|Women against Violence: Breaking the Silence (UNIFEM, 1997, 116 p.)|
|Introduction: Violence Against Women|
The subjugation of women, including violence in many forms, is so common in many societies, and so deeply entrenched in many cultural and religious traditions, that it has eluded widespread acceptance as a human-rights issue. And yet, gender-based violence parallels other forms of abuse that are clearly and consistently included in the human-rights discourse. Battery and sexual assault in the home resemble widely recognized forms of torture; rape in public, particularly mass rape, is clearly a form of terrorism; systematic and coercive deprivation of mobility and material resources, combined with strict control of women's labour, parallel conditions that are widely regarded as slavery.
Despite the evident parallels, however, resistance to treating violence against women as a human-rights abuse is common, both by governments and within the larger society. One of the major barriers is the prevalence of cultural and religious norms and values that reinforce and justify existing power structures. Of course, no culture or religion intends to be abusive; the oppressive nature of many of their assumptions lies beneath the surface. Deconstructing the oppressive aspects of such practices, as part of the ongoing process of reinterpreting basic principles, is a crucial step towards eradicating violence against women.
While culture and religion remain barriers to the eradication of violence against women, there are many efforts being made to counter their influence. In countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as elsewhere, people are growing more aware of the power of education and the media to challenge and transform social and cultural norms and values, as well as to reinforce and strengthen them. As many of the articles included in this book demonstrate, efforts are growing in many parts of the region to remove gender bias and gender stereotyping from school curricula and teaching materials; to integrate gender-awareness training, parenting skills, and non-violent conflict resolution into school curricula; and to provide gender-awareness training to teachers and educators, including teaching them to recognize signs of abuse. Central to these efforts is the insistence on the principle of the universality of human rights, reaffirmed in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights. These rights are declared not to be derogated, meaning that they cannot be limited by reference to custom, tradition or religious consideration.4
4. Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Measures to Eradicate Violence Against Women, p.7.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, women's groups have struggled to broaden the understanding of human rights to include the right to be free of violence, making the issue central to national development agendas. Yet here as elsewhere, they have recognized that despite many improvements - in law, government policy, and education - the problem of gender violence will persist so long as women continue to be devalued in society. This recognition is based in years of work (much of it supported by UNIFEM) with women victims of gender violence, with government ministries, health and education officials, and law enforcement agencies, as well as reflection upon the often frustrating results of this experience. The chapters that follow locate the experience in different countries within the history of efforts to combat gender violence within a broader human-rights framework. Looking at the region as a whole, Marcela Ortiz documents the efforts of national and regional women's movements over two decades to bring the issue of gender violence out of private sphere and into the centre of public discussion. She chronicles a history of legislative reform and public awareness as well as the decision to move from denouncing the problem to researching its causes and documenting its reach. Focussing specifically on criminal laws, Gladys Acosta reviews the ways in which women and women's rights have been conceptualized historically in Latin American criminal law and documents efforts to modernize these concepts in line with the democratization process now underway. Similar efforts, both to document the nature and extent of gender violence and to devise legal and political strategies to combat it, are underway in countries throughout the Caribbean, as Roberta Clarke documents. Taking up sexual offences, domestic violence and sexual harassment separately, she reviews the state of legislation as well as broader efforts by women's groups to change prevailing cultural assumptions about women's roles and present gender violence as a human-rights issue. Looking at the Andean region, Alexandra Ayala Marreviews progress in implementing international recommendations concerning the prevention of gender violence, focussing on efforts to integrate gender and human-rights training into the institutions of law enforcement and justice administration.
Despite many changes, in law as well as government policy, however, gender violence, far from disappearing, is increasing in almost every country, as subsequent articles show. Patricia Duarte Shez and Gerardo Gonzz, analysing images and programmes to combat gender violence in Mexico, stress the need to go beyond legal reforms to bring about broader social change. They describe the effort to create an alternative discourse, one which will take the issue of gender violence beyond a struggle between men and women to a wider arena of citizenship and democracy. In Brazil, where domestic violence and sexual abuse are still largely hidden, Heleieth Saffioti reflects on a recent study in SPaulo, where special women's police stations have been set up to deal with such crimes. Because gender violence crosses both race and class lines, she argues, any effort to eliminate it requires systematic intervention by the state. And Cecilia Babb, reviewing the experience of the Rape Crisis Society of Trinidad & Tobago, which has been confronting the issue of sexual violence for over ten years, reflects on the strengths and limitations of such efforts and makes recommendations for their future direction.
The human security of women, and the well-being of their dependents, will rely in large measure on the recognition that societies can alter traditions without sacrificing their identity or stability. It will hinge on the ability of religious and cultural communities to emphasize the core values of love and justice over the patriarchal traditions of the subjugation of women. And it will depend on the incorporation of those values into the legal frameworks of national and international bodies. In 1998, the international community will have another opportunity to renew its commitment to the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights 50 years ago. Women will have another opportunity to mobilize and demand that governments and the UN put actions behind the promises made in all the international documents and declarations. For there will never be a true culture of respect for human rights without the inclusion of respect for the human rights of women.