U.Va. Law Students Support U.N. Investigation of Violence Against American Women

October 17, 2011 — The International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law contributed to a series of briefing papers on violence against women in the United States that was distributed Oct. 10 at the United Nations.

The series of papers, titled "Violence Against Women in the United States and the State's Obligation to Protect," was submitted in November 2010 to U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Rashida Manjoo in support of her mission to investigate violence against women in the U.S.

"The briefing papers describe some of the gaps and contradictions in U.S. domestic law and policy and suggest recommendations about what could be done to ameliorate the problems, and maybe even turn them around," said Deena R. Hurwitz, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic and Human Rights Program at the Law School.

Law student Calleigh McRaith, a former clinic student who occasionally works with Manjoo as a research assistant, said the report is an important look at violence against women in the U.S., describing such troubling statistics as the number of women killed each year by intimate partners and the number of female veterans reporting rape or sexual assault while serving in the military.

"One of the main points of our briefing papers is to remind people, especially government actors, that human rights abuses happen here in the U.S., too," McRaith said. "Violence against women isn't just a problem of less-developed countries – even with our strong legal system, there are still a lot of terrible things happening right in our backyard."

At Hurwitz's invitation, Manjoo visited the Law School in early 2010 when she initially requested a mission to probe violence against women in the U.S.

"When she was appointed special rapporteur, I contacted her right away and said to her, 'Why don't you let me and my clinic be your unofficial secretariat?'" Hurwitz said.

At a meeting of a group of national gender advocates organized by Hurwitz at the Law School in February 2010, five general topics were identified to study: domestic violence, the role of guns in perpetuating violence against women, violence against women in detention, violence against women in the military and the overarching theoretical framework of the "due diligence" standard.

The clinic wrote the section that explores the United States' interpretation and implementation of the due diligence standard, which serves as a tool for rights-holders to hold duty-bearers accountable.

"The due diligence standard provides a framework for determining what constitutes effective fulfillment of the obligation, and for analyzing the actions or omissions of the duty-bearer," Hurwitz said. "This is especially important where the potential infringement comes through a failure to act."

The U.Va. Law team also identified experts across the U.S. on each of the topics and worked with them to help prepare briefing papers for Manjoo.

Law student Clare Boronow began working on the project last fall in the Human Rights Clinic. She helped draft the due diligence section, and also helped write a supplemental paper on gun violence against American Indian women during the spring semester.

"I found working on this project eye-opening as to the extent of human rights problems here in the United States," Boronow said. "One of things that surprised me was how difficult it can be for a woman to access a remedy for abuse, whether because of complicated and ineffective administrative complaint systems, evidentiary burdens, a lack of appropriate causes of action, or otherwise."

Manjoo presented her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in June and formally presented it to a committee of the U.N. General Assembly on Oct. 10.

Hurwitz and several U.Va. law students traveled to the United Nations and distributed copies of the briefing papers to delegates at the General Assembly session on the Advancement of Women.

Boronow said she hopes their work will lead to reforms.

"I hope the special rapporteur's report, as well as our own volume, will draw attention to the problem of violence against women in the U.S. and spark a discussion about what can be done to better protect women from violence and better remedy violence when it occurs," she said. "The long-term goal is legal reform, but the first step is getting legislators and the public to notice and appreciate the problems."

McRaith said she hopes the publication will serve as a tool for women's rights advocates to seek change in their communities.

"Ideally," she said, "advocates could take this report and bring it to the attention of their local officials saying, 'The problems listed in this report exist in our community – this a big deal; a lot of women are being injured, killed, or are feeling trapped by cycles of violence, and we need to figure out some solutions to change this.' This will hopefully lead to tougher laws, more effective services and reparation to victims, and an increase in preventative measures."

— By Brian McNeill

Media Contact

Brian McNeill

School of Law