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The Struggle for Freedom from FearContesting Violence against Women at the Frontiers of Globalization$

Alison Brysk

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190901516

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190901516.001.0001

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Constructing Human Rights

Constructing Human Rights

(p.30) 2 Constructing Human Rights
The Struggle for Freedom from Fear

Alison Brysk

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Contemporary understandings of the drivers suggest that gender based violence is related much more to sociological factors and power relations than to individual psychology or culture—although it is transmitted through mentalities of gender regimes that organize ideologies and practice of gender roles and dominance. In this chapter, we will review the lessons learned from a generation of human rights scholarship on reforming such power relations. We will analyze why violence against women requires additional forms of action that flow from literature on expanding rights, private wrongs, rights interdependence, intersectionality, and distinct patterns of response to different syndromes of violation and gender regime locations.

Keywords:   human rights, gender violence, constructivism, feminism

WE HAVE SEEN that violence against women is a massive, pervasive, and costly problem that is the biggest gap in the international human rights regime. Contemporary understandings of the drivers and risk factors for this form of abuse suggest that gender violence is related much more to sociological factors and power relations than to individual psychology or culture—although it is transmitted through mentalities of gender regimes that organize ideologies and practice of gender roles and dominance. Just as human rights scholarship has yielded greater insight into how to contest other forms of violent oppression, we will now examine what the history, logic, and ethos of human rights can tell us about how to contest VAW as a global problem. We will examine the turn to human rights for gender domination, the lessons of a generation of human rights scholarship on the dynamics of social change, feminist analysis of the limits and further development of the human rights model, and a new wave of human rights analysis delineating pathways for expansion.

2.1 Changing the subject: Women’s rights as human rights

After decades of denial, punctuated by occasional humanitarian efforts, in the past generation the massive abuse of women’s physical integrity has been met with the growth of the notion and norms of “women’s rights as human rights.” From the 1993 Vienna World Human Rights Conference onward, the global community has reframed women’s rights as human rights, moving from protection of a vulnerable population to a quest for gender justice. In the analysis that inspired the movement, activist Charlotte Bunch pointed out the extent of violence and its threat to life and fundamental freedoms, questioned the distinction between public and private violence, and showed that gender violence is a structural result of male dominance—a deeply political issue (Bunch 1990).Global activists who were present during the founding international conferences report that this phrase (p.31) actually originated with Filipina women’s rights activists, belying objections that women’s human rights are an elite Western imposition (Hudson 2015, 336).This has produced the emergence of new institutions such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, increased the presence of women’s movements and feminist agendas in global governance, and enhanced activities and resources of both the human rights and women’s rights regimes. Moreover, different forms of VAW have been framed and linked to health, development, and human security agendas (Peters and Wolper 1995).

Women’s human rights include the right to life, freedom, physical integrity, political participation, access to justice, health, education, reproductive rights, and nondiscrimination in access to and exercise of all the rights of any society or community. So women’s human rights are both universal and gendered; a woman may be persecuted or attacked for her political opinions or ethnic identity just like a man, and/or she may be abused on the basis of her identity as a woman or challenge of an assigned reproductive role. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms a universal right for both men and women to free marriage and to “found and form a family,” while the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) asserts women’s equal rights to freedom of movement, civil status, political participation, and free and fair labor conditions. The World Health Organization defines reproductive rights as the right to choose sex, pregnancy, and the number and spacing of children; sexual health including safe pregnancy; and freedom from sexual violence. Therefore, VAW may violate the rights to life, freedom, physical integrity, nondiscrimination, and reproductive rights (Table 2.1).

As with all human rights, these rights are interdependent and indivisible, but some of them can be analyzed as enabling rights for the pursuit of other outcomes. In this regard, the right to safety plays a special role, in that personal security is both a rights outcome and a precursor to the exercise of other rights such as political participation and education. Safety is an enabling right for the pursuit of public participation and for gender equity in the private sphere, but it is also a distinct dimension of women’s empowerment that does not automatically flow from the attainment of civil liberties or even access to health and education.

Table 2.1 International Standards on Gender Violence

Physical Security

Participation Rights

Reproductive Rights

CEDAW (1979)1

Suppress all forms of trafficking, Article 6

Equality of men and women before the law, Article 2

Eliminate discrimination in healthcare

DEVAW (1993)2

The right to life, liberty and security, Article 3

Equality, equal protection under the law, freedom from discrimination, Article 3

Istanbul Convention (2011)3

Stalking criminalized, Article 34

  • Forced abortion and sterilization criminalized, Article 39

  • Provide services for victims of domestic violence, Articles 20—26

  • Victim’s right to claim compensation, Article 30

  • Forced marrage invalid, Article 32

  • Forced marriage criminalized, Article 37

Physical violence criminalized, Article 35

All nonconsensual sexual acts criminalized, Article 36

Female genital mutilation criminalized, Article 38

Sexual harassment criminalized, Article 40

The right to access emergency barring orders, restraining, or protection orders, Article 52 & 53

Recognition of gender-based violence as a basis for asylum claims, Article 60

Honor killings and cultural justifications unacceptable for crimes of violence against women, Article 42

Convention of Belém do Pará (1994)4

All women have full access to human rights, Article 4

  • Exercise of and full protection of all rights including civil and political, Article 5

  • Right to be free from all forms of discrimination, Article 6

  • Establish procedures to criminalize, prosecute, and punish violence against women through fair and effective legal procedures, Article 7

Palermo Protocol5

Prevent trafficking and protect victims of trafficking; provide victims with full services

UN Resolutions6

  • Prevent sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict. Incorporate gender perspective into peacekeeping operations UN Res 1325;

  • Elimination of domestic violence against women, General Assembly Res 18/147; Prevent and prosecute trafficking in women and girls, UN Res 61/144

Increase protection, funding, and involvement of women at all levels of government, UN Res 2242, 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889, 1960, 2106, 2122

Health and reproductive services for female victims of sexual violence during armed conflict, UN Res 2106

(1) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)1979

(2) Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW)1994

(3) Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention)2011

(4) Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará)1994

(5) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol)2000

(6) To read the United Nations resolutions, search by their symbol at UN Document Documents.

2.2 Human rights and the dynamics of change

If violence against women is fundamentally an abuse of power rather than a psychological problem or cultural atavism, the same political tools we use to contest all forms of human rights abuse have the potential to change VAW: consciousness-raising, mobilization, global governance, and policy reform. A generation of research on the politics of human rights shows that critical factors for challenging all forms of human rights violations include naming and framing abuse, bringing transnational pressure “from above and below,” using information politics, empowering vulnerable groups, and institutionalizing (p.32) (p.33) (p.34) change through law (Keck and Sikkink 1998). This parallels the policy repertoire and recommendations of more specific studies of VAW: empowering women, engaging men, and ending impunity (Hudson et al. 2015). Beyond the established human rights model, for “private wrongs” committed by nonstate actors, rights campaigns must work to make the personal political by identifying new rights standards for previously ungoverned social behavior, find new leverage mechanisms beyond the legal regime, and establish new responsibilities for states and global governance (Brysk 2005).

But acting globally to end VAW also requires an expansion of human rights frames, claims, and mechanisms (Brysk and Stohl eds. 2017). Gender-based killing is newly framed as “femicide,” revealing new patterns and inspiring waves of legislation and mobilization. Political mobilization and litigation have helped to establish the state’s “due diligence” obligation to protect citizens from private harm, as well as to demonstrate state sponsorship, delegation, or criminal negligence of abuses that appear to be committed by private parties. Global models of implementation move from capacity building to gendered urban planning, resource rights, and refugee protection. Hierarchical and intersectional patterns of gender violence reveal deeper interdependence between women’s human rights and lagging socioeconomic, cultural, and reproductive rights. These new initiatives in turn expand the human rights regime.

Transnational mobilization for human rights achieves leverage “from above and below,” in phases over time (Brysk 1995). The international human rights regime provides a repertoire of norms, claims, resources, mechanisms, and processes for addressing VAW. The main channels of international regime influence at the national and local level, for all kinds of human rights campaigns, are the diffusion of law and policy models, capacity building for challengers and willing states, and transnational advocacy network pressure. In the “spiral model” of evolving state response, states adopt policies on VAW most readily when they face both global and civil society pressure, and responsiveness evolves over time from denial to acknowledgment to commitment to compliance. Rapidly modernizing states that are materially dependent on global approbation are the most likely to do so—but even norms injected from above can and do become internalized and institutionalized over time with continuing contestation from below (Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 2013). As Avdeyeva (2007) argues for 25 post-communist states ratifying CEDAW and policy compliance on VAW, treaty adherence is often driven by top-down signaling and logic of appropriateness—yet it can gain unexpected traction by subjecting states to monitoring bodies and empowering information politics in civil society, which will be most effective for the most internationally enmeshed countries (like Kosovo, the Czech Republic, and Poland) (Avdeyeva 2007).

In the revised spiral model that goes beyond the basic transnational pressure model and contemplates nonstate perpetrators and backlash reversals, human rights reform also depends on the power relations of abuse: notably, the concentration of authority for the violation as well as state capacity for reform, which will generally take a different form for private wrongs (Brysk in Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 2013). Montoya further outlines (p.35) three pathways to reform leverage specific to transnational advocacy combating VAW, in the “most likely” case of the European Union: transnational coalitions connecting local and global pressures on the state in the “boomerang” model as above (Keck and Sikkink 1998), but also domestically driven reform with strong local advocates and state responsiveness, and a third possibility of top-down internationally driven diffusion. The domestic pathway seems to flow most often from modernizing or transitional state identities, while receptivity to top-down diffusion is conditioned by the state’s linkages to global governance (Montoya 2013). These elaborations of international regime dynamics suggest that transitional semi-liberalizing regimes are likely to show a strong dialectical relationship between global, state, and grassroots human rights reform. Indeed, Simmons argues that the general pattern for human rights reform is that “international civil rights treaties will have their greatest effect where stakeholders—local citizens—have the motive and the means to demand treaty compliance. This is most likely to be the case not in stable autocracies, where such demands are likely to be crushed, nor in stable democracies, where the motive to mobilize is attenuated due to rights saturation, but in transitional countries where the expected value of mobilization is maximized” (Simmons 2009a).

On the other hand, the double-edged impact of acculturation is especially visible in rapidly changing developing democracies, where gendered violence, like ethnic conflict, will be a common scapegoating mechanism by losers of globalization and reactive nationalists. The rise of modernized “rape cultures” and repertoires of gang rape and urban sexual violence in emerging countries like India, South Africa, Egypt, and Mexico illustrate this phenomenon and generate both local reform demand and resistance. Yet emerging democracies that seek a stronger regional or global role, like Turkey, Brazil, and India, have strong incentives to incorporate global norms and participate in global institutions—providing a potential necessary condition for effective mobilization. For example, Turkey hosted the 2011 drafting of the Council of Europe’s Convention on Violence Against Women and was the first country to ratify it; Brazil has been a regional leader on domestic violence and the Inter-American Convention; while Mexico pioneered landmark femicide legislation to counter international criticism of border zone serial killings of women. These global linkages and aspirations may result in legislation and institutions that provide new opportunities for social movements, but are extremely dependent on ongoing empowerment and social transformation. In this sense, the modernizing emerging nations have both “more murder in the middle” and more movement in the middle.

For all forms of social change, there is “power in movement,” and transnational action networks are a complementary aspect of the international regime (Tarrow 1994). Transnational campaigns involve mobilizing structures such as networks, norm entrepreneurs, solidarity alliances, and experts (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001). The global movement to end VAW was marked by typical phases of transnational mobilization: problem definition with movement consciousness-raising and bonding, solution (p.36) framing by experts, and politicization to pressure states and build alliances from above and below (Joachim 2003). Impact is visible at the comparative national level: a study of policies against VAW in 70 countries over four decades shows that “feminist mobilization in civil society . . . accounts for variation in policy development” (Htun and Weldon 2012).

Cutting across these levels of analysis, human rights scholarship identifies the soft power of information politics in global civil society as a key determinant of the success of human rights campaigns confronting a range of abuses and power relations (Castells 2009). Like historic human rights campaigns, efforts to raise consciousness regarding VAW depend on the ability to locate globally resonant and emblematic “innocent victims” (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Similarly, VAW is challenged most successfully when it can be linked to a preexisting and powerful frame, as in “sex slavery” for human trafficking or “health rights” for FGM/C. Communication power operates through introducing new and effective voices, frames, and performances of human rights claims that resonate with an audience due to bridging narratives, cause célèbres, and media campaigns (Brysk 2013). Symbolic events can catalyze access, including UN conferences (Friedman et al. 2005). In the area of women’s rights, “NGOs attempt to influence states’ interests by framing problems, solutions, and justifications for political action” (Joachim 2003, 247).

An important facet of rights reform is institutionalizing change through law, and law represents the foundation and origin of the international rights regime. Despite debates on the sincerity and impact of treaty ratification, Simmons ( 2009b) finds that ratification of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Convention Against Torture (CAT), and Convention on the Rights of The Child (CRC) are positively associated with improvements in human rights protections—but only when coupled with civil society activism, judicial enforcement, and transnational socialization. Other scholars find the strongest international norm effects from regional treaties, and specifically note the domestic impact of the first and strongest Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Activists interact with legal and institutional change as they raise awareness of treaties and norms, train governments, and lobby legislatures (Weldon and Htun 2012).

In all of these transnational human rights reform processes, the state level plays a critical role in filtering the international regime, enacting citizenship rights and autonomous women’s rights reform, and empowering or repressing human rights movement mobilization. Human rights theorists analyze the dynamics of the state’s role in reform by considering the influence of national regime type, legal structure, institutional networks, freedoms, and social mobilization (Cardenas 2007). An overwhelming body of research identifies some level of democracy as critical to human rights (Davenport 2000), while analysts such as Foweraker and Landman (1997) focus on the importance of citizenship rights seen in fundamental freedoms and social empowerment. Brysk and Shafir (eds. 2004) condition the impact of globalization to improve human rights on the “citizenship gap” in the membership and legal status of affected groups. In a parallel analysis (p.37) of indigenous peoples’ rights in Latin America, Deborah Yashar shows how the contradiction between neoliberalizing political economy and liberalizing citizenship regimes drives a process of contested reform (Yashar 2005)—very similar to the dynamic of transitional gender regimes in the semi-liberal BRICS and beyond.

Given the “patriarchal pact” of state and society discussed in the last chapter relative to gender regimes, Savery argues more systematically that the diffusion of gender equity norms will need to combine international construction and interaction with domestic power relations—including domestic feminist activism and the state (Savery 2007). Specifically, Sonia Alvarez (1990) and Jane Jaquette (2006) chronicle the relationship between rights, democracy, and social mobilization for women’s rights issues in general. Similarly, Mala Htun (2003) shows how state institutions and issue-networks shape women’s reproductive rights—above and beyond culture and even regime type. Just as Donnelly (2007), Hertel and Minkler (2007), and others emphasize the interdependence of economic and social rights with civil rights and security, Cherif (2015) finds that women’s rights in the Mideast depend more on core education and labor rights than on development, religion, or even international standards. In sum, citizenship matters—and we should expect it to interact systematically with international human rights regime dynamics for change in VAW.

Finally, a factor that emerges from the human rights literature but has not been systematically modeled is the influence of issue type on the dynamics of change within the spectrum of human rights abuse. Separate subsets of human rights studies have developed to discuss classes of violations governed by separate treaties, following different patterns of prevalence, and generating different mobilization and global responses—such as torture and genocide. I will argue that the systematic differences in the dynamics of change for these distinct genres of abuse can be projected to the parallel gendered form of violence: slavery, genocide, and torture are analogous to trafficking, femicide, and rape. This interacts with the gender regime, in that gender regimes have characteristic prevalence, perpetrator, intersectional, and geographic profiles of these syndromes of violence—and we can transfer lessons from the parallel form of human rights abuse to the form of intervention for VAW.

Why have some forms of violence been more easily recognized and contested than others? Why do parallel and at times overlapping forms of abuse receive different response at some times and in some places? Although issues like human trafficking have inspired global treaties, regional initiatives, US aid, and extensive advocacy, other forms of VAW are more difficult to recognize and/or resistant to governance. Slavery, like trafficking, was recognized first and benefited from its border-crossing resonance and shifting political economy; genocide, like femicide, was rapidly stigmatized but founders on sovereignty and power relations; and torture, like sexual violence, remains the most resilient, functional, and potentially privatized abuse. These differences in response can be traced to different power structures of each form of abuse, different leverage points and state capacity for change, different framing and representation of different forms of violence by advocates, and strategic alignments with broader national and international interests.

(p.38) Among the panoply of forms of violence, trafficking is a “best case scenario”: a border-crossing threat to the security of strong states, with dispersed and marginal beneficiaries, which is framed as slavery and evokes an unusual coalition of feminist, religious, law enforcement, and children’s advocates in a lowest-common-denominator humanitarian rubric. While early attention garnered a strong intervention, the politics of mobilization also distorted response and generated subsequent struggles and reorientation to a more rights-based versus protectionist frame. Issues that are “most likely to succeed” can also easily become ghettoized from the broader understanding and response to abuse, requiring a bridging strategy. For example, while trafficking as a chronic form of transnational criminal exploitation is well established in popular imagination and international policy, advocates struggle to link the increasing incidence of trafficking among refugees and displaced populations (Brysk and Choi-Fitzpatrick 2012). Moreover, trafficking is inextricably intertwined with issues of border security and crime that increase leading host-state incentives and responsiveness in both international and national law, but exert constant pressure for more prosecutorial and governance approaches rather than rights and victim-centered models (Lloyd and Simmons 2014).

By contrast, the response to localized violence to deprive women of reproductive freedoms, such as child marriage and honor killings endemic in the MENA region and South Asia, has lagged significantly in effective mobilization. Far along the spectrum of nonstate, delegated, and naturalized perpetrators such as families, in relatively weak states that delegate universal and constitutional rights to legal pluralism, such issues have only recently found local voice to contest cultural counter-frames through resonant figures like Malala Yousafzai. “Rights talk” and even state-generated legal reform has been relatively unavailing, and efforts like the Tostan campaign against FGM/C have achieved traction largely through close attention to vernacularization, collective socialization, and alliances with international health regimes.

The issue politics of gender-based killing are more mixed and delayed: public recognition of violence is easier than other forms of abuse, as it results in homicide, but mobilization is more difficult and response even more limited. The emerging frame of “femicide” brings together a range of tactics to suppress female population, like sex-selective abortion and female infanticide in India and China (“gendercide”), with an epidemic of rape-torture-mutilation murders of women along the US–Mexico border and throughout Central America (“feminicide”). The tens of thousands of women killed annually by domestic violence in Russia, Brazil, and other rapidly developing nations is now also approached as a gender-based hate crime. In more traditional societies, gender-based targeted killings may take the form of assassination of hundreds of alleged witches in parts of Africa, South Asia, and Papua New Guinea—highlighted in recent United Nations reports. These abuses are truly private wrongs by nonstate perpetrators that often occur in ungoverned spaces against women who are multiply disadvantaged as migrants, peasants, ethnic minorities, illiterate, or simply poor. The key to information politics for mobilization is pattern recognition through documentation, from the killings in Ciudad (p.39) Juarez to Amartya Sen’s “100 Million Women Are Missing.” The recent femicide frame has evoked mobilization and episodic policy response. Women’s movements and global development alliances have helped push policy responses in the Americas and some aspirational developing countries such as Turkey, but legal response to gendercide in India has been largely unavailing, and domestic violence is just emerging on the political agenda in both Russia and China—and even suffering backlash.

Sexual violence is a multifaceted form of torture, terror, and crime, enacted along the full spectrum from state sponsorship to “private wrong.” Global campaigns against sexual violence have emerged the most recently, and have traveled from war crimes to criminal public assault by private parties, with slow but increasing recognition of state-sponsored rape in national conflicts and authoritarian regimes, and lagging acknowledgment of state-delegated and domestic sexual violence. The privatization and naturalization of rape as illicit sex rather than abuse of power has undercut both mobilization and policy response worldwide, compounded by widespread cultural norms of shame around sexual violation that compound the trauma and disabling impact, discouraging voice (even among male victims). The conflict frame of “rape as a weapon of war” has the potential to overcome patriarchal notions of consent and legitimate victims as representatives of the aggrieved national or ethnic community, turning shame to martyrdom. Like the wider human rights regime, violence in the interstate public sphere is privileged over national and private violence but, unlike the human rights campaign transition from war crimes to state terror, domestic legal response to sexual assault is muddied by patriarchal criminal codes, family law, and delegated legal pluralism. Concern with sexual violence has been mainstreamed in international human rights campaigns against dictatorships and counter-insurgencies, but response to state negligence of chronic rape regimes in democracies has emerged only when highly symbolic, shocking cases, like the 2012 Delhi rape, combined with high levels of both global concern and local protest. Even well-designed legal reforms have foundered on problems of enforcement, political will, and popular socialization in India and South Africa, and current international approaches are moving toward urban policy (UN Habitat, Global Safe Cities), gender-based violence education (Promundo), and technological empowerment of women at risk (Harass Map).

This broader understanding of the dynamics of rights-based change articulates well with the inductive analysis of a major international promoter of gender equity, Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), based on surveying decades of interventions by major UN agencies, foreign aid providers, and transnational NGOs for both men and women. Their principles for a theory of change flow from an ecological model of the cause, and echo the dynamics outlined above:

1. Context is critical: successful interventions are those that are tailored and based on rigorous analysis of the particular factors affecting violence against women and girls in a specific context, including setting, form of violence, and population affected by the violence. (p.40)

2. The state has primary responsibility for action on violence against women and girls: national governments hold the ultimate responsibility for implementing laws, policies, and services around violence against women and girls and can achieve change on violence against women and girls.

3. Holistic and multi-sectoral approaches are more likely to have impact: coordinated interventions operating at multiple levels, across sectors, and over multiple time frames are more likely to address the various aspects of, and therefore have greater impact on, tackling violence against women and girls.

4. Social change makes the difference: sustained reduction in violence against women and girls will only occur through processes of significant social change, including in social norms, at all levels.

5. Backlash is inevitable but manageable: resistance to tackling violence against women and girls, which may include increased risk of further violence against women and girls, is inevitable where root causes are being addressed but can, and should be, managed.

6. Women’s rights organizations (WROs) create and sustain change: supporting WROs, especially those working to tackle violence against women and girls, to make changes, and build strong and inclusive social movements, is the most effective mechanism for ensuring sustainable change in the lives of women and girls.

7. Empowering women is both the means and the end: focusing on the rights of, and being accountable to, women and girls is the most effective way of tackling gender inequality as the root cause of violence against women and girls (Alexander-Scott 2012).

2.3 Freedom from fear: Why is this right different from all other rights?

While rights-based campaigns and lessons drawn from the historic repertoire are necessary to address VAW, they are not sufficient. There are some systematic differences between gendered insecurity and the state violations of civil and political rights that established the international human rights regime. The incidence, addressees, norms, mechanisms, and interdependence of VAW pose additional challenges for rights-based reform, and ultimately push for an expansion of human rights itself. At the same time, the study of semi-liberal gender regimes at the frontiers of globalization can yield particular insights into these incomplete areas of the human rights regime: the security dilemma, privatization, contradictions of modernity, politics of law, and complex intersectional interdependence.

First of all, aside from the gendered nature of VAW, there is a broken link between personal security and the broader corpus of civil and political rights that is heightened at the frontiers of globalization. Early struggles for the four freedoms and democratization assumed a positive interdependence in which democracy checks impunity, civil (p.41) liberties provide transparency and voice, and citizenship grants accountability for the abuse of power by the state. International law was presumed to provide a safety net for border-crossing war crimes, refugees, and slavery. While there is negative interdependence as totalitarian regimes inevitably violate life and bodily integrity in order to crush freedom, the assumed positive linkage has proven elusive; elected governments and civil liberties do not necessarily insure respect for personal security—for men and women alike. Journalists and human rights defenders are especially at risk of assault, torture, and assassination from a murky combination of paramilitaries, police, and criminals that instills a regime of fear that undermines their formal freedoms—just like the rape regime and honor attacks undermine women’s freedom of movement and political participation in deadly democracies (Haschke 2014). This is why political empowerment is not enough to insure women’s security, especially in semi-liberal and post-conflict regimes. The “triangles of empowerment” deemed sufficient to foster women’s rights in a stable, sovereign democratic polity—political leadership, bureaucracy, and civic movements (Vargas and Wieringa 1998)—must add a fourth and fifth element: fundamental security in the home and the street.

The gendered conceptual challenge for women’s rights as human rights is that “private wrongs”—human rights violations by nonstate actors—shape the requisites of mobilization and policy in distinctive ways (Brysk 2005). VAW has different patterns of causality and consequently leverage than government suppression of dissidents, as it often emanates from decentralized nonstate perpetrators like families (Brysk in Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 2013). Sometimes the addressee of women’s rights is the state, ranging from state-sponsored sexual assault to women’s suffrage to equal access to property rights to family planning. But often the source of the denial of women’s rights is a private actor: an exploitative employer, sex trafficker, abusive family, tribal council, or religious institution. And states and international institutions may be sponsors, regulators, isolated from, or powerless over private actors, domains, or zones. Gendered violence is often governed across borders or below the state through institutions like family law, complicating enforcement. Cross-border forms of VAW like trafficking and conflict rape are usually generated by a combination of distortions in global power relations and shortfalls in the sovereignty of the very state that is failing to protect its female citizens (Tickner 2001; Enloe 2014; Pettman 1996).

Moreover, while VAW is perpetrated by a spectrum of state and nonstate actors, part of its repressive power comes from the naturalization of structural violence and the privatization of state complicity that evades accountability to citizens and universal norms. The most disabling violence is that which cannot be named, framed as a violation of a universal social standard, or attributed to an actor for accountability—when VAW is deeply internalized as an inevitable background condition of war, marriage, migration, or regime control. One consequence and illustration of this dynamic is a systematic difference in the relative treatment of public and private sexual violence by liberal and authoritarian states with different governance logics of privatization. Liberal states are (p.42) quicker to tackle public assault, which is a threat to the rule of law and women’s public citizenship, but often lag on acknowledging and sanctioning private-domain violence, whether marital rape or campus assault. By contrast, modernizing authoritarian states like China or Iran will initially target domestic violence as a private deviation from public norms, but usually deny and delay confronting public assault that undermines the state’s claim to provide order—or may involve the negligence or even participation of state agents.

The content and dissemination of the norms of gender equity are also a particular challenge for universalist models of human rights reform. Different kinds of rights have a different historical association with the power relations of modernity and create different stakeholders on the ground, and gender equity is fragile on both counts. While some analysts promote and applaud the diffusion of beliefs about women’s empowerment as global common sense (Sen 1990; King and Mason 2001), others decry the adoption of a prestigious “modern” norm promulgated by dominant powers as a “mark of civilization” to raise their international status (Towns 2010). In constructivist terms, this is a “logic of appropriateness” where roles outweigh principled beliefs; it is also a global version of Appiah’s (2010) notion of a collective “honor code” that inspires expansion of rights and citizenship. For example, arguments for the introduction of women’s suffrage in Kuwait in 2005 repeatedly cited global embarrassment rather than rights, beliefs, or local stakeholders (cited in Hudson 2012, 174). Overall, norms associated with central contradictions of modernity tend to provide greater leverage for adoption but place a greater burden on social mobilization for implementation by an ambivalent state—and women’s rights is a prime example that is intensified at the frontiers of globalization where modernity is extremely contested. The CEDAW women’s rights regime and associated monitoring mechanisms foster complex learning and contestation among global institutions, transnational networks, and the gendered state. This negotiated and dynamic process of change produces an unpredictable combination of socialization, backlash, and transnational redefinition of norms at the same time, at both the global and state levels (Zwingel 2012).

Women’s rights also have a different relationship to law, since the ambit and constitutive function of law is distinct from historic civil and political rights. Classic human rights issues began with war crimes and the border-crossing violation of the slave trade in international humanitarian law during the 19th century, then entered international human rights law via key international covenants following the Holocaust (the International Covenants on Civil-Political and Economic and Social Rights (ICCPR and ICECSR), along with the Genocide and Refugee Conventions). A generation later, the international agenda of human rights issues expanded to domestic civil liberties and rule of law, along with the campaign against torture, which were long proposed in established constitutional democracies but have been activated in new ways by transnational social movements, and became central features of campaigns against authoritarian (p.43) regimes during the 1980s and 1990s as dozens of states transitioned to democracy. A key channel of implementation is the enactment of domestic law that incorporates international standards and the diffusion of legal codes, law enforcement repertoires, and capacity building for human rights monitoring, resources, and national institutions (Brysk ed. 2013).

By contrast, VAW is more recently governed by congeries of family law, religious and tribal law, international private law, public law, constitutional norms, the human rights covenants, revised war crimes standards and jurisprudence, issue-specific treaties such as trafficking, and actor-specific treaties like CEDAW. Some of these bodies of law are not rights based, and all are gendered in construction and impact. The sequence of rights recognition and jurisdiction is different for VAW, as law on trafficking arises along with slavery during the 19th century, but war crimes against women are not addressed until the 1990s. Moreover, gendered forms of violence like domestic violence and marital rape are still not addressed in the national laws in dozens of states—in March 2013, women’s groups marched in Lebanon to support a proposed law to criminalize domestic violence, against parliamentary opposition. And even when there are clear laws sanctioning VAW that are properly located in a universal criminal code, there are well-documented systematic barriers to legal monitoring and enforcement for VAW, especially sexual violence. At the frontiers of globalization, even as the architecture of law begins to universalize, generic lack of access to justice and accountability intensify the barriers to gender justice.

Finally, women’s rights and security are extraordinarily interdependent with their economic and social, collective, and reproductive rights, with tremendous implications for the intersectional struggle for rights by populations systematically disadvantaged in these other dimensions of rights. While all human rights are doctrinally indivisible, their degree of empirical interdependence varies greatly—and once again, these linkages are acute in the semi-liberal regimes with intense levels of social inequality and clashing conceptions of reproductive rights. Women who are poor, from marginalized identity groups, in less developed countries, forcibly displaced, or politically repressed are often disadvantaged at multiple levels within their community, in the wider polity, and globally. Such women therefore are both especially vulnerable to abuse and doubly lack the security, freedom, and resources to contest it (Ackerley 2008). For example, a Guatemalan indigenous woman may be beaten in her home, raped by paramilitaries or police for her ethnicity or political activism, assaulted in a refugee camp (perhaps even by international personnel), trafficked for sexual exploitation, attacked by urban gangs in her shantytown, sexually harassed as a domestic worker, or assassinated migrating to a global factory—and this woman might lack permission from her family to report the abuse, access to medical treatment, command of the national language, knowledge of her rights, bus fare to the office or court, birth registration or citizenship papers, permission from her employer for time off, childcare, and protection from retaliation.

(p.44) Thus, intersectional feminist analysis supplements human rights interdependence to show how

Violence can be analyzed both via how it traverses intersecting systems of power as well as by how it is organized across domains of power. Across varying social contexts, the use or threat of violence has been central to power relations that produce social inequalities. . . . An intersectional analysis reveals how violence is not only understood and practiced within discrete systems of power, but also how it constitutes a common thread that connects racist, colonialism, patriarchy, and nationalism, for example. (Hill et al. 2016, 55)

Another axis of rights interdependence that vexes campaigns for women’s human rights is the insecurity that results from denial and denigration of women’s reproductive roles and rights, since the logic of many forms of violence is control of women’s reproductive lives. Reproductive rights are the most recent, contingent, and contested rights in both international and domestic law. Rights to marital and reproductive self-determination garner the most reservations in the widely subscribed CEDAW treaty. Many states do not recognize marital rape or a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, and displaced or migrant women often lack access to reproductive health services and legal protection from sexual abuse. Sex workers almost everywhere are more vulnerable to violence, are systematically denied protection, and are often abused by police. In many countries, prosecution of sexual assault or trafficking for sexual exploitation demands proof of failure to consent—in contrast to response to parallel forms of nonsexual violence like robbery or debt bondage. Moreover, the characteristic form of abuse of women’s bodily integrity is sexual violence, and its harms often include potentially fatal sexually transmitted disease, forced pregnancy, and/or damage to reproductive capacity. Gendered lack of reproductive rights and health rights may compound the consequences of the violation, and discriminatory and even abusive treatment of victims by police and legal institutions has been labeled a “second assault.” Women’s reproductive roles increase vulnerability to violence, while sexual self-determination lags behind women’s rights as workers, citizens, and victims of war and disaster, and appears to be the dimension of rights most prone to backlash even in developed democracies. Emerging research based on the WomanStats database, tracking dozens of indicators for 176 countries for over a decade, demonstrates that indicators of patriarchal social organization such as polygyny and marriage exchange value are robustly associated with women’s physical insecurity as well as other forms of conflict and violence (Hudson et al. 2017).

2.4 Expanding rights: Strategies and pathways

As in other areas of emerging rights, the special challenges of acting globally to end VAW may lead to creative expansion of human rights actors, frames, mechanisms, and (p.45) responsibilities (Brysk and Stohl eds. 2017). The successful campaign to frame rape as a war crime installs a formerly privatized wrong in the international human rights regime. The globalized commodification of human trafficking gains attention when it is described as a form of pre-modern slavery, bridging frames. Child marriage is reframed as a rights problem rather than a cultural gap, and linked to domestic violence, health rights, and education. Reframing FGM/C as a health rights claim facilitates coalition-building on global public health (Baer and Brysk 2008), with similar patterns on domestic violence. Campaigns craft new frames: gender-based killing worldwide is framed as “femicide” by activists and a series of UN conferences, revealing new patterns of abuse and responsibility and inspiring legislation and mobilization responses in the Americas and South Asia.

From the global governance side, the new rights claims of women’s human rights campaigns are accepted and extended, creating a new political opportunity structure for the next round of transnational mobilization. The World Bank, as the largest development institution on the planet, has bridged gender equity and women’s security to improvement in nutrition, education, child development, and overall productivity (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and World Bank 2012). In a 20-country study On Norms and Agency (p. 4), the World Bank affirms and helps extend the norm, stating that the Bank takes gender equality as both a right that is an end in itself as well as a capacity necessary for development. The Bank, which is a hegemonic global institution in both the political and Gramscian conceptual sense, defines women’s agency in terms that acknowledge the interdependence of rights and security as freedom of movement, free choice regarding fertility, freedom from violence, and voice in society.

Expanding rights for private wrongs also involves mobilizing new actors and new types of campaigns. Alongside the transnational networks that established women’s rights as human rights and the national women’s movements that lobbied for law and protested in the public sphere, new layers of local and virtual activism add new claims, repertoires, and reach to the movement. At the local level, grassroots movements like India’s Gulabi Gang struggle against interlocking abuses of poverty, corruption, caste, domestic violence, and child marriage with a highly vernacular repertoire of direct action and occupying sites of local power. Millions of young women worldwide have closed the digital divide to launch viral campaigns to shame harassers in India, protest rape culture in Brazil, or chronicle domestic violence in China. Online movements often stress sexual self-determination and link women’s autonomy to safety. In the second generation of women’s rights as human rights, male feminists seek to transform their own relationship to violence and create a more peaceful and just world.

For freedom from fear, the state may be both the target of mobilization and the mechanism for fulfillment. As Hudson reminds us, the state can be both an oppressor and protector of women’s rights, with leverage points in the policy areas of rights monitoring, protection for human rights defenders, education, reproductive health services, incentives like scholarships for girls, political quotas for gender representation, women’s (p.46) participation in peace negotiations, women in local civil structures, women in police, employment discrimination, paid maternity leave, and foreign policy for gender equity, alongside gendered legal frameworks like the status of religious rulings vis-a-vis state law, minimum age for marriage, equal right to divorce, equal property rights, femicide laws, and asylum laws (Hudson 2013, 129). Implementation and campaign goals have moved to building accountable state mechanisms and access for gendered urban planning, resource rights, refugee protection, and public policy for transportation, sanitation, and education.

Implementation can also be expanded through grounding new norms in local alternative mechanisms that go beyond the standard legal model. Merry (2006) argues that “in order for human rights ideas to be effective. . . they need to be translated into local terms and situated within local contexts of power and meaning. In other words, to be remade in the vernacular” (p. 1). For example, she shows how local activists in Delhi helped set up women’s (informal) courts during the 1990s to help women access meaningful and appropriate redress for domestic violence. We will extend this insight on expanding rights to policy domains beyond the legal and translation to local vernacular norms and social processes to struggles against VAW worldwide.

To combat private wrongs also means expanding responsibilities. In issues from VAW to corporate social responsibility, political mobilization and litigation have helped to establish the state’s “due diligence” obligation to protect citizens from private harm, as well as to demonstrate state sponsorship, delegation, or criminal negligence of abuses that appear to be committed by private parties (Marshall 2008). As an early leader at a national level, Brazil’s democratizing 1988 constitution in paragraph 8, article 226 expresses the duty of the state to create mechanisms to avoid violence in the family. As we will see below, international doctrine on due diligence developed in tandem, especially in the European and Inter-American systems.

Another facet of expanding human rights and responsibilities for women’s security is norm change that bridges rights talk and collective gender regime norms, with the potential to socialize a broader range of actors. A systemic analysis may yield insight on how to change the incentives of both men and women who benefit from or depend upon patriarchal structures, such as mothers whose daughters’ marriageability and economic survival depends on female genital cutting as long as it is a group norm—that can be transformed by grassroots campaigns. Correspondingly, unpacking patriarchal power relations allows appeals to modernizing gender equity norms to seek allies for relatively powerless victims in other sectors who benefit from change, like aspiring young men who may benefit from the education of women in their household or community. However, the critical norm expansion of reproductive rights often confronts resurgent counter-frames of nationalism, religious ideology, and honor/shame culture.

The privatization of gender violence, contested modernity, complex rights intersectionality, and limitations of the modal human rights mechanism of law also require an expansion of implementation mechanisms and responsibilities. At the national (p.47) level, this analysis will show how a rights-based combination of law, public policy, civil society mobilization, and value change is needed to fully address gender violence—and which elements will be most critical for which abuses and gender regime types. For example, public policy has particular influence in transitional regimes with high levels of urban poverty. Law is unlikely to affect structural gender violence in patriarchal political economies without significant value change and mobilization to reconstruct interests. Conversely, in transitional regimes, gendered vulnerability to public violence depends less on relatively established legal rights and modernizing gender norms and more on public policy, state capacity, and mobilization to pressure distorted democracies. Across all types of gender regimes, sexual violence is more legitimized and privatized, requiring much more norm change and information politics relative to other types of abuse.

We will also trace the inherent potential and limitations within each pathway of response to illustrate the salient features that enhance, distort, or block the impact of women’s human rights struggles for law, public policy, mobilization, and norm change. Different aspects of each pathway are challenged by the structural parameters of the gender regime in which the struggle occurs. For example, within the strategy of law, the architecture of law is generally a limiting feature—contrasted with the expansive potential of vernacular translation within the strategy of social movement mobilization. More generally, the impact of law on gender violence depends on factors related to legal architecture, access, and accountability that present differently for gender regimes and abuse syndromes. For traditional abuses and patriarchal regimes, violence may be authorized by the structure of the law itself, whereas for public crimes in semi-liberal regimes, the gap is enforcement and impunity.

Similarly, different aspects of the mobilization pathway are critical for different gender regimes and genres of violence. While campaigns in more traditional societies require mobilization of voice and translation of global norms to local vocabularies, more modernized and institutionalized transitional regimes respond to advocacy, public protest, and lobbying.

As for value change, for issues of self-determination characteristic of patriarchal gender regimes, the essential missing norm is women’s agency as subjects of rights. But in semi-liberal regimes with established women’s citizenship and rising gender equity that generate expectations of women’s empowerment, beliefs about masculinity and violence are a greater normative challenge. Across all types and locations of sexual violence, various articulations of rape culture are a counter-norm to reproductive rights and a barrier to sexual self-determination (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2 Pathways of Change

Pathways of Response to Violence Against Women



Sexual Violence

Patriarchal Political Economy

  • *Norms–agency

  • *Law-architecture

  • *Mobilization–voice

  • *Policy–education, health

  • *Norms–honor

  • *Law enforcement

  • *Public policy

  • *Mobilization–vernacular

  • *Norms–rights

  • *Law–access

  • *Policy–sanitation

  • *Global diffusion

Semi-liberal Regimes

  • *Law-enforcement

  • *State capacity and responsibility

  • *Norms–masculinity

  • *Public policy–urban, transport

  • *Law–access

  • *Mobilization–advocacy

  • *Norms–rape culture

  • *Public policy–urban, migration

  • *Law–access, enforcement

  • *Mobilization–solidarity, 3.0

Privatized Developed

  • *Law–architecture

  • *Mobilization–Information

  • *Norms–masculinity

  • *Law–access, enforcement

  • *Mobilization–services

  • *Policy–programs

  • *Norms–rape culture

  • *Mobilization-3.0

  • *Law–enforcement

  • *Policy–migration

Putting all of this together, we can now outline some expectations and scope conditions for the dynamics of change for gender violence derived from an expanded human rights model. As the basic human rights model suggests, change must come from above and below, in a shifting interaction between the international regime, transnational, and grassroots mobilization that fosters increased state responsibility and responsiveness over time. Countries and sectors at the frontiers of globalization are both most vulnerable to (p.48) abuse and most amenable to influence. Citizenship status and democratic political participation are critical filters for contesting human rights, but can often be broadened by introducing new actors as claimants and new mechanisms as channels of response. The ultimate impact of human rights campaigns depends upon a strategic combination of information politics and institutionalization through law and policy, and we can map characteristics of framing, architecture and access to law, and state capacity that shape the move from commitment to compliance. Conversely, shortfalls and regressions in gaining accountability for VAW are usually traceable to the absence, decline, or contradictions among these characteristics: international regime, mobilization, citizenship, democracy, information politics, state capacity, and institutionalization.

But there are additional characteristics and parameters of women’s rights as human rights suggested by feminist theory and a constructivist approach that can help us analyze and tailor responses to VAW: the interaction of gender regimes and violation types, the dynamics of “private wrongs,” and human rights interdependence/intersectionality. The underlying power relations and political economy of different types of gender regimes both predisposes them to particular syndromes of violence and suggests what kinds of response will be most useful to intervene in those forms of repression. For example, (p.49) norm change will be most effective for historic syndromes of abuse that are no longer functional for the gender regime, while globalizing sectors of semi-liberal regimes that benefit from democratic rights and modernity may be natural coalition partners of women’s movements across gender lines. International promotion focused on legal reform state compliance will be more effective for public than domestic femicide and sexual violence—though interdependent reforms of family law and property rights will usually trickle down into private settings. For all forms of violence in all gender regimes, but especially in semi-liberal regimes that are the most unequal, the citizenship filter is highly intersectional: women who are marginalized by cross-cutting characteristics like race and class are also most impeded in membership and access to justice. These additional factors can further guide our understanding of the relationship among the factors listed in the standard model, such as the relationship between local and global action that requires most “vernacularization” in patrimonial gender regimes, or the balance between norm change and formal policy that is most critical for sexual violence. In the material that follows, we will trace the operation of these dynamics and affirm the directions of impact—as well as stagnation or backlash—predicted by these analyses.

2.5 Getting to gender justice

What are the lessons of “women’s rights as human rights” for constructing political will for gender justice? First, it is productive and important to reframe VAW as a gendered form of human rights abuse. Second, it is a critical task for campaigns to resist the privatization of abuse, revealing state complicity and demanding state accountability for the full spectrum of violations.

The dynamics of change operate through a dialectical interaction between the international regime, state, and grassroots level—following patterns of influence that can be analyzed relative to the power relations of abuse and gender regime types. Although the modal human rights response is law, for VAW, changes in law are necessary but not sufficient. Similarly, a narrow focus on women’s empowerment must be matched by transformation of men and at-risk communities, guns and butter as well as hearts and minds. We now turn to analyzing the global repertoire of response, mobilizing dynamics of change, and situated pathways for contesting specific syndromes of VAW at the frontiers of globalization.