The New Humanitarian | Q&A: How can a global treaty to end violence against women succeed?


As COVID-19 enters a third year, so does the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women. Such violence is not new of course, but it has been fostered by lockdowns and economic blows dealt by the coronavirus.

The rise in violence since early 2020 has increased awareness and stirred interest in legal and other frameworks aimed at protecting women. One is a new global initiative called the Every Woman Treaty: A draft accord prepared by a coalition of women’s rights activists and organisations from 128 countries. 

The document had been in the works for eight years, Lisa Shannon, a co-founder of the group, told The New Humanitarian shortly after the draft treaty was made public in November. The goal is consideration, formal deliberation, and eventual ratification by UN member states, with the aim of preventing and ending violence against women. That would be accomplished by using the treaty to set clear prevention and reporting practices, and to increase training and funding mechanisms.

“Ultimately, nations will negotiate the final text,” Shannon explained, noting that member states will need to finalise the draft, which is based on research and discussions with activists, survivors, academics, human rights attorneys, government officials, policymakers, and others, and which consolidates definitions and guidelines from existing conventions. The draft offers civil society’s “vision of what they would like” the treaty to be, Shannon added.

Women living in countries with domestic violence legislation are seven percent less likely to experience violence than those living in countries that have none, according to research by the World Bank, which notes that 1.4 billion women lack legal protection against domestic violence. While more than 150 countries have laws to fight domestic violence, and international treaties address some areas of violence against women, critics say the impact has been spotty at best.

“Women’s rights activists put our lives on the line every day fighting for the right to be free of violence, but we can’t do it alone,” said Najla Ayoubi, another Every Woman Treaty co-founder, and the first female judge in Afghanistan’s Parwan province. Ayoubi was forced to flee after her father and brother were assassinated. “Laws and policies work,” she added.

Throughout their lifetimes, one in three women are subjected to physical or sexual violence, the World Health Organization has reported, noting that the pandemic has increased exposure to potentially violent situations. In humanitarian situations, up to 70 percent of women are subject to such violence. 

“Eliminating violence against women is a human rights obligation of states,” Reem Alsalem, UN special rapporteur on violence against women, told The New Humanitarian. “Gender-based violence (GBV), including rape and sexual violence, are violations of the fundamental principles of international humanitarian and human rights law, so we need to get over this divide we have constructed in our perception… between GBV in conflict settings and GBV in normal settings.”

READ MORE: Gains and losses in the push to end violence against women

Recent policy shifts have offered hope to women in some countries. In Honduras – which has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America – its first female president-elect, Xiomara Castro, has promised to ensure respect for women’s rights. The legalisation of abortion in Mexico in 2021 may allow women to terminate unwanted births from rape.

But other nations have regressed on protection for GBV victims.

In Afghanistan, since the Taliban takeover in August, victims of domestic violence have had nowhere to turn after protection centres were closed, becoming even more economically dependent on male family members since they are now prohibited from working outside the home. 

Last March, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe charter protecting women against domestic violence. He said Turkey already had laws in place. Femicide has risen sharply in the country since the start of the pandemic. In November, for instance, a man wielding a samurai sword attacked a young woman in central Istanbul.

Recently, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Russia to pay 370,000 euros ($419,000) for failing to protect a woman whose husband had attacked her with an axe, cutting off both her hands. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that decriminalised domestic violence, allowing any abuser who caused bruising or bleeding to risk fines rather than jail time. The court ordered Russia to legally define domestic violence to deter future attacks.

The lack of legislation or clear government measures to assist victims may encourage existing cultures of violence. In Paraguay, where, like elsewhere in Latin America, toxic machismo meets restrictive abortion laws, Amnesty International reported that two girls aged between 10-14 years give birth each day. Some 80 percent of those births are a result of rape by a close relative or neighbour. Elsewhere, the recent killing of a 30-year-old Palestinian mother by her abusive husband in the occupied West Bank led to renewed calls for legislation protecting women from domestic violence.

Existing regional accords – such as the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, the Belém do Pará Convention in Latin America, and the so-called Maputo Protocol to the African Charter on Human Rights – still exclude the Middle East and Asia.

Global agreements – including the UN’s 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Labour Organization’s workplace treaty, signed in 2019 – contain sections relating to violence against women but stop short of codifying all forms of GBV.

Shannon spoke with The New Humanitarian about the next steps for the draft treaty, why the Global South must lead the call to action, and the importance of increased funding to combat violence against women and girls. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: Your coalition has called on the UN Human Rights Council to demand a global convention to end violence against women. Do you plan to present the draft treaty to UN bodies?

Lisa Shannon: Now that we have a first draft treaty, we have been deep in dialogue with potential league nations. Treaties generally come to be when a handful of nations decide to plant the flag and champion the cause. We met with 102 nations to discuss the treaty, but, with this first draft, the conversations have entered a different phase. We are very clear that civil society does not write treaties. Nations need to come to the table to negotiate treaties. This first draft treaty was based on eight years of global consultations with frontline activists and government officials, scholars. It is a very strong draft that puts us further down the line, and when nations sit down to negotiate a treaty, civil society has already had their input to carry forward a vision of what they would like it to be. Ultimately, nations will negotiate the final text.

The New Humanitarian: You said government officials were involved. Were they active government officials?

Shannon: We consulted with government officials. Active government officials have not been involved in the drafting of the first draft. The first draft involved a full sweep review of the current global framework. We also looked at recent negotiations that we thought reflect where the text could land. We looked specifically at the text of recommendation 35 from CEDAW and the ILO workplace violence treaty, because the latter was negotiated in 2019, the former in 2017. These are recent negotiations that nations could be enthusiastic about. 

One of the things that was striking to me was the very regional flavours in the feedback we received. The feedback from Europe looked very different from feedback from Africa or Asian nations. 

The New Humanitarian: How do you reconcile the different approaches?

Shannon: The call for the global treaty will need to come from the developing world and the Global South. The call for this treaty cannot originate in Europe. We fully expect Europe to be powerful voices in the treaty when negotiations open, but in order for it to be widely adopted, it would have to be celebrated around the world. It will be very important that there be diverse voices. We have been very methodical in identifying potential champions which may be leading the charge. The US and Canada, in particular, have been very clear that for the treaty to be successful, it cannot have a colonial flavour to it. There is a lot of interest in the Global South to lead that call.

The New Humanitarian: Where have you seen the greatest resistance to such a treaty? Does it come from where we would most expect it?

Shannon: Quite the opposite. The greatest resistance has been from European nations, which say that CEDAW should be interpreted and understood to include violence against women, and that to call for more would undermine CEDAW. The tricky part of this argument is that Europe already has a regional GBV convention (the Istanbul Convention), demonstrating that CEDAW was not enough in Europe. Yet some European nations maintain that CEDAW would be enough for the rest of the world. But it is not adequate. 

There is quite a big difference between the human rights climate under a Biden presidency versus a Trump presidency. There is a more open and engaged willingness to progress under the current US administration. It is a lovely window for us to move forward with strong language.

The New Humanitarian: What have the biggest challenges been in drawing up the draft?

Shannon: One of the pieces which I think will be most controversial is whether one can use the framework of gender-based violence versus violence against women and girls. The most progressive nations have articulated why one should pursue a dialogue by using the framework of gender-based violence. But what we have heard from African nations, Latin American nations – even Middle Eastern nations – is that everyone is against violence against women, and widespread support would be expected if the treaty focuses [just] on that. The minute the word gender enters a dialogue, some regions would get up and leave the room during international talks. This is important, because we feel strongly as a coalition and nations that the actual safety of women and girls, if we can secure that, far overrides the question of whether or not we use the term gender-based violence versus violence against women and girls. 

It is widely acknowledged now that there is a normative gap that needs to be filled. From our perspective, CEDAW’s general recommendation 35 on GBV has very strong language, and the idea that that could be developed into an additional protocol is something that we would actually back. 

However, three issues remain with that. Around the world, CEDAW’s discrimination framework is a problem, as it creates additional legal barriers – because violence against women is its own human rights violation. Russia, for instance, does not accept that violence against women can fall under CEDAW.

We are also very hopeful that a stand-alone treaty will catalyse a tenfold increase in global funding to end violence against women and girls. It is widely acknowledged that there has been a funding crisis within the human rights treaty system. It is very unlikely an additional protocol to CEDAW would generate the resources needed to implement the treaty. The draft treaty is an implementation-first treaty. It can be argued that, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everything is covered. But the nature of human rights law is to get more specific, and this is a natural extension of that.

The third component that would be a remit with the additional protocol of CEDAW is the monitoring system. Right now, it’s a narrative case-monitoring system, and that’s a problem – because nations are reporting against 20 different systems, and violence against women may only get a paragraph or two. That is not enough to address the most widespread human rights violation globally. We would like to see narrative-based reporting as well as metrics-based reporting – that could resemble the tobacco treaty. It would also borrow from the Paris [climate] Agreement’s ratcheting mechanism, so that nations may get started with what they can get done initially, before advancing from there, so that their progress is measured and celebrated.

The New Humanitarian: Lack of resources is often cited as an impediment to responding to gender-based violence. How key is finance?

Shannon: It’s fundamental. Nepal and Guatemala are nations which passed very strong laws. Clearly, there is always room for improvement, but, in Guatemala, a 2005 femicide law was passed and, in Nepal, multiple laws were passed and the government has been very committed. But implementation is lacking and, in many places, the police aren’t even aware of the law. When you drill down on where the gap is, it’s financial, it’s economic. Nepal is just stuck because there is not enough funding to scale basic proven intervention.

According to a study by the Equality Institute, the total global investment in prevention of violence against women in recent years was only $408 million, or about 11 US cents for every woman. It’s horrifying. Increasing that to address the most widespread human rights violation in the world is just basic dollars and cents, especially when it is costing $4.7 trillion a year, or 5.5 percent of the global economy. It makes no sense that we aren’t spending that money. 

The New Humanitarian: What is keeping this from happening?

Shannon: Lack of priority, full stop.


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