Why a Global Treaty Would Help End Violence Against Women and Girls

Started almost a decade ago by a group of women’s rights activists concerned about the lack of accountability on violence against women, Every Woman Treaty is a global initiative calling for an international treaty to end violence against women and girls. This global coalition of more than 2,100 women’s rights advocates, lawyers, scholars and organizations in 128 countries, recently published a study, “Safer Now,” detailing a troubling rise in violence against women and girls across the globe over the last few years.

Co-founder and CEO of Every Woman Treaty, Lisa Shannon, recently sat down with Ms. contributor Michelle Onello to discuss the causes and consequences of this rise in violence, why a global treaty is necessary to meet the needs of women and girls worldwide, and the prospects for moving forward with a treaty in the current political climate.

Michelle Onello: The “Safer Now” report highlights the escalating worldwide crisis of violence against women. What are the main takeaways of the report? What are some contributing factors to this escalation in violence?

Lisa Shannon: We knew that violence against women was a global pandemic and that 100 percent of humanity is affected through people very close to us. But we’ve seen in the last few years an exponential spike that will have an impact for generations. There are a number of contributing factors to this increase, including COVID-19 which has been widely reported on.

Lastly, according to our report, 73 percent of women have experienced some form of online violence. The report highlights that we are not coming anywhere close to meeting the needs of women and girls, which will have an impact for generations, not just at the individual, but also the community level. It is an alarming situation and we have to act or we are all at risk.

Another factor is increasing conflict. Look at the numbers in Ukraine alone. Climate change might not be front of mind but when you destabilize populations and lose access to safety nets, rates of violence spike. I co-founded the first sexual violence crisis center in Mogadishu, [Somalia], and when famine hit and people were displaced, horrific things happened.

Onello: Your organization advocates for the adoption of a global treaty, but there are already regional treaties—Belem de Para, Maputo Protocol, the Istanbul Convention—and other normative frameworks including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Women, Peace and Security Resolutions of the UN Security Council.

With so many existing frameworks, why do we need a new global treaty—why not strengthen existing treaties and frameworks?

Shannon: Regional treaties have had a tremendous impact but they only cover 25 percent of women globally, which few policymakers consider. Geographic regions like Asia or the Arab region don’t have access to a treaty. Why don’t they just develop regional treaties? They tried in the Middle East from 2016 until 2022, which led only to a declaration on violence against women, and in South Asia, it is politically a nonstarter. Also, the treaties themselves have inconsistent standards between them.

Onello: Why can’t these countries just join one of the other treaties?

Shannon: I have never heard anyone suggest that Europe simply sign onto the Maputo Protocol or that Sweden sign Belem de Para. However, Europeans reliably suggest that other countries sign the Istanbul Convention, failing to recognize they didn’t consult anyone outside of Europe when they wrote it. We have consulted with over 115 nations at over 400 meetings and most often this suggestion is met with eye rolls for being colonial and borderline racist.

Politically, the idea of ending violence against women has been erroneously framed as an export of western values so a treaty from Europe will not be accepted in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. Also, it doesn’t include language for regionally-specific forms of violence, for instance in Nepal or certain areas of Africa. Global ownership of a treaty is incredibly important because there is no region, no country where violence against women is not endemic.   

In terms of international law, CEDAW refers to forced marriage and trafficking but does not contain the words violence, rape or assault which were intentionally left out because they were considered personal matters. Though the CEDAW Committee has issued general recommendations, which contain guidelines on violence against women, many nations do not consider them obligatory because they never agreed to that language. So, it comes back to that question of ownership.

International human rights law is progressive. Torture was already forbidden under international law but we still developed a more specific treaty on torture. So, more specificity and clarity on obligations will have a stronger impact.

Another issue is the reporting mechanism. We found that only 18 percent of the CEDAW Committee’s Concluding Observations relate to violence against women and girls. So, the most widespread human rights violation on earth is getting less than 20 percent of air time. Other frameworks, such as the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention or the WHO Framework on Tobacco Control, call for a metrics-based reporting mechanism that would be helpful and complementary to CEDAW.

Another important fact is that at least four times more individual complaints have been filed on domestic violence under the Committee against Torture than CEDAW. CEDAW may seem like the obvious place to go but it is not being utilized.

People have been calling for this treaty for 32 years and the violence continues to rise. No movement has ever made progress by waiting for the right time to meet the needs of the people the movement serves.

Ukrainian and Polish women attend ‘Rape Is a War Crime’ protest in front of the Consulate General of Russia in Krakow, Poland, on May 8, 2022. A day before ‘Victory Day’ celebrated by Russians, protesters representing rape victims stood in silence to demonstrate against violence and brutal rapes on Ukrainan women and children by Russians soldiers during the ongoing invasion on Ukraine. (Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Onello: A lot of states haven’t signed CEDAW’s Optional Protocol, which means women in those countries don’t have that option.

Shannon: Exactly. As feminists, we have to consider the process for an individual woman and how it can translate to safety.

This clicked for me in 2013 in Mogadishu when a woman was arrested for talking to a journalist about allegedly having been gang raped by government soldiers. She birthed three children and was subjected to a virginity test to prove that she is lying about the rape. Of course, she failed the test and was convicted and jailed for years.

After this conviction, no one would talk for fear they’d be arrested. Though she was quietly released after international pressure, how does she use CEDAW to address the violation of her rights? No one could identify anything that the Somali government had done wrong because it’s not a violation of international law. And this woman would have to exhaust all domestic remedies, know what her rights are, find an attorney, speak out and risk her security again. Then she would have to know that CEDAW exists and file a complaint.

Onello: She would also need money and other resources.

Shannon: She’d need the money and time to do it all. Instead of putting the onus on her, we need a global framework to provide clarity about what constitutes a violation of international law. Governments then have a clear understanding and it becomes our responsibility—and right—as a global community to say that’s over the line. We just don’t have that clarity right now. When it comes to violence against women, there is no place to get a basic snapshot of the legal code in most nations. We need data, of course around rates of violence, but also around government interventions to end violence. If we’re tracking it, we’ll start to see progress.

Also, treaties can trigger an uptick in funding, which is absolutely essential. Currently, a government can’t direct money specifically to the CEDAW Committee to address violence against women since nations can only fund as a pool the whole human rights monitoring system.

The other thing is absolute numbers. We cite a study finding that the average annual funding to end violence against women was only $408 million between 2012 and 2017 which is about 10 cents per female on earth. That is not serious money. Many nations are doing a lot of fist-pounding but not writing a check. Other nations have passed strong laws, for example Guatemala, Jordan and Nepal, but they’re struggling to implement because of funding constraints. Our goal is to get a dedicated fund started with a dollar per female on earth or four billion a year as the starting point.

The current budget of the UN Special Rapporteur’s Office on violence against women and girls, responsible for reporting on the safety of women and girls all over the planet, is about $400,000 a year. The average Starbucks has more staff than the staffing of the CEDAW Committee around violence against women and the UN Special Rapporteur’s Office. So, you cannot say that is a serious effort.

The average annual funding to end violence against women was only $408 million between 2012 and 2017 which is about 10 cents per female on earth. That is not serious money.

Onello: How is this new treaty going to be integrated into CEDAW and the existing international architecture around violence against women?

Shannon: We believe that CEDAW is the Bill of Rights for women which has triggered massive positive change around the world, so the new treaty would be complementary with CEDAW. It could be an additional protocol to CEDAW, but that would be less likely to trigger more funding or a metrics-based reporting mechanism. We don’t see it as conflicting, but as an implementation framework for the highest and best aspirations of CEDAW related to violence against women.  

The world has been tempted to frame violence against women as this horrible, sad, culturally-specific, inevitable thing. Wrong. The necessary evidence-based interventions are very clear. Strong law. Training and accountability for police, judges, doctors, nurses. Services for survivors and prevention education. That’s it. You do this and you’re going to have a massive reduction in rates of violence against women and girls, but you need money and you need to track relevant data. It’s actually not that complicated, but is a question of commitment. Focusing on a treaty helps achieve that level of attention and commitment.

Onello: How was the draft treaty developed and what issues came up during the process?

Shannon: It is important to call it the Activist Draft Treaty, as ultimately it is nations who draft treaties.

We did not start our work almost 10 years ago assuming that we needed a global treaty. We embarked on an eight-year consultation with front line activists who we consider the world’s greatest experts. We also formed 17 special committees, for example women with disabilities and indigenous women, in the spirit of nothing about us without us. We then put together our core platform which we sent to about 4,000 activists for feedback. It was eight years of iteration until the final draft.

The biggest surprise for me was that it wasn’t all about law and criminalization. Creating a legal code that’s strong and supportive of survivors is important but equally important is prevention education which leads to cultural transformation and reductions in rates of violence.

We are now working to form a core group of friends since it is very important politically to have ownership at the country level. Of course, certain topics are going to be hot button. For instance, we did a year of consultation on sexual and reproductive health and rights and incorporated the heavily-negotiated language from General Recommendation 35 into our draft and no nation has flagged it. So, there are creative solutions.

And it is important to remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Some people were unhappy that particular rights were referred to in a particular way in the ILO workplace violence treaty, but ultimately no one would say that they wish that treaty didn’t exist. This core group of friends will advance the conversation among nations and, we hope, open a negotiation through the U.N. General Assembly.

Onello: Have you identified countries willing to be in the core group of friends?

Shannon: We have three right now that have publicly stated their support—Costa Rica, The Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. We are in deep discussion with a number of other nations.

Onello: Has there been buy in from other stakeholders—for example, has the U.N. system in general been supportive?

Shannon: That’s an interesting question. U.N. bodies point out that they are only responsive to states which direct them to act. Also, the U.N. system is being asked to do so much already with so few resources, which is why we cannot have the treaty without a conversation about money.

People have been calling for this treaty for 32 years and the violence continues to rise. No movement has ever made progress by waiting for the right time to meet the needs of the people the movement serves. Women and girls are dying right now and I don’t see an end game to polarization in the next five years. So, we have to more froward with what we have.

Onello: What can an individual do to stop violence against women in their community or support your treaty?

Shannon: Diplomats always want to know who in their nation has supported the call. So, individuals can hop onto our website and sign the global call for a treaty. The second thing is to contact their president or prime minister’s office. In the United States, calling the White House and letting them know you support the treaty would be very helpful. We’ve had a lot of conversations with the White House Gender Policy Council, but the United States is in a tricky situation because we haven’t ratified CEDAW.  

Onello: What final takeaways would you like to emphasize?

Shannon: In the absence of a global framework, we are allowing generations of frontline women’s rights activists to be stalked, harassed, beaten, murdered and chased out of their countries and forced to live in exile. They are doing this hard work every single day, and when you get so caught up in being perfect that you’re not willing to take any action then we have a real problem. It is totally unfair for nations, particularly those that frame themselves as progressive, to say that what we have is good enough.

One out of three women experience violence and all of us have someone very close to us who’s a survivor and we may not even know it. In fact, I had been a women’s rights activist for decades and only two years ago I learned my mother was gang raped when she was eight years old in England. I asked if she had talked to a therapist and she said no and that things like this happen to girls all the time. I am not willing to live in that world. This violence is everywhere and there are intergenerational effects so this is truly a global and human problem which we need to all come together and address.

Onello: An excellent final statement—thank you so much for speaking with me.

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Michelle Onello is a human rights lawyer and senior counsel at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit advocating for gender equality and reproductive rights in international law, and a signatory of the letter urging President Biden to repeal the Helms Amendment.