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Reducing violence against women and promoting gender equality: two underused tools in bridging fragmented and divided communities and achieving peace

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JERUSALEM, 22 September 2016—Dubravka Šimonović, the UN  Special Rapporteur  on violence against women, its causes and consequences, issued the following statement today following her visit to Israel and to the Occupied Palestinian Territory/ State of Palestine from 12 to 22 September 2016.

First of all, I would like to thank the Government of Israel and of the State of Palestine for inviting me to conduct this official visit and for their excellent cooperation before and during my stay. 

My visit takes place after a long absence of any other UN Special Rapporteur visits and  I hope that this translates the willingness of both governments to strengthen their efforts to eliminate violence against women and to uphold women's rights  in public and private sphere   in line with  their international human rights obligations and commitments made under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and more recently, the Sustainable Development agenda and its stand-along goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the context of conflict and occupation and all related human rights, humanitarian and security challenges.

Thanks to the excellent collaboration I have benefitted from both authorities, I have been able to gather first-hand information on the situation of violence against women and the way it affects both contexts.  I have travelled extensively and was privileged to meet with a large number of authorities’ representatives spanning key line ministries, civil society organizations, victims as well as with United Nations officials. In Israel, I visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beer-Sheva, Haifa and Nazareth and in the occupied Palestinian territory, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, East Jerusalem and Gaza. I visited shelters in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

I would like to thank in particular the women and girls who shared with me their personal stories placing their trust and some of their hopes in my hands. Despite unique contextual complexities, I humbly believe that I have been able to get a good understanding of the reality of women’s and girls’ lives when it comes to their right to live a life free from violence and gender inequalities.

Let me turn now to some of my preliminary findings. But at the outset I would like to recall that there are no States in the world which can pretend to be immune from this phenomenon and Israel and the State of Palestine are no exception.

Preliminary findings on my visit to Israel 

The realization of de jure and de facto equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women. Root causes of violence against women are grounded in sex and gender based discrimination against women.

Israel’s Basic Law Human Dignity and Liberty (1992), which serves as Israel’s bill of rights upholds equality between women only to a certain extent in the public sphere but mostly excludes the private sphere which is regulated by the laws on personal status.

Different religious laws govern personal status. As a result, religious courts and civil courts coexist but with exclusive jurisdiction to religious courts for matters related to marriage and divorce. The system of religious courts consists of Jewish Rabbinical courts , Muslim Sharia courts, Christian courts and Druze courts.

Israel entered a reservation to article 16 and 7(b) when it ratified the CEDAW convention. The reservation to article 16 restricts seriously the principle of substantive equality between women and men in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and such inequalities have led to some forms of violence against women on which I will elaborate further below. I support the repeated call of the CEDAW Committee and ask the Government of Israel to withdraw such reservation which is impermissible and contrary to the object and purpose of the convention.

In the area of divorce, I have been made aware of the “GET abuse”, which is a form of violence exerted by husbands against their wives during divorce proceedings. The Jewish religious law asserts that the husband's consent to the divorce is essential to the divorce validation. Without a valid divorce, the woman is religiously forbidden to have relations with any other man, and any children she might have with another man are considered illegitimate and later cannot officially be married in Israel.

On the other hand, a married man is completely free to have relations with another woman and have children with her with no legal ramifications. This huge power gap leads husbands to abuse their power and refuse to grant divorces, unless the women concede to their demands that may range from giving up property rights to rights with respect to their children and more.

While the law allows the Rabbinical courts to impose various sanctions on the refusing spouse, such as different types of restraining orders, revocation of driver's license, restricting limitations of one's bank account, stay of exit order, imprisonment and more, I have found that the Rabbinical courts do not make sufficient use of such authority. Rabbinical courts also reserve the rights to revoke a woman's divorce retroactively if she violates one of the clauses of the divorce agreement.

While there has been some recourse to civil courts on some aspects related to divorce, an option system of civil marriage and divorce should be introduced as already recommended by the CEDAW Committee, allowing freedom of choice between civil and religious marriages. Furthermore, to be in conformity with article 16 of CEDAW, the Government should harmonize religious laws currently governing marriage and divorce with the Convention and eliminate provisions that are discriminatory against women.

A number of legislative measures have been taken to improve legal prohibitions and preventive measures in the sphere of violence against women. Amendments were made to the law of rape, which improved the trial situation of rape victims, abolishing the requirement of corroborative evidence of rape and disallowing examination of the rape victim’s past sexual experience. Additionally, the definition of rape was broadened and marital rape was prohibited.

On domestic violence, I would like to commend the Government’s intention to ratify the Istanbul Convention and the ongoing efforts undertaken to harmonize its national legislation with the standards enshrined in the Convention.

The Sexual harassment legislation adopted in 1998 is a very progressive and detailed legislation on sexual harassment and I am glad that sexual harassment in the army now enjoys a zero tolerance policy which has drastically curbed down such violence.  However much needs to be done against sexual harassment in the police and in the political arena, as highlighted by recent high profile cases.

There are no clear data available on femicide or gender-related killings of women but it however emerges clearly from various sources that Arab women are overrepresented among the victims.  The recent establishment of an intergovernmental and intersectoral group which analyses each month cases of women who have been killed by their husband/partner has a great potential to determine gaps in the intervention system, criminal justice system and judicial proceeding and to establish risk factors to prevent such violence and to protect women and girls from femicide. This would be in line with the call I have made last November to all States to establish femicide watch.

I was informed about a recent legislation which makes mediation in family law disputes mandatory both in family and religious courts. While the stated purpose is to avoid violence escalation in the family in the context of divorce proceedings and curb ultimately the number of femicides, the law comes with some flaws.  Several articles in the law and procedures aim to exempt victims of violence but they do not address for example economic and psychological violence. In line with the Istanbul Convention, mediation should not be mandatory in relation to all forms of violence.

I am welcoming new legislative initiatives which will complement the legal arsenal to combat violence against women, such as the draft legislation on economic violence. A legislation of 2014 that defines the sending of pictures/videos with sexual content as sexual harassment and criminalizing the distribution of picture or video was adopted.

In terms of access to justice, the Legal Aid Department of the Ministry of Justice provide legal aid in  all civil  matters to  citizens and residents who meet the eligibility criteria  under  the relevant law and regulation. While this is very commendable, there are however some protection gaps.  Legal aid should be extended to sexual offenses and victims of violence (women and girls in particular). Legal aid is only provided in civil proceeding leaving a protection gap with regard to women’s victims and witnesses in criminal proceedings and this gap should be remedied.

In Israel, specific groups of women, including Palestinian and Arab women, Bedouin women, asylum-seekers and women pertaining to other minority communities face accrued and multiple form of discrimination and heightened risk of violence.

Shelters I visited had the capacity to receive mothers victims of violence and their children. However, there is an insufficient number of social workers who speak Arabic and depending on the legal status of shelters beneficiaries, some might not have health coverage. I note that there is a protection gap related to the absence of holistic, forward looking services for women and girls suffering from domestic violence and death threats within Arab communities. Such gap is reflected in terms of lack of rehabilitation services, appropriate and dedicated out of home care and long term integration and protection services.

It was reported to me that Bedouin communities located in unrecognized villages, could not acquire building permits or plans for housing, forcing them to build their houses illegally. They are therefore at risk of forced evictions and home demolitions, to which women are particularly affected. I was also informed that Bedouin communities lack water, sanitation, and electricity and that sadly boys and girls pertaining to these communities do not always have access to education, due, among other reasons to the long distance between their homes and schools and the risks they face on their way.

In addition, polygamy and under-age marriage of girls are legitimized under different religious laws governing personal status and to some extent, both harmful practices are still in use in some pockets of the Arab and Bedouin communities. In these communities, girls and women are killed in so called “honour crimes”, either by their husband or another member of their family to “clean the family’s reputation” and impunity for these crimes prevail due to  difficulties encountered to prosecute perpetrators of such horrible crimes.

I met with some women asylum seekers who had allegedly fled their countries of origin from fear of killing in the name of “honor”, domestic violence, rape, forced marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence but whose claims for refugee protection based on gender grounds had been declined. These women are neither allow to work nor granted access to any social benefit or legal aid. Additionally, they can only access shelters and rehabilitation facilities when there is a threat to their life, and upon this exception, they may not find another safe place to stay. As they don’t benefit from official work permits, this category of women has less capacity to be economically independent and at high risk to fall into situations of violence and prostitution.  

The effect of occupation on violence against women

My visit takes place in a general context of prolonged occupation punctuated by regular conflict, continuation of negative trends and the absence of any prospect of peace that creates a growing despair and hopelessness among the population under occupation, and in particular women and girls. The occupation has had differentiated impact on women and girls, in connection in some cases with traditional patriarchal society and norms.

Some of the effects of the prolonged occupation which I have either witnessed myself or which were reported to me and which have a clear link to violence against women and girls  include:

House demolitions, either in the context of lack of building permits or on punitive grounds and forced evictions policies have a specific and gender impact on women. The fear of demolition or the actual demolitions of their home, have severe psychological impact, causing constant anxiety and leading to depression. Losing their homes which constitute the only place where they could feel safe, has created instability and often has resulted in living in relative’s home, often overcrowded. This has increased pressure on families and lead to violence against women. Women are also compelled to stay home in fear of house demolitions. A woman reported to me for example that she was sleeping all dressed in case she would be woken up by night raids and would need to be seen by soldiers.
  
Another form of daily violence is linked to restrictions on freedom of movement women and girls face imposed by checkpoints, closure of roads, and other means and whose repercussions are multiple, impacting access to education, health, job opportunities, ect. 

Women are also directly experiencing settlers’ violence. I have visited the Qurduba School in Hebron and met with teachers and their pupils who told me about being the subject of constant attacks, threat and humiliation from neighboring settlers but also from some members of the Israeli Security Forces who condone such violence. Settlers violence also translate in the loss of livelihood for the family, girls being harassed on the way to school to the extent that their families prefer not to send them to school. Settlers’ violence has been met by a lack of accountability.

In some instances, women also suffer from Israeli security forces violence and lack of accountability. There are reports of women/girls killed as a result of the excessive use of force which is some case might amount to unlawful killings. Related fear of being subject to such violence affects women’s ability to leave their villages and their homes. Women and girls suffered also from an impeded access to health services which have led in some cases to miscarriages.
 
There is a acute lack of access to justice in area C for victims of gender-based violence.

Women suffer restrictions, as Palestinians, of the rights to move freely in and out of East Jerusalem. Under Israeli law it is forbidden for a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem with a Jerusalem ID card to live in the West Bank or for a Palestinian with a West Bank ID to live in East Jerusalem, unless they have a permit from Israeli authorities. This had led to division of families and has created extreme hardship. The “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law” adopted in 2003 has frozen the family unification rights for resident of the West Bank and Gaza. Under the requirements of this law,  if a couple asks for a permit for the wife, she has to be 25 years old or above, and if the permit is for the husband, he has to be 35 years old of above in order to apply for family unification. Younger persons must apply to a special committee based on humanitarian considerations.

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Report on the oPt / State of Palestine

I would like to start by welcoming the accession of the State of Palestine to some of the key human rights instruments, including the CEDAW Convention and to commend its accession without any reservation.  The Ministry of women's affairs as the official national machinery promotes equality and empowerment of women has adopted a national strategy to combat violence against women (2011-2019) and established a technical committee to review femicides and to review legislation from a gender perspective. Last August, the National Action plan on the implementation of the UNSCR 1325 was adopted.

While recognizing the clear linkage between the prolonged occupation and violence against women, as was pointed out in the report of my predecessor who visited the OPT in 2005, I wish to stress that the occupation does not exonerate the State of Palestine from its due diligence obligation to prevent, investigate, punish and provide remedies for acts of gender-based violence under the areas and persons under its jurisdiction.

Traditional and patriarchal norms still prevail in society and some outdated domestic legal frameworks are still in place. There is a limited framework on gender equality and the principle of equality better women and man has not been embodied in the national laws extended to both the public and private sphere.  Relevant laws are spread across legislation adopted under multiple legal regimes, with the Palestinian laws, laws of British Mandate, Jordanian and Egyptian laws and even laws from the Ottoman period. Despite the existence of some laws condemning violence, their implementation is challenged due to the absence of a formal governmental authority in specific areas of the occupied Palestinian territory. In this regard, the occupation is a real obstacle to the fulfillment of the State’s due diligence obligation to prevent violence against women in areas where it has not full jurisdiction, because of the fragmentation of the areas under different control. For example if a woman divorces her husband in the West Bank and obtains the custody of her children, the father could take the children with him in another area, under the control of the Israeli authorities, such as Jerusalem and therefore the law cannot be enforced by the Palestinian authorities.

It was also reported that Palestinian women victims of domestic violence who live in East Jerusalem, tend to report fewer cases of violence to the police, as they see this institution as part of the same perpetrator of other forms of violence related to the occupation, impeding women to have access to justice.

Combatting violence against women in Palestine is also impeded by an outdated non-harmonized legal system. The Government has taken some positive steps to amend the laws like the amendment in 2011 of the Jordanian-era penal code of 1960 by abolition  Article 340 that allowed for pardon or mitigated sentences against men accused of so called “honor” crimes. It also amended Article 98 of the same penal code which effectively allowed perpetrators to plead “honor” as a mitigating factor in crimes against women. However, I was informed by Palestinian civil society organizations that concerns remain regarding Article 99, which gives broad discretionary powers to judges in the application of mitigating factors in “honor”  crimes. I was informed that a new draft penal code is pending adoption and that a law on domestic violence has been drafted. Those laws should have already been adopted by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), but have been delayed due to the current political divide in Palestine and the resulting paralysis of the legislative process. Women’s rights cannot wait and specific laws to address gender based violence need to be adopted urgently, in compliance with international human rights law, in particular with the CEDAW Convention and the Committee’s General Recommendations. I am confident that the accession to the CEDAW Convention and the reporting to its monitoring body will play an important role in the harmonization of the legislative framework in line with international norms and standards.

There are other problematic areas of laws, such the as the Personal Status Law. The legal age required for the future spouses to celebrate a marriage is 15 years and it can be celebrated even some months before reaching this age. Child marriage is a harmful practice that can place girls in vulnerable positions and exacerbated risk of suffering violence and early pregnancies.

Sexual violence is also of concern. First of all, because victims of sexual violence are extremely stigmatized in Palestinian society, but also because a perpetrator of rape can in some cases be absolved if he marries the victim. Marital rape is not criminalized under the current legal framework. Women face also discrimination in the areas of inheritance, divorce and custody of the children, which can place them in vulnerable positions.

Within the occupied Palestinian territories, there is a system of violence emanating from the culture, the norms and traditions, in a context of prolonged occupation, among which, domestic violence, early marriages, sexual violence, including rape and incest, as well as killings in the name of “honour”. Several testimonies pointed out that the dire economic situation of some, the level of unemployment and the pressure of the occupation have a greater impact on women’s life, being more subjected to domestic violence, in particular in Gaza, due to the constant pressure felt by the blockade, the overcrowding that limits their mobility and privacy, but also their access to adequate services needed for women victims of violence.
 
To respond to gender based violence, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs initiated a number of initiatives, including the establishment of the Specialized Family Protection Units within the  Public Prosecutor Unit with a pool of gender experts which is a promising initiative to prosecute cases of violence against women, from a gender perspective. I also note the establishment of three shelter centers in the West Bank and one in Gaza Strip and the establishment of a national consultative committee for shelter centers.

However, due to the Palestinian internal political division, the existing governmental mechanisms put in place by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior to deal with gender-based violence in the West Bank, have not been paralleled in Gaza. The de facto authorities in Gaza have taken a number of response measures and opened some channels of coordination with local women's organizations but on the whole these have been very limited. The available response is mainly provided through humanitarian and development interventions that support local organizations providing services responding to gender-based violence.

In Gaza, I was very touched to meet with different groups of women affected by three consecutive conflicts. Some of them lost several members of their family, their houses were completely destroyed, and in some cases, they were internally displaced and many are still waiting for the reconstruction of their homes and live in caravans in extremely poor conditions. Some of them became disabled and a great majority of them are still trying to overcome the trauma caused due to all their loss.

Concluding remarks 

I welcome the commitments and efforts of both sides in relation to the implementation of security council resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security.

I would like to call both sides to start a new peace process in which women would fully participate and even take the lead and in which international human rights law and humanitarian law would be applied jointly.