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Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Addendum, A/HRC/11/6/Add.5, 27 May 2009

Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. Addendum: 15 years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences (1994 – 2009) – A critical review


A. Domestic violence

33. The mandate has applied international standards of equality and non-discrimination, in the context of marriage and the family, upholding the right to privacy, sexual health (including sexual orientation) and reproductive rights within the context of family. In doing so, the mandate has rejected conventional critiques judging interventions to address oppressive family forms as being anti-family. In applying rights holistically within the domain of the family, the SRVAW “intentionally [departed] from traditional definitions of domestic violence, which address violence perpetrated by intimates against intimates, or equate domestic violence with woman-battering”. The Secretary-General’s study on VAW reinforced the principle that protection from domestic violence must extend to a broad range of interpersonal relationships within the family.

98. The mandate holders have noted that all forms of gender-based violence are “often used as an instrument to control female sexual behaviour”in ways that cast women as male property or punish women who transgress the sexual norms. Through the country missions and the communications, the mandate holders have responded to retribution for women’s expressions of reproductive and non-reproductive sexual activity, as well as for expressions of heterosexual and non-heterosexual sexuality. The SRVAW has issued communications in respect to information received regarding detention of women in police stations on grounds of sexual orientation and the resulting risk of torture and sexual violence to them in custody, and in respect of arrest, detention and torture of transgendered persons; similarly, a communication was issued to express concern for the physical security and access to justice for a man who had undergone sex-change surgery. Many of the communications to governments by the mandate holders have been in relation to honour crimes committed by family members, or to the action/inaction of the State with regard to stoning, flogging or death by hanging of women for suspected premarital sex, for adultery, for failing to prove rape, and for acts deemed incompatible with chastity – in one case involving a minor raped by her brother, and another of a teenage girl with psychosocial disabilities.

100. The observations of the mandate have not been limited to violations alone, but have also endorsed rights, such as the inclusion of same-sex unions within the expanded definition of the family, and have reaffirmed reproductive and sexual rights. While calling attention to the Cairo language that “all human beings have a right to a safe and satisfying sex life”, Radhika Coomaraswamy has also noted that “gender-based violence … is particularly acute when combined with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or change of gender identity. Violence against sexual minorities is on the increase and it is important that we take up the challenge of what may be called the last frontier of human rights”.

117. Radhika Coomaraswamy has noted that responding to the challenge regarding sexuality is the last frontier of human rights. It has been argued that this challenge requires moving beyond condemning regulation of female sexuality through an exclusive focus in VAW on sexual wrongs, such as rape, child sexual abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment. In this regard, it has been noted that “if we fail to pursue a more radical and affirmative strategy on matters related to sex we will fail to adequately address the sexual harms women continue to experience”. Further, Coomaraswamy has pointed out that a focus on sexual wrongs and regulation will only perpetuate sexual stereotypes, sexism and orthodoxies that reinforce the control over female sexuality – ideologies that underscore gender inequality. The need to shift beyond sexual wrongs to sexual rights has been explained as: “The ability to say ‘no’ to what one does not desire is hugely conditioned on the capacity to recognize, delight in, and respond to one’s desire to say ‘yes’, free of limiting stereotypes and with knowledge of the implications for one’s safety and contentment. Although sexual health is a part of reproductive rights, sexual rights are distinct from reproductive rights, “since many of the expressions of sexuality are non-reproductive” and include “the right of all persons to express their sexual orientation, with due regard for the well being and rights of others, without fear of persecution, denial of liberty or social interference”, and require further attention in the context of human rights. The scope of sexual rights is much broader than sexual health or reproductive rights, and is not specific to women alone. Thus it needs to be developed in terms of respect, protection and fulfillment within human rights law by more than one body or mechanism in the United Nations system, in order to move beyond its current violation- centered boundaries to fully challenge gender inequality. However, the SRVAW, in cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, has a distinct role to play in this development given the causal link with the mandate.

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