Violence against Women (VAW):
Most Pervasive Form of Human Rights Violation
“Violence against women stands in direct contradiction to the promise of
the United Nations Charter to promote social progress and better
standards of life in larger freedom. The consequences go beyond the
visible and immediate. Death, injury, medical costs and lost employment
are but the tip of the iceberg. The impact on women and girls, their
families, their communities and their societies in terms of shattered lives
and livelihoods is beyond calculation. Far too often, crimes go
unpunished, and perpetrators walk free. No country, no culture, no
woman, young or old is immune” United Nations Secretary-General’s
Message on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2009.
VAW: a public and political issue
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in its Resolution 48/104, defines
VAW as encompassing the physical, sexual and psychological violence that
occurs in the family or community, or is perpetrated or condoned by the State.
VAW has various manifestations including domestic violence, harmful traditional
practices (HTPs), trafficking of women and girls, violence against women migrant
workers and violence in conflict situations. 1 General Recommendation No. 19 of
the CEDAW Committee further defines gender-based violence (GBV) as violence
directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women
The African Women‟s Protocol calls upon State Parties to “enact and enforce
laws to prohibit all forms of violence against women including unwanted or
forced sex whether the violence takes place in private or public”(Article 5/2/a).
Under its various provisions the Protocol condemns rape, sexual harassment at
schools and work, trafficking, violence in armed conflicts and harmful
The collective efforts of governments, women‟s organizations, UN bod ies and
research organizations have achieved progress in the areas of advocacy,
awareness raising and legislative reform at the national, regional and global
levels. A United Nations Secretary-General‟s In-depth Study that was completed
and launched in 2006 indicates that “progress in the development of international
United Nations Secretary-General‟s In-depth Study on Violence against Women 2006.
legal norms, standards and polices has not been accompanied by comparable
progress in their implementation at the national level which remains insufficient
and inconsistent in all parts of the world.” 2
On 25 February 2008, the Secretary-General also launched a campaign entitled
“Unite to End Violence against Women.” The campaign called on people and
governments all over the world to unite to end violence against women and girls.
The campaign will run until 2015, which is also the target year for the Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs). The following are the five key outcomes that it
expects to achieve:
Adoption and enforcement of national laws to address and punish all
forms of violence against women and girls, in line with international
human rights standards;
Adoption and implementation of multi- sectoral national plans of
action that emphasize prevention and that are adequately resourced;
Establishment of data collection and analysis systems;
Launch of national and local campaigns against VAW ; and
Systematic efforts to address sexual violence in conflict situations. 3
Criminal codes of most countries have general provisions on assault and bodily
injury. However, women have not been able to use such general provisions since
law enforcement officers consider intimate partner violence a „private‟ matter.
Some African countries have recently criminalized laws on various aspects of
VAW such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and bride
abduction, in amendments. For instance, the Penal Law of Ethiopia was amended
to include these forms of VAW in 2004. Similarly, Ugandan criminal law was
recently amended to render „defilement‟ an offense. It has been reported that
legislation on domestic violence has been passed at the Cabinet level and will
soon be tabled before parliament. 4
United Nations Secretary-General‟s In-depth Study, page 9.
Words to Action: Newsletter on Violence against Women, April 2009, issue no. 3. The Un ited
Nations Div ision for the Advancement of Women (UN-DAW), available at:
Uganda Country Questionnaire for the Fifteen-Year Rev iew and Appraisal of the Imp lementation
of the Beijing Platform of Action (BPFA+15), UNECA 2009.
In countries where legislation on VAW has been independently adopted, such
legislation emphasizes sexual offenses (South Africa , Kenya ,
Mauritius , Namibia , Zimbabwe ). Some domestic violence
laws deal specifically with both domestic violence and sexual offenses. For
example, the Domestic Violence Act (Act 732, 2007) of Ghana deals with
domestic violence and sexual offenses. Namibia adopted the Enactment of the
Combating of Rape Act No. 8 in 2008 and the Enactment of Combating of
Domestic Violence Act No. 4 in 2003. Mauritius adopted the Protection from
Domestic Violence Act in 1997 and amended the Act in 2004 and 2007. Mauritius
passed the Sexual Offences Act in 2003. 5 South Africa enacted the Domestic
Violence Act 116 in 1998. Malawi enacted the Prevention of Domestic Violence
Act in 2006. Zambia is working on independent legislation against GBV. 6
Currently, 16 African countries have laws against FGM. While most of these
countries have made amendments to their criminal codes, some countries such as
Eritrea have enacted independent laws to prohibit FGM. 7 There is an increasing
commitment to enact specific laws that prohibit all forms of violence against
women and to amend laws that directly or indirectly discriminate against women,
due to various regional and international treaties and policies.
Enacting a comprehensive law on all areas of domestic violence is challenging.
The report of the expert group meeting on “Good Practices in Legislation on
Violence against Women” convened by UN-DAW and the Department of
Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) from 26 to 28 May 2008 discussed this
challenge and provided recommendations on what should be included in
legislation on domestic and sexual violence offenses respectively. The expert
group meeting prepared a categorized model framework for legislation on VAW
including detailed recommendations, commentaries and examples of promising
The framework emphasizes the importance of adopting a comprehensive and
women‟s rights-based approach that considers the empowerment and support of
survivors. A follow-up expert group meeting was convened by UN-DAW and the
United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) 25-28 May 2009 to
Letter dated 5 March 2009 fro m the Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the United
Nations, addressed to the President of the General Assembly.
Malawi and Zamb ia Country Questionnaire for the Fifteen-Year Rev iew and Appraisal of the
Implementation of the Beijing Platform of Action (BPFA+15) UNECA 2009.
The countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Cote d‟Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt,
Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Tan zania and Togo.
Female Gen ital Mutilation /Cutting: Data and Trends, 2008, Population Reference Bureau.
develop an additional framework for HTPs including FGM, so-called “honour”
crimes, child marriage and other forms of enforced marriages. 8 This project is a
major positive step in assisting countries to develop comprehensive laws on
various forms of VAW.
Indicators and data on VAW
GBV indicators usually measure scope, prevalence and incidence of violence
against women. Perception and attitudes about violence can also be used as
outcome indicators to measure progress in public education and awareness
raising. The measurement of available services for women victims indicates that a
government and society care about GBV and thus can be used as an additional
indicator. At the international level, there is growing advocacy to mainstream
VAW indicators. 9 While some countries such as South Africa are making
considerable effort, progress in data collection is generally modest in Africa.
However, efforts are underway at the regional, subregional and national levels to
develop indicators. Such indicators will help generate data that measure progress
in eliminating VAW. In line with the recommendation of the 2007 expert group
meeting to measure VAW, various UN bodies have launched a major project that
will assist countries in regularly and appropriately measuring violence against
Overview of data on VAW in Africa
Data derived from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) or the Multiple
Cluster Indicator Survey (MICS) published by UNICEF indicate that out of 26
countries for which data are available, 90 per cent of girls and women between
the ages of 15-49 are exposed to FGM in seven African countries. These countries
Background Paper for the Expert Group Meeting on Good Practices in Legislat ion to Address
Harmful Pract ices against Women, DAW/UN-DESA, New York, 15 May 2009.
Indicators to Measure Vio lence against Women. Invited paper prepared by Sylvia Walby. Expert
Group Meeting on Indicators to Measure Violence against Women, Geneva, Swit zerland, 8 -10
October 2007. Co-organized by UN-DAW, and Econo mic Co mmission for Europe
(ECE)/Statistical Division, in collaboration with ECA, ECLA C, ESCAP, and ESCWA.
Pro ject document for the sixth tranche of the Development Account for enhancing capacities to
eradicate VAW through the networking of local knowledge co mmunit ies. Economic Co mmission
for Latin A merica and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in collaboration with ECA, ECE, ESCAP,
ESCWA, the Statistics Division/UN-DESA and DAW, November 2008.
include Somalia (95.8%), Egypt (95.8%) Guinea (95.65%), Sierra Leone,
(94.0%), Djibouti (93.1%), Mali (91.6%) and Northern Sudan (90%). In five other
countries, namely Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia and Mauritania,
prevalence ranges from 70% to over 80%. 11
Population-based studies documenting the scope and prevalence of intimate
partner violence show high prevalence rates of violence in 9 African countries.
For instance, out of a sample of 2,261 women, 29 reported physical assault by a
partner over 12 months in Ethiopia. In Zambia, out of 3,792 respondents, 27
women reported assault over 12 months. 12
DHS data on women‟s attitudes toward wife-beating shows that in many African
countries, beatings for burning food, leaving the house without the permission of
the husband or arguing with the husband are considered justified. Analysis of this
data should lead to review of public education strategies and search for more
effective ones. Comprehensive, sustainable and large-scale programmes are
needed to ensure a shift in the current attitudes of both men and women toward
Women suffer different forms of violence during armed conflict. Sexual violence
has been used during armed conflict for many reasons including to inflict injury,
to humiliate and intimidate communities and to extract information as a form of
torture. VAW in conflict or post-conflict situations has been reported in many
African countries including Burundi, Chad, Cote d‟Ivoire, Democratic Republic
of Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda. 13 The African Women‟s
Protocol has endorsed Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council (2000). The
Protocol states that women have the right to peace and to participate in the
promotion and maintenance of peace (Article10).
Unfortunately, many African countries are not doing much to ensure the
participation of women in the process of peace promotion and maintenance. It is
estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 women in Rwanda were raped
during the 1994 genocide. In Liberia, out of 205 women surveyed, 49% reported
at least one act of violence by a combatant in 1998-2004. In Northern Uganda‟s
Luwero District, 70% of the women reported being raped by solders in the 1980-
1986 period. 14
Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Inter-agency Statement by World Health
Organization (W HO) 2008.
United Nations Secretary-General‟s In-depth Study, page 45.
Ibid, page 45
The African Centre for Gender and Social Development (ACGS /ECA) is in the
process of setting up the African Women‟s Rights Observatory (AWRO), with its
own website and database. The objective of AWRO is to collect and disseminate
information and data on various aspects of women‟s rights including VAW. It is
the Observatory‟s belief that availability of information and its appropriate use are
critical in assisting African countries to set indicators and goals to measure
progress with moving from commitment to action on VAW and other
infringements of the human rights of women and girls.