Last Sunday, November 25, the international community observed the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Women's rights activists have marked this as a day against violence since 1981, in memory of the Mirabal sisters, political activists who were brutally assassinated in 1960 on orders of Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. Many advances have been made in the fight for gender equality since the first International Day, but many more challenges persist.
Domestic violence is the most pervasive, and likely the most underreported, form of violence against women worldwide. Unfortunately, the United States has not done enough to ensure that it is meeting its international human rights obligations to protect women from domestic violence. The case Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzalesis a particularly notable example. In 1999, the Castle Rock, Colorado police failed to answer Jessica Lenahan’s (formerly Gonzales) cries for help when her estranged husband violated her restraining order and kidnapped their three daughters. This failure to respond led to the deaths of the three children. When the Supreme Court ruled that she had no constitutional right to enforcement of her restraining order, Jessica brought her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR found that the United States violated the human rights of Jessica Lenahan and her children, and made several recommendations for implementation of the decision.
We hope that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women served as a reminder of the work that remains ahead of us, in Ms. Lenahan’s case and with regard to broader policy and programmatic reform.
The upcoming Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations will provide another opportunity for the United States and civil society to work together to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls in the United States. On November 15, the ACLU submitted a written statement to the Commission on the need to integrate human rights standards into governmental responses to domestic violence in the United States, and makes specific recommendations. The ACLU’s statement to the Commission notes that while the United States has taken steps toward ensuring that its policies advance its human rights obligations to end violence against women abroad, there is a serious lack of collaboration among governmental actors to address the applicability of human rights standards to prevent and address domestic violence in the U.S.
On Sunday, Vice President Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to preventing and eliminating violence against women, and the Say NO Unite campaign lists the U.S. as one of four countries that have made specific commitments with respect to violence against women. While we welcome the United States’ reaffirmation of its commitment to this issue, we urge the U.S. government to undertake consistent and coordinated action to ensure that it protects the human rights of women and girls within its borders. Such action would include educating governmental officials at the local, state, and federal levels about their human rights obligations to protect against and prevent domestic violence. Until the government understands what human rights law requires, violations of women’s human rights will continue.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon delivered his annual message in observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women , in which he explained, “All too often, perpetrators go unpunished. Women and girls are afraid to speak out because of a culture of impunity. We must fight the sense of fear and shame that punishes victims who have already endured crime and now face stigma. It is the perpetrators who should feel disgraced, not their victims.”
Ms. Lenahan spoke out, and asked her government to protect her human rights and those of her children. The U.S. government must make good on its promises by taking action and ensuring that we as a nation do not continue to fail women like Ms. Lenahan. Our commitment to saying NO to violence against women cannot become an empty promise.