What political dynamics lead to domestic violence legislation being implemented?

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Women in Bangladesh who work with ESID - Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre by Dr Nicola Banks, Global Development Institute

Women’s movements must continue their struggle to improve enforcement, writes Dr Eleni Sifaki.

Domestic violence law is currently a hotly debated topic around the world. Following years of silence, domestic violence is now a political issue that has reached global attention, thanks to the numerous movements to combat violence against women worldwide. The issue has been taken up by international and regional bodies through a series of conventions, including CEDAW – The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In recent years these campaigns and conventions have resulted in soaring numbers of countries introducing domestic violence laws. But some countries have yet to introduce legislation. According to the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law (2016) report, of the 173 countries covered in the study, 125 have so far passed specific legislation on domestic violence while 46 countries have not. Although some that have not passed specific legislation against domestic violence offer some form of legal protection, a specific law would offer increased protection through comprehensive prosecution of all forms of violence, public investment in crisis centres, restraining orders against abusers, and through a clearer message that intra-familial violence is not tolerated. But even in countries that have passed legislation the laws may be incomplete, or enforcement might be weak.

Legislation can often face resistance because it challenges patriarchal structures and touches on issues of marriage and the family. In January, Russia (which does not have a law on domestic violence) moved toward decriminalizing physical violence by family members that does not result in serious injury, making it punishable by a mere fine. This development can be seen as part of the government’s wider socially conservative agenda. Armenia is also yet to adopt a law on domestic abuse, despite years of calls from local women’s rights groups. A draft bill published in November was eventually dropped after significant backlash from conservative and religious groups, that argued that the bill was an attempt to impose European influence on Armenian values. Meanwhile, in the UK, as part of a commitment to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (The Istanbul Convention), and to improve prosecution of offenders, a more comprehensive law on domestic violence is being drafted.

These significant developments indicate a mixed trend of both regression and progress on legislation against violence against women, and reflect the tensions between human rights norms on the one hand, and local politics and cultural norms on the other.

Domestic violence is prevalent in developed and developing countries alike, and it’s commonly known that women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic abuse. A 2013 World Health Organisation study estimates that the global prevalence of intimate partner violence is affecting 30 per cent of partnered women, with significant regional variations. The highest prevalence is found in Central sub-Saharan Africa where 65.5 per cent of women have experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. Such high rates of violence indicate that political action has fallen short of protecting women.

In this context, it is important to uncover the factors that both do and don’t work politically for states to adopt and implement legislation on domestic violence. The Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre’s project on Gender and Political Settlements at the University of Manchester carried out by a team of international researchers sheds light on the political dynamics that lead to the adoption and implementation of gender equity policies in developing countries. The project draws from primary data collection in a selection of countries that have successfully adopted legislation on domestic violence: Ghana, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Uganda.

With the exception of Rwanda, where political commitment to the law had already been established following the genocide, political willingness to adopt domestic violence law in all of these countries has been weak. In contexts characterized by competitive and personalized politics, where favours are offered in return for political support, women as a political group do not offer enough rents, and often lack resources to participate in informal networks. In this context, a key driving force for the adoption of domestic violence legislation has been the presence of a wide and strong coalition.

In particular, the domestic violence coalitions in these countries were successful because they forged links with key female political figures. The coalitions, composed of civil society organizations, lawyers and academics among other actors, actively campaigned for adoption of the law in these countries and aligned with key figures in parliament, the bureaucracy and the executive to gain political support and push their agenda forward. In Bangladesh for example, our research found that some members of the movement had personal ties to the Minister of Women’s Affairs who lobbied on the issue, tipped them off with new developments and later incorporated the movement in the consultations for the drafting of the bill.

International actors and ideas such as those on human rights also facilitated the passing of domestic violence legislation in all of the countries. The international obligation to the CEDAW convention was used as a tool to pressure governments. Links between movements in the Global South also enabled exchange of learning, such as the Indian feminist movement assisting on the framing of the domestic violence law in Bangladesh.

One other important factor in establishing political commitment to the law was strategic political analysis to identify and diffuse resistance from the opposition and to align the movement with the interests of the ruling coalition. In Uganda, the domestic violence coalition followed a highly strategic campaign, framing domestic violence as a threat to both the construct of the family and the country’s socio-economic development, rather than women’s rights per se. This helped them to win the support of highly influential religious and conservative groups. In Ghana, like in Russia and Armenia, the domestic violence bill was seen by the government as a foreign imposition of western ideas that threatened local culture and family values. In response, the coalition re-framed the issue in terms of family values and development outcomes.

This strategic framing in a context where gender norms were deeply embedded in political and legal institutions helped to gain support for the act and played a key role in its adoption. However, it came with a heavy price. This instrumentalist narrative undermined the legislation’s more transformative elements and directly affected the content and implementation of these countries’ laws. In Ghana, Uganda and Bangladesh, the law did not include provisions against marital rape, with the result that rape within marriage is very difficult to prosecute. In Uganda, sexual violence was not explicitly defined in the law, limiting the protection of the state for this form of violence.

In addition, implementation has been very slow in Ghana, Uganda and Bangladesh, suggesting that political commitment has so far been limited. These findings reflect the challenges that ‘working with the grain’ can create for the enforcement of gender equity policies. In contrast, in Rwanda a more comprehensive law was passed that was swiftly implemented, reflecting a stronger political commitment by the government following years of gender-based violence in wartime.

Although there is much to celebrate in the adoption of domestic violence law, a lot remains to be done to see it implemented. Women’s movements must continue their struggle to improve enforcement. Strategic campaigning can bring major trade-offs and therefore it must be balanced, and accompanied by an un-compromising approach to the content and implementation of the law by both transnational and local actors.

Dr Eleni Sifaki is Research Associate at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre, University of Manchester.

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