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CIM: making women's rights human rights.

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. It was established in 1928 and has the honor to be the first inter-governmental body created in the world to deal with women's issues. As part of its omnibus mandate to promote the advancement of women, its role in the struggle against violence is three-fold: it provides support to innovative projects in the region that develop methodologies to combat gender-based violence; it serves as a clearinghouse for information on the different activities underway in the region; and it supports the development of legislative reform. In this last strategic line of action the CIM has proposed a draft inter-American convention on women and violence which is presently before the governments of the member states. Its purpose is to squarely place the issue of violence against women in the range of human rights and to recognize that gender-based violence, whether perpetrated by public officials or private persons, is equally wrong and that states have a responsibility to eradicate it and to provide redress for the consequences through a broad range of measures.

Throughout the region CIM representatives are in the forefront of initiating legislative changes to put more teeth into the laws that deal with violence in all its aspects. In Chile, the CIM provided a bridge-grant to the National Women's Service (SERNAM--a government institution) to enable the rapid creation in 1991 of an office of advisory services which assists both victims and perpetrators of violence. In Brazil, a landmark event took place in 1985 with the creation of the first Women's Police Station, staffed by women specially trained to deal with violence against women. Today there are about seventy-four of these stations located throughout the country. This innovative approach to law enforcement has been replicated in other countries of the region, such as Uruguay and Peru.

Information can be a powerful tool for change if wielded effectively. Every country in the region has organizations that publish newsletters and fact sheets that report on occurrences. National and local newspapers, as well as public and private institutions, are being called upon to improve the way they report cases and to upgrade their data systems. In Paraguay, the 25th of November Collective, named for the International Day to Combat Violence Against Women, established a center to raise women's awareness about gender-based violence and to provide legal and psychological advisory assistance to women victims. Similar institutions exist in each of the member states. As a result of a national campaign spearheaded by outraged parents whose daughter was victimized on her university campus, some thirty-two states in the U.S. are considering passing legislation which would require universities to provide information regarding their commitment to security, crime prevention and law enforcement.

Two valuable sources of information are the newsletter MUJER/FEMPRESS, published in Spanish and covering the Americas region (Casilla 16-637, Santiago 9, Chile), and the publication of the International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) that circulates throughout the world and reports on advances and problems faced by women (IWRAW/WPPD, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, 301 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. 55455 USA).

Having found they can make common cause and draw upon each other's strengths, it is little wonder that women are joining hands across national lines. As part of this effort, gender-based violence against women is being denounced as a violation of the human rights of women. To the extent that governments do not put in place mechanisms for redress, the state is also deemed an actor with responsibility. This is perhaps the very basis of human rights--rights that the state itself has a responsibility to protect. In this sense, the issue brings the private and public sphere together. Lawyers are seeking to effect change by taking cases that challenge the confines of the law. Other institutions study the results of the cases and share information on landmark results, which in turn generates additional cases and ultimately modifies the law.

Dr. Sandra Dean-Patterson of The Bahamas once said that there can be no personal solutions to violence against women; that to accept a special burden of self-protection is to reinforce the concept that women must live and move about in fear and can never expect to achieve freedom, independence and self-assurance. This then is the challenge; this is the revolution. The women of the region have picked up the gauntlet and will not lay it down. This vigorous movement that has challenged traditional views of what constitutes a violation of human rights has found an echo in the governments of the region as they move to put in place institutional responses. The CIM is proud to be a vital part of this process.

Linda J. Poole is Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission of Women, a specialized agency of the Organization of American States.
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Title Annotation:Inter-American Commission of Women
Author:Poole, Linda J.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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