What Makes an Anti-Woman Law? Part 2: Domestic Violence

On 17 March 2016, The Independent published a video of the ten most ‘draconian’ anti-woman laws including the Saudi Arabian ban on women drivers, unequal inheritance laws in Tunisia and the frequency of honour killings in a number of countries.  In February of last year The Huffington Post published ‘10 Ridiculously Sexist and Dangerous Laws From Around the World’, which covered Yemen’s troubling laws on marital sexual obligations and India’s 2013 Act legalising marital rape.  These lists, although accurate, lack the nuance needed to understand the ingrained and systemic violence perpetuated against women daily on an international scale.

Both pop culture and political institutions are taking note of gender equality. In 2015 the Swedish government declared its intention to create and implement a feminist foreign policy, and produced the “Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2015–2018” which set out a strategy for targeting inequality on a global scale to: "... ensure that women and men have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a goal in itself. But it is also essential for the achievement of the Government’s other overall objectives, which in foreign policy are peace, security and sustainable development."

More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls.

The policy document identified the components that fuel inequality, addressing the problems and policies that keep women from achieving equality whether politically, economically or socially, and created a plan for targeting these key areas. It notes that "[a]round the world, gender equality has improved. The proportion of women in parliaments is increasing. More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls. Sweden wants this discrimination to end."  These comprised strategies to ensure ‘full enjoyment of human rights’, including freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence, inclusion in peace building initiatives and the promotion of women as actors in peace processes, political participation and influence in all areas of society, economic self-determination and sexual and reproductive rights. It comprises a summary of the myriad ways in which feminist progress is impeded, and how systemic the equality between men and women is internationally. There can be no doubt that it represents a positive strategy for tackling foreign policy to ensure that women are represented in every country. 

The Swedish government’s statement could herald a significant change in the way in which national governments understand the need to incorporate feminist policy into their interactions with foreign governments or international peacekeeping bodies. If the USA and UK are to work towards a similar strategy, we have to consider two foundational principles; what constitutes an anti-woman law and how do we change these inequalities in our own systems, so that creating international guidelines does not appear hypocritical? Without acknowledging our systemic misogyny, a feminist foreign policy although well intentioned appears hollow. 

So how do we define an ‘anti-woman law? 

On the surface, mainstream media attention on anti-woman law usually revolves around extremes. In any newspaper or online list discussing the subject, there is generally a significant overlap with the worst discrimination against women imaginable listed. For the purposes of this series, I am framing my exploration around Amnesty International’s extensive description of anti-woman law and ingrained misogyny. It can be found in full here  

In order to pursue a feminist foreign policy we must outline our own intentions to fight this abuse of human rights, but without first recognising the importance of confronting these injustices within our own society there is little hope of implementing a foreign policy free from hypocrisy. To better understand the problems in local and national context, I want to dedicate a series of articles to each of the seven areas that Amnesty International has identified and understand how those injustices are perpetrated in the Western countries I inhabit before exploring the creation of feminist foreign policy. This month I look at the injustices faced by women in the US prison system. 

Part 2: Domestic Violence

If the purpose of these essays is to consider the components of anti-woman laws that need addressing in America, then domestic violence is an integral component of this analysis. In order to implement a non-hypocritical and truly feminist foreign policy, we have to acknowledge that the issue of domestic violence must not remain solely a foreign policy issue.

When discussing the position of women abroad, a key component of feminist foreign policy is to consider the dynamic of marriages and consent in developing countries. According to Plan UK, 1 in 3 women in the developing world will be married by her eighteenth birthday, and 39,000 girls under 18 in developing countries are married everyday. There are numerous calls to recognise child marriage as a human rights issue and to understand the violent repercussions for children forced into marriage. In particular relevance to feminist foreign policy, in 2013 Girls Not Brides estimated that globally 44% of girls aged 15-19 believed that husband on wife violence was justified in certain circumstances.

Domestic violence is a global issue, and in its various incarnations should be at the forefront of any foreign policy. In 2013, the World Health Organisation published a summative report on the situation, and its findings were distressing. 35% of women worldwide had experienced either physical and/or sexual violence, and the majority of this was classed as ‘intimate partner violence’. In some regions, up to 38% of all murders of women are committed by partners. If the US, as part of a feminist foreign policy, condemns the practice of child marriage, its violent repercussions, and the frequent incidences of domestic violence suffered by women across the world, a strong statement is made that marriage, tradition, and intimacy can never be conduits for the spread of domestic violence.

While turning our intentions outwards, the US must recognise its own significant problem with domestic violence. According to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 3 women in America will experience physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with 20,000 phone calls per day to domestic violence hotlines. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most vulnerable to this violence, and in America, only 34% of people injured by intimate partners receive medical care for the injuries they sustain. An alarming 45.4% of female rape victims were raped by an intimate partner. The repercussions are numerous and highly significant. NCADV claims that 21-60% of victims of intimate partner violence lose their jobs as a result, and between 2003-2008 142 women were murdered in their workplace by their abuser. Women who endure domestic abuse are more vulnerable to STIs, depression, and suicidal behaviour, as well as a host of other physical and mental afflictions. In a chilling statement, the Human Rights Council revealed that in 2008, 552,000 violent crimes were committed toward women by an intimate partner.

Domestic violence in America is an intersectional problem, and must be recognised as such. According to Amnesty International, 39 % of Native American will be subject to domestic violence, African American women will experience domestic violence “at rates 35% higher than their White counterparts”, and despite accounting for only 8% of the U.S. population, “in 2005 [African American women] accounted for 29% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide.” In addition, a 2004 study in New York City found that “51% of intimate partner homicide victims were foreign-born.”

America needs a comprehensive system of education, counselling, refuges, and support for young women to enact preventative measures, just as we would recommend to countries in the developing world.

Domestic violence is a worldwide epidemic, and America must acknowledge its part in ending it both at home and abroad. This means funding educational programmes abroad, increasing school access for girls, and questioning traditions that encourage the marriage or abuse of young women and children. It also requires that we increase funding for these programmes at home. America needs a comprehensive system of education, counselling, refuges, and support for young women to enact preventative measures, just as we would recommend to countries in the developing world. This is particularly relevant now, as President Trump declares he will cut 25 grant programs set up in 1994 to help women who are survivors of intimate partner violence and, according to the Independent, three members of his cabinet including the president himself have been accused of domestic abuse.

We cannot turn a critical eye to the world without first recognising our own significant problems as well.

To address this issue:


Cleo Lawrence is a regular contributor to FFP and currently working on her PhD in London.