The intersection of violence against women and the law

In an ongoing series, Global Rights for Women will begin to shed light on the intersection of law and how it interacts with violence against women, illuminating how it is equally critical to make effective implementation of laws a priority. It is our goal to increase awareness and provide different perspectives about the impact of laws on women around the world. Gender-based violence takes many forms and functioning legislation is the bedrock through which the rest of the system and the public must operate to keep women safe. However, in almost every country in the world, laws also function to discriminate against and harm women. Therefore, laws must be refined to affirm and enforce women’s rights unequivocally. Sharing these perspectives is critical to realizing our mission of promoting women’s human rights to equality and freedom from violence through legal reform and systems change.

Laws have the power to shape public discourse and change cultural attitudes. For centuries, violence against women, specifically in intimate relationships, was a right men openly exercised. But in 1871, the Supreme Court of Alabama became the first court to directly rescind the legal right of men to beat their wives. Thereafter, Maryland became the first state to pass a law making wife-beating a crime in 1882. Then, forty years ago in the United States, the women’s liberation movement was successful in passing first-of-their-kind domestic violence laws, providing civil orders of protection for victims. In this country, most laws permit victims to obtain restraining orders, eviction of the abuser from the victim’s residence, no-contact or stay-away mandates, child and spousal awards and custody provisions, among other critical things to staying safe.

Twenty-five years ago, only six other countries in the world had laws prohibiting domestic violence. But again, through advocacy and the power of the women’s movement, more countries began to see the value in specifically prohibiting a type of violence that was, up until then, not only accepted but also expected as a consequence of marriage and male privilege. Today, it is largely understood that laws specifically prohibiting domestic violence do more to protect women than general assault and battery laws. Many legal systems now have clear tools available to keep women safe in their homes.

As evidence of this growing understanding, now at least 127 of the 196 countries in the world outlaw some form of intimate partner violence, although there still remain at least 46 countries with no legal protection whatsoever from domestic violence. Laws send the message that a country will not tolerate various forms of discrimination. But simply having the legal language prohibiting domestic violence is not enough. Countries must put systems in place that effectively implement the laws in order to protect women from violence. Moreover, laws still also serve to indoctrinate gender-based discrimination or further victimize a survivor of violence.

Through this blog series, Global Rights for Women hopes to illuminate the many ways that laws intersect with the various forms of violence against women, both positively and negatively. We will also examine how active implementation of positive laws is critical to protecting women from violence and discrimination. Laws, on their own, are useless, and sometimes cause more harm, without effective implementation. Only through education and insight can we begin to craft and amend laws and make them work to protect women around the world. We envision a world where women and girls’ human rights to equality and freedom from violence are fully realized.