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Violence Against Women

In September 2000, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that across the world, one in three women had been physically assaulted or abused in some way, typically by someone she knew, such as her husband or another male member of her family. In response, governments publicly condemned violence against women and committed to show political will and provide financial resources for its eradication, but their performance, in practice, failed miserably to meet women's needs. Whether in Peru or Jordan, the U.S. or South Africa, or other states, men who beat or raped women in their homes or in state custody, or who murdered female family members to restore "family honor," or sexually assaulted female students, all too often were able to do so with impunity. Too often, states' response to this violence was perfunctory and short-sighted. At times officials did not bother to respond at all.

Governments' commitment to stopping violence against women was tested and failed in the area of violence against women in the family. Pakistan was a case in point. There, successive civilian and military-led governments alike have treated violence against women as a low priority. Under the former civilian government, the officially-appointed Commission of Inquiry for Women reported in 1997 that domestic violence was one of the country's most pervasive human rights problems. Yet, the government totally ignored the commission's findings and recommendations. Pakistan's military leaders also performed poorly. After seizing power in October 1999, the new military government condemned violence against women and identified it as a national problem. In March 2000, Pakistan's Human Rights Commission reported that, on average, at least two women were burned every day in domestic violence incidents. However, rather than explicitly criminalize all forms of family violence against women or provide clear guidelines for police intervention and protection in such cases, in August 2000, Pakistan's military government formed yet another commission to make yet more recommendations. Moreover, like the civilian administration before it, the military government resisted removing violence against women in the family from its perch of impunity. At Beijing + 5, Pakistan, along with several other obstructionist countries, lobbied successfully to delete language that identified customary laws and practices -such as early marriages, polygamy, female genital mutilation (FGM), and honor killings as violations of women's human rights-from the final conference document that outlined future initiatives and actions to implement the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action.

As with Pakistan, the Jordanian government's commitment to fighting violence against women stopped at women's front doors. From January to late-October, at least thirteen women were killed in Jordan in the name of "family honor." Nevertheless, for a second time (the first vote was in November 1999) in January 2000, the lower house of parliament, with a sweeping majority, refused to pass legislation to revoke article 340 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which effectively prescribes minimal punishment for males who kill female family members if they can demonstrate that their motivation was to uphold or restore family honor. Lower house parliamentarians sought to justify their veto of the proposed reform by asserting that they were protecting Jordan's traditional and moral values against Western influences. However, as it had previously done in October 1999, in February 2000 the parliament's upper house voted to approve the repeal of article 340, and a joint session of the two houses was awaited to finally decide the issue. Despite such setbacks on the parliamentary front, Jordanian civil society activists continued their nation-wide campaign to amend article 340. Between August and November 1999, the Jordanian National Committee to Eliminate the So-Called Crimes of Honor gathered over 15,000 signatures for a petition that called for abolition of laws that protect perpetrators of so-called honor crimes, and presented the petition to the speaker of the lower house of the parliament in November 1999. In 2000, the committee and other women's human rights activists continued to gather signatures, raise awareness on the issue, and make honor crimes a national concern.

In 1999, Russian police reported that, as of 1997, they had registered over four million men as potential abusers of members of their families. Their figures were based on recorded reports of prior abuse or threats. This startlingly high number of reports was received despite the existence of significant barriers which deterred women from reporting domestic violence. The Women's Alliance, a women's crisis center in Siberia, for example, reported that eighteen of the thirty-five women who called its hotline between May 1999 and May 2000 to report instances of violence against them, told counselors that police officers had refused to take a statement about their abuse. In six other cases, police had refused to respond to emergency calls from women being subjected to domestic violence. Official indifference to both domestic violence and sexual violence left women throughout Russia at risk and without recourse.

Yet, Russia did not pass legislation specifically criminalizing domestic violence and did not provide federal funding for crisis centers to assist their work. Despite the lack of such support, however, the Russian Association of Crisis Centers for Women, a nationwide alliance of nongovernmental crisis centers, pressed ahead to implement a public education campaign on violence against women. Television commercials and radio spots spread the anti-violence message throughout the country. Meanwhile, with a congressional mandate to do so, the U.S. government provided some aid to the crisis centers, making available U.S. $500,000.

Even in countries where domestic violence was explicitly illegal, women's lives remained in jeopardy. In Peru, one local women's rights group, DEMUS, estimated that nine out of ten Peruvian women were subjected to some kind of abuse in their intimate relationships. Nonetheless, the Peruvian Congress failed to reform its family violence legislation in a way that would afford women the greatest level of protection. Following a consultative process that some local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) characterized as more promotional than productive, Congress modified the Law for the Prevention of Family Violence in July 2000. The amended law has a significantly improved definition of domestic violence, which includes sexual violence, provides a more complete definition of psychological violence, and broadens the scope of the law's application to include intimate partners not living together at the time of the violence. However, in a move that activists warned could severely undermine the gains of the amended law, Congress left standing the requirement that women who report domestic violence undergo a mandatory conciliation session with their alleged abusers. In a memorandum to members of the congressional Commission on Women in March 2000, Human Rights Watch challenged this and other shortcomings of the law, arguing that conciliation sessions imposed inappropriate obligations on the victims, obstructed women's access to justice, and endangered women's lives.

In South Africa, women confronted violence in the street and in school. South African women's rights activists reported that the country suffered from one of the highest levels of violence against women in the world. Not even schools provided safe havens from violence. Human Rights Watch research in April 2000 found that male students and teachers sexually assaulted female students on a regular basis, but abusers were seldom apprehended and punished. There existed only few and inadequate mechanisms to refer these cases out of the school system for investigation and prosecution. Instead, school officials preferred to resolve such cases internally, with the result that girls who were assaulted had no access to justice and found themselves continuing to attend school with those who had raped or abused them, and who remained at liberty to inflict similar abuse on others.

Governments frequently did not afford women protection against violence and were reluctant to investigate and punish those responsible, even when their own agents were the alleged perpetrators. In some cases, they even sought to limit prisoners' right to seek redress for abuse. For example, in the United States, a major government study released in December 1999 found that the substantiation rate for allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by corrections officers averaged about 18 percent in the federal prison system and in the California and Texas state systems. However, in Michigan state, a law went into effect in March 2000 that excluded prisoners from the protections provided under the state civil rights act, which prohibits discrimination based on race and gender. Through this legislation, Michigan effectively eliminated the possibility that women prisoners could seek redress for sexual abuse in prison through lawsuits against the corrections department.

The same U.S. government study reported that the number of women incarcerated in state and federal prisons had climbed to approximately 85,000 by the start of 1999, an increase of more than 500 percent over 1980. The steady rise in the population of women prisoners, and NGO monitoring and reporting on violence against women in custody, sparked greater public awareness about custodial sexual violence and misconduct, and underscored the need to implement reforms to prevent and effectively respond to these abuses. However, adoption of laws was not enough, as California demonstrated. Human Rights Watch research showed that, although a California law went into effect in January 2000 that increased the criminal penalties for sexual misconduct against women in custody, California nevertheless failed to ensure that women could safely report these violations without risking retaliation. During an investigation in 2000, Human Rights Watch found that retaliation by prison guards was perhaps the most critical factor in women's reluctance to report abuse. Corrections personnel exercised enormous power over prisoners and had wide scope for retaliation. Women prisoners told Human Rights Watch that their cells were ransacked and personal items were damaged or taken after they reported abuse. Others reported being held in "protective" custody pending investigation of their allegation. Increased surveillance of inmates also meant that women had less privacy and were more likely to be the victims of prurient viewing by corrections officers, male and female, while they showered, undressed, or used the toilet.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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