Violence Against Women Is A U.S. Problem, Too

June 11, 2011

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In preparation for the upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Rashida Manjoo, recently released a report on her 2011 mission—conducted at the invitation of the U.S. Government—to the United States. This was the first visit of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women since 1998, and her findings suggest both progress and a call to action.

The report affirms that women in the United States experience violence. No surprise there, but it is a clear indication that violence against women (VAW) knows no national, political, ethnic, religious, or socio-economic boundaries; it happens here, it happens everywhere.

In 2008, approximately 500 women were raped every day in the U.S., according a National Crime Victimization Survey. Domestic violence was highlighted as “an extremely underreported crime.” When reported, it is rarely prosecuted and where investigated, has a low conviction rate. This is a global truism.

In 2007, according to the report, 64% of female homicides in the U.S. were perpetrated by a family member or intimate partner. Again, global trends, localized.

Worldwide, one in three women experiences physical, sexual or emotional violence in her lifetime; one in five experiences rape or attempted rape. Yet, while every woman is at risk, some human rights violations make certain women more vulnerable. That holds true in the United States, too.

The Special Rapporteur identified several groups of women for whom a lack of human rights protections and destructive gender norms play a part in disproportionate experiences of violence. Some of the patterns are shocking:

  • African-American women “experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their White counterparts.” Despite accounting for only 8% of the U.S. population, “in 2005 they accounted for 29% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide.”
  • Immigrant and undocumented women in the U.S. often face higher rates of sexual harassment in the workplace and of battering than other women, yet are less able to report these crimes due to their legal status, isolation and other factors. “A 2004 study in New York City found that 51% of intimate partner homicide victims were foreign-born.”
  • Women in the military face hierarchical and highly masculine conditions that have a detrimental impact on reporting gender-based crimes. One study indicates that only 29% of active duty women who experienced unwanted sexual contact in the previous 12 months reported it.


  • Women in detention often come from one violent environment to another, even when in the custody of the very government that is meant to protect them. A 2008-09 study cited found that “4.7% of women in prison had experienced sexual assault by an inmate and 2.1% had experienced sexual misconduct by a staff member.”


  • For Native American women “the rate of violent victimization…is more than double that among other women.” One Congressional source found that “34% of Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes and 39% of them will be subject to domestic violence.”

As with most human rights violations, these and other patterns track vulnerabilities such as poverty, incarceration, lack of access to health care and social services, socio-economic isolation and discrimination, and departure from traditional gender norms.

For some, such as women in detention, the conditions in which they live yield particular forms of VAW, such as the use of shackling. Improvements such as the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act are important, but women in detention face a number of rights violations that put them at risk of violence, and improvements to the policies that govern women’s detention centers must be made—and then enforced.

Native American and Alaska Native women living in sovereign territory often face complex jurisdictional issues between state, federal, and tribal criminal justice systems, making protection, reporting, and prosecution nearly impossible (to learn more see Amnesty International’s report, Maze of Injustice). The Tribal Law and Order Act, which passed last year, aims to close some legal loopholes and increase protection of American Indian women. We are now pushing for rigorous implementation of the law and sufficient funding to make it work.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), seeks to improve the response to any incident of violence against women. Passed in 1994 and reauthorized twice since, VAWA brings together health, housing, criminal justice, and social services to prevent and respond to VAW and protect survivors. VAWA will soon be up for reauthorization again, which will give us the opportunity to advocate for legislation to address some of Ms. Manjoo’s recommendations.

For many of us, the Special Rapporteur’s new report merely elucidates things we already knew. Importantly, we must take from her findings the lesson that women are at risk everywhere—even in our own backyard—and that one human rights violation frequently begets another.

The report’s recommendations suggest ways that we can all work together to change the dangerous gender norms that enable VAW and prevent reliable enforcement of laws against it.

To stay informed as we seek opportunities to hold the U.S. government accountable for protecting women at home and abroad, please “like” the Amnesty USA Women’s Human Rights Network on Facebook.  We look forward to working together to end VAW in the U.S. and around the world.