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What do human rights have to do with addressing violence against women?

According to Home Office statistics:

  • In the UK, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse and 1 in 5 sexual assault during her lifetime.
  • The Crime Survey of England and Wales estimates 20% of women have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 3.4 million female victims.
  • 5 in 6 victims (83%) did not report their experiences to the police.
  • An estimated 3.1% of women aged 16-59 experienced sexual assault in the last year.
  • Approximately 2 million adults experienced domestic abuse last year.

Support services for women who have fled violence, such as refugees, are in crisis after cuts to funding amounting to 65% since 2010.

The right to life

The right to life imposes three types of obligations on the state:

  1. A duty not to take away anyone’s life (apart from in certain limited circumstances).
  2. A positive duty to take reasonable steps to protect life.
  3. A procedural duty to investigate deaths where the state may be implicated/involved

The positive duty to protect life means that the state should intervene when someone’s life is at risk from another person (and where the authorities know, or should know, about this risk.) For example, in the case Opuz v Turkey the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that Turkey had violated Article 2 as authorities had remained passive, despite persistent information that should have compelled them to act against a man who had been violent towards his wife and her mother. After numerous instances of violence and making death threats towards, the woman and her mother the man killed his wife’s mother. In the case the Court also found that there was a violation of the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman and degrading way (Article 3) and the right not to be discriminated against (Article 14).


The right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way

States have the following duties under Article 3:

  1. A duty not to torture or treat someone in an inhuman and degrading way.
  2. A positive duty to take reasonable steps to protect people known to be at risk of such treatment.
  3. A procedural duty to investigate where torture, inhuman or degrading treatment has occurred.

Again, the positive duty included in this right means that public bodies, such as the police, have an obligation to protect at-risk individuals from Article 3 violations by private citizens. In the Opuz case the ECtHR also found that by failing to protect the woman there had been a violation of this right. The court decided that the man’s history of abuse and threats, when taking into account the specifically vulnerable situation of women in South East Turkey (various Turkish NGO gave evidence on this point) amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.

Last year the UK Supreme Court found that there is an operational duty on the Police to conduct a proper inquiry into behaviour amounting to a breach of article 3. See the “Changing Lives” story below.


The right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence

The right to family life includes the right to develop normal family relationships and the right to on-going contact if family is split up. The right to private life includes Private life includes:

  • a right to ‘physical and psychological’ integrity.
  • the right to participation in the life of the community.
  • the right to form and maintain relationships with other people.
  • the right to respect for private and confidential information, particularly the storing and sharing of such information.
  • the right not to be subject to unlawful state surveillance;

The right also includes the right to the peaceful enjoyment of the home you already have, and for this home not to be interfered with.

This right is a qualified right which means it can be restricted, and has to be balanced against the rights of others and needs of society.  

Women rebuilding their lives after fleeing violence often face issues which engage their right to respect for family life. For example, issues around Article 8 often arise in the family court system around contact arrangements for children. Women interviewed for the Domestic Abuse, Human Rights and the Family Courts study felt that “the rights to family life of fathers who were also perpetrators of domestic abuse were given higher priority than those of the women and their children despite evidence of abuse, thereby creating the impression of a hierarchy within Article 8.”

Article 8 issues may also arise in any contact with public services such as; housing, access to health care, education and any ongoing contact with the police and social services.

The right to a private and family life is also relevant to immigration issues as women in the UK who have experienced domestic abuse and are reliant on their partner’s right to remain, can leave their partner and apply to settle in their own right under Article 8.


The right not to be discriminated against

The right not to be discriminated against must be linked to one of the other Convention rights. It is not a free-standing right to non-discrimination. This right prohibits discrimination on any grounds. The list of grounds in Article 14 are open-ended and may include disability, gender, race, political views, carer status, marital status, being HIV positive etc. In this context it is possible that women could be discriminated against on the grounds of gender or their status as survivors of violence.

In the Opuz decision the European Court of Human Rights recognized that the failure of states to address gender-based domestic violence can amount to a form of discrimination under the Convention.

In 2019, the UK European Court of Human Rights found that the UK government's ‘bedroom tax’ discriminated against women who are survivors of domestic violence. You can read our news story on this case here.

Domestic Violence Bill

When the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was introduced with cross-party support by Theresa May's government in July, was dropped. This Bill would place a legal duty on councils to offer secure homes for those fleeing violence, and their children. Applying to England and Wales, it proposed the first government definition of domestic abuse, including financial abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical behaviour.

It would also:

  • Create a Domestic Abuse Commissioner, to champion survivors and hold local and national government to account.
  • Set up Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders, allowing police and courts to intervene earlier where abuse is suspected.
  • Prohibit the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts

The Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced in the Queen's Speech after Parliament was reinstated, but all progress made so far in Parliament is undone. The Domestic Abuse Bill has been criticised by campaigners for not doing enough to save ‘life-saving’ services and for excluding migrant women.


The Istanbul Convention

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence or ‘Istanbul Convention’ sets out minimum standards for how governments should prevent violence, protect women and girls experiencing it, and prosecute those responsible. The UK signed up to this Convention in 2012 but it has never been ratified or entered into force.

When the UK ratifies the Convention it will be legally bound to follow the standards in it, therefore the government claims that it wants to ensure that all our laws are in line with the Convention before they ratify it- hence the delay.


Holding the police to account for failing to properly investigate 

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the police owed human rights damages to two victims of John Worboys- the black cab driver responsible for a large number of sexual offences. Our Supreme Court found the police, as a public body, accountable under the Human Rights Act.

This case is crucial because it shows that even when crimes are committed by a private citizen, the state can still be held to account. In this example, the police for failing to undertake a proper investigation which left the woman exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment (prohibited under Article 3 in the HRA and ECHR). This case should serve to help the police and the criminal justice system at large to understand that such victims cannot and should not be ignored or treated with indifference, that they will be held to account if they fail to do their job in relation to such crimes.

Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Appellant) v DSD and another (Respondents)


Debartri's Story 

Debartri and her children were fleeing domestic violence, and her husband’s attempts to track them down as they moved from town to town across the UK. Time and again the family would be uprooted, having to move on every time he discovered their whereabouts.

Eventually, they arrived in London, but  Debartri and her children were denied emergency accommodation by the local Council. Debartri raised the issue with her social worker, Tim. Tim had previously been supported through BIHR training on the Human Rights Act. He helped Debartri to challenge the Council's decision to deny her accommodation. Debartri said she thought the decision had failed to respect her own right to respect for family life (Article 8), and the right to family life of her children.

Looking at the situation from a human rights perspective helped change the conversation. The council reconsidered the issue, taking the family’s human rights into account, and worked with Debartri and her children to find a suitable solution. They all agreed that the family would remain together, and that social services would help cover some of the essential costs of securing private rented accommodation.

For Debartri and her children, being supported to find a new home was an essential step in rebuilding a new life in safety after a distressing and turbulent time.

BIHR’s Work in this Area

We have previously worked with the Latin American Women’s Rights (LAWRS). LAWRS exists to empower Latin American women in the UK to pursue personal and social change. They help women to assert their rights to be free from all forms of discrimination and violence, lead empowered and fulfilled lives, enjoy their human rights to the full and become central actors in achieving social change.

In 2017 we worked with LAWRS to assist them in embedding a human rights approach to their service.

 The support we’ve received from BIHR has greatly increased our knowledge and confidence in using human rights across all areas of our work.

Lucila Granada, Director, LAWRS 

You can read more about how human rights can make a positive difference to women's everyday lives in our article 'Getting it right for women: transforming services and justice using a human rights approach' in Safe – The Domestic Abuse Quarterly here

Our New Project with women who are rebuilding their lives after domestic violence

As we can see from Debartri ’s story, too few public services (and their front line staff) know what their legal duties are to meet people's human rights, including to the right to choice, to be heard, to well-being, participation in the community, to be able to enjoy their home, to not be discriminated against. However, these rights are all vital to enable women to rebuild their lives following domestic abuse.

This month we will be kicking off the development of our new tool which will support women to know their human rights and the duties of public services to respect and protect these, not only to keep them safe (which is vital) but to also help rebuild their lives.

The views and needs of women will be central to this project. We'll map and test directly with women and VAWG groups. Ensuring that the tool will provide women with all the information they need, in their pockets, for meetings with housing staff, education, social workers, police and others, enabling to have the power of legal language in what are often difficult interactions.

Read more about our work developing a tool for women to know their rights rebuilding their lives after doemstic abuse

16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violcence 2020

Click the button below to find out about how BIHR are taking part this year!