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Introduction

Violence against women is “one of the most serious challenges of our time,” according to the United Nations Secretary-General’s in-depth study on violence against women (2006). Not only does violence against women and girls violate their fundamental human rights, it prevents women around the world from achieving their full potential. Full implementation of the human rights of women and girls is essential to the progress and prosperity of the world. States have a responsibility to promote and protect women’s rights and to insist upon the accountability of perpetrators. Effective legislation on violence against women and girls is vital in combating policies and practices throughout the world that perpetuate women’s subordinate status and undermine their human rights.  

The foundation of laws combating violence against women and girls are the principles of equality and non-discrimination. Most nations need look no further than their own constitution for these fundamental guarantees. For example, Albania’s Constitution guarantees equality before the law in Article 18, which states that “all are equal before the law” and that “[n]o one may be unjustly discriminated against for reasons such as gender.” These principles may also be addressed in many different areas of a state’s law. In Belarus, for example, the Marriage and Family code (in Russian), the Civil code (in Russian), the Labour code (in Russian), and the Housing Code (in Russian), all support the goal of gender equality. Many states have also passed Gender Equality Acts which support a woman’s right to be free from violence. For example, the Equality Act (2010) of United Kingdom addresses a wide variety of non-discrimination provisions. The Gender Equality Act (2003) of Bosnia and Herzegovina defines and prohibits gender-based violence.

Provisions on violence against women and girls can be found in the criminal, civil, and administrative codes of most nations. However, these provisions are often inadequate due to limitations in definitions, scope, remedy, and implementation. National laws on early marriage, for example, should define a child as anyone under the age of 18 years, but this is rarely the case. Domestic violence laws often are not broad enough in scope to include unmarried intimate partners, leaving many victims unprotected. Legal remedies for domestic violence may include mandatory warnings or mediation between parties, both of which often cause further harm to victims. Laws on sexual assault should place the burden on the accused to prove consent to the act, and should criminalize sexual assault within an intimate relationship. Finally, laws against female genital mutilation, while an important step, often provide distressing examples of inadequate implementation and enforcement.

States must address these problems through all means at their disposal. Addressing the inadequacies of national laws should focus on criminalization of the offence, immediate and long-term strategies to protect the rights of survivors, and enhancing prevention strategies. Effective legislative remedies require a deep understanding of the root cause of violence against women and a collaborative approach among law enforcement, judicial, social service, health care systems, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations focused on women’s rights and victim services.. All aspects of a state’s legislation must be addressed; in many nations certain legal provisions, such as immigration statutes or child protection provisions, not only do not protect women but may make women more vulnerable to violence. Laws must be examined to address consequences for women and girls, including unintended consequences. States must address all laws in multiple legal systems and ensure that when laws conflict priority is given to the protection from violence and offender accountability.

See: United Nations Handbook for legislation on violence against women (hereinafter UN Handbook) and United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Good practices in legislation on “harmful practices” against women (2009).

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UNWomen, Michelle Bachelet: International Day to End Violence Against Women, 19 November 2012