Opinion: We need a global treaty on gender-based violence

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After years of escalating abuse at the hands of her husband, Maria da Penha suffered a horrific act of violence in 1983 that left her paralyzed. Despite having shot and electrocuted his wife, da Penha’s husband remained free for nearly 20 years, protected by Brazil’s patriarchal culture and lack of laws protecting women against violence. Sadly, harrowing experiences like da Pehna’s are exceedingly common. They persist in every culture, country, and continent.

Violence against women and girls is the most pressing human rights issue of our time. Deemed “devastatingly pervasive” by the World Health Organization, it affects 1 in 3 women globally. In fact, more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not considered a crime.

Consequently, more than half of all women murdered worldwide are killed by their male partners or a family member. While not necessarily fatal, domestic abuse can also lead to debilitating health outcomes — such as addiction, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder — for women and their children.

As a human rights attorney, I have witnessed the aftermath of such heinous crimes firsthand. Unfortunately, many victims have no recourse in their countries, and the international community lacks the guidance and comprehensive tools necessary to hold perpetrators accountable.

A global treaty would create a universally accepted definition of violence against women and provide explicit standards for criminal prosecution and punishment, as well as guidance.

Fortunately, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council addressed violence against women during its recent annual session. While I applaud this effort and the council’s continued efforts to address violence against women, I strongly urge our international leaders to take one specific step toward progress: adopting a global treaty to solve this issue once and for all.

Recently, I, along with 155 other human rights attorneys from 35 countries, sent a letter calling on the U.N. to support such a treaty. The letter identifies normative, geographic, and enforcement gaps in addressing violence against women internationally and domestically.

The proposed treaty would help bridge those gaps by providing more uniform definitions, identifying clear guidelines and best practices, providing policies and services, and serving as a catalyst for domestic change.

In Brazil, da Penha emerged as an unwavering women’s rights activist, advocating for stronger protections against domestic violence. She joined other human rights defenders in filing a lawsuit against the government for not protecting her as a citizen.

By invoking a regional, inter-American treaty to end violence against women, da Pehna pushed lawmakers to confront the issue. Brazil subsequently passed the Maria Da Penha law in 2006, laying the groundwork not only for criminal punishment of domestic abusers, but also for the proliferation of rehabilitation programs, police training, and public discourse. Strong laws lead to strong and necessary ripple effects.

While a step in the right direction, laws such as the da Penha law are the exception, not the rule. The world’s piecemeal collection of regional treaties in Europe, Latin America, and Africa leave out other regions such as Asia and the Middle East, meaning a significant number of women worldwide have no coverage at all to protect them from violence. Without an international treaty to hold governments to task, progress is too slow for the millions of survivors and victims worldwide.

A global treaty would create a universally accepted definition of violence against women and provide explicit standards for criminal prosecution and punishment, as well as guidance on best practices to address this problem through progressive policies, training, services, and education.

The U.N. should let its own history be its guide. In 1987, the organization set out to tackle the issue of torture. Through its Convention Against Torture, an international human rights agreement eventually ratified by 141 countries, the U.N. led the expansion of human rights law. Although an existing treaty already broadly prohibited such violence, the international community felt it needed to set well-defined legal standards around torture specifically.

Violence against women is no different. Responsible for defending global human rights, the U.N. is uniquely positioned to guide the world toward change. Such a treaty could promote consistency in international norms and encourage leaders to align their domestic laws. As demonstrated in Brazil, these actions can force accountability that will positively impact women’s lives.

Research shows that when nations take clear, evidence-based steps toward ensuring women’s safety, rates of violence plummet. For example, 15 years after the United States Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, intimate partner violence dropped by more than 50%. As a founding and leading member of the U.N., the U.S. can help by sharing its knowledge and resources.

To inspire these shifts worldwide, we need a legally binding treaty. We need to set legal standards that help eliminate gender stereotyping and punish abusers appropriately. We need increased funding for the training of law enforcement and health care professionals. And we need to prioritize the establishment of services for survivors and prevention education for the next generation.

A global treaty can serve as a catalyst for fundamental change and lead to justice for millions of women. At its core, the U.N. is about leveraging shared experiences to address shared problems. Together, as an international community, we can build a safer world for women and girls. We can turn the current system of silence into one of accountability and protection — because no amount of violence is ever acceptable.

Francisco Rivera is a human rights attorney, law professor, and founding director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Santa Clara University in California. He specializes in the inter-American human rights system and was a senior staff attorney at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States that is based in Costa Rica. He has been a consultant for a number of NGOs, as well as for the United Nations Development Programme, the International Labour Organization, and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights.