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Gender Based Violence and the Law

Authored By: Jeni Klugman

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Executive Summary

The phenomenon of gender-based violence is pervasive around the world, experienced by some one in three women in their lifetimes. The elimination of such violence has been increasingly recognized as a priority for the international community. The Sustainable Development Goals include a specific target to “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres.”

A recent special series of The Lancet on addressing violence against women provides an excellent overview of the current evidence, and highlights that while growing international recognition creates opportunities for renewed government commitment, solutions will not be quick or easy.

Legislation that criminalizes violence against women codifies the rights of women to live free of violence. Laws can play an important symbolic role, by indicating that such behavior is socially unacceptable. The associated sanctions may serve a deterrence function. Either or both levers may work in practice to reduce the incidence of violence. It is of course difficult to observe which is more effective, though we do have indirect evidence on both fronts. Legislation can also be responsive to victims, by providing for protection and access to support services.

This paper investigates the potential and shortcomings of legislative action – and how international and national laws can interact with norms in ways that can be conducive to the reduction of the risk of violence. We argue that there has been major progress in establishing the right of women to live free of violence in both international and national law, especially over the past decade or so, with civil society movements at the local and global levels playing a pivotal role. At the same time, there is some way to go to address the underlying norms and behaviors associated with violence.