Ambassador Melanne Verveer
Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security
Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis
University of Pennsylvania Law School and Hillary Clinton Fellow at Georgetown University
Rangita thanks Dean Theodore Ruger of Penn Law for his support.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), introduced by then-Sen. Biden, was first signed into law in 1994 to address domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking through legislation. Since the passage of VAWA, intimate partner violence declined by 64% from 1994 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. In more recent years, as the law’s support has been uncertain, there has been a 42% increase in these cases between 2016 and 2018, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
VAWA has been updated and reauthorized three times—in 2000, 2005, and 2015. Updates over the years have had bipartisan backing and have included new programs to protect elderly and disabled women, mandatory funds for rape prevention and education, new protections for victims of trafficking, undocumented immigrants, and Native American women, and expanded language to be inclusive to the LGBTQ community.
The CEDAW is the natural extension of this crucial domestic project, bringing the goals of VAWA to the international stage. VAWA’s values are similar to General Recommendation 19 of the CEDAW, which was promulgated by the CEDAW Committee in 1992. General Recommendation 19 deals specifically with gender-based violence and clarifies the definition of gender-based violence and how it is integrated into other articles of the CEDAW even when not expressly in the provision.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has made a global effort to end violence against women more necessary than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has potentially rolled back many of the human rights gains of the past decades. One of the dramatic effects of the pandemic has been an international rise in domestic violence.
In the United States, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9% increase in calls between March 16—when many states issued lockdown orders—and May 16. There was a 10% increase in domestic violence reports in the same month to the New York City Police Department compared to March 2019.
The United Nations also reports that the lockdowns lead to increased violence against women, especially domestic violence across the globe. The UN has labeled the rise of violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 outbreak “the shadow pandemic,” referring to the fact that another pandemic affecting the security of women was growing in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.1
Meanwhile, Ambassadors from 124 UN Member States and Observers have answered the Secretary-General’s recent call to address the surge in domestic violence in the pandemic. These countries have committed to making prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of their national response plans. “More than ever, there needs to be zero tolerance for domestic violence,” they wrote in a letter to the UN Chief. They added that women are “not just victims” in the crisis; they also play a major role in COVID-19 response. Following reports that domestic violence in Lebanon has doubled in the last 12 months, figures seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, in December 2020, Lebanon revised its domestic violence law to guarantee custody rights of women facing violence in the family.2 In many countries around the world, the national domestic violence laws are anchored in the values of the CEDAW. To pick but two countries, the Philippines and Brazil, the CEDAW provides the standard-setting principles for domestic violence laws. The Philippines law of 2004 provides: “Towards this end, the State shall exert efforts to address violence committed against women and children in keeping with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution and the Provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination Against Women….” Brazil’s Maria de Penha Law of 2006 states in its Article 1: This law creates mechanisms to restrain and prevent domestic violence against women in compliance with the CEDAW.
As the Biden administration and Congress work to reauthorize VAWA, they must also look to the horizon—to the ratification of CEDAW. The time for the ratification of the CEDAW is now looking to a more sustainable future and reversing the past history of gender and intersectional inequality. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “What might have been and what has been. Point to one end, which is always present.
- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said:
- Timour Azhari, Lebanon passes landmark sexual harassment law, AL JAZEERA (Dec. 21, 2020) https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/21/lebanons-parliament-approves-landmark-sexual-harassment-law.
I urge governments to put women and girls at the centre of their efforts to recover from COVID-19. That starts with women as leaders, with equal representation and decision-making power. Nearly 60 percent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty. As markets fall and businesses close, millions of women’s jobs have disappeared. At the same time as they are losing paid employment, women’s unpaid care work has increased exponentially as a result of school closures and the increased needs of older people. These currents are combining as never before to defeat women’s rights and deny women’s opportunities.