Special Rapporteur on VAW: Intersections between culture and violence against women
UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences
The report addresses the dominant culture-based paradigms that justify or explain the violations of women’s rights, reducing violence against women to a cultural problem. It traces the trends in the development of the international normative framework on violence against women in relation to culture that culminated in the recognition of the primacy of women’s right to live a life free of gender-based violence over any cultural considerations.
Then, it critically examines how cultural discourses are created, reproduced and instrumentalized to challenge this primacy and the validity of the principle of gender equality and women’s human rights in general. It is argued that cultural explanations overlook the material basis of cultural formations, thus disguising the political and economic foundation of sociocultural dynamics.
Building on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, women’s movements appropriated the universally agreed language of human rights and transformed the international human rights framework to address their concerns. Thanks to the common struggles of women of diverse cultures and backgrounds, a well-established gender equality and women’s rights regime has evolved within the United Nations, reflecting a universalizing culture from within.
These norms establish the primacy of women’s right to live a life free of gender-based violence and provide that States cannot invoke any cultural discourses, including notions of custom, tradition or religion, to justify or condone any act of violence. This also means that they may not deny, trivialize or otherwise play down the harm caused by such violence by referring to these notions. Instead, States are expressly required to condemn such violence, which entails denouncing any cultural discourse put forward to justify it.
Since their inception, the universality of human rights and their validity in a given local context have been continuously contested through relativist discourses that brand them as external impositions that are incompatible with local culture. On the other hand, cultural practices that discriminate against women are frequently regarded as belonging to “others”, whether they live in developing countries or belong to local immigrant communities. Embedded into this practice of “othering” is a trend towards isolating violence against women from the wider political and economic environment and the overall concern for women’s rights, empowerment and equality.
In the neo-liberal era, identity politics, based on cultural differences has made culture the site of contestation and the notion of culture a tool of new forms of oppression, whether in its orientalist or occidentalist guise. Women, particularly those from the Global South, find themselves entangled in these ideological contests as they are reduced to “weak victims” and are left with the “choice” of joining forces with imperialist/hegemonic projects or compliance with oppressive practices.
In order to successfully uphold universally agreed values, in particular the principle that no custom, tradition or religious consideration can be invoked to justify violence against women, the report identifies the myths around cultural discourses and outlines general guidelines for an effective strategy to counter and transform culture-based discourses, which constitute one of the major obstacles to the implementation of women’s rights.