United Nations Independent Experts demands End to Impunity for Violence Against Women


7 March 2007

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Ending Impunity for Violence against Women and Girls” is on target when we consider that impunity for the perpetrators of violence against women remains the norm, not the exception in many parts of the world.

In many cases, impunity prevails because States are reluctant to prosecute their own agents who commit crimes against women. Women who are detained in prisons, police stations or deportation centres for undocumented migrants are of particular concern as they are at risk of extreme forms of abuse and exploitation. In some countries, women who stand up and publicly defend gender equality and women’s rights are also beaten and arbitrarily arrested by state agents.

Worldwide, violence against women perpetrated by private persons not only escapes punishment but continues to be condoned and justified as a private matter. According to international human rights law, States are under an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women, whether the acts themselves were perpetrated by State agents or private persons. This means, for one, that states have to criminalize all forms of violence against women, including trafficking in women, marital rape and other forms of domestic violence, harmful practices, forced evictions from homes and lands as well as abuse and harassment in the workplace. Moreover, they must also scrupulously enforce these laws.

In situations of armed conflict, women are frequently raped or used as sexual slaves in complete impunity. However, it is encouraging that the international community no longer accepts violence against women to be an inevitable consequence of war. The tide is slowly turning. The International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda both successfully prosecuted and convicted organizers of mass rape. Most recently, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested the Court to summon a militia commander on the basis of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, alleging, among other things, that the commander had personally inspected a group of naked women before they were raped by men under his command.

Ending impunity is not only a matter of criminal laws and punishment. Women’s empowerment must also be supported through effective access to justice and critical resources. Women cannot resist violence if they lack the political, economic, social and cultural rights to enable them to protect themselves against abuse, sue the perpetrators for compensation or seek other civil remedies. Women that cannot exercise their right to adequate housing, land, property and inheritance, for instance, will often not dare to denounce a violent husband or influential family member, knowing that such an action will most probably make them homeless. There is also a need to examine and act upon some of the structural causes of violence against women such as poverty, marginalisation and discrimination.

Ending impunity for crimes committed against women requires determination, political will and joining forces with all stakeholders engaged in combating violence against women at national and international levels. In a globalised world where violence against women crosses borders, national authorities must make joint efforts with civil society and their counterparts in other countries in order to enhance the effectiveness of efforts to end impunity and protect the rights of women. This is a common interest and shared obligation as ending violence against women would mean a step forward in greater emancipation for everyone.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we call on States to take all necessary measures to end impunity for violence against women and girls and live up to their obligations under international law, in particular under the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.