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Women Pushing to Expand Legal Definitions

By Lilian Mercado Carreon, Isis Manila
[Source: Women Envision, (61-62), September-October 1998]

Women's non-government organizations praised the efforts the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy but also challenged her to use her position and mandate to lead in the effort to push the limits of current legal measures to combat the problem of violence against women. At the regional consultation with Dr. Coomaraswamy organised by the Asia Pacific Forum on Law and Development (APWLD) in collaboration with the Law and Society Trust of Sri Lanka, women from different Asian countries and international non-government organisations argued to expand the basis of definitions enshrined in current legal language.

Sultana Kamal, responding to the report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women by the State and during times of armed conflict (fourth report, 1998), pointed out that militarisation, which gives rise to numerous cases of violence committed against women, is not covered by any UN standard or prohibition. Sultana is from the Ain-O-Salish Kendra in Bangladesh.

Representatives from the Women's Media Collective (WMC) in Sri Lanka added that the fourth report's section on armed conflict was very good in that it dealt with the problem of refugees. However, it left out the issues of psychological violence and other form of violence that result from living in combat or war situations. WMC pointed out that a discussion of violence requires a plane broader than just sexual violence or rape.

Isis International-Manila raised the role of media in perpetuating and promoting violence against women through their representation of women and coverage of issues, especially violence against women. Pornography, the Special Rapporteur said, was in her first report but added that part of the problem in addressing the role of the media is that UN mechanism themselves are contradictory on the matter. Dr. Coomaraswamy pointed out that while the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) classifies pornography as a form of violence against women, the UN Declaration on Violence against Women is silent on the problem.

The regional consultation is called annually to provide women with an opportunity to input into reports of the Special Rapporteur. The fifth and forthcoming report of the Special Rapporteur will focus on state policies on domestic violence and on state economic policies that give rise to violence against women. Women at the meeting reported that, generally, domestic violence is still relegated as a private family matter and that, in many places, marital rape is still not recognised. In Malaysia, the Charter on Violence against Women was subsumed under Women and Family, which reinforces the thinking that violence against women is a family problem. Tahira Khan of Shirkat Gah said that a 1996 report showed that 80 percent of women in Pakistan were victims of domestic violence. She added that the same report showed that 50 percent of the cases of stove burning were deliberate acts to kill women whom their in-laws disliked for different reasons.

Where there are international laws on domestic violence that exist, the problem is the lack of political will to implement these laws. In Sri Lanka for example, surveys of media reports suggest that there is a monthly average of a hundred cases of domestic violence but domestic legislation is not in line with international standards and scant financial resources and personnel hamper implementation of the existing Women's Charter. It was reported that in Bangladesh, domestic violence is perpetuated both by personal and structural causes, which includes religion, and state and community laws.

In places strongest hit by the Asian financial meltdown, domestic violence is now also being triggered by the economic crisis. The Asian economic crisis had resulted in the lowering of salaries, lack of security of tenure and non-eligibility to union membership. It is a known fact that while all workers suffer these, women are most affected and tend to bear the greater brunt of these effects. Land conversion and crop conversion, staple elements of Asian economic and development plans, is severely threatening families' food sufficiency, which is often and generally a responsibility left to women. Isis International-Manila reported that in the Solomon Islands where, traditionally, women decided on the use of the land and favoured planting food crops and vegetables, control had passed on to men after the government decided to pursue a crop export-led development program. This move had marginalised women farmers and pushed them to isolated upland areas where the soil is less fertile.

Responding to the issues being raised by the women at the meeting, Dr. Coomaraswamy underscored the importance of developing an international doctrine that can include the issues being discussed during the consultation. Women's issues and women's rights, she said, are on the cutting edge of legal debates. Violence against women should be tackled in a holistic manner in order to avoid narrow legalistic definitions that leave out other forms of violence. Domestic violence, rape, and trafficking, said Dr. Coomaraswamy, have been discussed only in the last five years. Dr. Coomaraswamy also encouraged the women present to work for the adoption of the International Criminal Court in their respective countries.

At the close of the meeting, closer co-ordination and the need for information to be disseminated were emphasised in order to make full use of the potential of the office of the Special Rapporteur. The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, which began in 1994, is considered a victory of the international women's movement that campaigned for the creation of the office. The appointment represents the first concrete commitment of governments to address women's human rights and to characterise women's issues, especially violence, as political issues and not just social problems.

For more information, contact the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) at For details of the Special Rapporteur's Reports, visit its website at; to request reports by E-mail, write to:

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