Violence against women: a human rights issue at home

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The 10th December marks the end of 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women and Girls. It is also International Human Rights Day. It’s not an accident that these dates coincide; the creators of the 16 days of activism recognised that violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a pressing human rights issue, and human rights are crucial if we want to see an end to VAWG.

Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation that can be manifested in a number of ways: rape and sexual violence, domestic violence, ‘honour’ killings, and female genital mutilation are just some of the ways in which women’s rights are breached. These acts are often justified by social, religious and political reasons, engulfed in a global culture that normalises such actions. Violence in this way is gender specific and prevents women from accessing their rights on an equal basis as men.

Human rights provide a foundation and a legal framework through which violence against women can be tackled. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, regardless of gender or any other human characteristic. Unfortunately there is still much to do to make this a reality for women in the UK and abroad.

CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) adopted by the United Nations in 1979 is recognised as the ‘international bill of rights for women’ and helped put gender equality at the heart of human rights. In 1998 the UK parliament passed the Human Rights Act, enabling individuals in the UK, including women, to hold public authorities to account if they believe they have not  been protecting their human rights.

We have a strong legal human rights framework to fight VAWG, and the UK has done this very effectively on an international level particularly in relation to developing countries. Perhaps this is because it is often linked to development and lifting women out of poverty: “discrimination and violence destroys the potential of girls and women in developing countries and prevents them from pulling themselves out of poverty” (Andrew Mitchell, International Development Secretary, International Women’s Day 2012). The UK has been instrumental in making the case for why VAWG is a human rights abuse that deserves the world’s attention.

However, there is a failure to connect the dots between human rights and VAWG here at home. There are isolated cases where women who have experienced violence have used the Human Rights Act to get justice, for example survivors of the taxi driver John Worboys, who raped hundreds of women in London over a number of years, used the Human Rights Act to hold the Metropolitan Police to account for their failure to respond adequately and protect them from harm.

VAWG rates in the UK remain stubbornly high and the statistics are worrying: 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, every week two women are killed by a current or ex- partner and at least 80,000 women suffer rape every year. If the UK Government is serious about ending VAWG, we need a clear commitment that VAWG is a human rights issue affecting women in the UK as well as women in developing countries, and the commitments shown abroad should be mirrored here at home.

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Nandi Mkhize
Nandi is a Communications Intern at the British Institute of Human Rights, having recently graduated from Manchester University studying Geography.

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