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.

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