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Ending Violence Against Women: Achievements and Challenges 20 Years after Beijing

2 Apr 2015

Ending Violence Against Women: Achievements and Challenges 20 Years after Beijing
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

The Beijing Platform for Action called on it signatories to take action in twelve critical areas of concern, including violence against women (VAW). In the 20 years since, we have seen shifts in how the issue is understood, described and addressed. As in other aspects of work around equality for women and girls, we have made progress and we have also experienced setbacks; and in many ways, the feminist thinking that was so critical to the Beijing process has been both mainstreamed and marginalized. While the landscape has changed in various ways, violence against women, and against girls, has remained both pervasive and persistent. This paper offers a brief reflection on where we are today with respect to the commitments made in 1995, acknowledging that while there have been advances, we have yet to come close to achieving the vision that was so clearly articulated in Beijing.

Marai Larasi is the Executive Director of Imkaan, UK a national membership organization dedicated to challenging violence against black and ‘minority ethnic’ women and girls.

Ending violence against women: Achievements and challenges 20 years after Beijing

The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the adopted Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) undoubtedly represent landmarks in the struggle for equality for all women and girls. The commitments made by participating states and other actors, continue to influence the policy and programming landscape and, perhaps even more critically, have set standards, established a foundation for assessing progress around identified areas and provided an important advocacy tool. A significant section of the BPfA was dedicated to the issue of violence against women, capturing the complexity of the issues, across a range of contexts, while also providing specific measures to be taken to prevent and eliminate violence against women. Now in 2015, many of us—that is feminists—are engaged in various conversations and reflections about ‘our’ world ‘since Beijing’. This think piece offers a brief overview of some of the progress that has been made, and the challenges that have emerged or persisted, in the years since 1995.

Setting a context for addressing Violence Against Women and Girls

The United Nation has defined violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’ (UN 1993). Throughout this piece I use the term violence against women and girls (VAWG) as an acknowledgement of the gendered nature of the violence that is perpetrated against the girl child; and with the understanding that ‘violence against women and girls is rooted in historical and structural inequality in power relations between women and men, and persists in every country in the world as a pervasive violation of the enjoyment of human rights’ (UN Women 2013).

In practice VAWG is perpetrated in a range of different ways. Across our planet, women and girls are subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation, rape, torture, physical assault, psychological abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, financial abuse, harassment, violence perpetrated in the name of honour, stalking, and more. For many women and girls this violence is not an aberration, but is a part of their everyday experience of life; and while violence has historically been understood as occurring within the private or public spheres, women and girls are now negotiating new threats and experiences of violence within virtual spaces. In addition, the commodification of women’s and girls’ bodies has facilitated the emergence of whole industries in which men’s ‘right’ to pleasure and entertainment is routinely prioritized over women’s bodily integrity, safety, well-being and freedom.

Given the prevalence and seriousness of VAWG, it is reassuring that we have made progress in setting a context for addressing VAWG. This includes the development of regional instruments such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. While such instruments alone do not produce change, they provide an important foundation and framework from which national policy and programming may emerge.

New ways to raise attention

In recent years we have also seen unprecedented attention given to VAWG in media and political rhetoric. We have had high profile events and campaigns about issues such as sexual violence in conflict and female genital mutilation—with celebrity endorsements creating additional layers of public interest. While concerns have been expressed by many of us involved in advocacy for women’s rights about the motivations and approaches being utilized by politicians and media agencies, the focus on VAWG has generated dialogue and increased public awareness about the issues. In an ever-shifting landscape where now also social media platforms such as Twitter™ are used for debate and the spread of information, there are real opportunities to maintain on-going dialogue about VAWG.

While there is undoubtedly greater exposure of this issue, and one that at times has had the backing of key political figures, the role of the state with respect to VAWG remains an area of challenge. The BPfA calls on governments to ‘formulate and implement, at all appropriate levels, plans of action to eliminate violence against women’ (UN 1995: paragraph 124 (j)). We know that some progress has been made. We have seen the development of national action plans, policies and strategies to address VAWG (often focused on single areas such as domestic violence). However, their impact is sometimes unclear and even questionable. As UN Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, noted in her 2013 report to the Human Rights Council, ‘Despite numerous developments, violence against women remains endemic, and the lack of accountability for violations experienced by women is the rule rather than the exception in many countries’ (UN Human Rights Council, 2013). Ms. Manjoo goes on to express concerns about state treatment of VAWG at a number of levels including the failure to act with due diligence and a lack of acceptance of VAWG as a human rights issue. She suggests that there is a clear gap in the normative framework and that the possibility of holding states to account is reduced by the reliance on what is known as soft law. While this position is contested in different settings, the lack of state accountability remains a major concern and one that has yet to be addressed adequately.

Despite feminist mobilization, many women remain marginalized

The statistics around violence against women and girls present a bleak picture of where we are at this point. VAWG continues to be pervasive and costly both in terms of individual lives and the adverse effect on a country’s human, social and economic development. Even the most pragmatic among us would surely have hoped that our advances would have been greater since Beijing; and when we look at the data, or we hear that another woman or girl has been victimized and even killed, by yet another man, it is difficult to believe that we have achieved anything at all. Yet it is important not to lose sight of hard-won gains and we must acknowledge that since Beijing, thousands of women and girls have accessed services around their experiences of violence. The women-led, feminist, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and services that were so critical to the Beijing process remain at the forefront of this work both in terms of vital support to girls, women and their children; and being agitators for social change.

Htun and Weldon (2012) have found that ”autonomous mobilization of feminists” has been at the heart of the strategic, legislative and policy changes that have occurred nationally and trans-nationally. This mobilization should never be delinked from the services being provided (in many cases by volunteers) in women-led NGOs, for example counselling at rape crisis and other such centres, help-lines, housing and support in refuges and shelters, support groups, and community-based outreach and frontline advocacy services; given that many of the women involved in these services have helped to shape even our very analysis of VAWG. Yet women-led, independent VAWG services are often poorly funded. Indeed, while the mainstreaming of VAWG that has led to some improvement in state-led responses, such as policing, can be claimed as a success, in the post-Beijing era, it can also be argued that one of the consequences of this mainstreaming has been the side-lining of the very organizations that argued for it!

There are various dimensions to this marginalization. Organizations in ‘developing’ countries too often find themselves reliant on ‘Western’ donors.1 In an international context, where ‘Western’ governments are more likely to shine the light on human rights breaches within ‘developing’ countries, rather than on their own failures, these relationships, while necessary for the survival of vital services, often exist within a paradigm of inequality. A paradigm which fails to acknowledge the ravages of colonization and the sometimes devastating impacts of globalization.

In countries such as England, many women’s services have faced cuts in this period of economic downturn. However, these cuts have had a disproportionate impact on services led by black and minority ethnic (BME) women, and the narratives of indigenous and BME women in different geographical areas are worryingly similar. Even when there is an acknowledgement of the importance of women-led services, states and white / non-indigenous actors (including other women) often refuse to recognize the need for, benefits of, and the rights of indigenous and BME women to provide leadership around VAWG. This has impact not just on resources, but also restricts access to the public policy arena. Despite these intersectional failures, indigenous and BME-led women’s NGOs in geographical spaces such as Aotearoa (New Zealand), North America and the UK continue to offer innovative, culturally specific, effective VAWG interventions. So while Beijing’s recognition of the specific concerns of groups of women has not been matched with adequate action by states and even within the wider women’s movement, indigenous and BME women continue to affirm the right to define and lead interventions and healing initiatives within their communities.

Complex intersectional challenges

These intersectional challenges also occur in other ways. For example, the on-going institutional failure to make the links between VAWG and other areas where women and girls experience inequality, such as poverty, access to water, sanitation and hygiene, education and healthcare, can result in fragmented approaches which do not match the lived experiences of women and girls. A clear example of this fragmentation is the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs included a commitment to “promote gender equality and empower women”. This goal has been important in key areas such as addressing gender disparity in primary and secondary education, but as there is no VAWG indicator, there has been no requirement to consider how issues such as child marriage affect girls’ ability to participate in education (Larasi 2013b) . It is crucial that our reflections on Beijing therefore include strategies for bringing together different strands of expertise, not with a view to ‘dilute’ knowledge, but to strengthen collaborations and bring together ways of thinking which can deliver the best possible outcomes for all women and girls.
When we think about positive outcomes for women and girls, it is important that we think beyond crisis responses and support around recovery and healing. Despite its prevalence and persistence, VAWG is not inevitable. The BPfA also included actions, which focused on changing the context in which violence is perpetrated, that is preventing violence against women and girls before it happens (often referred to as primary prevention). In the years since Beijing, a number of primary prevention initiatives have emerged. Some programmes, such as Bell Bajao, call on men and boys to take a stand against domestic violence. Other programmes focus on areas such as media literacy, attitudinal change and community awareness and action, for example Raising Voices. Much of this work has been led by NGOs; indeed, a UN Women led Expert Group Meeting in 2012 on VAWG Prevention found that states have generally failed to prioritize prevention. While this is understandable in the context of limited resources, if states do not fulfil their obligations to prevent VAWG as outlined in the BPfA we will not achieve the required transformation.

The BPfA laid out a bold vision for achieving equality for women and girls. VAWG was a key part of that transformative plan. In 1995, we may not have imagined that that there would be challenges emerging from new technologies; we could not have known violent men would have Facebook™ and Twitter™ as weapons in their war against women and girls and that women could be stalked, harassed and victimized in the virtual space. We may not have predicted the deepening economic inequalities that are a part of all our societies. But we knew that we were facing major challenges around changing attitudes, norms and values. In the last twenty years, whether we have been aware of it or not, many of us have continued to strive to fulfil the Beijing vision and to address those challenges. In that time, thousands of women and girls have accessed support, safety and justice, and this should always be counted as our biggest achievement; but we also know that millions of women and girls continue to be at risk of harm. We must do more to prevent violence from happening in the first place. We must do more to protect women and girls who have been harmed. This will only be possible when the life of every girl and every woman in all our societies is deemed valuable and worthy of saving and celebrating.

1 The terms ‘Western’ and ‘the West’ are used as expressed by theorists such as Stuart Hall, that is as a historical and conceptual construct to denote industrialized, urbanized, capitalist, secular societies.

Larasi, Marai. 2013a. "A Fuss About Nothing?: Delivering Services to Black and Minority Ethnic Survivors of Gender Violence - The Role of the Specialist Black and Minority Ethnic Women’s Sector’" In Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children; edited by Yasmin Rehman, Liz Kelly, and Hannana Siddiqui. Farnham: Ashgate.

Larasi, Marai. 2013b. "Beyond the silos and the silences: Addressing violence against women and girls within the post 2015 agenda". Expert paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Structural and policy constraints in achieving the MDGs for women and girls, organized by UN Women in collaboration with ECLAC. October. EGM/MDG/EP.7.

Htun, Mala and S. Laurel Weldon. 2012. "The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence against Women in Global Perspective, 1975–2005." American Political Science Review 106, pp 548-569.

UN (United Nations). 1993. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. 85th plneary meeting of the UN General Assembly. UN Doc. No. A/RES/48/104. 20 December.

UN (United Nations), Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 27 October 1995.

UN Human Rights Council. 2013. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences on State responsibility for eliminating violence against women. 14 May. A/HRC/23/49.

UN Women. 2013. Agreed Conclusions of the 2013 Commission on the Status of Women on the Elimination and Prevention of all Forms of Violence against Women and Girls. UN Women: New York.

    Marai Larasi is the Executive Director of Imkaan, UK a national membership organization dedicated to challenging violence against black and ‘minority ethnic’ women and girls. She is also the joint chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), UK. She has worked in field of ending violence against women and girls (EVAWG) for over two decades, at both operational and strategic levels, and has developed and led cutting-edge services and programmes which address violence against marginalized women and girls.
    Marai’s activism, public policy work and overall practice are underpinned by a strong commitment to equality and social justice. She has produced papers for, and delivered presentations to, numerous and varied audiences in the UK and internationally, covering a range of themes including VAWG, women’s homelessness, and equality. She has contributed chapters to two books including ‘Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the Lives of Minority Women and Children’.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.