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Human rights and non-discrimination

Last edited: January 14, 2019

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Human rights are an overarching set of principles that frame the relationships and obligations between groups and individuals on the one hand, and government and other non-state actors, on the other hand.  Violence against women contravenes many basic human rights, including the right to life, liberty, bodily integrity, security, freedom of movement and dignity of the person.  Both the threat and experience of violence constrain women’s daily choices, limiting their options and affecting their behaviour, quality of life and decision-making.

State responsibilities to prevent and respond to violence against women are enshrined in a number of international human rights instruments, particularly the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Under CEDAW, states must promote women’s human rights and take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women, which includes ending violence against women.  Under the due diligence standard, states may also be responsible for private acts of violence if they fail to take adequate steps to prevent, investigate, punish or compensate for them.

A human rights-based approach should be at the heart of a coordinated response as it: 

“facilitates an integrated response to multifaceted […] problems, including addressing the social, political, legal and policy frameworks that determine the relationship and capacity gaps of rights-holders and duty-bearers.”                                                                                         (United Nations Population Fund, 2010a:19).     

Though the concept may seam abstract, in practice, it means intervening to prevent or respond to violence in a way that places the rights of the victim/survivor at the centre of the activity.  For example, women should make their own informed decisions related to what actions should be taken following an incident, such as reporting it to the police.  In another example, if a girl was facing harassment on her way to school, an appropriate response would be to stop the perpetrator and not ‘protect’ the girl by keeping her out of school, which violates her rights to freedom of mobility and to education.

Integrating human rights principles into a coordinated response means:

  • Ensuring  international human rights standards are reflected in legal responses to violence against women

  • Making shelter, legal assistance, medical care and psychosocial support universally available to victims/survivors of violence against women

  • Principles of support services should be based on empowering women and girls to make informed choices about accessing support and justice remedies

  • All professionals and services should treat victims/survivors of violence against women with dignity and respect for their bodily integrity, privacy and choice

  • Ensuring service provision prioritises the autonomy, confidentiality and safety of the victim/survivor.

Adapted from United Nations Population Fund (2006a) Human Rights-Based Programming: What It Is, New York: UNFPA, available in English.


The principle of non-discrimination is inherent in all human rights, and means the duty to ensure equity of access to rights and justice for all.  Gender inequality is part and parcel of systemic and pervasive discrimination against women and girls that continues in every country around the world.  This discrimination, with its roots in power imbalances and patriarchal attitudes and practices, can be both direct and indirect, carried out by individuals, groups or the state itself.  While women can be considered to have equal rights to men in the eyes of the law, as enshrined in a country’s constitution for instance, in practice, discrimination against women can persist, ultimately denying women their equal rights.

When discrimination and gender inequality intersect with other inequalities, including those based on ethnicity, class, caste, poverty level, disability, age and sexuality, they, in combination, can create increased likelihood of exposure to violence against women and/or impede women’s ability to obtain assistance and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of victimisation (Manjoo, 2011; Muñoz Cabrera, 2010).  Women and girls who are known to be especially vulnerable to violence and/or who are marginalised, including those in prostitution or with disabilities, will require specialized approaches to combat discrimination on various levels.  A coordinated response must address the intersections of inequalities in women’s lives if the principle of non-discrimination is to be upheld (Coy, Lovett & Kelly, 2008).

People with disabilities experience domestic and sexual violence at alarming rates.  Yet they are less likely to receive the services, supports, and justice that their counterparts without disabilities receive.  Women with disabilities who have experienced violence or sexual assault need a unique combination of services, each of which typically operate in an agency that does not work with the others available.  Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Victimization and Safety in the United States created a roadmap for bringing together agencies at the intersection of violence and disability so that they can create a new and effective approach to safety, healing and accessibility to services for victims/survivors.

Integrating non-discrimination principles into a coordinated response means:

  • Assessing whether current laws or policies result in gender discrimination or inequality.

  • Advocating for national data collection to be disaggregated by sex, race, age, ethnicity, marital status, socio-economic status and urban/rural residence, among other contextually relevant variables, so that marginalised or excluded groups can be identified and their situation assessed.

  • Enabling the participation of survivors from marginalised populations in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes to address violence against women.

  • Ensuring local services take reasonable steps to maximise access in terms of language, cultural understanding, disability, financial means and location.