CIM: Making Women's Rights Human Rights

Article excerpt

Violence against women has been termed by many activists to constitute one of the most flagrant violations of human rights. Today we bear witness to women and non-governmental organizations joining forces everywhere in a revolutionary movement to right an old wrong and the damaged rose is appearing throughout the region as a symbol of that struggle. While the phenomenon of violence has it origins in the far past, this movement is very young. Concerted efforts to lift the curtain of silence that hid the issue began in the decade of the eighties when women everywhere began to say "no more" and brought the debate into the open.

Gender-based violence permeates all sectors of society and respects neither geographic, economic nor age groupings. It occurs essentially as a consequence of the unequal relations between men and women which derive from behavior patterns molded by historical traditions, further perpetuated by inadequate responses in law. Despite the many differences inherent in the two basic legal systems in the Americas, the violence done to women and the until recently inadequate possibilities of redress under law is one aspect where commonalities are encountered. The right to correct--and beat--was derived from an anachronistic concept of ownership. For example, the rule of thumb had its infamous origins in English law where a man could correct his wife's behavior with a stick as long as it was no thicker than the thumb on a man's hand. At one time, English common law also provided damages to the father of a victim, as opposed to any remedy for the woman herself. In the recent past, many of the legal codes in Latin America recognized that a man's honor could legitimately be defended by murdering his adulterous--or supposedly adulterous--wife. This, too, is deeply rooted in proprietary attitudes.

Statistics concerning the level and incidence of violence against women in the region are nothing short of alarming. In 1986, the FBI reported that every three and a half minutes a woman was raped and that rape is the fastest growing violent crime in the United States. Numerous university surveys from the region report that most female students indicated that they were subjected to some form of sexual harassment during their time at the university. In Canada, it is estimated that one out of four women will be sexually assaulted sometime during their lives. In Costa Rica, judicial statistics from the Supreme Court of Justice show a constant increase in rape cases--a phenomenon repeated in most of the countries where statistics are gathered. Sexual harassment charges made by women under the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, were the third most frequent type of sex discrimination charge in 1988, according to the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Today, the Congress of Argentina has before it legislation to penalize sexual harassment in the workplace.

Although these horrifying figures serve to underscore the gravity of the situation, they only scratch the surface. Most analysts agree that the under-reporting of acts of violence and aggression is a constant throughout the region. Some of the reasons include a lack of knowledge of the available legal procedures, a wish to keep the issue private, a lack of faith in the institutions, distrust of lawyers and the police, economic dependency, lack of appropriate education, an unwillingness to transgress the traditional roles assigned to women by society, or fear of the possible consequences. One woman said the cruel choice is whether to be beaten or be poor. Under-reporting has the effect of validating assumptions that the occurrences of gender-based violence are exceptional rather than pervasive. This in turn can affect the very development of criminal law.

The Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) is a specialized agency of the Organization of American States, composed of the member states of the Organization, each of which is represented by a Principal Delegate. …