12 November 2013

Are governments failing women and girls at risk of violence?

Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Ruth Samuels.

“We don’t yet have the teeth to hold governments accountable”.  The words of Marai Larasi, co-Chair of the End Violence Against Women campaign and Executive Director of Imkaan, succinctly sums up why a panel of leading experts on gender-based violence, and over 40 passionate advocates, came together to discuss the way forward in the fight to end violence against women and girls (VAWG). Led by UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, it’s Causes and Consequences, Rashida Manjoo, the panellists each gave impassioned presentations on the gaps in legislation that they feel prevent the eradication of VAWG, followed by an open discussion with attending representatives. A common concern touched upon throughout the presentations was the distinct lack of State responsibility in tackling gender-based violence in countries across the globe, including the UK. Extensive research carried out by the UN Rapporteur has shown that governments simply are not doing enough to bring perpetrators of VAWG to justice, and to make gender-based violence unacceptable in their societies.

Particularly significant points of discussion included:-

The need for robust, legally binding instruments that uphold the right of women and girls to be protected from violence.

Marai Larasi’s above statement refers to the lack of legal clout behind current provisions to tackle VAWG, highlighting the fact that, in practice, governments are not doing a great deal to facilitate legal redress for survivors of gender-based violence. One of the main problems with the current provisions is a lack of specificity; VAWG as a specific crime is not viewed as a priority issue in many States. Although the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted in 1993, it is not a legally binding instrument and has not been internationally adopted into customary law. Similarly, while the issue of gender discrimination is tackled via the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it is only under General Recommendation 19 of CEDAW – and General Recommendation 14, relating specifically to FGM – that State parties are encourage to “ensure that laws against family violence and abuse, rape, sexual assault and other gender-based violence give adequate protection to all women, and respect their integrity and dignity”.   However, as the UN Declaration and CEDAW recommendations are not bound by law it is difficult to hold governments to full account for their failure to protect women and girls. 

Ms Manjoo, through her recent State responsibility report (June 2013) is spearheading the movement calling for a new, comprehensive UN Convention on Violence Against Women. Such a Convention would require State parties to establish systems that effectively address VAWG and – at least in theory – lessen the risk of strategies tackling VAWG from being undermined by changing political ideologies in Government.

The Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Instanbul Convention) seeks to meet the need for a legally binding instrument in Europe. The Convention obliges signatories to adopt policies that aim to challenge societal indifference to gender-based violence, to criminalise violence against women, and to ensure that all excuses for violence based on religious or cultural grounds are rejected. However, while the Convention was finalised in 2011, only 6 out of a required 10 member States have ratified the document, revealing a disappointing show of support from the Council’s 41 remaining member States. Surprisingly, the UK is yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention. 

The need to ensure that the discussion continues to be about violence against women AND girls – not just women.

Both Ms Larasi and representatives attending the discussion expressed concern over the risk of leaving the girl child out of conversations about violence against women. Ms Larasi warned that while girls are often implied in the term ‘violence against women’, implications don’t always deliver. There is a real need for the vulnerability of girl children to violence to be addressed specifically in any new piece of legislation, in order to ensure that they can receive the full protection of the law. This will be particularly important when advocating for the rights of child victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.


By the close of the discussion it was clear that the fight against violence against women and girls will continue to be a long, hard battle. Sadly, the names of millions of women around the world will be added to the casualty list, the missing, and all too often, the dead, while the fight rages on. It is for these women that Renée Römkens, Legal Advisor to the Istanbul Convention, stressed that a binding Convention is needed to bring about not only legal justice, but social justice. 

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