Domestic violence is a violation of women’s human rights.
Violence directed against women by their intimate partners (current
or former spouses, boyfriends, dating partners) is an epidemic
of global proportions that has devastating physical, emotional,
financial and social effects on women, children, families and
communities around the world.
Although international human rights instruments and institutions
have only recently acknowledged domestic violence as a human rights
violation, the right to life and to bodily integrity are core
fundamental rights that are protected under international law.
One of the most significant obstacles to the recognition of domestic
violence as a human rights violation was the belief that international
human rights law did not apply to “private” harm. This belief
was directly tied to prevailing theories of both domestic violence
and international law.
Historically, theories of domestic violence were based
on the premise that such abuse was a “family” or “private” matter
that was a consequence of mental illness, alcohol abuse, or poor
impulse control. Current theories, however, reflect the understanding
that the purpose of violence is the establishment of power and
control over another through different forms of abusive, coercive
and threatening behaviors. Despite this understanding, the characterization
of domestic violence as a private aberration—together with other
causes and complicating factors, such as traditional gender roles,
economic hardship and some religious practices—continue to impede
efforts to protect women and hold batterers accountable.
International legal institutions, as well, traditionally
incorporated a rather restrictive interpretation of state responsibility.
Under this view, human rights norms governed the conduct of states,
and states were responsible only for the violations they perpetrated.
Domestic abuse, as violence that occurs within the home in the
context of an intimate relationship, was seen as outside the purview
of state responsibility.
Over time, however, the notion of state responsibility
under international law has been expanded in a number of ways.
Scholars, advocates and practitioners now recognize that human
rights law does, in fact, apply to “private” conduct such as domestic
violence. As Radika Coomaraswamy, United Nations Special Rapporteur
on Violence Against Women, explains, there are three ways in which
domestic violence can be understood as a human rights violation:
due diligence, equal protection, and torture.
First, as articulated by the Committee on the Elimination
of Discrimination Against Women in General Recommendation 19,
states are not only obligated to refrain from committing violations
themselves, but are also responsible for otherwise “private” acts
if they fail to fulfill their duty to prevent and punish such
acts. This responsibility is reflected, as well, in the Declaration
on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Vienna Declaration
and Programme of Action from the 1993 World Conference on Human
Rights. Consequently, when the state fails to ensure that its
criminal and civil laws adequately protect women and consistently
hold abusers accountable, or that its agents—such as police and
prosecutors—implement the laws that protect victims of domestic
violence, it has not acted with due diligence to prevent, investigate
and punish violations of women’s rights.
Second, states are required under international law to
provide all citizens with equal protection of the law. If a state
fails to provide individuals who are harmed by an intimate partner
with the same protections it provides to those harmed by strangers,
it has failed to live up to this obligation. When law enforcement
officers respond quickly to reports of stranger violence but fail
to respond to reports of intimate partner violence, when forensic
medical classifications allow accurate evaluations of the severity
of injuries inflicted by strangers but consistently fail to reflect
the seriousness of the kinds of injuries inflicted in an abusive
relationship over time, when judges impose lower sentences on
those who assault strangers than those who assault their intimate
partners—battered women have been denied equal protection.
Third, advocates and scholars increasingly recognize that
domestic violence is a form of torture. Under international human
rights law, torture is severe mental or physical pain or suffering
that is intentionally inflicted either by a state actor or with
the consent or acquiescence of a state actor for an unlawful purpose.
As Coomaraswamy argues, the dynamics of domestic violence closely
resemble the defining elements of torture: “(a) it causes severe
physical and or mental pain, it is (b) intentionally inflicted,
(c) for specified purposes and (d) with some form of official
involvement, whether active or passive.” The similarities between
these violations are striking particularly because domestic violence
and torture are often perpetrated for the same unlawful purpose—namely,
to establish and maintain power and control over another. At the
same time, however, this approach may be less effective in certain
situations because of the strong “state action” (or official involvement)
requirement included in the definition of torture.
From Radika Coomaraswamy, Combating
Domestic Violence: Obligations of the State, 6 Innocenti Digest
10, 10 (2000).
These three approaches frame most strategies to end domestic
violence. Advocates for battered women work to ensure that states
take adequate measures to prevent domestic violence and to investigate
and punish violations. They seek to compel states to ensure that
victims of intimate partner violence are afforded the same legal
protections that are available to all victims of violence. Increasingly,
as well, advocates are exploring ways in which an understanding
of domestic violence as torture can be used to strengthen the
state protections afforded to victims of domestic violence and
to increase perpetrator accountability.
Where the state has failed to ensure the availability of
adequate services for victims of domestic violence, NGOs have
organized to provide counseling, temporary shelters, crisis centers,
and hotlines. In addition, NGOs work to coordinate the responses
of community members, from legal and medical professionals to
members of religious organizations, to ensure that victims’ needs
are met and that batterers are consistently held accountable.
Finally, NGOs have adopted a variety of advocacy strategies aimed
at preventing domestic violence. In particular, the creation of
batterers’ treatment groups has generated considerable interest
as a method for both ensuring perpetrator accountability and changing
abusive behaviors before violence reoccurs.