This year marks the 30th anniversary of the annual international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. While we wish we could say that gender-based violence and, specifically, violence against women, is no longer a threat to women, the reality is sadly quite the opposite. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened existing inequalities for already vulnerable populations and has exacerbated the root causes of domestic violence forcing many women to isolate with their abusers.
For this year's 16 Days of Activism, Women Business and the Law hopes to highlight the power of the law to respond to cases of violence against women and girls (VAWG).
VAWG can take many forms, including sexual harassment and assault, child marriage, female genital mutilation, forced sterilizations, trafficking for sexual or labor exploitation, and intimate partner violence (IPV), among others. IPV remains the most prevalent form of violence against women: as of 2021, about 33% of women said they had experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
Moreover, the costs associated with this rise of domestic violence have repercussions on the global economy. The economic cost of VAWG is estimated to amount to US$1.5 trillion— higher than the estimated cost of civil wars—as services such as health centers, counselling, welfare support, the justice system created to support survivors are usually funded by the governments. Other costs are due to the fact that physical and psychological ramifications of domestic violence preventing survivors from fully participating in their country’s labor force, which affects the country’s GDP. Overall, these costs endanger national poverty reduction efforts and limit women’s voice and agency.
Domestic violence legislation is essential during these critical times. While studies show a decrease in partner violence after the passage of domestic violence laws, the high rates of domestic abuse show that the implementation of the law is still problematic. This further reinforces the need for countries to adopt national and comprehensive domestic violence legislation and policies for their implementation.
To understand how countries respond to domestic violence cases, Women, Business and the Law analyzed data on the extent of provisions regulating criminal penalties, protection orders and mediation in domestic violence legislation in 190 economies. The results were mixed.
When it comes to criminal penalties, 131 countries provide for criminal penalties targeting perpetrators of domestic violence. While this may sound reassuring, such penalties may also deter some women from seeking help. Data covering 24 countries found that on average 7% of women report violence to public institutions. Women may be reluctant to report domestic violence if they are surrounded by attitudes that see violence as normal or a private family matter.. Women who are financially dependent or emotionally tied to their abusers may also be less likely to report abuse.
Protection orders are court-issued documents designed to protect survivors from further harassment or abuse. They require the perpetrator of violence to stay away from a survivor and may also be used to request reliefs such as child support, temporary custody, or relinquishment of firearms. Most countries (80%) have protection orders in the law to protect survivors. Though encouraging, protection orders’ effectiveness may be higher when they are timely enforced and have penalties for non-compliance. Unfortunately, according to the analysis, in less than 30% of countries, protection orders can be obtained by law within seven days, and 63% of all countries appear to enforce penalties for noncompliance. This shows that while many countries acknowledge that protection orders are important for holding abusers accountable, the timely and actual enforcement of these orders remains a critical gap in responding to domestic violence cases.
Finally, mediation is provided as a quick, low-cost alternative to court litigation where a neutral third-party typically tries to facilitate an agreement between two parties. While mediation can be effective to solve disputes, in the specific context of domestic violence it may put survivors at increased risk of re-traumatization. In domestic violence cases, perpetrators of violence often hold greater power over survivors, which constrains survivors’ participation in mediation. The use of mediation is not considered the best approach to protect survivors of domestic violence. Despite this, Women, Business and the Law finds that more than 90% of countries across most regions do not prohibit mediation, leaving this option open, with Latin America and the Caribbean having the highest rate of legal prohibitions of mediation, with only seven out of 32 countries having such a provision. For instance, Peru’s Article 25 of Ley No. 30364 clearly states that “Confrontation and conciliation between the survivor and the aggressor is prohibited.”
Analysis of the laws shows that while many countries may acknowledge that perpetrators of violence need to be held accountable for their actions, most existing redressal measures are far from effective. For example, criminal penalties alone may deter survivors from seeking help from the police. Protection orders without penalties for non-compliance and with long timeframes for their enactment are limited in their ability to protect survivors and hold abusers accountable. And mediation is still widely available, despite not being recommended for cases of domestic violence given its limited effectiveness due to existing power imbalances between abusers and victims. It is not enough for countries to institute criminal penalties or protection orders alone—it is essential that they also consider how to effectively implement these measures. It is therefore imperative for countries to look at good practices and evidence for guidance, and to promote the concerted action of different actors, to further decrease violence against women.