Violence Against Women and International Law:
An Overview

“How do I hold States accountable if there is no specific legally binding instrument on violence against women?” – former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Rashida Manjoo, 2012; Every Woman Advisor

Since the mid-1980s, when the international community began acknowledging violence against women as a global social problem, a number of efforts have been made to address the pandemic, including declarations, resolutions, and regional treaties. These instruments have catalyzed crucial strides in women’s rights and security. But each is limited in some fashion. Either it is not legally binding or it is linked to an issue or region. The result is a patchwork of women’s protection that a global treaty will correct.

Not Legally Binding

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations, provides the most fundamental international agreement for combating violence against women, as it declares the equal rights of women and men, including the right to personal security. The UDHR defines universal principles and values. It has had a significant effect on the development of international human rights law, but it’s considered aspirational rather than absolute, is open to interpretation, and doesn’t create a legal obligation for states to uphold these principles.

In 1981, a landmark treaty addressing inequality for women entered into force. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was the first human rights treaty specific to women and is an essential tool in advocating for women’s equality on both the national and international stage. CEDAW, however, doesn’t address violence. In fact, the treaty text does include the word “violence” at all.

To address the omission, in 1992 CEDAW added a general recommendation specific to violence against women. General Recommendation No. 19 was historic. It brought the problem fully onto the world stage, acknowledging that violence against women and girls was systemic and widespread, a product of inequality, and prevalent in the home (previously, domestic violence was considered a private matter). It also prompted the creation of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, a job solely dedicated to eliminating this violence. But general recommendations are not part of the official treaty, so while GR No. 19, which was updated in 2017, is a key policy instrument, it lacks the legal weight necessary to get governments to act.

Similarly, the Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, calls on governments to adopt, implement and review legislation to ensure its effectiveness in eliminating violence against women, but creates no legal obligation for states.

Limited in Scope

A number of human rights treaties protect women in specific situations, but even collectively, they’re not comprehensive enough to cover all forms of violence against women and girls in all situations.

  • Security Council Resolutions on Peace, Security, and Women (numbers 1325, 1820, 1888, and 1889) are specific to violence against women in conflict.
  • The Rome Statute—the treaty that established the International Criminal Court—considers widespread or systematic violence directed at women and girls in civilian populations a crime against humanity, and a war crime if it happens during conflict. It only holds individuals accountable for crimes, not states.
  • The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families
  • The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
  • The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime

Limited by Region

Three regional treaties addressing violence against women have attempted to address what is lacking at the global level:

  • Belém do Pará Convention (officially, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, adopted 1994), was the first regional treaty specific to violence against women and has led to changes in domestic legislation and public policy reforms that provide greater protection for women in some Latin American and Caribbean nations.
  • Africa’s Maputo Protocol (the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, adopted July 2003) is a women’s rights treaty that includes a strong definition of violence against women and clearly covers “both actual violence and acts that could lead to violence.” Driven by African women’s rights NGOs, it was created in response to a lack of implementation of the African Charter, which guarantees women’s rights and safety.
  • Europe’s Istanbul Convention (Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, adopted March 2016) is considered the most comprehensive in scope.

Along with being limited geographically, the treaties’ varying requirements leave wide legal gaps among nations (a law against interpersonal violence might apply to a spouse, but not a boyfriend, for example), meaning violence against women is the most widespread, systemic human right violation that is not protected to a minimum standard internationally.