Faculty Post: Human Rights and Gender-Based Violence

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

Monday March 10, 2014 marked the launch of the 58th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58).  Representatives from Member States, UN agencies, and civil society have come together in New York City to address the issue of equality for women and girls.  The theme for this year’s session is “Challenges and Achievements in the Implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls.” These goals were adopted 13 years ago to promote women’s fullest enjoyment of their rights. Particular target areas include eradicating the disproportionate poverty of women and girls, increasing women’s participation in politics, and ending gender-based violence. CSW58 provides an opportunity for stakeholders to review what progress has been made in these areas, and what improvements are still necessary.

NUSL is fortunate to have connections to the important work happening at CSW58 this week.  In November 2013, Northeastern University School of Law’s Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy hosted their annual Human Rights Institute, co-convened by the Due Diligence Project (DDP) and NUSL’s Domestic Violence Institute.  The Institute, entitled “Human Rights and Violence Against Women: Applying the Due Diligence Principle,” brought together over 100 advocates, scholars, and activists to discuss the relevance of a human rights framework to the issue of ending violence against women in the United States context.  The Due Diligence Project’s work shines new light on efforts to end gender-based violence, putting forth a Framework of guiding principles in 5 areas, known as the “5 Ps” of the due diligence principle:  prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment, and provision of redress.

The Due Diligence Project formally launched its Framework for accountability to end violence against women on March 13, 2014 at an event sponsored by the Governments of Malaysia and Germany.   In keeping with the CSW58’s theme, the DDP convened a panel titled “Beyond 2015: Due Diligence Framework to End Violence against Women.”  The DDP’s efforts are an important step not just in achieving justice for individual survivors, but in creating a broader system of accountability for combating the epidemic of gender-based violence worldwide.

A human rights framework has much to offer in encouraging proactive versus purely reactive responses to gender-based violence.  It’s nearly impossible to read the news today without seeing headlines about sexual violence.  In addition to individual accounts of horrific assaults, media reports send troubling messages about a widespread culture of sexual violence.  At one end of the spectrum, there is tolerance of violence and complete impunity for perpetrators; just last month Human Rights Watch released a report titled “Here, Rape is Normal,” aimed at combating rampant sexual violence affecting displaced women in Somalia.   Sexual assault is a constant threat within US borders as well, as is evidenced by the recent filing of federal complaints against UC Berkeley by 31 students and alumni who alleged “deliberate indifference” to their reports of campus sexual assault.  As one survivor powerfully stated, “You are more likely to be sexually assaulted if you go to college than if you don’t.”  The frequency and pervasiveness of reports like this show that we must reimagine how we, as a global society, respond to gender-based violence.  Gender equality cannot be achieved if women’s physical and personal integrity is constantly under threat.

This is just part of the conversation that is happening at CSW58. Preliminary reports from CSW 58 acknowledge that important progress has been made, but that huge gaps continue to exist for women and girls worldwide. Closing these gaps is not just about advancing women’s rights—it’s about breaking down structural gender inequality and viewing women’s rights as equal human rights.  Even though there is still much work to do, there is no doubt that forums like CSW58 are an important step in the right direction.

To get updates from CSW58, follow @UN_CSW and #CSW58 on Twitter!

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