Gender-based crimes through the lens of torture

There is a tendency to downplay gender-based crimes of violence against women and minimize the grave consequences caused to women around the world, a group of United Nations human rights experts* has warned today.

Ahead of International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8 March, the independent experts urged States “to look at gender-based crimes through the lens of torture,” and reminded all Governments around the world that they become complicit in torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment if they ignore their obligations to prohibit, prevent and redress the violence and harm inflicted on women and girls.

“Looking at systemic gender-based crimes of violence against women through the lens of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment reflects the full impact of this pervasive cruelty on women’s physical integrity, mental health, and human dignity.

Gender-based crimes of violence are a result of rampant cultural misogyny, frequently and wrongly justified or tolerated in the name of tradition, culture or religion. The sexual violence and mental torment to which girls and women are subjected both in private and public settings reinforce the subordinate status of women and give expression to patriarchal control over women’s bodies and sexuality.

The failure of States to eliminate persistent practices such as intimate partner violence, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called ‘honour crimes’, which inflict severe pain and suffering on women and girls, as well as the failure to criminalize martial rape and repeal legislation including laws that exculpate rapists who marry their victims, violates the obligation to prevent and prosecute torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Domestic violence occurs in the most intimate setting of the home and the family and affects women everywhere. Indifference, inaction or prosecutorial and judicial passivity in the face of domestic violence, and refusal to criminalize marital rape, lead to its legitimization and normalization. When States fail to exercise due diligence to protect victims and to prohibit and prevent violent acts, which cause women and girls severe physical or mental pain and suffering and may destroy their lives or result in their deaths, they are in breach of their commitments under the Convention Against Torture and other international human rights instruments.

Women are highly vulnerable to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in pregnancy and birth. Despite the knowledge that unsafe abortion is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality and morbidity, some States continue to enforce an absolute ban on abortions or highly restrictive abortion laws, forcing women into a situation of despair and danger. Withholding access to reproductive health services that only women need is inherently discriminatory and can violate States’ commitments under the Convention against Torture.

Furthermore, sexual assaults and humiliation, the use of shackles and handcuffs on pregnant women during labour and immediately after childbirth, solitary confinement of pregnant and breastfeeding women or mothers with young children, and strip searches and invasive body searches that humiliate the person being searched should be absolutely prohibited.

It is well established that rape and other forms of sexual violence can amount to torture and ill-treatment. In addition to the severe physical trauma, the mental pain and suffering inflicted on victims are often exacerbated by the social stigma they face. The incidence of rape, including gang rape and the impunity for its commission, are exacerbated during times of conflict and when women are on the move or deprived of liberty.

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to rape and other forms of sexual violence, exploitation, trafficking and slavery along migration routes. Such abuses can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. States’ failure to screen migrants and refugees properly, identify victims of torture and afford them international protection and appropriate assistance and support can result in ongoing disabilities and re-traumatise victims and violates the prohibition on refoulement.

Trafficked women and girls are routinely subjected to confinement, severe physical and sexual abuse, humiliation and threats for the purposes of sexual exploitation, including in the context of forced and early marriages, domestic servitude, forced and bonded labour and organ removal. When States fail to exercise due diligence, these practices unequivocally amount to torture and ill-treatment.

States are responsible for violations of the Convention Against Torture where they condemn women to penalties that inflict severe pain and suffering, including stoning and lashing, and where they penalize women for conduct that should not be criminally prohibited, such as for adultery or abortion. States bear responsibility for gender-based violence committed by their own military and police agents and for acquiescing in the intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering on women and girls by private actors.

No one should turn a blind eye or minimise the extent to which women and girls are discriminatorily subjected to pain and suffering, both physical and mental, caused by gender-based violence in all regions of the world. We call on the Human Rights Council and on states in all regions to wage an unremitting campaign against the intolerable torture of women and girls.”

NOTE TO EDITORS: On International Women’s Day, Tuesday 8 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, will present a report to the Human Rights Council focusing on the gender dimension of torture and ill-treatment (see the report: