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Violence against women prior to the adoption of the CEDAW

At the official interstate level, the issue of violence against women was addressed for the first time in 1975, at the First UN Women’s Conference in Mexico City. This conference is linked to the declaration by the UN of the year 1975 as International Women’s YeaH8 and the subsequent decade (1976—85) as Decade for Women: Equality, Development, and Peace.i® One hundred and thirty-three states participated in the conference in Mexico City organized by the UN. UN specialized agencies and some NGOs were also invited to attend.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] The outcomes of the conference are contained in its report. There are three types of substantive outcomes: Plans of Action,21 Resolutions and Decisions^ and a Declaration.23 The report of the conference contains four references to violence against women in total. However, the World Plan of Action, the main outcome document of the conference, contains no such reference. Two of the references appear in resolutions adopted by the conference: one in relation to health24 and another related to communication media.25 Violence is also mentioned as the root cause of inequality in the opening address of the conference^6 Importantly, all these statements are not framed as normative statements, but as observations about the reality of women’s lives. The statement with regard to violence against women that has some normative connotations appears only in the summary of the discussions by the delegates: ‘It was also suggested that there should be more effective legislation to protect women against all forms of physical violence.^7 However, even this statement is a mere suggestion by one delegate that, as the Plan of Action indicates, was not followed up in 1975. Therefore, we can observe that in 1975 the awareness of violence against women as a matter of concern at the international level existed. However, the nature of the instruments in which it was mentioned, as well as the language used, make it difficult to affirm the existence of any level of normative commitment. States certainly expressed some level of normative commitment to combat some most obvious forms of violence against women, such as exploitation of prostitution/8 but violence against women as a phenomenon was not yet defined in official documents.

Leading up to the adoption of the CEDAW, there were actors outside the UN that were working on the issue of violence against women, including academics and NGOs.29 One of the most notable examples is an initiative called International Tribunal on Crimes against Women. This initiative, in which more than 2,000 women from over forty countries participated, took place from 4 to 8 March 1976 in Belgium. The report contains testimonies of women about a variety of violations of women’s rights, including a chapter on violence against women (chapter 12).[10] [11] [12] [13] This chapter includes accounts of domestic violence, rape, assault, femicide, torture, to mention just a few. Several accounts in other chapters can also be regarded as relevant to the issue of violence against women, especially forced sterilizations and forced motherhood. The organizers intentionally scheduled this event just after the end of the UN proclaimed International Women’s Year in order to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the way the official UN discourse addressed women’s issues, especially the issue of violence against women. They were also very critical of the Mexico City conference, arguing that it had not sufficiently addressed important issues.

Thus, violence against women, its different forms and levels of severity, were well documented and widely known by the time the CEDAW’s drafting process started. There was a strong movement and a powerful campaign emphasizing the international nature of the problem.31 However, at the level of the official discourse, the degree of normativity of statements contained in the Report of the First UN Women’s conference was quite low. The CEDAW was adopted four years after the conference in Mexico City. Why does the Convention contain no reference at all to the issue of violence against women? Does this indicate lack of consensus and normative commitment? In order to answer this question, the drafting process and the broader context of the adoption of the Convention need to be examined.

  • [1] For a full list of participants and attendees see the Report of the World Conference of theInternational Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 120—123.
  • [2] Report of the World Conference of the International Womens Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 8-72.
  • [3] Report of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 73—113.
  • [4] Declaration of Mexico on the Equality of Women and their Contribution to the Developmentand Peace; Report of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 2—7.
  • [5] 24 ‘Considering that Governments should be aware of the particular forms of violence and cruelty,both physical and mental, that are perpetuated against women. ’ Report of the World Conference of theInternational Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 78.
  • [6] ‘Likewise requests those in charge of the mass communication media to cease projecting andgradually eliminate commercialized, tasteless and stereotyped images of women, particularly in pornographic publications, the use of such images in depicting sexual crimes and crimes of violence,and the dissemination of any material tending to create prejudices and negative attitudes with regardto the changes necessary for the revaluation of the role of women and to transmit an image of men’sand women’s roles that is as varied as possible.’ Report of the World Conference of the InternationalWomen’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 93, para. 4.4.
  • [7] Report of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July1975, E/CONF.66/34, 124.
  • [8] Report of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Mexico City, 19 June—2 July 1975, E/CONF.66/34, 133, para. 70.
  • [9] Sexual exploitation and trafficking of women is the earliest recognized form of violence againstwomen. See the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of theProstitution of Others, 21 Mar. 1950, 96 UNTS 271.
  • [10] For a general overview of activism around the issue of violence against women prior to the adoption of the CEDAW as well as during the drafting process, see e.g.: J. Joachim, ‘Shaping the HumanRights Agenda: The Case of Violence against Women’, in Gender Politics in Global Governance, ed. M.K. Meyer and E. Prugl (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999): 142—60; L. Kelly, ‘Inside Outsiders’,International Feminist Journal of Politics vol. 7 (2005): 477—80 at 471. The book by Niamh Reilly alsocontains some useful insights, but it focuses mostly on NGO campaigns in the early 1990s and afterwards: N. Reilly, Womens Human Rights: Seeking Justice in a Globalising Age (Cambridge: Polity Press,2009), ch. 4 deals with the issue of violence against women.
  • [11] D. E. H. Russel and N. Van Den Ven, Crimes against Women: Proceedings of the InternationalTribunal (Berkley: Russel Publications; 1st published 1976, edn consulted: 3rd, 1990).
  • [12] For an example see the letter of Simone de Beauvoir to the International Tribunal on Crimesagainst Women reproduced in the proceedings in Russel and Van Den Ven (1990): 5.
  • [13] See similar observations in: L. A. Rehof, Guide to the Travaux Preparatoires of the United NationsConvention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Dordrecht/Boston/London: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1993): 3.
 
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