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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women holds expert panel discussion on gender-based violence against women

GENEVA (14 November 2017) - The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon held an expert panel discussion on General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women.

The panelists were Hina Jilani, Member of the Elders; Shilan Shah-Davis, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of West of England; Anthony Keedi, Masculinities Technical Adviser at the ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality; Carmen Barrosso, Co-Chair of the Independent Accountability Panel at Every Woman Every Child; Jane Connors, United Nations Victims’ Rights Advocate; and Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.  The panel moderator was Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In her opening remarks, Dalia Leinarte, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, reminded that in the course of its sixty-seventh session, the Committee had adopted General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, which updated General Recommendation No. 19, which had been adopted in 1992 and which constituted a historical step by explicitly regarding violence against women as a form and manifestation of gender-based discrimination against women, used to subordinate and oppress them.

Kate Gilmore, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that gender-based violence was one of the gravest and most reprehensive, yet most enduring, forms of violence.  There should be no need for the United Nations to issue to its staff a communication that there should be no violence against women.  How could there be such a resilience to such a universally rejected phenomenon?  

Feride Acar, Chair of the Committee’s Working Group on General Recommendation No. 35, explained that General Recommendation No. 35 was a comprehensive document that defined the obligations of States parties at the legislative, executive and judicial levels to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence against women.  It also elaborated States’ due diligence obligations to protect victims, and it provided specific recommendations to guide States in their policies.

Hina Jilani, Member of the Elders, said that the Committee had reinforced the commitment and determination that women had, noting that women should not be apologetic in demanding not to be attacked and not to fear violence.  The Committee was doing the work that sometimes domestic courts failed to do.

Shilan Shah-Davis, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of West England, reminded that conflicts occurred every day and that women fought all kinds of conflicts every day.  The violence that women faced in everyday life had a very distinct impact on the violence that they encountered in armed conflicts.

Anthony Keedi, Masculinities Technical Adviser at the ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality, underlined that patriarchy and the binary norms that it imposed on societies were not natural.  Patriarchy was a hierarchy whose values of dominance created a system that was killing itself and humanity.  Young boys needed to know that being violent was not the only way to be a man.

Carmen Barrosso, Co-Chair of the Independent Accountability Panel at Every Woman Every Child, noted that General Recommendation No. 35 was a very important tool to fight impunity for gender-based violence against women.  The expansion of the understanding of violence against women was fundamental, as well as the fostering of non-violent masculinity roles.  Gender education started in early childhood and it was fundamental for changing current norms.

Jane Connors, United Nations Victims’ Rights Advocate, observed that gender-based violence against women was perpetuated through negative stereotypes against women, social norms regarding masculinity, and the need to assert male power and punish unacceptable behaviour.  Thus, gender-based violence against women was considered as a private matter and normal.

Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said that despite a political will to speak out against violence against women, as well as increased media attention, set-backs to women’s rights included the normalization and acceptance of violence against women, and attacks on the concept of gender equality. 

In the ensuing discussion, speakers regretted that despite the rejection of States and societies of gender-based violence, it continued to prevail.  They drew attention to the vulnerability of internally displaced women to violence due to extremism and militarization, and of lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex women, as well as the under-resourced national institutions on women’s rights.  They emphasised the importance of working together arm in arm to end gender-based violence against women, and asked the panellists to elaborate on ways to strengthen global cooperation in that respect. 

Speaking were: Mexico, Women’s Regional Network for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Israel, United Kingdom, International Lesbian, Gay, Trans and Intersex Association, France, Council of Europe, Nepal, Austria, International Development Law Organization, and United Nations Population Fund.  Sarah McMains, an academic activist, also took the floor.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will next meet in public on Friday, 17 November, in the afternoon to close its sixty-eighth session.

Opening Remarks

DALIA LEINARTE, Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, welcomed the panellists and reminded that in the course of its sixty-seventh session, the Committee had adopted General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, which updated General Recommendation No. 19, which had been adopted in 1992 and which constituted a historical step by explicitly regarding violence against women as a form and manifestation of gender-based discrimination against women, used to subordinate and oppress them.  Since the adoption of that general recommendation, States had increasingly recognized the prohibition of violence against women as forming part of the Convention, regularly reporting to the Committee on their efforts to prevent and eradicate its occurrence.  The panel discussion would revolve around how the new instrument could be used regionally and internationally to accelerate the prevention and eradication of gender-based violence against women, and in particular which shifts were needed by States in that regard.

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that gender-based violence was one of the gravest and most reprehensive, yet most enduring, forms of violence.  There should be no need for the United Nations to issue to its staff a communication that there should be no violence against women.  How could there be such resilience to such a universally rejected phenomenon?  The panel was gathered to celebrate the remarkable work of the Committee.  General Recommendation No.35 reminded of the violation of the physical and psychological integrity of women. 

FERIDE ACAR, Chair of the Committee’s Working Group on General Recommendation No. 35, reminded that during its sixtieth session, the Committee had decided to produce a new General Recommendation to update its General Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women, which had been adopted in 1992.  On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the adoption of that earlier document, the Committee was proud to launch its General Recommendation No. 35 which updated and complemented General Recommendation No. 19, while remaining loyal to the basic principles elaborated in that seminal work.  The new General Recommendation built on the former’s principles and it carried its fundamental premise further, taking on board the progress that had been achieved since 1992.  It aimed to respond to the developments in that area that had taken place under the roof of the United Nations and beyond. 

In the past 25 years, significant progress had been made in addressing violence against women worldwide.  Legally binding regional treaties on violence against women, such as the Belem de Para Convention, the Maputo Protocol and the Istanbul Protocol, had come to life and many States had designed and adopted specific laws, policies, institutions and services to tackle that phenomenon.  Regrettably, gender-based violence persisted with high levels of impunity all over the world.  It continued to be committed in both the private and public spheres, including cyberspace, and it transcended international borders.  General Recommendation No. 35 was a comprehensive document that defined the obligations of States parties at the legislative, executive and judicial levels to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence against women.  It also elaborated States’ due diligence obligations to protect victims, and it provided specific recommendations to guide States in their policies.  It concluded that opinio juris and State practice suggested that the prohibition of gender-based violence against women had evolved into a principle of customary international law.  General Recommendation No. 35 employed the term “gender-based violence against women” in order to underline that that form of violence constituted a socially constructed phenomenon, rather than an innate or natural occurrence or an individual problem.  It thus underlined that well-rounded, sufficiently resourced, comprehensive policy responses that went beyond prosecuting individual perpetrators and assisting individual victims were required to effectively address that problem. 

Gender-based violence against women affected women throughout their life cycle and it took multiple forms and occurred in all spaces and spheres of human interaction.  It perpetuated the subordinate position of women to men and was thus a significant barrier to the achievement of substantive equality of women and men, which was the raison d’être of the Committee.  General Recommendation No. 35 emphasised that it was important to dismantle the underlying causes of gender-based violence against women, which required the integration of gender equality into curricula at all levels of education, with a view to addressing stereotyped gender roles and promoting gender equality, non-violent masculinities, as well as scientifically accurate age-appropriate sexuality education. 

General Recommendation No. 35 reiterated that under certain circumstances, such as in cases of rape, domestic violence or harmful practices, gender-based violence against women may constitute a form of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  It also expanded the understanding of gender-based violence against women to include violations of women’s sexual and reproductive health rights.  Acts such as forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced pregnancy, criminalization of abortion, denial or delay of safe abortion and/or post-abortion care, forced continuation of pregnancy, and abuse and mistreatment of women and girls seeking sexual and reproductive health information, goods and services could constitute forms of gender-based violence against women.  General Recommendation No. 35 specifically referred to sexual assault, including rape, and it underlined that sexual violence was a crime against the right to personal security and physical, sexual and psychological integrity of the person.  It recalled that the definition of sexual crimes, such as the so-called marital, acquaintance or date rape, had to be based on the lack of free consent rather than the use or threat of force by the perpetrator and the victim’s resistance.  States parties would be held accountable if they failed to prevent and react to acts of omissions by non-State actors that resulted in gender-based violence against women.  General Recommendation No. 35 made it clear that it also applied to acts or omissions by private corporations that operated extraterritorially.  It called on States parties to repeal all legal provisions that discriminated against women, and it called attention to the particular vulnerability to gender-based violence of women who faced intersecting forms of discrimination, including migrant women, women with disabilities and lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or intersex women. 

Panel Discussion

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred to an increasing backlash against women’s rights, suggesting that certain forms of gender-based discrimination, including violence against women and girls, could be tolerated in the name of culture, religions, traditions or national interest.  How could that narrative be counter-argued and what was the value of General Recommendation No. 35 in that regard?  

HINA JILANI, Member of the Elders, said that the Committee had reinforced the commitment and determination that women had, noting that women should not be apologetic in demanding not to be attacked and not to fear violence.  The Committee was doing the work that sometimes domestic courts failed to do.  Ms. Jilani said she liked the tone of General Recommendation No. 35.  Speaking of the failure to understand that women were part of humanity, she noted that it was not religion or culture but a desire to hold on to power and control that was the basis of gender-based violence against women.  Women had to expose the underlying motivation for resisting social progress.  How could they explain in the twenty-first century a society that continued hurting women?  Those who resisted change resisted it not because of women but because they wanted to retain control over decision-making at the State level.  Victims had learned how to speak out because their movements had given them legitimacy.  Girls needed to be encouraged to participate in public debate.  The region of South-East Asia had the highest rate of child marriages.  Another problem was holding women in shelters against their consent.  Those traditional systems should be totally rejected by States and societies.

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, asked about the main remaining challenges and trends concerning gender-based violence against women and girls in conflict situations and humanitarian contexts. 

SHILAN SHAH-DAVIS, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of West England, said the question addressed to her combined two regimes: international humanitarian law and human rights.  It raised the issue of viewing conflicts.  Conflicts occurred every day and women fought all kinds of conflicts every day.  Conflict was one of the factors that exacerbated violence against women.  The violence that women faced in everyday life had a very distinct impact on the violence they encountered in armed conflicts.  It was only recently that violence against women in armed conflict had been brought to international attention.  Violence against women was seen as merely a by-product of war, as an inevitable aspect of war.  In conflict, roles were assigned to men and women.  Women and girls had different experiences of war because of gender constructions and gendered discriminatory practices.  Ms. Shah-Davis wondered whether General Recommendation No. 35 was correct that women’s experiences in conflict should not be distinguished from their experiences in everyday life.  For a long time, the law and policy was part of the Security Council’s ethos of sexual violence as a form of war tactic.  Certain women who experienced violence in war conflict became marginalized.  Further research needed to be done on changing status, roles and relations of women and girls as a result of armed conflicts.

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, asked about experiences and perspectives on masculinities. 

ANTHONY KEEDI, Masculinities Technical Adviser at the ABAAD Resource Centre for Gender Equality, underlined the prevention aspect, noting that patriarchy was not natural.  Patriarchy and the binary norms that it imposed on societies were not natural.  They caused women and men to search differences between them, rather than similarities.  Patriarchy was a hierarchy whose values of dominance created a system that was killing itself and humanity.  Patriarchy was a cancer.  Impunity for human rights violations, and especially gender-based violence against women, created a perfect environment for the growth of that cancer.  Violence against women and sexual harassment against women was considered normal in patriarchy.  But there was nothing normal about a girl or woman being raped.  Victim blaming was fed to boys from a very young age.  Traditional cultural excuses rejected women’s rights as Westernization.   Girls needed to be placed in fields that were taken away from them and to feel safe in reporting sexual harassment and violence.  Young boys needed to know that being violent was not the only way to be a man.  Young boys needed to be reached through education and to question the inundation of images of the violent type of masculinity. 

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, asked whether General Recommendation No. 35 would be useful for the Independent Accountability Panel’s efforts to promote the accountability of Governments and other stakeholders for the health of women, children and adolescents.  Why was it important to recognize violations of sexual and reproductive health rights as gender-based violence against women and girls?

CARMEN BARROSSO, Co-Chair of the Independent Accountability Panel at Every Woman Every Child, noted that General Recommendation No. 35 was a very important tool in fighting impunity for gender-based violence against women.  The expansion of the understanding of violence against women was fundamental, as well as the fostering of non-violent masculinity roles.  Gender education started in early childhood and it was fundamental for changing current norms.  Without it the lack of accountability would not be overcome.  Adolescence was the most vulnerable age because adolescents had specific needs and circumstances.  Unfortunately, policies were often adolescent-blind.  The situation was changing, but not fast enough.  When translating General Recommendation No. 35 into policies, laws and budgets, they should not forget about adolescents because it was adolescent girls who became targets of harmful practices and violence.  Unsafe abortion was a major cause of death of adolescent girls.  The Sustainable Development Goals would not be achieved without policies adapted to the needs of adolescents.

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, asked about the main challenges for victims of gender-based violence against women and girls when seeking remedies.  Why was it important to address responsibilities of non-State actors and States’ extraterritorial obligations in that context?

JANE CONNORS, United Nations Victims’ Rights Advocate, explained that gender-based violence against women was perpetuated through negative stereotypes against women, social norms regarding masculinity, and the need to assert male power and punish unacceptable behaviour.  Thus, gender-based violence against women was considered as a private matter and normal.  Victims of such violence often had no way to report it because the system condoned or prevented it through discriminatory attitudes of lawyers and judges, and through legal provisions.  It was even more complex when gender-based violence against women occurred in a peace-keeping context.  The Committee’s guidance would assist those who advocated for victims of gender-based violence against women.  It was important to identify ways to prevent abuses, to foster joint action and cooperation across all system, inside and outside the United Nations, and to rely on the work of civil society.  The victim should be at the centre of all those endeavours. 

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, asked about the recent advancements and set-backs on laws and policies relevant to gender-based violence against women. 

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, pointed out that some advancements and positive trends were visible.  There was a political will to speak out against violence against women, as well as increased media attention.  There was a growing trend of exposing gender-based violence against women.  At the regional level, there were initiatives on gender-based violence against women in politics.  There was no global database on shelters for victims of gender-based violence against women.  Set-backs included the normalization and acceptance of violence against women, and attacks on the concept of gender equality. Many countries had laws on domestic violence and violence against women, but they were fragmented.  National action plans on violence against women were lists of good wishes.  Regional instruments were suffering because of the lack of universal ratification and they led to discriminatory legal provisions.  The timing of General Recommendation No. 35 was, thus, very important in compiling all regional efforts in combatting gender-based violence.  It could be used as a tool for a new generation of national action plans. 

Statements by Panel Participants

Mexico welcomed General Recommendation No. 35 which provided additional information about advances in eradicating violence against women.  It was deplorable that despite the rejection by States and societies of gender-based violence, it continued to prevail.  Discrimination and violence against women in their most visible forms, such as femicide and limitations on access to control of economic resources, were unacceptable. 

Women’s Regional Network for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan raised the issue of internally displaced women due to extremism and militarization in the region.  General Recommendation No. 35 should make a reference to those phenomena.  Another issue was under-resourced national institutions on women’s rights.

Israel welcomed the discussion and fully supported the crucial work performed by the Committee.  The pressing need to end violence against women could hardly be overstated.  In developing General Recommendation No. 35 the Committee had demonstrated its leadership in the question of gender-based violence against women.  Israel was currently examining the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. 

United Kingdom commended the work of the Committee in helping better understanding of gender-based violence against women, which remained a dangerous and pervasive phenomenon.  General Recommendation No. 35 equipped States with tools to tackle that form of violence.  The United Kingdom was working nationally to enhance the legal protection of women against violence, and internationally to end harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation.  Were there any practical steps recommended to States to better implement General Recommendation No. 35?

International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association stated that lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women faced particular forms of violence, such as “correctional” rape and forced gender operations.  It thus welcomed the reference of General Recommendation No. 35 to the particular vulnerability of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women to gender-based violence. 

France noted that often women’s rights were not protected for cultural reasons.  It welcomed the broad terminology used in General Recommendation No. 35 in reference to victims, as well as the mention of domestic violence.    

Sarah McMains, Academic Activist, asked about good approaches in the implementation of General Recommendation No. 35, reminding that transitional States often left out mention of marital rape and child marriages when writing their laws. 

Council of Europe emphasised the importance of working together arm in arm to end gender-based violence against women. 

Nepal welcomed the launch of General Recommendation No. 35, noting that the Government of Nepal was committed to ending child marriage by 2020 with a dedicated budget.  Violence against women was a great priority for the Government.

Austria welcomed General Recommendation No. 35 in light of fragmentation of the global framework to fight violence against women.  What other possibilities were available for stronger cooperation?

International Development Law Organization emphasised the importance of the rule of law to ensure protection against violence against women.  What were the Committee’s plans to disseminate General Recommendation No. 35 and what were the plans to link its work with inter-governmental organizations and civil society, and to advance South-South and North-South cooperation?

United Nations Population Fund welcomed the timely adoption of General Recommendation No. 35, adding that the United Nations Population Fund placed great importance on the fight against gender-based violence. 

Responses by Panellists

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, reminded that General Recommendation No. 35 suggested practical steps on gathering data and coordination mechanisms for all policies on violence against women.  As for development assistance, she noted that there was a fragmented approach to it, adding that the cooperation of the Special Rapporteur and the United Nations Trust Fund should be changed.  Ms. Simonovic called for a stronger cooperation between regional and global mechanisms.  

CARMEN BARROSSO, Co-Chair of the Independent Accountability Panel at Every Woman Every Child, noted that the gathering of evidence and data was fundamental for addressing impunity for gender-based violence against women.  It was essential that methods of data collection be standardized in order to compare countries.

SHILAN SHAH-DAVIS, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of West England, highlighted the importance of the implementation in the local context and the reconceptualization of victims of sexual violence in armed conflict.  Local concepts needed to be changed.

Concluding Remarks

FERIDE ACAR, Chair of the Committee’s Working Group on General Recommendation No. 35, thanked all the panellists and all those who contributed to the discussion, welcoming the inspiration that they had given to the Committee.  The Committee would think how to best use General Recommendation No. 35 and it would hold the participants to their word with respect to support. 

KATE GILMORE, Panel Moderator and Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, thanked the speakers for their participation, adding that they were part of a transformative and cross-cutting agenda, from which there was no escape and in which everyone was implicated.

In closing, the participants were shown an advocacy video on General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women.

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