Why We Need Better Domestic Violence Legislation

Photo Credit: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Domestic violence is the single biggest killer of women globally. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that of the 187,000 women killed in 2017, over half (58%) were killed by intimate partners or members of their families. Yet domestic violence, or intimate partner violence, extends far beyond the fatal – an estimated 30% of women globally have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. It is clear that domestic violence has long been a global epidemic that requires greater international attention, but as of 2018, over 40 countries still have no laws criminalising intimate partner violence. In 2019, and especially in the wake of the recent 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, it is more critical than ever that we fight for legal protection for victims of domestic violence across the world.

Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is defined by the World Health Organisation as “behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.” The continued absence of any domestic violence legislation in dozens of countries, including the African nations of Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq and Syria, can be attributed to a variety of social, cultural and religious factors that differ from country to country. The absence of vital legislation places devastating limits on the support offered to victims of domestic violence in these countries – victims do not have the option to report the crime to the police, to receive support or protection from the police, or to seek punishment for the perpetrator. Importantly, legislation also serves to send a symbolic message to a society that violence is not tolerated. The citizens of these countries suffer in the absence of condemnation of domestic violence from their government, and do not get the chance to benefit from the deterrent effect that laws provide.

Unsurprisingly, human rights organisations and international legal bodies have a lot to say on the global domestic violence epidemic and the critical nature of domestic violence legislation. The landmark United Nations treaty signed in 1979, The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), states that violence against women is a violation of the right to not be “subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. The right this refers to is Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, commonly regarded as a global benchmark for human rights standards. The CEDAW document explicitly outlaws violence against women, a group who form a significant proportion of the victims of domestic violence, and has been ratified by 189 states globally.

Violence against women and domestic violence more generally have also been the subject of several UN Resolutions over recent decades – another notable step in the right direction being the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which asserts not only that state actors should refrain from committing violent acts against women, but also that states should take active measures to prevent and punish acts of violence against women in both the public and private sphere.

Yet despite the importance of domestic violence legislation as endorsed by organisations such as the UN, the continued prevalence of domestic violence globally – including within many countries that have laws in place addressing the practice – makes it clear that our current laws simply aren’t enough.

A common issue affecting many states is that while some domestic violence laws are in place in that country, the legal scope of those laws are lacking, and/or law enforcement officers and other relevant bodies don’t fulfil their obligations to prevent and punish domestic violence as set out in their country’s legislation. One country for whom these issues are a reality is Tajikistan, the Central Asian nation that introduced laws regarding domestic violence for the first time in 2013. While this milestone led to positive progress in the area of violence prevention, such as awareness-raising campaigns and the hiring of more specially-trained police staff, reports from Tajikistan indicate that this progress is not nearly enough – domestic violence is vastly underreported in the country, but UN figures still estimate that at least 1 in 5 women and girls were victims of domestic abuse as of 2016. A recent report from Human Rights Watch, a leading international human rights charity, identifies the failure of the Tajik police officials to consistently fulfil their obligations to domestic violence victims, for example by refusing to properly investigate claims of domestic violence, as one factor behind this epidemic. The report also highlights the ineffectiveness of the Tajik law itself, pointing out that the 2013 law doesn’t go as far as to actually criminalise domestic violence but merely makes provisions regarding it. Having ratified CEDAW in 1993, Tajikistan is legally obligated to protect women and girls from domestic violence and to punish perpetrators of such violence – but the Tajik government is continually failing to meet these obligations.

Laws around the world in their current state often let victims down, and in any case legalisation alone isn’t sufficient to protect victims of domestic violence if it is not properly enforced or accompanied by progressions in societal views. Despite this, legislation is still a necessary first step to improving the outlook for domestic violence victims globally. Change in societal attitudes towards domestic violence often occurs before changes in law, but it is only legislation that can formally enshrine the support, protection and punishments associated with domestic violence, which in turn provide a deterrent to potential perpetrators. The causal effect can also flow in the opposite direction, with changes in legislation often accelerating developments in societal attitudes by sending a strong message from the state that certain behaviours are morally unacceptable. Whichever comes first, societal change or legal change, it’s clear from the data that laws make a difference – the average rate of domestic violence in countries with domestic violence laws is 10.8%, compared to 16.7% in countries without such laws.  To make significant progress in tackling domestic violence as a global community, a key step is working to reform legal systems wherever possible rather than operating in spite of them.

While the progress still needed to ensure appropriate criminalisation of domestic violence around the world can be daunting, we cannot forget the array of positive legal developments that have occurred in recent years. In the last decade, 47 economies have introduced new laws on domestic violence, bringing the total number of countries with some form of domestic violence laws to over 140. Scotland saw the introduction of a transformative new law this summer, criminalising psychological, financial and sexual abuse with a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. In August this year, Italy also welcomed a new law designed to fast-track the investigation of domestic violence reports, which saw a significant increase in the number of reported cases in the first month alone. These new laws,  amongst many others, have been to the benefit of survivors and potential victims of domestic violence across the globe. They show us that the goal of providing adequate protection against domestic violence is a constant and ongoing process, and they provide inspiration for other countries looking for ways to refine and improve the robustness of their domestic violence legislation.

We are entering a new decade, with the target of achieving the UN Global Goals by 2030 within our sights. This importantly includes Goal 5, aimed at achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. As a global community in pursuit of this Goal, we can only hope that the legal standpoint of governments around the world continues to improve in the coming decade, and adequate justice and protection can be given to domestic violence victims globally.

This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from Hastings, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics & Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia, and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.