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Definition of Gender-based Violence

Article 1 of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women
(DEVW), proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in its resolution 48/104 of 20
December 1993, defines the term “violence against women” as:

“Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or
psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary
deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life (Unesco 1999 p.53)”

How is this definition connected to the definition of torture? In comparing the
wordings of the two definitions it is obvious that the above cited definition is more
General and, in contrast to the latter, it does not comment on whether the violence is
intentional or not. Intention is always an aggravating condition in court trials.

However, DEVW presupposes in the preamble that violence has an intent on the
societal level – through its wording of the reasons behind violence.

“…Violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are force into a
subordinate position compared with men” (Unesco 1999 p.52)

This definition does not include a gradation of violence as in the torture definition of
“severe pain and suffering whether physical or mental”, but rather focuses on the
results of the violence: physical, sexual and psychological harm and suffering. By
the wording: “threats of such acts” it includes, justifiably , specifically psychological
violence. Research on psychological trauma documents that threats against life and
body in a generally violent context with verbal humiliation and degradation results in
persistent mental harm. (Foy D. 1992) The terms “coercion and arbitrary liberty
deprivation” refers to all forms of isolation, arbitrary custody and strict control of
women’s movements, from prohibition to attend education or work (i.e. Afghanistan)
to sexual slavery (trafficking into prostitution in Europe and Asia) to detention in
Re-education and Labour camps in many Asian countries.

Three contexts of violence are differentiated in Article 2: Family, community and
state. The forms shall be understood to encompass , but not be limited to, the

a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family: wife-battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, and female genital mutilation
and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to
b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community: rape, sexual
abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work and education institutions, trafficking in women
and forced prostitution.
c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it
occurs (My underlining) (Unesco 1999 p.53)

Most of the violations, at all three levels, concern women’s sexuality, reproductive
capacity and their right to decide over their own body. Article 3 mentions explicitly
the right to not be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading
treatment or punishment. The list of violence-forms in the definition is not exhaustive.
Especially State-perpetrated or –condoned violence is not specified.

Some forms of State-violence are added in the text of the Beijing Declaration (1995)
as a result of the terrible experiences with massive rapes in former Yugoslavia,
Rwanda and Somalia and the reports of atrocious cases resulting from the
population control policies in countries like China and Colombia (ref.) These are:
Murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy in situations of armed
conflict (Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Indonesia, Somalia, Sierra Leone), forced
maternity (Bosnia), forced sterilization, forced abortion, coercive/forced use of
contraceptives, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection (China, Colombia,
Guatemala). (HRIC 1995, 1995, Chen 1999)

It is, however, unfortunate that the violence-forms concerning sexual slavery,
violations of reproductive rights and female infanticide are not included in the

All in all, one could argue that in focusing on the broad term of ‘violence’ in
connection to women we risk that governmental torture of women will be disguised
and blurred rather than highlighted.

I do not share this view. The gender-perspective on violence is a new trend in
Human Rights theory. Since September 1994 the issue of gender has been on the
agenda of the chairpersons of all Human Rights treaty bodies of the UN. The
Chairpersons agreed on strategies to closely monitor violations of women’s human
rights within the competence of their mandates. Thus the Special Rapporteur on
Torture has, for the first time ever, included torture against women as a special issue
in his annual report of 1995 (E/CN.4/1195/34, paras 15-25).

Never before have we seen, in UN reports on Torture, so detailed documentation
and theoretical analysis on women’s torture globally as in the reports of the Special
Rapporteur on Violence against Women.

The differentiation, stringency and inclusiveness of the analysis and definitions will
be a continuous process in the years to come in which scientists, Governmental
Organizations and NGOs all have a role to play.

I will in the following concentrate on State-perpetrated and State-condoned sexual
torture and CIDT. The terms sexual abuse and sexual assault are terms used in
psychological literature and will be used interchangeably.

Posted on 2002-11-11

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