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Special Rapporteur on violence against women finalizes fact finding mission to the United States of America

8 February 2011

Washington D.C. (7 February 2011). The Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, it causes and consequences, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, concluded a fact finding mission to the United States of America which included meetings with Government officials and other relevant stakeholders in Washington D.C, North Carolina, Florida, California, Minnesota and New York. The Special Rapporteur delivered the following preliminary statement:

“I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the Government of the United States of America for the cooperation extended during my 14-day visit to the country. I am also grateful to my interlocutors, including state officials at the national and local level, civil society advocates, survivors of violence and women in custody who courageously shared their personal stories and experiences with me.

My visit focused on violence against women in a broad context, including issues such as custodial violence, domestic violence, violence against women in the military, and violence against women who face multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination, particularly Native American women, immigrant women and African American women.

Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation which continues to challenge every country in the world. While laws, policies and resources are crucial to address this phenomenon effectively, these efforts must be coupled with actions to combat its structural and systemic causes. The current policy and programmatic initiatives undertaken by the Government of the United States are for the most part moving in a positive direction and it is hoped that effective implementation will address the persistent structural challenges which are a cause and consequence of violence against women. Such policies and programs need to be legally institutionalized to ensure long term sustainability in providing effective remedies, and also changing cultures that foster impunity.

Throughout my mission I took into consideration the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that women face, depending on amongst others, their location, class, ethnicity, and immigration status. It is clear to me that multiple forms of discrimination against certain groups of women not only makes them more vulnerable, but also exacerbates the negative consequences of violence.

Domestic violence is a systematic, persistent and injurious human rights violation that continues to affect women across the United States. Information provided by the Department of Justice shows that in 2007, up to approximately 70% of victims killed by an intimate partner were women, a statistic that has changed very little since 1993. Further, black women were four times more likely than white women to be murdered by intimate partners. In 2008, 99% of domestic violence experienced by women was perpetrated by men. 1

I would like to commend the Government of the United States for the establishment of the Office on Violence against Women (OVW) within the Department of Justice. Currently OVW coordinates grant programs which were established under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) and has awarded nearly $4 billion in grants, and has launched a multifaceted approach to implementing the act. VAWA has also helped foster greater interagency cooperation between departments such as the Department of Justice, Housing, Health, Labor and Veteran Affairs.

Commitment toward the elimination of violence against women has also been shown at the highest level of the Executive with the appointment of a White House Advisor on domestic violence and sexual assault issues and a White House Council on Women and Girls. These offices liaise closely with the advocacy community, as well as various departments working on these issues.

The Violence against Women Act is a landmark piece of legislation which aims to address the high incidence of violence against women. It has steadily expanded funding to address domestic violence and with each reauthorization has included historically underserved groups, such as Native American women. Although VAWA’s intentions are laudable there is little in terms of actual legally binding federal provisions which provide substantive protection or prevention for acts of domestic violence against women. This challenge has been further exacerbated by jurisprudence emanating from the Supreme Court. The effect of cases such as DeShaney, Morrison and Castle Rock is that even where local and state police are grossly negligent in their duties to protect women’s right to physical security, and even where they fail to respond to an urgent call for assistance from victims of domestic violence, there is no constitutional or statutory remedy at the federal level.

It has been argued that without any solid and binding national scheme mandating legislation and training programs, there is little protection afforded to domestic violence victims in various jurisdictions, and many women in different parts of the country continue to suffer from inadequate protection and services 2. Many programmes report a critical shortage of funds and staff to provide emergency shelter, housing, child care and legal representation. These needs have become further heightened by the current financial and economic downturn.

Article 4 (c and d) of the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women notes the responsibility of States to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons. To this end, States should develop penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are subjected to violence.

My visit to Minnesota afforded me the opportunity to engage with Government and civil society stakeholders on best practices in addressing violence against women. Despite the existence of good legislation, good practices and the presence of a very strong civil society working in partnership with the authorities to ensure effective implementation of laws, policies and programs, femicide statistics are still a cause for concern.3

As regards the challenges faced by Native American women, I was made aware during my visit of how they face greater rates of domestic violence and sexual assault than any other group in the United States. According to statistics of the Department of Justice, one in three Native american women will be raped at some point in their life and 3 in 5 will be physically assaulted.4

The causes and consequences of this violence are reflected in the socioeconomic realities faced by Native American communities, coupled with the historical discrimination they have experienced. This has led to adverse consequences such as increasing levels of substance abuse, violence, chronic health issues and, in some communities, rising suicide statistics. 

I received information indicating that nationwide between 60% and 80% of violent victimizations of Native American women are perpetrated by non-Natives. The jurisdictional restrictions imposed on Indian nations to investigate and prosecute violent crimes occurring within their territory means women must rely on the Federal and State Governments to do so. Yet the only law enforcement officials with the legal authority to investigate and prosecute these crimes are usually distant and disengaged, resulting in a lack of effective response to acts of violence against women perpetrated in Indian Territory. Therefore, I was happy to hear that the Attorney-General is deploying more federal prosecutors to investigate these crimes in Indian Territory.

I have also received reports regarding the prevalent incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment targeting women serving in the United States military. Such violent and threatening acts are strongly linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a wide range of physical and psychological challenges.

According to the Department of Defense, while 82% of women victims of military sexual assault report to family and friends, only 21% of them report to the authorities 5. This underreporting is strongly linked to a military culture which poses additional barriers ranging from lack of confidentiality, fear of punishment for collateral misconduct, impact on security clearance, and availability for deployment.

The Department of Defense has introduced initiatives to address military sexual assault. As early as 1964 the Equal Opportunity complaint system was introduced allowing service members to submit complaints about discrimination and sexual harassment. More recently in 2004 and 2005 respectively, the Department created the Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response and issued the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program, with the aim of eliminating sexual assault within the Department. According to informants, it appears that the success of these mechanisms relies upon the personal commitment and discretionary response of commanding officers.

In relation to veterans, the process of claiming benefits for service related injuries or conditions is cumbersome and may not consistently take into account military sexual assault, given the difficulties of substantiating such experiences. While health services are provided to veterans without having to substantiate military sexual assault, the quality of the services is a concern. Veterans have also complained about suffering further sexual harassment and facing a general hostile environment when seeking to utilize those services. I was informed that currently only 16% of veteran women use these medical services, preferring to access the private medical sector when possible.

With regard to the issue of violence against incarcerated women, positive legislative steps have been taken through the enactment of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which requires yearly surveys of sexual assault in correctional settings and provides for substantive funds for policy improvement at the state level 6. PREA also created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) which recommended national standards to reduce sexual abuse. The Department of Justice has subsequently drawn on these recommendations to develop national standards 7. In finalizing and implementing these standards, the Government should ensure that the substantive issues addressed by the Commission are reflected. As articulated in the NPREC’s finding number five, victim’s safety should be the focus, reporting procedures should be improved and responsive, and accountability should be the norm rather than the exception. 8

The Government should also address the persistent obstacles faced by incarcerated women due to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1995, which limits the possibility of prisoners to receive redress for instances of sexual abuse due to several restrictions such as: 1) the need to exhaust all internal grievance systems, 2) the requirement to prove physical injuries and 3) the placement of caps on attorney fees.

An underlying problem identified during the mission is the general over-incarceration of women, commonly for non-violent crimes and which more severely impacts certain racial and ethnic groups. More than one million women are currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the United States, black women represent 30% of all women incarcerated under state or federal jurisdiction, and Hispanic women represent 16%. Another factor pushing the high numbers of detained women is the growing incarceration of immigrants who are under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) following raids in workplaces, neighborhoods and public gatherings, among others.

Alternatives to incarceration should be envisaged, particularly for women who are primary care-givers of their children, as they face a heightened risk of losing their parental rights while in custody. I was made aware of how the Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997) facilitates the termination of parental rights of mothers who are imprisoned for more than 15 months.

My mission took me to California where I visited the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla, one of the prisons visited by my predecessor in 1998. During the visit I conducted a follow-up review of the conditions of this facility. A number of educational and vocational training programs have been introduced to reduce recidivism and prepare inmates for reintegration into society. Furthermore, an inmate appeals process has been introduced in order to foster accountability and respond to allegations of abuse within the prison. Despite these positive developments, interlocutors stated that the institution still faces some persistent deficiencies in terms of services and the hostility with which some guards respond to inmates. This is further intensified by the situation of overcrowding with a facility designed to hold 2,004 inmates currently holding 3, 686 people.

Generally, in prisons and detention centres that I visited, some limitation in terms of the services provided were brought to my attention such as the access to basic hygiene products, and also the adequacy and sufficiency of food. Despite access to telephones, the prohibitive cost of calls impedes inmates’ possibilities to contact lawyers and families. Other challenges faced by inmates to maintain family relations are the remoteness and geographical isolation of facilities. Another concern raised consistently throughout my interviews with interlocutors is the poor state of health services offered to inmates. Many of the women in detention face mental health conditions that are not being adequately dealt with. These mental health problems are further increased by frequent lockdowns, the isolation of inmates, and the general aggressive climate and verbal abuse prevalent within the facilities. The continued practice of cross-gender supervision also contributes to the mental distress of women under detention. Another concern raised refers to the shackling of women accessing medical care outside the prison facilities.

In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge the recent legislative and policy initiatives taken by the Government to reduce the prevalence of violence against women, including the allocation of substantial resources which are beneficial to advocates, particularly at the grassroots level. The appointment of senior experts on violence against women demonstrates the commitment of the Government to combat this grave human rights violation at the highest level. I invite the Government to continue such efforts taking into consideration the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination which are causes and consequences of violence against women.

My findings will be discussed in a comprehensive report which will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2011.” 


Ms. Rashida Manjoo (South Africa) was appointed Special Rapporteur on Violence against women, its causes and consequences in June 2009 by the UN Human Rights Council, for an initial period of three year. As Special Rapporteur, she is independent from any government or organization and serves in her individual capacity. Ms. Manjoo is also a Professor in the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town.

For additional information on the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, please visit: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/women/rapporteur/index.htm

1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Selective Findings, Female Victims of Violence, September 2009.

2. Brandt-Young, Christine and Buel, Sarah M., Amici Curiae Brief in Suport of Jessica Gonzales (on the VAWA). Oct 17, 2008.

3. Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, 2010 Femicide Report (15 women were murdered as a result of intimate partner violence in 2010).

4. U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.

5. Power point presentation by DoD.

6. The statute requires the U.S. Attorney General to adopt a final rule creating national standards based on these recommendations; the rule will be automatically binding on the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and each state will be required to comply with the rule or risk losing 5% of federal funding designated for criminal justice activities.

7. Executive summary of the Report by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

8. “Prisoners in 2005”, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2006.