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Urgent reforms needed to protect women and children from violence in custody battles: UN expert

23 June 2023

GENEVA (23 June 2023) – Deeply embedded gender bias that pervades family court systems across the globe is placing women and children in situations of immense suffering and violence, a UN expert said today.

“The tendency of family courts to dismiss the history of domestic violence and abuse in custody cases, especially where mothers and/or children have brought forward credible allegations of domestic abuse, including coercive control, physical or sexual abuse is unacceptable,” said Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences in a report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday.

She said the history of intimate partner violence against women was often neglected and the default rule of shared custody or parental authority appears to prevail in cases of child custody, access, contact and visitation arrangements and decisions.

“When custody decisions are made in favour of the parent who claims to be alienated without sufficiently considering the views of the child, the resilience of the concerned child may be undermined. The child may also continue to be exposed to lasting harm,” Alsalem said. She also called out the failure of child custody processes to use child sensitive approaches that focus on the best interest of children.

The report underscores that minority women face additional barriers when being charged of using “parental alienation” in part due to increased barriers in accessing justice as well as negative stereotypes.

Alsalem’s report underlines that the use of the unfounded and unscientific concept of parental alienation is highly gendered. While it is invoked against both fathers and mothers, it is predominantly used against mothers. The consequences of biased custody decisions can be detrimental and irreversible to those concerned leading to a continuum of violence before and after separation, the expert said. Despite these grave consequences “parental alienation’ and related pseudo-concepts are embedded and endorsed in legal systems across jurisdictions, including amongst evaluators tasked with reporting to family courts on the best interest of the child.

Alsalem’s report also provides recommendations for States and other stakeholders to reverse the long-lasting harm done to individuals, families and societies. She urged the international community to bring the human rights dimension of multi-layered violence that many mothers and children are experiencing at the hands of family courts into its collective conscience.

“The protection of women and children from violence, a victim-centered approach, and the best interests of the child, must take precedence over all other criteria when establishing arrangements for custody and visitation rights,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur also presented reports on her country visits to Libya and Türkiye

ENDSMs. Reem Alsalem (Jordan) was appointed Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences by the Human Rights Council in August 2021. She holds a Masters in International Relations from the American University in Cairo, Egypt (2001) and a Masters in Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (2003). She is an independent consultant on gender issues, the rights of refugees and migrants, transitional justice and humanitarian response.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, Ms. Orlagh McCann (+41 22 79902/[email protected])

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Maya Derouaz ([email protected])  or Dharisha Indraguptha (+41 79 506 1088 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter@UN_SPExperts.

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