Human Rights: shining a light on violence against women

The 25th November marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of 16 Days of Activism on gender violence which leads up to global Human Rights Day on 10 December. The link between the two days is important; reminding us that violence against women and girls is an abuse of human rights.

What do we mean by VAWG?

In 1993 the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defined violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

VAWG as a human rights issue

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) remains one of the most widespread human rights violations worldwide. The international system recognises that VAWG threatens the fundamental rights of women and girls including the rights to life, not to be treated in cruel, inhuman or degrading ways, to liberty and security of person, equal protection under the law, to equality in the family and to physical and mental health.

“Violence against women continues to persist as one of the most heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world. It is a threat to all women, and an obstacle to all our efforts for development, peace, and gender equality in all societies. Violence against women is always a violation of human rights; it is always a crime; and it is always unacceptable. Let us take this issue with the deadly seriousness that it deserves.” Ban Ki moon, United Nations Secretary General, who launched the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign in 2008.


VAWG is not restricted by country borders, cultures, ages or social status. The UK is not exempt from this devastating abuse of human rights, the consequences of which exact a heavy toll on its victims and survivors, their families and society as a whole. For example, research suggests that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence during their lifetime and between 6 – 10% of women experience domestic violence in any given year, with domestic violence accounting for 16% of homelessness acceptances. At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three quarters of children on the ‘at risk’ register live in households where domestic violence occurs. There have been no convictions for female genital mutilation (FGM) since it was outlawed in 1985 in the UK, yet it is estimated that 23,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM. Approximately 85% of forced marriage cases dealt with by the Government Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) involve women and girls; the FMU deals with around 300 cases per annum. Research also suggests that each year 55,117 women aged 16-59 are raped, and 1 in 3 victims are subject to repeat victimisation. (All figures sourced from AVA Project)

Using human rights to take action

Under international law such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women the UK has concrete and clear obligations to address VAWG.  These obligations create important tools for lobbying and campaigning work. They are a measure which can be used to hold the UK to account.

The UK’s women’s sector is increasingly active is using the international framework to address VAWG issues. The UK is about to be scrutinised by the international committee that monitors compliance with CEDAW. There has been much work in the sector to capitalise on the opportunity to use this international human rights mechanism to raise violence against women issues, including the shadow reporting and lobbying work undertaken by the UK CEDAW working group.

Sadly the obligations in CEDAW and similar international agreements aren’t part of UK law, which means individual women cannot rely on them when seeking protection inside and outside the courts. However, we do have the Human Rights Act and this contains a range of domestically enforceable rights which are relevant to VAWG. Our rights under the HRA include the right not to be treated in an inhuman and degrading way; the right to respect for private and family life (including the right to physical and psychological integrity); the right to life; the right to be free from slavery and forced labour and the right to non-discrimination.

The HRA says that public authorities like social services, the police, and health professionals should not take action which violates our rights. Importantly, it also places specific positive obligations on public bodies to take proactive steps to prevent and address rights violations. For example, the Courts have said there are duties to investigate credible allegations of a breach the right to life, the prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment, and the prohibition on slavery and forced labour. Decisions not to prosecute perpetrators of crime can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment where such decisions impact on a person’s sense of vulnerability. Similarly failure to conduct a proper investigation may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.

At BIHR we have seen both public officials and advocacy groups use the HRA to help secure access to services for survivors of violence, without having to go to court. For example, when a woman and her children were denied housing, a social worker argued that the local authority had overriding positive obligations to protect the family’s rights to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, and successfully secured safe accommodation. In another example a women’s group used the HRA to help a woman challenge a decision to remove her children because she was in temporary accommodation after escaping an abusive father. The local authority subsequently found the family stable accommodation.

Speaking up for our rights

Examples like these show how using the HRA in advocacy can secure important and sometimes life changing outcomes. These real life, but so often untold, stories remind us why the Human Rights Act is important for all of us, how it is a vital safety net that can protect us at moments of vulnerability.

As the 16 days of activism kicks off, let’s use the opportunity to remind ourselves and those in power that violence against women is a human rights issue and just as we speak out against abuse we will also speak up for the Human Rights Act and the laws that protect us. Now is the time to Act.

To keep your Human Rights, Act.


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