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More Must be Done to Protect Women, says UN - 2003-04-10

A new report by U.N. human rights experts says governments have made great progress during the past decade in enacting laws to protect women against violence. But the study makes clear that much more remains to be done.

The report says 10 years ago, violence against women was an invisible issue. According to U.N. Special Investigator Radhika Coomaraswamy, practically every country in the world has approved legislation to protect women against violence.

Though Ms. Coomaraswamy welcomes these legal efforts, she says more must be done, as violence against women continues to be a serious problem. According to the U.N. investigator, much of the violence is closely linked to the regulation of female sexuality. "If you look at a lot of practices that are violent toward women around the world, whether it is honor killings, or FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] or even if you look at individual domestic violence cases, you find a lot of it is related to denial of sexual freedom for women," she said.

Ms. Coomaraswamy says, in Africa, the biggest cause of violence against women is armed conflict, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes Region.

She says women in conflict situations often become victims of rape and this often leads to health problems, including HIV-AIDS.

She says women in many regions of the world suffer from harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation. The U.N. investigator says this practice persists in many African countries and, to a lesser extent, in some Middle Eastern and Latin American countries.

Because it is closely linked to rituals surrounding a young girl's coming of age, Ms. Coomaraswamy says criminalizing female genital mutilation will not eliminate this practice. "Just putting mothers and fathers in jail is not going to change this," said Radhika Coomaraswamy. "We have to devise creative kind of strategies to deal with the issue. Now in Kenya, for example, there is an alternative ceremony, coming of age ceremony, that some of the women's groups have devised. They have this whole ceremony, but it does not culminate in FGM. It culminates in another kind of moment, celebratory moment. "

Among her recommendations, Ms. Coomaraswamy urges states to investigate and punish all violent acts against women, whether they occur in the home, the workplace, or the community.

She also says nations must not be allowed to hide behind customs, traditions or practices to justify violence against women.

Ms. Coomaraswamy's report has been submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which is holding its annual meeting in Geneva.