Violence and Abuse of Women
Amnesty International's (AI) work to raise awareness of and combat abuses directed at people because of their sexual identity is part of a growing global effort to incorporate issues of gender and sexuality into the broader human rights movement. In order to advocate effectively for an end to persecution, it is critical to examine the overlapping conditions that give rise to discrimination. Factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, class and sexuality are closely linked and are often the basis for increased discrimination against women. Attaining adequate responses to human rights violations targeted at women because of their real or perceived sexual identity requires greater scrutiny of how experiences of gender and sexuality differ and can create different risks for men and women.
International Human Rights Foundations for Gender and Sexuality Rights
- Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) notes that governments are responsible for using appropriate measures to eradicate cultural stereotypes that subordinate women and render them more at risk of violence. - The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action recognized that the human rights of women include the right to have control over and decide freely on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. - The Human Rights Committee, in General Comment 28 on protecting the equal rights of women and men, has identified ways in which abuses of the right to privacy in the context of a woman's sexuality can become a basis for the violation of other fundamental rights.
Background: Discrimination Based on Social and Identity Factors
- Discrimination and its role in fostering violence based on the attribution of sexual behavior and sexual identity affects all aspects of women's lives, regardless of their sexual identity. The discrimination lesbians face and the human rights violations they experience - as well as their inability to seek protection and redress - is integrally connected not only to their sex, but also to factors such as race, ethnicity, cultural and national origin, class, age, and disability. Discrimination based on these multi-layered identities is prevalent and subjects women to heightened risks of violence and human rights violations.
- The capacity of women who resist gender norms to participate in the political, social and cultural life of their communities is severely limited by pervasive hostility and the well-founded fear of being the object of discrimination or violence because of the attribution of real or perceived sexual identity.
- Elizabeth Khaxas, Director of Sister Namibia, as well as many of the organization's active members have been targeted because of their gender, sexual identity and/or advocacy for lesbian rights. The organization has been regularly subjected to violence, harassment and surveillance by the Namibian government due to their advocacy of women's rights, including lesbian and gay human rights.
- As women, lesbians often have fewer opportunities for public action, freedom of movement, and expression of opinion. As a result, lesbians are less likely to have the kind of public presence that traditionally has prompted advocates and organizations to take action on their behalf.
- Lesbians have rarely been included or even mentioned in human rights discourse about gender or sexuality. Instead, they have been grouped with gay and bisexual men. This has obscured how profoundly human rights abuses against lesbians are shaped and determined by gender as well as by sexual identity. The relative invisibility of lesbians in these public contexts does not mean that lesbians are more insulated from persecution than gay men, but rather that lesbians confront specific forms of persecution that are powerfully affected by gender.
- Given societal discrimination and oppression, women are often unable to create new kinds of "private" spaces. Because of state supported restrictions, they may face stiff legal and social penalties for acting as sexual or social "non-conformists" in the public sphere. This results in a range of obstacles to their same-sex sexual expression or exploration, and in some circumstances, to their political participation.
- The accusation of lesbianism is used to attack women's organizing to publicly discredit their human rights activism. For example, in 1998, one of the most renowned women's human rights groups in Croatia was the target of a newspaper-based campaign condemning its participation in public debates on legislation. In this campaign, allegations were made that the group was comprised of "unnatural women without children, lesbians and women defending Serbian aggressors." Allegations of lesbianism were deliberately made to silence the women and to discourage their political participation.
The Regulation of Women's Sexuality
- Sexuality, regulated in all cultures, is often gender-specific and maintained through particular legal responses or strict constraints on women imposed by cultural norms, such as: forced marriages and childbirth, so-called "honor killings," or the perpetuation of beliefs that women, and particularly married women, are always available for sex - with or without their consent.
- The community, which can include religious institutions, the media, family and cultural networks, regulates women's sexuality through many means, and punishes women who do not comply. Such women include lesbians, women who appear "too masculine," women who try to freely exercise their rights, women who challenge male dominance, etc.
- Irina, a Russian lesbian, claimed asylum in the USA on the grounds that she had been tortured or ill-treated by a range of people, including her own family members. Irina described how in 1995 her sisters demanded she give up custody of her son and get psychiatric treatment to "cure" her of her homosexuality. Irina's parents hired two investigators to probe into her lifestyle, who later abducted Irina and raped her to "teach her a lesson" and "reorient" her sexual identity.
- Lesbians, like other women, have directly experienced abuses in so-called private and family life. Numerous cases document young lesbians, in particular, being beaten, raped, forcibly impregnated or married, and otherwise attacked by family members to punish them or "correct" their sexual identity.
- A lesbian member of Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe (GALZ) has courageously discussed the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of family members because of her claiming the identity of "lesbian." Her parents had forced her to live with and marry a man who they knew was consistently raping her.
Impunity and Women's Claims to Human Rights
- Violence, harassment and other adverse discriminatory treatment of women by state officials and private actors often go unaddressed by state authorities. As a result, state officials and non-state actors often direct abuses toward women with the assumption that they will not be punished.
- The case of Robin Lucas illustrates how sexual identity may heighten a woman's risk of abuse. She was placed in a men's prison where male guards allowed male inmates to rape her. The male guards taunted her about her same sex relationship, saying to her "maybe we can change your mind." Guards implicated in these abuses were simply transferred to another facility; no disciplinary action was taken. None of the guards or inmates involved were ever charged with a crime.
- Lesbians are especially hesitant to pursue their rights for fear of negative consequences that result from calling attention to themselves or their sexual identity. Even when they speak out, they are especially likely to be silenced or ignored.
- States make it especially difficult and have been reluctant to grant asylum to women who are persecuted for opposing or violating socially imposed gender norms, especially those relating to sexuality. In many countries, for example, women are prohibited from living or traveling alone, either through socially imposed gender norms, or through laws that require women to obtain permission from a husband or male relative before leaving the country.
- Establishing asylum claims for lesbians can be difficult, in part due to narrow and rigid legal requirements for proving cases. Given the silence surrounding forms of persecution specific to lesbians and the fact that so much of it takes place in the so-called private realm, women may find it difficult to provide sufficient documentation to prove their claims, sometimes precisely because they have previously chosen not to report abuse for fear of reprisal.
- Asylum officers may not see the facts as constituting what is traditionally seen as persecution. Lesbians who flee their countries of origin because of persecution related to their sexuality are unlikely to disclose their sexual identity to immigration officials upon entering another country because, given their experiences, they often distrust government agents as well as fear reprisals targeted at their families.
Sources: Lesbians, Gender and Human Rights Violations by Susanna Fried, Ali Miller and Cynthia Rothschild. Lesbians and Asylum, Overcoming Barriers to Access by Shannon Minter.