Organizing Against Violence

Transnational Organizations Put Violence against Women on the Map

Statistics on violence against women are shocking. According to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Most states today acknowledge their responsibility to protect women from violence, but it has not always been so. The recognition of violence against women is relatively new: It was first codified at the 1993 World Human Rights Conference in Vienna.

Groups of determined women's rights activists organized around this issue and made it an international priority. For more than a decade leading to Vienna they worked across borders to build a transnational advocacy network of like-minded organizations with a mission to protect women victims of gender-based violence.

AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana
Indonesian Muslim woman cover their mouths during a demonstration outside the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nov. 25, 2005. View Larger >

What Is a Transnational Advocacy Network?

A transnational advocacy network comprises hundreds of individuals and groups who join forces to advocate for a single cause. Together, they set a common agenda and create a campaign that spans national, cultural and religious borders.

"Their ability to generate information quickly and accurately, and deploy it effectively, is their most valuable currency; it is also central to their identity," report Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink in Activists Beyond Borders.

The mission of transnational advocacy networks is to change established attitudes and behaviors as well as to pressure governments and the international community to ratify new treaties and adopt new policies. Their success lies in the way they frame their issues. The issues they advocate need to be universal, urgent and emotionally charged.

History of the Violence against Women Network

Until the early 1980s, women's groups around the world struggled in isolation. In Peru, for example, activists organized to stop systematic rapes of female prisoners. The government not only ignored, but justified the abuses. "Are you a virgin? If you're not a virgin, why do you complain? This is normal," a Peruvian prosecutor told a victim of sexual molestation.

In India, activists faced their own problems: Indian women were victims of acid burnings and dowry murders.

In Eastern Europe, activists struggled to prevent sexual slavery and trafficking in women, while in Western Europe they were busy bringing attention to the issue of domestic violence. In Nigeria, women's groups worked to educate people about the harmful effects of female circumcision.

At first, their struggles seemed unrelated. But meeting and collaborating during many international conferences, in particular the U.N. World Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980, these dissimilar and geographically distant activist groups realized that their issues were interconnected: They were all advocating on behalf of victims of gender-based violence. Their local issues were all different faces of a pandemic global problem of violence against women.

The U.N. Recognizes Violence against Women

In the early 1980s, thousands of activist groups unified under the umbrella of "violence against women" and began building a powerful international network. As a united front, they had strength in numbers, resources, information and staff. Their goal: lobby the United Nations and pass binding international treaties to protect women from harm.

They debuted at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, and won a great victory for women. For the first time, violence against women was recognized internationally.

The Vienna Declaration recognized the "importance of working toward the elimination of violence against women in public and private life" and emphasized the urgency to eliminate "all forms of harassment, exploitation and trafficking in women."

That same year, the U.N. General Assembly passed the groundbreaking, although non-binding, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. It resolved that "violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace...[and it] constitutes a violation of the rights and freedoms of women...that opportunities for women to achieve legal, social, political and economic equality in society are limited, among other things, by continuing and endemic violence."

Women's Rights Are Human Rights Campaign

Coming into the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, advocacy groups had two international declarations under their belt. However, key to their success at this conference was a new campaign strategy: They argued that violence against women violated women's human rights.

It was a difficult argument to ignore. By inserting the issue of gender-based violence within the already accepted human rights discourse, they successfully argued that women, by the virtue of being human beings, deserved to be protected from death, physical harm and hence, violence.

This became the most urgent issue at the conference. The resulting Beijing Declaration recognized that "violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of the objectives of equality, development and peace. [It] both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms."

More important, the Beijing Declaration created a platform for action and set specific strategic objectives that included measures to prevent and eliminate violence against women as well as study its causes and consequences.

Regional and International Victories since 1993

Together, these efforts have changed the face of regional and international politics. In the Americas, 26 states signed and 32 ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, better known as the Convention of Belem do Pará. This 1994 treaty is binding, meaning that states must, according to law, take all measures necessary to protect women from gender-based violence.

The state signatories to the treaty agreed to "pursue, by all appropriate means and without delay, policies to prevent, punish and eradicate such refrain from engaging in any act or practice of violence against apply due diligence to prevent, investigate and impose penalties for violence against women."

Organizations working to end violence against women have also changed international humanitarian law. The Women's Caucus for Gender Justice (WCGJ), an international organization based in The Hague, Netherlands, successfully lobbied the International Criminal Court (ICC) to demand that rape, sexual slavery, sexual violence and involuntary prostitution in war--acts met with impunity in the past--be considered war crimes. They succeeded and the ICC, ratified by 108 states, now has the mandate to prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence in war.

Women's rights organizations still have their work cut out for them. Although the regional Convention of Belem do Pará and the ICC victories are commendable, women in Peru, India, Eastern Europe and Nigeria--indeed, the world--will not be safe until violence against women is codified in a binding U.N. treaty, and not just a well-meaning declaration.

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