Addressing sexual assault through human rights instruments

Assault and battery Human rights Australia

Human rights discourse has become increasingly prominent in national and international politics, signified, for instance, through the introduction of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (2006) and debate regarding the merits of introducing a national Human Rights Act (Australian Human Rights Commission [AHRC], 2009; Lynch, 2010; Toy & Pearlman, 2009). It is therefore timely to consider the use of existing human rights frameworks for addressing sexual violence against women.

A particularly promising development in the human rights field is the Australian government signing of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in late 2008, thus demonstrating a commitment to achieving the equal rights of women and men, and to the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The signing of the Optional Protocol introduces another level of accountability for nation states through the provision of a complaints mechanism open to individual citizens, helping the Australian government to continue to strive towards achieving gender equality and the provision of women’s rights. It is worthwhile then to consider the implications and potential for the use of human rights mechanisms for promoting women’s rights in Australia, particularly as they relate to freedom from sexual violence.

This article:

  • provides an overview of human rights frameworks and their relevance to women’s rights;
  • outlines the mechanisms provided for by the Optional Protocol;
  • considers how the Optional Protocol has been used elsewhere via the case study of Ciudad Juárez in Mexico;
  • considers the rationale for signing the Optional Protocol; and
  • considers the limitations and a feminist critique of human rights mechanisms to address sexual violence against women.

It concludes by suggesting that there are some notable limitations in the manner in which sexual violence, and women’s rights more generally, are conceptualised in a rights discourse. Mechanisms such as the Optional Protocol represent an important and useful tool for addressing sexual violence against women.

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