UN Spokeswoman Calls For Int’l Treaty Condemning Gender Violence To Keep Countries Accountable


Gender violence is a global issue. It doesn’t discriminate based on race, age, background or nationality. Sadly, it is an epidemic which is very complex and intertwined with the established cultural and societal norms, and the more we learn about this issue through various reports and studies, the clearer it becomes that we need greater advocacy.

After it emerged that sexual violence became one of the key weapons used during the Kosovo War of 1998/1999 and the Rwandan civil war and genocide in 1994, world leaders and activists have recognized the need to pay special attention to how it often goes ignored during a conflict in favor of bigger political issues. As a result, the United Nations developed the office of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences (UN Special Rapporteur), as part of a series of developments at the UN level that finally gave explicit recognition to violence against women as a human rights concern.

In 2014 a first-of-its-kind summit was held in London, hosted by Angelina Jolie, in order to find ways to prevent and tackle sexual violence in conflict zones.

After World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, thanks to the dynamic leadership and advocacy of Eleanor Roosevelt in order to establishment a set of measures that were internationally recognized regarding the value of each person. So it only makes sense, after the knowledge of how sexual violence is such a pervasive evil not only in conflict zones but in every day society, that an international treaty similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should come about.

The UN Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, who was appointed the position in 2009 and just ended her tenure in July 2015, has spent her time discussing and studying the ways in which various countries around the world deal with violence toward women. Originally from South Africa, the Law Professor has spent 3 decades working in the social justice and human rights sectors, with a focus on women’s rights globally.


Over the past five years she has been looking at the way various member states respond to and help prevent gender violence, examining the relationship between socio-economic conditions, race, and historical and cultural contexts. In June 2015 she visited the UK and concluded in a report (which angered many Britons) that the economic structure of the country disproportionately affects women and contributes to violence directed at them.

Rashida is now taking her focus to an international level by claiming not enough countries are doing their part to stop violence against women, and is calling for an international treaty in order to set a global standard. She called for a binding framework within the UN system to tackle what she called a pervasive human rights violation.

“UN entities continue to pass resolutions, but they are not legally binding … we talk about the universality of human rights, when there’s a gaping hole. We need to focus on state accountability,” she told an event on ending violence against women in London, hosted by the Guardian and ActionAid.

The United Nations has been doing its part to tackle this issue of gender violence for decades now. In 1979, member states adopted the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw), which set out what constitutes discrimination against women, and identified ways in which inequality could be tackled. In 1995 at the fourth world conference on women in Beijing, where former first lady Hillary Clinton gave her famous speech on women’s rights, member states agreed to eliminate violence against women. Then in September 2015 the UN general assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals which identified the elimination of all forms of violence against women as a key aspect to ending world poverty by 2030.

Rashida believes an internationally binding treaty would unflinchingly be signed by all UN members as it would look very bad to hesitate and be left in the “grey area”. She also suggested the implementation of a monitoring system to ensure countries are holding up their end of the deal.


The reason for her focus on the elimination of gender violence is because of the many gaps and loopholes which allow various countries to get away with not doing more to tackle the problem.

“We recognize we need specificity, to shine a spotlight on it. Over my last six years I have been constantly raising the fact, and not just because I’m a lawyer by training. When we have a gap, it’s difficult to hold a state accountable,” she said.

In an academic interview with Daniela Nadj from the Feminist Legal Studies publication, Rashida spoke in depth about why she believes a treaty like this will do more than what already exists not only in the UN but in countries which have legislative measures condemning violence against women. One interesting area is the topic of sexual identity, which has evolved over the past few decades, especially concerning the LGBTQ community.

“I think the challenges facing the LGBTI communities have moved a huge step forward in the last 18 months. Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights might not have spoken directly about sexual orientation or gender identity, this is a human rights issue impacting the right to equality, non-discrimination and dignity. I think there has been a very clear shift in the international and regional human rights systems. We are on the right track in terms of the issue being out in the open now, so we cannot go back. The challenge is going to be for governments to be held accountable,” she said.

With criticism saying it could take a long time for something like this proposed treaty to be implemented and agreed upon, Rashida says that shouldn’t deter countries from advocating it.

sexual-violence-against-women-protest“We have to challenge negative thinking that everything is a long process. The [previous] battles have been long and vicious. Many of us are tired of asking and knocking on the same doors. But we can’t allow that to become a reason that we accept second best,” she told the Guardian.

She is outraged that the push back she is getting from a political level is similar to what happened when CEDAW was proposed 20 years ago.

“Twenty years down the line, I am still hearing the same arguments come up again. The lack of political will is significant, but so is the resistance by the CEDAW committee and some UN agencies. It is appalling that a treaty that would comprehensively address the normative gap on a human rights issue that is widespread, pervasive, systemic, systematic, cutting across geographic/race/class boundaries, is resisted by people who should know better. The understanding of violence against women as a human rights violation in and of itself, thereby requiring specificity in international law is a notion that is foreign to some people,” she explained.

It is time to hold governments accountable for a crime that deserves international condemnation at the highest level. There are far too many loopholes in laws which force victims to suffer in silence or be shamed for speaking up, cultivating dangerous societal attitudes like we see in rape culture and slut-shaming today, for example. There is still so much to learn about how violence affects women in different ways around the world, but as it stands there is sufficient research to advocate for a binding treaty like the one Rashida Manjoo proposes.

Take a look at the UN infographic below from November 2015 which lays out some of the many issues relating to violence against women:




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