Imagine, you want to run away and the only burning thought you have in your brain is to escape. No, you are not in jail or prison, but you feel like you are. The door opens and he punches you. He put his hands around your neck so tightly you cannot breathe or scream. You are suffocating. Blood is spurting from your nose, oozing from your ears. You are trying not to black out because your kids are in another room. You are trying to make as little noise as possible. And you are feeling guilty… guilty that you are not good enough, you are a burden to him, the guilt that he planted in you. The sequence of attack comes in flashes. Tomorrow he will apologize. He will promise that it will never happen again. He will bring you a gift. Maybe flowers. It will be tomorrow… but today you are dying.
Worldwide, domestic violence happens every nine seconds and has epidemic proportions. As you read this sentence, one person in the world suffers abuse from a current or former spouse or domestic partner. Freedom from violence is a fundamental human right. International law and policy on domestic violence has developed through United Nations treaties, conferences, customary international law, regional agreements, and domestic law. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Violence Against Women Act are all related to fight domestic violence.
This article will address the international community’s response to domestic violence as a human rights issue. Following this introduction, part II will discuss the United Nations’ response to domestic violence. Part III will discuss some of the actions sovereign states have taken to address domestic violence. Part IV will address some of the misconceptions surrounding domestic violence. Part V will conclude.
The United Nations’ Response to Domestic Violence
Since its creation in 1945, the United Nations have taken many steps to address domestic violence through the adoption of conventions and treaties. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) as the foundation of international human rights law and inspiration in achieving universal recognition that every person is free and equal in rights and dignity and free from domestic violence. The United Nations General Assembly later adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) in 1966 which provided the framework to preserve and protect civil and political rights, including the right to life and the right to equality. In 1984, the United Nations General Assembly established violence against women as “gender-based acts of torture within the scope” of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”). In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly directly addressed domestic violence in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (“DEVAW”). DEVAW defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty . . . occurring in . . . private life.” Despite the efforts of the United Nations, domestic violence still continues to plague societies all over the world. World Health Organization cites that about thirty-five percent of women worldwide were victims of either physical or sexual domestic violence in their lifetime. Thirty-eight percent of those women were killed by their abusers.
In some countries, domestic violence is deeply rooted in gender-based discrimination and gender inequality. For example, Pakistani’s authorities still continue to allow and rationalize the domestic violence. In February of 2016, Punjab, Pakistani’s most populated province, passed the Women’s Protection Act which aimed to support and protect women from domestic violence; however, it was met with local resistance and even declared un-Islamic by the country’s government advisory. In the rest of the country, women rights are still violated with impunity because of deeply-rooted misogyny of disempowerment of women in Pakistani society. Indeed, fifty-three percent of women in Pakistan “seemed permissive of domestic violence, particularly at the hands of a husband.” Similarly, in Russia, forty percent of all violent crimes are domestic violence and more than 14,000 of women per year die from it. In an attempt to solve the issue, State Duma amended Russian criminal code to declare domestic violence a criminal offence in July of 2016. Yet, a deputy in the State Duma and head of the committee on family, women, and children met the amendment with resistance and introduced a new bill to decriminalize a violence within families.
Domestic violence is also an issue within the United States. In the United States, one in three women and one in four men has been a victim of physical violence by their intimate partner. Nearly twenty people per minute become victims of domestic violence in the United States. Every three seconds one person is assaulted or beaten by their intimate partner, three women per day die from that domestic abuse in the United States. Indeed, during eleven-year time frame, the number of women who were killed by their intimate partner in United States added up to nearly double of the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same time frame. The FBI even estimates that domestic violence “will occur during the course of two-thirds of all marriages.”
United Nations Response to Cultural Norms
The United Nations have also attempted to address the cultural norms that fuel domestic violence in many countries. In 1966, the General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR”). Article 3 of the ICESCR specifically protects equal right of people to the enjoyment of social, economic, and cultural rights. The ICESCR attempts to address domestic violence by protecting equal right of people to cultural rights. Yet cultural norms fuels domestic violence in many countries and in a disturbing way. For instance, commercializing and arranging marriages lock victims into abusive marriages. In Uganda, and many other African nations, a “bride price” – goats, cows, banana wine, dresses, meat, vegetables, paraffin, and cash that the fiancée’s family receives from the groom – contributes to husbands viewing their wives as a property or a financial asset. Moreover, victims rarely report abuse because of fear and even when they ask for help, they often do not receive it. As many as eighty-four percent of Ugandans believe that the bride price and domestic violence have a direct connection. In June of 2014, Eastern Ugandan district of Butaleja passed a law making it a crime to demand bride price, yet across the nation the bride price is still a cultural requirement, a custom that is deeply entrenched in people’s minds.
India has the opposite custom, a “dowry,” – cash, jewelry, goods, cars, or property that the fiancée’s family gives to the groom. Like the bride price, the dowry has a direct connection to domestic violence. After the wedding, the husbands, who received the dowry, perceive their wives as “disposable,” “exploitable,” many of the wives experience emotional, physical, financial, and sexual abuse, they are forced to become domestic servants for their in-laws, as a punishment for insufficient dowry, imprisoned in their new “family” home. Even though Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 prohibits dowry, many Indian families still practice dowry as their cultural tradition, believing that otherwise their daughters would remain unmarried. As Chamathya Fernando, an activist against gender-based violence, said: “People sometimes try to put the blame on culture… or use culture as an excuse . . . but I don’t think any culture would say they harass women . . . , so I think it’s the culture of silence, the culture of ignorance and impunity.
How Domestic Violence is Addressed In Sovereign States
Countries have varied in the way domestic violence is addressed based on cultural, religious, and traditional views. For example, in Pakistan, a country ruled by misogynistic views, the Council of Islamic Ideology, in 2016, proposed a 163-point legislation that stated, “a husband may, when needed, lightly beat his wife.” The head of the Council of Islamic Ideology explained that “light beating” is only a routine, a guide on “how to bring a spouse back to ‘compliance.’” Similar in Russia, though the criminal code declares domestic violence a criminal offence, the government introduced a bill to decriminalize a violence within families.
In 1994, the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) in 1994 which creates a special route for some battered non-citizens to obtain immigration status without involvement of their abuser. However, in order to get immigration status under VAWA, the survivor of domestic violence must be a spouse of an abusive United States citizen or permanent resident and the abuse must have occurred during the marriage in the United States. Yet, despite VAWA being adopted over 22 years ago, most immigrants have little knowledge of VAWA and those who live in domestic violence situation do not always have the courage to self-petition for legal status in the United States. Indeed, the abusers’ coercion over the victims’ immigration status is very convincing to the victims of domestic violence. Furthermore, applying for immigration status under VAWA is a time-consuming and often complex process.
Domestic violence often becomes a ground for discrimination in employment context, including denial of leave or other work arrangements to victims of domestic violence. Survivals of domestic violence need time to attend court, their legal and medical appointments, and counselling, they need time to organize their relocation to safe housing or make other safety arrangements. Nonetheless, it is very important for victims of domestic violence to remain in the workplace, especially during the time when they are leaving their abusers. The last thing the victims of domestic violence need when they are going through the toughest times of their lives is to also fight for recognition of their employment rights. Recognizing this problem, in 2015, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (“ACTU”) has lodged a claim with the Fair Work Commission for ten-days per year of paid leave for all Australian workers, including full-time, part-time, and even casual employees. After an employee exhausts this paid leave, ACTU proposal offers entitlement to a further two days of unpaid leave. This great initiative of the ACTU is a very important and promising social intervention; it sets up an example to other countries worldwide. Domestic violence leave entitlements would really help people experiencing domestic violence situation. Indeed, South Australia, Victoria, and Queensland started offering domestic and family violence leave after ACTU proposal. However, Australian employers met ACTU proposal with great resistance. On December of 2016, Council of Australian Governments (“COAG”) put on hold the initiation of ACTU on national employment standards for domestic violence leave. COAG decided to wait for a Fair Work Commission’s decision on the issue.
Law enforcement, medical professionals, and courts often perceive people who claim domestic violence as hysterical, overdramatic, sometimes even liars because the survivors keep changing their stories, keep defending their abusers. Police often fails to investigate the allegations of the victims, denying them the only protection they would be able to obtain. It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to recall attack in disjointed phrases. Survivors often cannot recall the sequence of events, whether they lost consciousness during the attack, and whether there was any evidence that can back up their accusations. Often the victims of domestic violence cannot back up their words by other witnesses due to specific nature of this crime. Indeed, isolating the victim from family and friends is a regular feature of domestic violence. Worldwide, abusers twist the victim’s accusations, spanning their spats, and making it seems like the victim had caused the problem or even that the victim was the abuser. In the United States, it is not uncommon for our legal system to arrest and charge the victim of domestic violence, mistakenly designating the victim as a perpetrator because the real perpetrator successfully manipulates the system and his victim.
It is heartbreaking to think that domestic violence is so common in a daily life of many people worldwide. Indeed, in Morocco, where domestic violence is not a crime, Moroccan state TV channel even translated a video tutorial on how to cover domestic violence bruises with makeup. It is speechless that someone created a video on how to cover the bruises and scars of domestic abuse.
Misconceptions About Domestic Violence
Many people, who have never experienced domestic violence on their own, often hold many misconceptions about victims of domestic violence. Thinking of a domestic violence victim, people usually “think of someone who’s poor, who’s uneducated, who doesn’t have resources.” Yet, while for some victims it may be true, for many others it is not the case. Domestic violence cuts across all geographic, racial, ethnic, and class lines, it includes wealthy and indigenous, older and young, people with disabilities, and LGBT members. People also usually think that only women can be a victim of domestic violence. Yet domestic violence happens to everyone, regardless of gender, and men too often become victims of domestic violence. Nonetheless, statistics and authorities often overlook male victims. Actually, many men do not even admit that they are abused because of embarrassment, shame, and traditional views. As Shazia Qayum of Karma Nirvana, an organization which supports victims of honor based abuse and forced marriage, states: “Men choose to suffer in silence for the sake of respect.”
There are many reasons why someone stays in abusive relationships. It is too easy for someone who never experienced domestic violence to advise the victim to leave, to run away. Someone who never experienced domestic violence cannot judge people who choose to stay with abusers. The victims of domestic violence usually feel embarrassed about the abuse that happens to them, they are afraid to be blamed by others or not taken seriously, afraid that the abuse will get worse when their abuser founds out that the victim told someone about it. The victims are afraid of losing their children because their abusers will manipulate a family court system, afraid about their financial future and the future of their children. Many of the victims also live in constant and fearful denial of their situation, pretending to live in a happy home and even their neighbors usually say they look as normal family. Many of the victims also believe that their abusers will change. Some of the victims have religious reasons for staying in abusive relationships; some are afraid of social stigma. Some of the victims have immigration reasons, living in a mix of constant fear of their assailants and deportation if they report their abuser to the police, making them easy target of domestic violence epidemic.
Many say that educating people on domestic violence will minimize the damage. Yet the education is not all we need. We also need to reconsider our view about the victims of domestic violence, to eliminate our misconceptions, and not to judge. On one extreme end of domestic violence range are wealthy, educated victims in prosperous communities, who keep staying with their violent partners because of potent mix of social stigma, money, and power. “Golden handcuffs” – it’s how this type of domestic violence called in Australia. In fact, as another common feature of domestic violence, many abusers rob their victims of financial independence. In addition, many of wealthy victims are rightfully fearing for their lives because wealthy abusers often feel “above the law” and, unfortunately, very often these abusers “do get away with whatever they choose to do to their victims.” To these wealthy and educated victims education about their rights is not going to make a difference, they know their rights and they are making their “choice.” No one should judge them.
Even though domestic violence does not always leave its victims with visible scars, it changes the lives of its victims forever. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, domestic abuse is linked with a higher rate of suicidal behavior and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty to trust others, and low self-esteem. Domestic violence hunts its survivors even after they leave their abusive relationships.
Domestic violence is not the problem that will go away any time soon. This is an insidious problem, the problem that can affect your sister, your daughter, your son right now. This is the silent epidemic that needs all of us to act. Despite countless human’s rights victories and the tremendous efforts by variety of non-government organizations and lawyers, the issue of domestic violence still has an urgent need for legal representation of its survivors and help in addressing its multiple collateral issues. In many countries, there is also an urgent need to finally enact legislation that would protect domestic violence victims. The road ahead of us is a long one, but it worse every step if we can save one life, one tear of a victim of domestic violence.
Ilona Starchak is a graduated law student from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, the Staff Editor on the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy and the Denver Criminal Law Review, and a domestic violence survivor.