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Violence against women continues to be a global problem. It does not choose race, culture, education, age and class. A person’s home while considered as a safe haven for many people is also a place that endangers lives and raises various forms of violence carried out against women. Many instances are women’s rights violated in the domestic environment by people (mostly males) who are or have been entrusted with power and/or intimacy by the women in the household. These people are found in the roles of husbands, fathers/stepfathers, uncles, brothers and other relatives.
Today, various international organizations have pushed through the protection of women against violence. The Human Rights framework has led to the creation of certain international legal mechanisms that would aid in the protection of women against violence. However, how effective are these mechanisms? Whose responsibility is it in terms of combating domestic violence against women? These are just some of the questions that this essay will explore.
It is said that the home is a place where people are supposed to feel a sense of belonging, stability and safety; and where people are guaranteed to receive emotional and physical well-being in the presence of loving and caring relationships (Hart & Ben-Yoseph 2005). However, for many, ‘home’ has become a place of terror and violence, where instead of living in a peaceful and loving environment, people live every day in fear and abuse at the hands of somebody close to them or somebody they even trust (Khan 2000 in Inocenti Digest 2000: 1).
Despite various evidences that domestic violence affects many women, beyond cultural background, ethnicity and geographic locations, the issue only surfaced as a significant international human right agenda in the early 1980s (Craven 2003: 1). However, in the recent years, there is said to be a greater understanding of the causes and effects of domestic violence (Khan 2000 in Inocenti Digest 2000: 1). Moreover, along with the issue’s growing significance, various organizations in the international and regional levels, which were concerned with women’s rights, grew along and started to pave way for a new era in human rights (Craven 2003: 1). Some of the conventions which were products of the global consensus on domestic violence were the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Rights of the Child and the Platform for Action (Khan 2000 in Inocenti Digest, 2000: 1). In Australia, the three specific conventions ratified by the government are the Convention on the Elimination of all Racial Discrimination; the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman Degrading or Punishment; and CEDAW which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in the 1970s (Craven 2003: 2). However, since the ratification of these conventions, health, welfare and legal professionals in Australia were experiencing a great challenge in figuring out how to formulate programs and policies in accordance to the newly conceptualized international law on gender or domestic violence (Craven 2003: 1). Progress has been slow, not only for Australia but also for other nations who adopted the international conventions because the process of identifying effective strategies and approaches to address domestic violence is still in progress of definition (Khan 2000 in Inocenti Digest, 2000: 1).
Fifteen years ago, the first national statistics on the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence in Australia were published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (1996), wherein they were able to survey a sample of 6,300 Australian women and found out the 42% of women who had been in a previous relationship reported to have experienced violence from their partners. In addition, it was found out that half of the women who reported having incidence of violence with their current partners sustained more than one type of act of violence ranging from bruises, cuts, scratches, to stabbing, gun shots or types of injuries (ABS 1996: 55 cited in Mulroney 2003: 1-2). In more recent years, a study conducted by Access Economics (2004) found that in 2002 to 2003, an estimated 408,100 Australians became victims to domestic violence, of which 87% were women (Access Economics 2004: 1). Furthermore, a study conducted by Virueda & Payne (2010) through the Australian Institute of Criminology, found that in 2007 to 2008, most homicides that occurred during within that time period were domestic homicides, where the victim usually shared a domestic relationship with the offender. According to Virueda & Payne (2010), most of the domestic homicides committed during the period of their study were classified as ‘intimate partner homicides’ which comprised 60% of their subjects.
This goes to show that even with the advent of the covenants and conventions which catered to discussing and formulating policies to prevent or solve cases which involved incidences of domestic violence, there is yet much work and transformation to do before we can say that the world is finally ready and able to put a full stop to domestic violence and abuse.
History of International Human Rights Law
Tracing the history of human rights would take us back to the time of the conception of the Ten Commandments and the Code of Hammurabi and the Rights of Athenian Citizens (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 14). The earliest efforts to defend people from abuses such as arbitrary killing, torture, discrimination, starvation and forced eviction came from the belief that individuals have ‘immutable rights as human beings’ (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 1), and thus they deserve to be protected against any form of abuse. In more recent periods, the efforts to identify and defend human rights was said to be an outcome of the violence and refugee problems during wars (Wesbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 14), more specifically after the tragedies which occurred in the Second World War (Cazen 2003).
In retrospect, during the rise of the nation-states in the seventeenth century, the classical international law favoured state-sovereignty and did not accept the idea of human rights, for they believed that the nation-state was a ‘good in itself’ and was more than an instrument to promote welfare and protection among citizens (Wesbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 15). However, during the eighteenth to nineteenth century, international law began focusing on previously isolated fields such as the protection of aliens, the protection of minorities, human rights guarantees in national constitutions and laws, abolition of slavery, the protection of victims of armed conflict, self-determination, labor and women’s rights.
It is believed by some, that the formation of the United Nations in 1945 was a proof of our ‘modern struggle to protect human rights’ (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 3). According to Weissbrodt and de la Vega (2007) the most important source of International law are treaties and customs, for they are said to have legal ‘binding legal effect’ between the states that signed those agreements (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 3). Moreover, it was regarded that the most important treaty formed was the United Nations Charter, which was the cause for the establishment of the United Nations (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 3). About 188 nations around the world singed the United Nations Charter which vowed to form an international alliance with a common goal of upholding the rights of humans and encourage peace and cooperation among nations (Cazen 2003). Three years later, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established and it set out the international standards for human rights (Cazen 2003).
With regard to women’s rights, it was said that the efforts to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century ‘awakened the concern for women’s rights’ during that time, thus began the international struggle for women’s rights way back in 1948 during the Seneca Falls Convention and the International Women Suffrage Alliance in 1904 (Weissbrodt & de la Vega 2007: 17).
Domestic Violence: Definition, Causes and Prevalence in Australia
What is domestic violence? What are its causes and how does it affect the lives of women who are victims of such dilemma? These are some of the questions which we will address further in this essay. Domestic violence, as defined in the Article 1 of the UN Declaration of 1993 (as cited in Westendrop & Wolleswinkel: 37) as:
Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological trauma or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occuring in public or private life.
In further detail, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) states that any form of domestic violence may occur in three areas such as:
(1) In the family, where violence may be in the form of ‘battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation’;
(2) In the general community where violence may include rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
(3) In the state, wherever it occurs, where violence is perpetrated or condoned.
Furthermore, according to Laing and Bobic (2002), Australian literature recognizes that domestic violence, whether defined as domestic or family, may include a range of violent behaviours from physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, to emotional abuse, social isolation and forms of financial abuse (Laing & Bobic 2002: 14 as cited in Access Economics 2004: 3).
The Victorian Government recognizes that women are at greater risks of ‘family violence, sexual assault, harassment and stalking than men’ (Western Region Network Against Family Violence 2003:16) In addition, the Victorian Government also contends that women are more likely to experience violence in the home rather than in public places, especially in the hands of their previous or current partners, and most especially, the cycle of violence occurs in the context of an existing continuity of power imbalance and inequality between men and women in the society (Victorian Government 2002: 20 as cited in Western Region Network Against Family Violence 2003:16).
Over time, various studies have been conducted in order to describe the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs of this essay, the first break through in gathering the largest statistical data with accordance to incidences of domestic violence was conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for their Women’s Safety Survey in 1996, where they were able to gather 6,300 respondents. According to the results of the survey, one out of twelve Australian women who were married or in a de facto relationship experienced some form of violence from their current partners (Interbreur 2001). The ABS Women’s Safety Survey also found that more women experienced violence from their previous or current partners rather another person, stranger or male known to them (Western Region Network Against Family Violence 2003:18). And in 2005, ABS Personal Safety Survey found that during the 12 month period prior to the time when the survey was conducted, 38% reported to have experienced the assault from a male perpetrator, particularly their previous or current intimate partners (Parliamentary Library 2009). Moreover, in more recent data, in a study conducted by the Virued & Payne in 2010, they found that more domestic homicides occurred in the year 2007 to 2008, wherein the victim usually shared a domestic relationship with the offender and 60% of these incidents were classified as ‘intimate partner homicides’. Now the question arises: why do men victimize women in abusive behaviour?
Women who are victims of domestic violence have no common factor. The act may occur to anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their racial and cultural background (Better Health Channel 2011). However, women who are young, indigenous, have a disability, or those who live in rural areas were found to be at greater risk in incidences of domestic violence (Better Health Channel 2011). Furthermore, the Domestic Violence Resource Victim Victoria, through Better Health Channel (2011), identified some of the prevalent causes or reasons why some men inflict violence and abuse on some women, and it was said that domestic violence may be caused by a deep regard for masculinity or a firm patriarchal mindset of some males, and abusers often tend to blame the acts of violence to intoxication (alcohol), to other people, or other forms of circumstances. However, as what the Victorian government has stated, domestic violence may have roots on the existing power imbalance or continuing patriarchal mindset of people.
International Law and Violence against Women: The Mechanisms and their Effectiveness
As discussed earlier, the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1993 set out the international standard for protecting the rights of individuals. However, although the UN charter has affirmed the supposed equality between women and men, the ‘gender-blindness’ often resulted to cases of structural discrimination against women and women’s rights were still ignored (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 20). During that time, international human rights law was limited to protecting only the public, political legal and social sphere and did not include the ‘private sphere’ of the home and family (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 20). In effect, using the international human rights law as a framework to look into women’s rights entailed certain methods and mechanisms to determine the obligations of governments to protect the human rights of women and to hold the government accountable if they fail to meet their obligations (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 20). For instance, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was one of the mechanism used to address the issue, required all nation states who ratified the said convention to ‘take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise’ (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 21). Furthermore, in 1993, the UN finally declared violence against women as a human rights violation which required urgent attention (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 22). After the declaration, more conventions and mechanism were created; and another successful mechanism which was an outcome of the continued lobbying of women from different NGOs was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 and the Rome Statute in 1998 which included crimes such as rape, war crimes and other forms of crimes against humanity (Westendorp & Wolliswenkel 2005: 23).
Protecting the Rights of Women, Who is Responsible?
Australia’s commitment to the ratification of CEDAW or the Women’s Convention, as what Crazen (2003) was not as smooth and easy as what one might expect. Often, the common problem of states when ratifying mechanism or policies of international human rights law concerning women’s rights is how to assimilate those international policies into their domestic policies without any form of confusion. There were many reservations from some nations when CEDAW was imposed by UN, and primarily these reservations effected to some nation’s weakening in the commitment to the alliance of upholding women’s rights, and by doing so, they have reduced their obligations upon changing their domestic policies. In Australia, the Commonwealth recognizes that it is the role of the government to address domestic violence, so that they have created many committees and organization to cater to issues and incidences of domestic violence. As far as 1986, the Commonwealth of Australia commenced its role in addressing the issue of domestic violence, followed by their efforts to establish the Office of the Status of Women (OSW). From then on, the Commonwealth has helped in the quest for keeping actual and factual records of incidences of domestic violence in Australia through sponsoring series of surveys from 1987 up to 2005 (Parliamentary Library 2009).
However, the role of the Commonwealth is limited only to spear-heading standard approaches to policy and legislative reforms in the states and territories in Australia; each state then, will and must be the ones responsible in enforcing and implementing policies concerning domestic violence (Parliamentary Library 2009). Policy development in Australia has gone through a long way of reformation and implementation. During the 20 years of those policy making and developments, the government was able to focus on ‘tertiary’ levels of intervention on domestic violence by providing ‘sympathetic and victim centred care after the assault’ (Parliamentary Library 2009). These tertiary interventions exist in the forms of violence reports, law reform, provision of refugees, health care and accommodation and domestic violence services.
V. Conclusions and Recommendations
Majority of the Australian literature reviewed for the purpose of this essay reported that domestic violence and any form of abuse happening in the context of home and family are regarded as one of the most under-reported crime offenses in various states around Australia. As we have reviewed the figures since the earliest ABS Women’s’ Safety Survey in 1996 to the homicide reports of the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2010, we see that even with the efforts of the government to implement committees and legislative reforms in order to address domestic violence and prevent them, the figures have shown us that the efforts may have had only futile effects on the total elimination of the incidences of domestic violence. Although domestic violence against women have been specifically defined by the UN, the law was found to be limited in addressing all forms of abuse, in such a way that some types of violence such as economic deprivation, excessive possessiveness or jealousy and enforced isolation were found to be not directly remediable through legal measures (Alexander & Seddon 2002).
Furthermore, throughout the review of related literatures for this essay, it has also been found that policy making was not the only problem with the slow progress for the elimination of violence against women, but also, there were underlying problems which prevented the effectiveness of the international law mechanisms. One of those reasons would be the existing power imbalance and the patriarchal mindset of societies and most specifically, the very high regard for masculinity amongst male offenders. Another would reason was that some societies wherein customs and traditions would often place women in the lower hand often react more defensively against the imposition of the international law mechanisms in their domestic legislation. Thus, throughout the world, there may still be some states that are guilty of condoning violence against women as they will argue that it is part of their customs and traditions.
On a positive note, the Commonwealth of Australia has been consistent with its commitment towards the battle against the incidences of violence against women, by creating committees and funding surveys in order to check the current situation of the issue in Australia. However, their efforts may also come to waste since most victims of abuse would not be open to reporting the abuse to authorities. As we can see, there is a chain reaction which exists amongst perpetrators, the victims and the legislative reform: perpetrators continue to uphold the patriarchal mindset while the victims remain silent about the abuse, and then the government will have difficulty formulating policies for prevention and actions against the crime while they also have difficulty in obtaining accurate data of the real prevalence of domestic violence in Australia.
Basing on these conclusions, it is then safe to recommend that a massive effort towards educating people about domestic violence be done. This may help in modifying the existing resentment or feelings of indifirrence towards the policies intended to prevent or solve cases of domestic violence. Education or knowing more about issue may provide enlightenment on people and soon modify their behavior and beliefs about domestic violence. It is also important to make the victims feel that they have the law to protect them, so that when they come out and report incidence of abuse, they will be assured of their safety and their lives will become normal again. When finally, victims will feel that it is safe and okay to admit that they are victims of abuse, accurate data will then be acquired and the government will see the real prevalence of the issue. As for the legal framework, there is still a long way to go before we can finally put every policy with regard to violence against in women at place, but the best thing to do would be to focus on the preventive actions, such as the tertiary measures provided by the Commonwealth, and to keep on pushing for reformations.
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