December 01, 2016

Ending Violence Against Women: A Human Rights Imperative and a Target for Sustainable Development

On November 25th, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) joined the global development community in commemorating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women which launched 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This annual global advocacy campaign serves as a powerful reminder that women and girls have an inherent, inalienable and fundamental human right to be free from any form of violence. Yet, violence against women (VAW) or — more broadly — sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) constitutes one of the most systematic and widespread human rights violations around the world. According to U.N. Women, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. Women representing marginalized populations, including lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women, face unique vulnerabilities to SGBV because of particularly high levels of discrimination in their communities.


ABA ROLI’s multifaceted protection programs offer holistic care to SGBV survivors through legal aid clinics as well as networks of trained lawyers, paralegals and psychologists.

SGBV is a global pandemic deeply rooted in gendered social and cultural norms which devalue women and their role in society. This global pandemic is fueled by acceptance and normalization of violence in society and perception that such violence is a private matter. From seemingly subtle attempts at discrediting victims’ stories by family members; through harassment, ostracism and outright public attacks on their decency, dignity and credibility; to imprisonment, honor crimes and physical punishment for committing immoral or indecent acts, survivors of SGBV face high levels of stigma and re-victimization, often in their closest social support circles. As a result, most remain silent. In the U.S., only 40 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. In many developing countries, reporting of SGBV is even rarer due to instability, conflict and prohibitive legal, social and cultural norms.

Threatening the lives, rights and well-being of women and girls worldwide, SGBV constitutes a public health challenge and poses barriers to women’s civic, social, political and economic participation. As such, it is prohibited by an array of human rights treaties and other international standard-setting documents. However, in many countries, laws protecting women are still nonexistent or unenforced. Since 1996, ABA ROLI has worked extensively to improve the global response to SGBV by focusing interventions in this area on three main pillars: prevention, protection and accountability.

The prevention efforts range from legal empowerment, civic education and advocacy programs to early warning systems that use modern SMS technology and trained community observers to protect vulnerable communities from mass sexual assault and other atrocities. For example, ABA ROLI’s program in the Central African Republic (CAR) has recently deployed over 30 trained paralegals to seven target communities in an effort to create public awareness of SGBV laws and engage with women’s groups as well as local community, political and religious leaders on issues related to SGBV. Since May 2015, ABA ROLI has conducted more than 150 legal awareness sessions in Turkey for particularly vulnerable members of the Syrian refugee population, including youth, women and girls, focusing on issues like early and forced marriage, family law and SGBV.

ABA ROLI is also working to reduce the occurrence of domestic violence in various parts of the world. In Tajikistan, for example, ABA ROLI has partnered with criminal justice actors to raise public awareness of domestic violence in rural communities and help identify ways to collect statistical data on its prevalence across the country.

ABA ROLI’s multifaceted protection programs offer holistic care to SGBV survivors through legal aid clinics as well as networks of trained lawyers, paralegals and psychologists. These services encompass legal and quasi-legal assistance, medical referrals, psychosocial counseling and economic assistance through survivor support funds. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), ABA ROLI operates 22 legal clinics which have provided pro bono services to over 20,000 SGBV survivors and helped file over 11,000 cases with local authorities, resulting in nearly 2,000 concluded trials and over 1,000 convictions. ABA ROLI implements similar programs in CAR and Guinea where hundreds of SGBV survivors have been provided with legal assistance.

For nearly a decade, ABA ROLI has cultivated a close collaboration with China’s Supreme People’s Court to support a protection order project for survivors of domestic violence. Originally launched as a pilot in nine civil courts, the project has expanded to more than 200 courts which are now well-equipped to legally protect victims from their abusers. ABA ROLI has played an instrumental role in the project’s success, training judges, prosecutors and lawyers; assisting in the development of a widely disseminated and relied-upon civil judicial benchbook on domestic violence; and providing targeted research assistance. ABA ROLI also supports China’s first domestic violence clinics at three local universities which have trained more than 200 students and provided assistance to over 700 individuals.

ABA ROLI’s accountability interventions address impunity by building the capacity of the legal profession and justice system actors to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate SGBV cases in an effective and victim-centered manner. ABA ROLI offers trainings to police officers, prosecutors, judges and lawyers, and facilitates the deployment of mobile investigation teams and mobile courts to rural and underserved areas. In the DRC alone, ABA ROLI has educated more than 3,000 justice sector officials and lawyers on SGBV, including members of the Special Police Force for Women’s and Children’s Protection. In addition, ABA ROLI programs have provided the Congolese police force with motorcycles and trucks to facilitate SGBV investigations, distributed sexual assault evidence collection kits to local healthcare providers and trained them on forensic and evidentiary issues in an effort to mount successful cases against the perpetrators. In CAR, ABA ROLI’s advocacy efforts have recently prompted the Ministry of Justice to designate SGBV focal points within the judiciary in order to improve the adjudication of related cases. ABA ROLI has produced a globally adaptable training manual on prosecuting domestic violence in countries that are transitioning, or have recently transitioned, to adversarial criminal justice systems. ABA ROLI is also addressing impunity for SGBV and bias-motivated violence against LGBTI people. Finally, ABA ROLI has strived to ensure that accountability for SGBV is adequately reflected in transitional justice and peace-building processes in places like Libya, Mali and CAR.

In addition to targeted SGBV programs, ABA ROLI has made a concerted effort to integrate gender and SGBV issues into its existing criminal justice and legal education programs. For example, ABA ROLI has built the capacity of university-based legal clinics in Mexico to provide legal services to survivors of SGBV; supported mentor-mentee relationships among justice sector operators who handle SGBV cases in Haiti; and incorporated SGBV modules into ongoing trainings for Haitian judges, prosecutors and police investigators. Similarly, SGBV constitutes one of the substantive topics covered in ABA ROLI’s trainings for Serbian defense attorneys and for public prosecutors in Egypt.

ABA ROLI has been a leader in promoting legal reforms aimed at establishing legal and policy frameworks that adequately respond to SGBV. In this capacity, ABA ROLI conducts legislative assessments and assists local stakeholders in developing and implementing comprehensive laws and national action plans on domestic violence and other forms of SGBV. One of the most recent highlights is ABA ROLI’s support for the first national Anti-Domestic Violence Law in China, which was adopted in December 2015. The law contains explicit provisions on the use of protection orders, with several guidelines taken directly from the ABA ROLI-supported judicial benchbook, reflecting the program’s incredible success.

Ending SGBV is not only a human rights imperative; it is also vital for the world’s peace, prosperity, economic growth, global health, and other aspects of human development. ABA ROLI continues to remain at the forefront of this critical global endeavor.

To learn more about our work in combating sexual and gender-based violence, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org