camps under conditions of virtual slavery. Guatemala City has also become a center of international sex trafficking, with girls from all over Central America smuggled in and forced to work as prostitutes.

The Violence of Poor Health

Because women are discriminated against as a result of their gender in addition to other facets of identity like race and class their health is often compromised. Around the world, women die from overwhelmingly preventable causes because of the combined impact of being women, being targets of racism, and being poor.

Ratios of maternal mortality (the number of women's deaths during pregnancy and childbirth per 100,000 live births) are one of the best measures of the overall health of a society. Because most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable, maternal mortality figures also provide a sharp illustration of the matrix of social inequalities that interact to claim the lives of more than half a million women each year, or one woman every minute. Pregnant and childbearing women die because their basic nutrition is compromised, their reproductive rights are violated, and their access to medical care is denied as a result of gender inequality. For example, in societies where it is unacceptable for women to leave the house without their husbands permission, pregnant women who need medical assistance face a risk of serious complications and death if their husbands are not home to permit them to seek medical care. Women also die because they have been subjected to colonization and racism. In the US, for example, maternal mortality for African-American women is four times higher than for white women. And women die because public health budgets in the poorest countries have been slashed by US-driven economic policies: today, a full 99 percent of maternal fatalities occur in poor countries with inadequate healthcare systems.

Women's health is especially threatened when institutionalized religion or religious fundamentalism influence sexual rights and reproductive health policies or promote misogynist laws that sanction physical violence against women. For example, the Catholic Church, the only religious entity with non-member-state permanent observer status at the United Nations has enormous leverage in shaping international human rights standards, international law, and public policies that have a tremendous impact on people around the world, especially women. Violations of women's rights to reproductive and sexual health stem directly from Church dogma, which denies women the right to make choices about their sexuality and fertility. In Latin America and the Caribbean, where the Catholic Church is a powerful political force, the number of Catholic hospitals has grown as a result of privatization and hospital mergers. Consequently, many women are forced to seek treatment in facilities that refuse to provide critical reproductive health services. This trend is contributing to the 80,000 yearly deaths worldwide caused by unsafe, illegal abortions.

The Bush Administration, motivated by Christian fundamentalist ideology, has implemented a series of domestic and global policies that threaten women's health and human rights around the world. For example, after assuming office in 2000, Bush resurrected the Reagan-era global gag rule, which denies funding to healthcare organizations worldwide that offer abortion counseling and services or advocate for abortion rights. In denying funding for abortion-related services, the policy has withheld funding to clinics that offer a wide range of non-abortion related health services, including HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. In Kenya, seven clinics were forced to close because of the gag rule. Thousands of poor women relied on these clinics for primary health care, including PAP smears, vaccinations for their children, malaria screening, and HIV/AIDS services. Bush's cuts to family planning programs led to more unwanted pregnancies and more illegal, unsafe abortions, which kill 5,000 Kenyan women each year.

Religious Fundamentalism

The current growth of fundamentalisms threatens to undermine decades of advancements made by women's groups to establish an international consensus regarding violence against women (in all forms) as a human rights issue.

As noted above, the Christian fundamentalist Bush Administration has led a global campaign to limit essential information and services related to women's sexual rights, and reproductive rights. Catering to his extremist religious base, Bush has pushed ineffective, ideologically motivated abstinence programs instead of the proven safe sex approach, denied funding to providers of reproductive health services, and blocked $34 million in funding to the United Nations Populated Fund (UNFPA), a measure spearheaded by the Vatican.

In Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, fundamentalist Muslim governments are promoting interpretations of Sharia law, which pose grave threats to women's human rights. In many countries, Sharia law denies women the right to education, employment, freedom of movement and travel, property inheritance, and custody of their children. Sharia can also be interpreted to sanction forced early marriage, polygamy, compulsory religious dress, wife beating, female genital mutilation, execution by stoning as punishment for female adultery, and public flogging of women for disobeying religious rules.

US support of religious fundamentalists in US-occupied Iraq, as well as a breakdown in security and public order, has led to sharp increases in gender-based violence including abduction, rape and honor killings, in which male relatives murder women accused of disobedience or sexual transgression. Islamic militants patrol the streets, beating and harassing women who are not "properly" dressed or behaved. US occupation authorities bear direct responsibility for the rise to power of religious extremists. In July 2003, US Coalition Provisional Authority Chief Paul Bremer personally appointed reactionary Muslim clerics to the Iraqi Governing Council, knowingly empowering leaders with a stated commitment to restricting women's human rights.

Combating Violence Against Women

MADRE supports the local initiatives of community-based women's groups to combat gender-based violence around the world. These programs recognize the indivisibility of human rights by addressing the range of violence in women's lives, whether on the job, in the streets, or at home. MADRE's sister organizations address the urgent needs of women who have been affected by violence by providing trauma counseling, shelter, and emergency healthcare. As a necessary corollary, our partners also promote long-term social change through sustainable development, food security, income-generating projects, and leadership and human rights trainings that empower women to transform policies and attitudes that perpetuate violence in their lives. And MADRE works with our sister organizations to demand justice for human rights violations on local, national, and international levels; strengthen international law; and hold governments accountable to international human rights agreements such as the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the International Bill of Rights.


Taller de Vida provides critical services such as trauma counseling, arts workshops, and human rights trainings for Afro-Colombian women and youth affected by Colombia's armed conflict.

Limpal works with Colombian women to overcome the devastating effects of displacement, demand justice for those who have been displaced, and foster peaceful resistance to political and economic violence.


The Federation of Cuban Women works to ensure that promoting gender equity is a central aspect of Cuba's educational and social programs.

The Cuban Red Cross facilitates the distribution of medical donations to areas most affected by the US embargo, which denies Cubans access to life-saving medicines and supplies.


The Barcenas Maquila Workers' Committee works with women to document abuses in the workplace, hold their employers accountable to human rights standards, and meet the immediate needs of their families by providing potable water, early childhood education, and computer training.

T'al Nan Koi, an Indigenous organization in the Guatemalan highlands, works with women and youth to combat neo-liberal economic reforms and the lasting effects of Guatemala's civil war through sustainable income-generating projects and human rights trainings.

The Rigoberta Menchu Tum Organization has played a key role in documenting human rights abuses and bringing charges against notorious human rights abusers who committed violations during Guatemala's civil war. Their programs also address the immediate educational and health care needs of Indigenous families who survived the country's brutal 36-year conflict.


Zanmi Lasante addresses community health from a holistic, human rights perspective, taking into account the wide range of factors, including access to high-quality health care, potable water, education, and adequate food and housing that affect women's and children's health.


The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq advocates for women's human rights in Iraq, and provides shelter and protection for women contending with the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism and dramatic increases in gender-based violence since the US invasion and occupation.


The Indigenous Information Network advocates for the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Kenya and offers trainings in Indigenous communities that focus on women's human rights, HIV/AIDS, and forced female genital mutilation.


K'inal Antzetik is an Indigenous women's organization that promotes the rights of women and Indigenous Peoples in Chiapas, Mexico. K'inal's programs address the impact of military and economic violence on Indigenous women, offering trauma counseling; trainings in human rights, leadership, sexual rights and reproductive rights; and sustainable development projects that create alternatives to neo-liberal economic reforms.

Elige, a youth-led organization based in Mexico City, advocates for the sexual rights and reproductive rights of young people and is currently a member of a nationwide campaign to demand justice for the over 300 women, most of whom work in maquilas, who have been brutally murdered in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico.


The Center for Indigenous Peoples' Autonomy and Development, (known by its Spanish acronym, CADPI), a museum and educational center, works to combat racism and discrimination that perpetuate human rights abuses against Indigenous and African-descent communities on the North Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, and provides cultural and economic opportunities for youth and others throughout the region.

Wangki Tangni Women's Center is a community development organization run by and for Indigenous Peoples on the North Atlantic Coast that promotes women's political participation and gender equity through sustainable development programs, human rights trainings, and health care programs that incorporate Indigenous and western perspectives on medicine.

CADAMUC provides critical women's health, pediatric, and dentistry services to women and families, most of whom are Indigenous, on the grossly underserved North Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.


Ibdaa Cultural Center offers a wide range of programs for Palestinian refugees in Deheisheh Refugee Camp including trauma counseling, educational and cultural workshops, leadership development for girls, and workshops for women on domestic violence, refugee rights, economic development, and reproductive health.

The Israeli Committee against House Demolitions works to build houses for Palestinian families whose homes have been destroyed by the Israeli army.


CHIRAPAQ (Center for Indigenous Peoples' Culture of Peru) investigates violations of Indigenous Peoples' rights, offers women and youth human rights trainings, works to document and preserve Indigenous culture, and broadcasts weekly community radio programs addressing women's health and human rights.

LUNDU is an organization of Afro-Peruvian youth that works to combat racism and sexism by building activist networks in African-descent communities throughout Latin America, and offering arts education programs that empower young people to challenge stereotypes, and address issues of sexuality, Afro-Peruvian identity, and reproductive rights.


BENIMPUHWE is an association of women working to rebuild their lives and their country in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Their programs promote self-sufficiency among women, many of whom were widowed during the violence, address the immediate needs of women and their families through food-security projects, and provide trainings in human rights, nutrition and health (including HIV/AIDS education), and sexual rights and reproductive rights for women and youth.

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