Violence Against Women

S Laurel Weldon. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Introduction: What Is Violence Against Women?

Violence against women takes a number of forms, including rape, wife battering, incest, stalking, trafficking in women, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, and psychological harassment. All of these types of violence are abuses that women, rather than men, tend to suffer. Women are victimized in these ways at least partially because they are women. In its 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the United Nations 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 deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

This chapter focuses on the victimization of women as well as government action to address that victimization. This should not be taken to imply that violence against men is nonexistent or unimportant. The violence that afflicts men, however, is a different phenomenon from violence against women and must be analyzed as such. Men and women tend to be victims and perpetrators of different kinds of violence under different circumstances. Men are more likely to be assaulted by strangers (usually men) whereas women are more likely to be assaulted by intimates or people they know (also usually men). This is because violence against women is largely a result of women’s economic and social dependence on men, as cross-cultural studies have demonstrated (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 8-9; Sanday 1981, 9, 17; See also Levinson 1989). The phenomenon of violence against women is part of a network of social practices that devalue women and render them dependent on, and thus vulnerable to, men in a wide range of situations (e.g., home, employment, traveling in public spaces). Gang wars or bar fights, both typical examples of violence against men, are not the result of one group being economically and socially dependent on, and therefore vulnerable to, the other. The point is not that violence against men is less serious, or the effects on the victims less harmful. Rather, the point is that violence against women is fruitfully analyzed as distinct from these other forms of violence (Weldon 2002, 10; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 3).

It is important to note that understanding violence against women as linked to male dominance does not mean that all men are violent, that all women are direct victims of violence, that women are nonviolent, or that maleness itself is sufficient to explain any individual incident of violence. Rather, violence against women is part of a social relationship between groups. This relationship between groups provides the frame of reference in which individual interactions take place, but it does not determine the specific outcome of those interactions.

As governments and women’s groups from most of the countries of the world have now affirmed, violence against women constitutes a violation of women’s human rights. Governments that claim to be democratic must make defending the human rights of their citizens a priority (Weldon 2002, 10).

Specific Forms of Violence: Domestic Violence, Rape, Trafficking, and Female Genital Mutilation

This essay focuses on four specific types of violence against women—namely sexual assault and rape of women by men, battering of intimate female partners by males, female genital mutilation (FGM), and trafficking in women. Domestic violence against women is only one type of abuse that women suffer. The common term “domestic violence” is imprecise and covers a wide variety of phenomena, sometimes including violence against men, children, or parents of both sexes. Here the focus is on one specific type of domestic violence against women. Extant psychological research on domestic violence in the United States and Britain has uncovered two distinct types of domestic violence, one that appears to be perpetrated by men and women equally (called “common couple violence”) and one that appears to be perpetrated disproportionately by men against women (“patriarchal terrorism”) (Johnson 1995, 284-285; Graham-Kevan and Archer 2003, 1247-1251). Common couple violence, which consists of nonrepeated incidents of violence that are not severe and do not cause injury, tends to be associated with poor relationship skills. This type of domestic violence is more common. Patriarchal terrorism, on the other hand, is motivated by a desire to control and dominate one’s partner and is accompanied by an ideology of patriarchal control (women ought to sexually serve men, cook their food, and so on; if they do not, men have the right to physically punish them). Patriarchal (or intimate) terrorism is the type of domestic violence that is most likely to result in injury or death. Patriarchal terrorism is less common. The latter type of violence is what most feminists are talking about when they use the term “domestic violence against women”—intimate violence that is driven by a traditional gender ideology and happens to women because they are women (Weldon 2008).

The term “domestic violence” may bring to mind images of “the battered wife.” It is important to note that intimate terrorism can occur not only in heterosexual, formally married couples but also in same-sex relationships or in less formal heterosexual relationships (dating or common-law relationships). Further, domestic violence against women often includes both physical battery and sexual and emotional abuse. More generally, research in a variety of cultural contexts suggests that domestic violence against women can take a variety of specific forms. For example, some Indian feminists have argued that the phenomenon of dowry deaths in India is best understood as a form of domestic violence against women (Weldon 2008; Narayan 1997, chapter 3; Kishwar and Vanita 1984, section IV.3).

International experts on violence find that the problem of domestic violence against women is a deeply rooted, societal and even global problem; it is not simply attributable to such factors as alcohol use or mental illness (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 3-12; United Nations 1998). The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) argues that “Violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women” and that violence against women “is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” Indeed, cross-cultural studies of violence against women have found that economic inequality between women and men; cultural patterns of conflict resolution through violence; cultural norms of male dominance, toughness and honor; and male economic and decision-making authority in the family are the best predictors of high levels of domestic violence against women (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 8; See also Sanday 1981, 9, 17; Levinson 1989).

Rape and Sexual Assault

In the United States, the term “violence against women” has become almost synonymous with domestic or family violence, and discussions of violence rarely center on rape. But rape is one of the most damaging and prevalent forms of such violence, and it is almost exclusively carried out by men against women. Although legal and philosophical definitions of rape vary, for the purposes of this essay, rape is defined as “the imposition of a sexually penetrating act on an unwilling person” (Cahill 2001, 11). Sexual assault is the imposition of any act that is sexual in nature on an unwilling person.

Although rape and sexual assault are serious problems nearly everywhere in the world, cross-cultural analysis has found that there have been some rape-free societies (Sanday 1981, 9). Rape-free societies are characterized by sexual equality; in these societies, men and women are both seen as valued members of the community, interpersonal violence is rare, and female characteristics are valued. In rape-prone societies, in contrast, rape tends to be overlooked or condoned, social rituals include rape, men as a group are positioned against women as a group, and sexual conquest confers status on men (Sanday 1981, 17).

Although rape has long been recognized as a crime in many countries, shockingly, rape has not always been seen as a crime against the woman herself. Traditionally, in Western law, rape was seen as a crime against property (Cahill 2001, 18, 168). Even today, in many places rape is seen as a crime against family honor or as an act against public morality or the social fabric. It is only very recently that rape has been understood as a violation of women’s human rights (Penn and Nardos 2003, 53). Before the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, prevailing human rights discourse restricted human rights work to violations by state agencies and did not include actions by private individuals or actions taken in private. Also, there was the perception that violence against women occurred in isolated and discrete occurrences and was not a phenomenon of sufficient significance, persistence, and prevalence to require human rights work (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 183-188). For example, although rape in war was seen as a crime under the 1944 and 1977 Protocols of the Geneva Conventions, it was seen as a crime against honor or an assault on dignity. Even now rape in war is not considered a “grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions, one that gives rise to an obligation on governments to do everything in their power to stop it (Penn and Nardos 2003, 53).

Even today, when rape is against the law, social norms and attitudes about rape pose obstacles to enforcing the law and protecting women from abuse. Women who have been victims of rape are often stigmatized and blamed for their victimization, sometimes in the course of seeking justice from the legal system. Women themselves are often reluctant to report rapes to the police, seeing police action as ineffective or inappropriate. Exacerbating such problems, in some places (such as India, Colombia, and Brazil), when women do report the crime to the police, they are vulnerable to a second violation, as rape in police custody is far too common (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 33; Weldon 2002, 15-16).

The Extent of Rape and Domestic Violence Worldwide

Mounting evidence suggests that violence against women in the form of sexual assault and wife battering are serious problems everywhere in the world. More than 45 specialized studies establish the existence and seriousness of domestic violence against women in countries as diverse as Norway and Nigeria, Mozambique and Moldova (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, Table 1; Weldon 2002, Appendix A). For example, in 1993, a comprehensive national study (using random sampling techniques and legal definitions) found that about half of all Canadian women had been victims of violence: 39 percent reported sexual assault and 34 percent reported physical assault (some women had been subject to both forms of violence) (Johnson 1998, 9). National and local studies find similar or even higher levels of violence in most countries in the world. Combined with criminal justice statistics and other sources of data, the evidence suggests that rape and domestic violence occur in nearly every country (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, Table 1; Weldon 2002, Appendix A). Thus, “although we need better information about such violence, there is sufficient data to establish that it is a serious problem” (Weldon 2002, 9).

Although women of all races and classes are subject to violence, women of some marginalized races, castes, or ethnic groups are more likely to be subject to sexual and domestic assaults than white women (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000, iv; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 8-9; Rennison and Welchans 2000, 1); however, it is not known how much of the variance across social groups can be accounted for by differences in reporting, bias in the criminal justice system, and other demographic variables (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000; Crenshaw 1994). In addition, poverty is associated with higher rates of violence (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 8; Raphael 1996, 1997; Levinson 1989; Sanday 1981 ). In the United States, for example, low-income women are three times more likely to be raped than middle-income women, and very poor women (with a household income less than $7,500) are seven times more likely to be subject to sexual assault than middle-income women ($35,000-$50,000) (Rennison and Welchans 2000, 4). Welfare dependency is also associated with higher rates of violence (Raphael 1996 , 1997).

Intimate violence has devastating consequences for the victims and their families: such violence can cause serious injuries (and sometimes death), depression, poor mental and physical health, suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem, difficulties with employment, and many other long-term physical and emotional problems. But violence against women harms many people even beyond the immediate victims. All women are expected to alter their behavior to minimize risk. Women are advised to seek male escorts for routine business, to avoid working late, to vary their daily routines and routes for exercise and errands, to avoid drawing public attention to themselves or putting themselves in private spaces with men—even with men they know well. (Note that social conventions encourage women to seek a male escort as “protection” if they must walk somewhere after dark but also hold that if a woman goes any where with a man alone, she should understand that this can be misunderstood as an invitation to sexual activity. This is just one example of the contradictory, impossible pressures that violence creates for women). Thus, violence against women restricts the ability of all women to act as free, autonomous people; creates fear; and undergirds social norms that restrict the ability of all women to take advantage of their rights as citizens of a democratic public (Weldon 2002, chapter 1; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999; Rennison and Welchans 2000).

Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to traditional practices involving the cutting of female genitals. These practices vary in terms of how much of the female genitalia is removed (i.e., some or all of the prepuce, clitoris, labia minora, and/or external genitalia) and whether the woman or girl is also infibulated (i.e., whether the vaginal opening is stitched or narrowed). The practice is concentrated in Sub-Saharan and northeastern Africa, but it also occurs in immigrant populations in industrialized countries and to some degree in Asia and the Middle East. It is estimated that currently, somewhere from 100 million to 140 million girls and women who have been subjected to the operation and that about 3 million girls undergo the procedure every year (WHO, 2008, n.d.; Penn and Nardos 2003, 88-97).

These aggregate figures, however, obscure the fact that the specific form and prevalence of the procedure vary significantly by geographic region and ethnic group. For example, the vast majority of women in Mali (92 percent) have undergone FGM, but in Senegal less than a third (29 percent) have undergone the procedure. The form of FGM also varies: although only 15 percent of all circumcisions are the most severe form of FGM (infibulation), in some locations (e.g., Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan) the vast majority of circumcisions (approximately 80 percent to 90 percent) are of this type (WHO; CRR 2008; Penn and Nardos 2003, 88-97).

Usually, FGM is carried out on girls between the ages of 4 and 15 years. Although some claim female circumcision is a requirement of Islam, the practice of FGM predates Islam, and members of many different religious communities engage in the practice (WHO 2008). Often, families and traditional practitioners view FGM as part of attaining womanhood and as necessary for protecting virtue. In addition, female genitalia are viewed as unclean and unsightly (WHO 2008; CRR 2008). In some places, social norms supporting FGM seem very strong: failing to circumcise one’s daughter can mean she is viewed as unmarriageable and undesirable by most or all men in the community (Penn and Nardos 2003, 94-97).

FGM can be very harmful to women’s physical and psychological health, although the specific consequences vary somewhat according to the severity of the procedure (e.g., whether the procedure performed is excision or infibulation). The procedure can cause severe pain, shock, hemorrhage, urine retention or incontinence, cysts and abscesses, ulceration of the genital region, injury to adjacent tissue, and even death (WHO 2008; CRR 2008). In addition, FGM can make sexual intercourse very painful for women, cause sexual dysfunction, and be the source of serious problems with childbirth, including increasing the risk that the infant will die during childbirth. FGM can be very damaging psychologically as well, causing feelings of incompleteness, anxiety, and depression (WHO 2008, n.d.).

FGM is not a medically necessary procedure, is mostly performed on children too young to consent, and has significant negative consequences for a woman’s ability to engage in sexual activity, reproduce, and simply live a healthy life (WHO 2008, n.d., WMA). For this reason, advocacy groups have argued that “FGM violates a number of human rights of women and girls … it violates the rights to non-discrimination, health, and bodily integrity. Although FGM is not undertaken with the intention of inflicting harm, its damaging physical, sexual, and psychological effects make it an act of violence against women and children” (CRR 2008).

Trafficking in Women

Another form of violence against women is trafficking, usually for the purposes of sexual exploitation but sometimes for forced labor or other forms of exploitation. Section 3 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 (Congress of the Philippines 2003) defines trafficking in persons as:

… the recruitment, transportation, transfer or harboring, or receipt of persons with or without the victim’s consent or knowledge, within or across national borders by means of threat or use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of position, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the person, or, the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation which includes at a minimum, the exploitation or the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery, servitude or the removal or sale of organs.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report (2007), approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders each year. This figure does not include those trafficked within their own countries. Most (80 percent) of these transnationally trafficked persons are women and girls, and overwhelmingly they are bought and sold as part of the commercial sex trade. Reliable estimates of the size of the overall problem (including domestic and international trafficking) are difficult to obtain: some estimate that as many as 4 million women and girls may be trafficked each year (Raymond 2003). Women and girls targeted for trafficking are usually from the poorest regions of the world, from rural areas, and are either abducted, sold by relatives, or lured by promises of good jobs and better lives only to find themselves sold as sex slaves with little chance of escape (U.S. Department of State 2007; CATW 2008; Penn and Nardos 2003). Even so, most analysts emphasize that trafficking probably occurs in every national context and is a huge business with connections to organized crime. Trafficking is estimated to be an operation worth from $5 billion to $7 billion (U.S.) annually (Raymond 2003). In many countries, as one analyst notes, “In contrast to penalties for drug and arms trafficking, the penalties for human trafficking are lower” (Raymond 2003, 1).

Emergence of Violence Against Women as a Political Issue: From Domestic Violence to FGM and Trafficking

The issue of domestic violence against women has become a familiar public issue in some places: In the United States, Canada, and many other countries, official days or months to promote awareness of domestic violence and violence against women are observed, and there are even campaigns by major retailers to raise money for domestic violence. However, this widespread awareness is a relatively recent phenomenon: it was not until the mid-1990s that mainstream human rights groups recognized rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment as violations of women’s human rights. Indeed, until the 1990s few governments took any action to protect women from violence, and people who tried to raise awareness of the seldom-discussed issue were perceived as radical feminists of the most extreme variety (Weldon 2002, chapters 1 and 2). How did this previously ignored, even taboo issue come to public attention?

Although women have long experienced and criticized rape, wife abuse, and other forms of violence against women, it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that activists began using the term “violence against women.” For example, as early as 1967, Canadian women’s groups criticized a government report on the status of women for failing to address the issue of violence against women (Weldon 2002, 148; See also Brownmiller 1999). In 1971, the first shelter for battered women opened in London, England (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 175).

Although in most places it is recognized that rape and wife beating do occur, it takes women’s movements to publicize the extent of these problems and to make the case for public responsibility for protecting women’s human rights. As a result, policies on violence are always traced to pressure from an organized women’s group. For example, in India and the United States:

Public recognition of domestic violence against women as a social problem in both countries paved the way for further movement demands. Initially, the BWM [battered women’s movement] and ADVM [anti-dowry violence movement] attempted to challenge the hegemonic ideology that the family was a private sphere, not subject to state interests or action, and that the state had no interest in the family. These movements also challenged the notion that women’s interests were identical with “family interests.” In both countries, SMOs [social movement organizations] began to focus on changing police practices as a concrete way to help women survivors and prevent further violence. Both sets of movements were able to get reform enacted that criminalized domestic violence against women. (Busch 1992, 599)

Similarly, public attention to violence against women was primarily driven by independent women’s organizations in Sweden (Elman 1996; Eckberg 2004), Norway (Karvonen and Selle 1995, 177), and Canada (Walker 1990; Weldon 2002). In all of the Andean countries, “women’s organizations … have struggled for over ten years to get laws passed or revised in order to permit intervention in the home, which is where, under the veil of privacy, the greatest number of crimes occur, and typically go unpunished” (Marin 1997, 88). Similarly, in the Caribbean region “women’s organizations have been in the forefront of action to eliminate violence as well as to provide services to victims of violence against women” (Clarke 1997, 60). In short, it is women’s movements that are the catalysts for change on this issue: their actions set the wheels of government response in motion. Feminist activists are responsible for developing the very concept of violence against women, and it is hard to imagine the issue being framed as a public one before the women’s movement transformed public discussion of what had been previously seen as a private matter.

Although transnational women’s groups now recognize FGM as a form of violence against women, women’s organizing against the procedure has been seen as quite controversial. Indeed, at one time discussions of FGM obstructed the efforts of women to organize transnationally on violence against women (Weldon 2006). Initially, some (but not all) Northern women’s organizations condemned the practice as “barbaric” and symptomatic of “primitive societies,” and some (but not all) Southern organizations defended it as a cultural practice and accused Northern groups of imperialism. In discussions at this time, FGM was not conceptualized as a form of violence against women (Weldon 2006).

By the 1980s, however, Southern women were organizing among themselves to address violence against women. In 1982, a meeting of African nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on FGM was held in Dakar, Senegal. At the 1984 preparatory meeting of African NGOs in Tanzania, women from developing countries themselves emphasized the importance of violence against women. In addition, the creation of a new organization—Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN)—gave women in developing countries an organizational mechanism to address violence against women on their own terms. When the issue of FGM emerged from discussions among Southern women, it was framed as an instance of violence against women on the same level as domestic violence or rape, not as an exotic practice signifying the primitive nature of the culture in question. In Nairobi, the international coalition of activists organizing against violence recognized FGM as a form of violence, and began to overcome other obstacles to cross-national organizing on violence (Weldon 2006).

Women have been organizing against trafficking in women and sexual exploitation of women since the early 1980s, but the issue has come to the forefront recently as a result of an unusual combination of political forces. Women’s international organizing against violence, which gained momentum as advocates organized around UN conferences on human rights, population and development, and women’s rights in the early 1990s, brought trafficking to the intergovernmental agenda at the end of the 1990s. But with the election of George W. Bush as president of the United States, Christian conservatives—who strongly oppose prostitution, pornography, and other practices—opponents of trafficking in women gained powerful allies. Christian conservatives have been effective in pressuring the president to reinstate the Global Gag Rule (also known as the Mexico City Rule, an executive order preventing the use of government funds for organizations that provide information about abortions abroad), have agitated for pro-chastity (as opposed to the more effective pro-condom) programs for preventing HIV/AIDS, and have pushed the Bush administration to work to protect Christians’ freedom to worship in other nations. These same activists have adopted the issue of trafficking in persons, and as a result the U.S. State Department now reviews the nations of the world in terms of the actions they are taking to stop trafficking in persons.

What Can Governments Do to Address Violence Against Women?

Governments and women’s groups from the vast majority of the countries of the world have affirmed that violence against women constitutes a violation of women’s human rights. Going beyond mere recognition of the problem, most democratic governments, and some authoritarian states as well, have now promised to address violence against women (Weldon 2002, 30-32; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 32-38). But what can governments do to address a deeply rooted, pervasive problem like violence against women? Given the multiplicity of forms of violence against women, a multifaceted response is necessary. Some forms of violence (rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking) are relatively ubiquitous, and similar in their dynamics, suggesting that a similar set of policies can serve as a starting point for discussions of government response in a wide variety of national contexts. On the other hand, there are also forms of violence against women (e.g., FGM, trafficking, the practice of sati or widow burning in India, rape in war) that are more geographically concentrated or concentrated among especially vulnerable populations of women. Thus, there is also a need for responses tailored to local contexts and specific forms of violence. Both types of government response are discussed in the sections that follow.

Rape and Domestic Violence

Governments can address domestic violence against women in several different areas of policy action, including legal reforms, emergency housing, shelters and crisis centers, training for service providers and professionals who help victims of violence, and public education initiatives. In the area of legal reform, attempts to address violence against women under the rubric of more general laws against violence or assault have generally been unsuccessful. Law enforcement officials have tended to see the sexual assault and beating of wives as a private affair or a male prerogative. Legal reform can improve the legal and criminal justice response to domestic violence. For example, language detailing that rape within marriage is a crime is often required before courts will even consider spousal rape a possibility (Weldon 2002; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999; See also Connors 1989; 1994).

Emergency housing and financial assistance are also important. As the National Research Council of the United States notes, “Housing, education or job training and acquisition, economic self-sufficiency, child care, safety and other issues need to be resolved before a woman can completely separate from an abusive partner on whom she has been emotionally or financially dependent” (Chalk and King 1998, 113; See also Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999).

In most places, victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are not adequately protected from further physical and emotional violations through the legal process or from retaliatory attacks by their original abusers. As noted, in those countries where custodial rape is a serious problem some women are vulnerable to a second violation from the very police who are supposed to protect them. Countries such as Canada and Israel have developed special training packages for police. Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, and India have established women’s police stations or special units of women police officers. Similarly, social workers, lawyers, judges, and others interacting with victims become more effective when they are more knowledgeable about the dynamics of violence against women. Training these service providers improves their response to women victims of violence (Weldon 2002, chapter 1; Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 26-38).

Governments can also initiate public education and awareness programs, including both broad-based media campaigns and workplace and school programs. National public education programs (such as those in Australia) appear to have some effect on the attitudes of both men and women towards wife battering. If effective, they may influence citizens to think that wife battering is unacceptable. Similarly, school violence prevention programs have successfully changed children’s and young adults’ attitudes toward the acceptability of violence (Chalk and King 1998; Weldon 2002).

Addressing Violence Against Women of Color

The limited services that now exist for women victims of violence tend to be modeled on the experiences and needs of more privileged women, such as women of the dominant racial, ethnic, or class group. For example, in the United States, women’s shelters tend to be located in white neighborhoods, making it more difficult for women of color to access them (Matthews 1993). Women of color often require types of assistance that white women need less frequently, including assistance in securing housing (Crenshaw 1994). They may also find it easier to access services provided in their own communities and/or native languages (Matthews 1993; Crenshaw 1994; Agnew 1998). Indeed, some women’s shelters make English proficiency a precondition for access, barring many non-Anglo women (Crenshaw 1994). Language barriers also obstruct the ability of health care providers, legal advocates, and other service providers to help women for whom English is not a first language (Richie and Kahuna 2000).

Women of color confront racist attitudes from shelters workers, police, health care providers, women’s movement activists, and others who assume that their victimization is a result of their membership in a “backward” or traditional cultural group (Richie and Kahuna 2000; Agnew 1998; Smith 2001). They also face sexism and resistance to acknowledging violence within their own communities (Crenshaw 1994; Richie and Kahuna 2000; Smith 2001). These conflicts have motivated women of color to establish their own organizations to address violence against women (Smith 2001).

Although most governments do not address the unique problems confronted by women of color, some governments are beginning to adopt policies that specifically seek to address the barriers that prevent women of color from accessing services provided by groups dominated by white women. These include bilingual hotlines; shelters in communities of color; trained interpreters for women in shelters, health care facilities, and criminal justice settings; legal advocacy regarding immigration; public information and outreach programs; and the like. Thus, examining whether governments adopt policies that are targeted to women of color is an important part of assessing government response to violence against women (Weldon 2006). No systematic cross-national studies of this question currently exist.

Female Genital Mutilation

In July 2003, experts gathered in Cairo for the Expert Consultation on Legal Tools to Prevent Female Genital Mutilation. At the meeting, experts developed recommendations for ensuring effective government responses to the practice, summarized in the Cairo Declaration for the Elimination of FGM (2003). This declaration recommends that governments adopt specific legislation addressing FGM to demonstrate an official opposition to FGM and to support girls and women’s human rights. This new legislation is best framed as part of an overall effort for gender equality and women’s and children’s human rights. The declaration stresses that such legislative measures must be preceded or accompanied by far-reaching and extensive outreach and education efforts aimed at changing perceptions and attitudes regarding FGM. Support and participation of government officials, religious leaders, and NGOs in anti-FGM campaigns is important for success. Men must be targets of outreach, as must be family members, including grandmothers, mothers-in-law, and so on. These campaigns should be long-term strategies, not one-time affairs. Ultimately, the law should criminalize FGM; licensed medical practitioners should be subject to the maximum available criminal penalties and the mildest penalties should be applied to parents (Rahman and Toubia 2002).

The Declaration also recommends that women and girls be empowered to access legal remedies specified by law to prevent FGM, giving women and girls who are victims or potential victims of FGM the right to bring a civil action to seek compensation from practitioners or to protect themselves from undergoing FGM. Resources, such as information on legal rights, legal assistance, and social services and support for girls who may face negative repercussions from their families and communities, should be provided. The age of a girl or woman or her consent to undergoing FGM should not, under any conditions, affect the criminality of the act.

Experts worry that in those countries where FGM is mainly practiced by minority communities (for example, migrants), FGM may provide a pretext for discrimination against and maltreatment of these populations. For this reason, the Cairo Declaration specifically warns that the adoption of laws against FGM should not be used by governments to undermine the full enjoyment of human rights by these minorities. In such contexts, it is particularly important that criminal legislation be part of a broader strategy to provide resources to support community needs and to promote the health and human rights of community members. Members of minority communities, particularly activists working to stop the practice, should be consulted and their views taken into account before adoption and enforcement of the law. In some cases, it may be appropriate for legislation targeting FGM to make reference to constitutional protections of minority rights.


Anti-trafficking advocates emphasize the connections between prostitution and trafficking. While opposing the legalization of prostitution, they also stress the importance of ensuring that victims are protected, rehabilitated, and offered a way out of prostitution, without being punished for being trafficked (U.S. Department of State 2007; CATW 2008; Ekberg 2004). As one scholar notes:

… the purpose of the recruitment, transport, sale, or purchase of women and girls by traffickers, pimps, and members of organized crime groups within countries or across national borders is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, to sell these female human beings into the prostitution industry. Accordingly, it is argued that trafficking in human beings for sexual purposes will never be eliminated unless the international community also takes a vigorous stand and puts in place concrete measures against prostitution and sexual exploitation. (Ekberg 2004, 1190).

Advocates offer the example of a Swedish law, specifically the Law That Prohibits the Purchase of Sexual Services (which came into force on January 1, 1999) as a model policy (Ekberg 2004; CATW 2004). The law focuses on reducing demand by punishing those who buy sex; the law is worded in gender-neutral terms, although most of the time it is men sexually exploiting women and children. The law was part of a broader effort to legislate against violence against women (kvinnofrid) (Ekberg 2004, 1191). The law is supported by complementary policies raising awareness and educating the public about trafficking and prostitution, as well as by victim support policies. The aim of this constellation of policies is to establish “a zero tolerance policy for prostitution and trafficking in human beings” (Ekberg 2004, 1187). Such a policy makes it more difficult to traffic human beings, and so less lucrative, and thereby decreases the incentives for trafficking. Indeed, it is estimated that the number of women involved in street prostitution has decreased by at least 30 percent, and perhaps as much as 50 percent, and the presence of foreign women among such prostitutes is now negligible. Indeed, although Sweden has nearly twice as many inhabitants as Denmark, it is estimated that there are about 10 times as many street prostitutes in Denmark, where there is no law banning the sale of sexual services. Since enforcement has been applied equally to massage parlors and the like, it is unlikely that the sex trade has merely moved indoors; nor does it appear that there is any compensating change in the number of Swedish women prostituted on the internet (Ekberg 2004, 1193-1194).

What Do Governments Do? Policy Responsiveness to Violence Against Women Worldwide

Addressing violence against women in all its forms, then, is a major challenge for public policy decision makers in democratic countries. Some governments have been more proactive than others in adopting policies over the past three decades. In 1974, most democratic governments had not taken any nationwide action to address violence against women (Weldon 2002, 31). Only the national government of Canada had undertaken any reforms to address rape or domestic violence. Of all the countries of the world, only the Central African Republic (1966) and Guinea (1965) had addressed FGM by 1974, and Sweden and the United Kingdom were the first of the industrialized countries to adopt measures countering FGM, adopting the first laws in 1982 and 1985, respectively (CRR 2007). Two decades later, nearly all continuously democratic governments had undertaken some action to address violence against women, typically adopting two or three of the types of policies aimed at addressing rape and domestic violence. Canada, Australia, and the United States had adopted the most comprehensive policies in 1994 (Weldon 2002, 31).

The national governments of Canada and Australia were also among the earliest to address violence against women, having adopted many policy measures in the mid-1980s; many other governments, such as those in Ireland and Austria, only began to deal with these issues in the 1990s. The governments of France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom were also early to enact reforms, but government response in these countries stalled after the early 1980s. Although the United States was one of the first national governments to respond to this problem, beginning in 1978, no further policy development took place at a national level until 1994. At the other end of the spectrum, four stable, democratic countries—Botswana, Italy, Nauru, and Venezuela—still had not adopted even a single policy measure to address violence against women by 1994. Five other countries—Greece, Jamaica, Japan, Mauritius, and Papua New Guinea—failed to adopt initiatives in more than one policy area to address violence against women (Weldon 2002, 31).

In the mid to late 1990s, the United Nations conferences on human rights, on population and development, and on women pushed issues of violence against women to the forefront of many countries’ policy agendas, accelerating policy response in countries such as Sweden (Weldon 2006; Joachim 1999). Indeed, most legislative measures to address FGM were adopted after 1994 in both industrialized and developing nations (CRR 2007). By 2005, many more industrialized and developing countries had adopted legal measures to address rape, domestic violence, FGM, and trafficking (Heise, Ellsberg, and Gottemoeller 1999, 32-37). As of 2006, 15 African nations and 12 industrialized nations have adopted laws addressing FGM, including measures criminalizing FGM, education and outreach programs, and administrative regulations to prevent the practice. Prosecutions or arrests in cases involving FGM have been reported in several African countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, providing some indication that these laws are being enforced. One country—France—has relied on existing criminal legislation to prosecute both practitioners of FGM and parents procuring the service for their daughters (CRR 2007).

Of these four types of violence, trafficking appears to be the issue addressed most recently by law and policy. The model Swedish Law described earlier was passed in response to women’s movement demands in 1998 (Ekberg 2004, 1191); the United States began responding to trafficking with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-386), but expanded its response to the problem with new laws in 2003 and 2005. With the Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 (H.R. 2620), the United States adopted the policy of threatening sanctions against nations not following international standards for responding to human trafficking. These measures also establish administrative mechanisms for gathering data and coordinating government action on trafficking (U.S. Department of State 2007). Recently, measures addressing trafficking have also been passed in Panama and the Philippines (U.S. Department of State 2007, Congress of the Philippines 2003), as well as in many Eastern European nations, such as Ukraine. International expert groups were formally convened by the European Union only in 2003, although such meetings had been held on rape and domestic violence much earlier (European Commission n.d.; Weldon 2006). So government response to trafficking is still relatively new.

Why do some governments respond earlier and more comprehensively to violence against women? Extant research suggests that a strong, independent women’s movement is critical for putting violence against women on the public agenda. But many factors can frustrate efforts by the women’s movement to obtain comprehensive, well-designed policies. Allies inside government, especially in the form of a well-resourced and well-positioned women’s bureau or commission, can make the difference between a partial, late, or spotty response to violence and a more comprehensive, coordinated, and timely government response. Where women’s movements can draw on and partner with government agencies promoting the status of women, a better government policy on violence against women is likely (Weldon 2002, chapter 3).