Domestic Violence and Human Rights: Local Challenges to a Universal Framework

By Morgaine, Karen | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence and Human Rights: Local Challenges to a Universal Framework


Morgaine, Karen, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Over the past 15-20 years there has been a dramatic increase in transnational social movements including the movement to eradicate violence against women. This paper examines the development of the transnational women's movement and the prioritizing of violence against women (VAW) as a universal women's agenda using the United Nations (U.N.) human rights conferences as a focal point. As one form of VAW, domestic violence (DV) has been placed into the human rights context by many organizations globally. The implications and possible limitations of universalizing a framework for DV are explored using salient examples from various areas of the world. It is suggested that the framing of DV as a human rights violation is relevant to social work in light of social work's role in the critical analysis of framing of social problems and the emergent movement in the United States for social work to become more internationally-focused.

Keywords: Domestic violence, human rights, violence against women, U.N. human rights conferences, international social work

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Linking violence against women (VAW) to human rights is rooted in the movement to recognize "women's rights as human rights" (Bunch, 1990) and to recent United Nations (U.N.) conventions and declarations, including the 1993 Declaration to Eliminate Violence against Women, the 1992 19th General Recommendation made by the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination against Women and the 1995 Beijing Declaration (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). This linking of VAW and human rights has influenced the transnational women's movement and women's movements around the world. Funding entities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and state governments have all taken up the challenge to work towards the elimination of violence against women (Dauer, 2002; Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Merry, 2002).

In recent years domestic violence (DV), as one form of VAW, has been examined using a human rights framework with much of the accompanying dialogue centering on the applicability of international law to DV--primarily focusing on the debate regarding the so-called private nature of DV and how private, individual violence can be addressed through international law (Amnesty International, 2005; Beasley & Thomas, 1994; Coomaraswarmy, 2000; Hawkins & Humes, 2002; Levesque, 1999; Moore, 2003; Roth, 1994; Zorn, 1999).

This paper summarizes the rise of the international women's movement in relation to human rights and violence against women and examines a number of examples from the global DV movement to illustrate how the tendency towards using universal frameworks may be problematic. The examples demonstrate how Northern conceptualizations of DV, which some would argue may be driving the human rights movement (Grewal, 1999; Mertus & Goldberg, 1994), have influenced the framing of DV and interventions in various cultural contexts. The North/South distinction used throughout this paper characterizes the North geographically and symbolically as the site of most of the world's privileged and affluent countries versus the South as the site of countries that are economically, socially and politically marginalized. This geographical distinction is based on the Northern/Southern hemispheres yet also is used symbolically to differentiate between the privileged and marginalized peoples, regardless of geographical location (Dirlik, 1997; Mohanty, 2002). This exploration is relevant to social work given of the role of social workers in framing and intervening in social problems as well as the current focus on the globalization of social work practice (Caragata & Sanchez, 2002; Mohan, 2005).

Violence against Women and Human Rights

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence within the family, the community, and/or any violence that is condoned by the state. …

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