Violence against Women: The Scope and Strength of the Law

RichardsBook Since Associate Professor of Political Science and Human Rights David Richards co-founded the largest human rights database in the world over a decade ago, which has been used in 170 countries around the world, he often has found himself the recipient of communications from high-ranking government officials.

“I would get e-mails from countries pretty often about the human rights scores we had given them,” he says. “I usually ended up saying something like, ‘With humility, if you’d like a better score from us, treat your citizens better.’”

Now Richards has released a new set of analyses and scores focusing particularly on domestic laws protecting women against violence. His book, Violence Against Women and the Law (Paradigm), examines the state of domestic laws addressing violence against women in 196 countries around the globe.

This month, he attended the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women summit in New York, where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that progress on gender equality remains “unacceptably slow.”

His book, coauthored by colleague Jillienne Haglund, a post-doctoral researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, looks at domestic laws during the years 2007-2010. The researchers rated laws addressing four types of gender-based violence: rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and marital rape. The authors looked not only at the presence of laws, but how they were used.

A sequence of violence

Richards’ analyses show that almost all countries have some guarantee against rape, followed in sequence by domestic violence, sexual harassment, and finally marital rape, which was the least likely to be prohibited.

Richards Cropped

David Richards, associate professor of political science

However, he also found that even though many industrialized nations have strong laws regulating domestic violence, some have conspicuously few regulations on sexual harassment in the workplace.

“We found in a lot of industrialized democracies that sexual harassment was the last of the four types to be legally prohibited in public and private places,” says Richards. “Likely, the last thing wealthy countries want to do is regulate the marketplace. They’ll regulate what goes on in a household before they put any regulations on employers.”

Richards’ work also shows that the presence of women in the legislature makes a country more likely to have laws protecting women from violence. To those who study American politics, he says, this might not seem surprising, but internationally, it’s heartening.

“In American politics it’s understood that women legislators do legislate on behalf of women’s issues, and will represent their gender in law,” Richards explains. “But internationally, there’s an argument that the bulk of the women who end up in legislatures are elites, that feminists are weeded out at the level of nominations, and so there’s not a process where women significantly affect the creation of legislation such as that aimed at gender-based violence.”

Respecting international laws

Similarly, international human rights laws have been criticized as having no effect on individual countries’ domestic laws. But, for example, Richards found that states party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are also more likely to have established full prohibitions on domestic violence. In a recent essay he notes that the USA remains among a select few countries not to be party to CEDAW.

“At this moment there are prominent scholars making the case that international human rights law doesn’t work,” he says. “And there are others of us that strongly make the case that it does.”

International funding organizations like the World Bank often use data like Richards’ in their decisions to allocate development assistance funding: they want to give money to places that are not human rights abusers, Richards notes, so getting a good score on his metrics can carry direct economic benefits.

And certainly Richards’ data from the book only scratches the surface, he readily admits; although his data assess the strength of laws, the way laws are interpreted by courts and enforced (or not) by law enforcement officials on a daily basis provide a steep measurement challenge that was beyond the scope of the book.

For now, he hopes his work will help scholars look more closely at the effects of international law on domestic law, and will help to spur conversations about how best to systematically audit the legal behavior of governments related to violence against women.

“When you look at the number of ways that violence is perpetrated against women, combined with the frequency of that violence, and then you look at the economic toll and the health toll, individually and collectively it’s terrible on every level,” he says.

“So, what do you do about it?” he asks. “The one thing I know how to do is to tell stories with numbers, so that’s what I do.”

Read more about Richards’ book and its findings in his recent Washington Post “Monkey Cage” article.


By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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