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Helsinki Commission Releases U.S. Statement on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men at OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting

Warsaw, Poland – The following statement on Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men was delivered by the United States at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation currently being held in Warsaw, Poland:

Equality of Opportunity for Women and Men

Statement of Nancy Murphy

U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Implementation Meeting

Governments of OSCE participating States freely committed in the Charter for European Security and the Moscow Document “to undertake measures . . . to end violence against women,” including domestic violence. Sadly, few countries are acting on these OSCE commitments with any measure of urgency, perhaps because they labor under false assumptions regarding domestic violence. I submit that when governments discard these false assumptions — three of which I will address today — the political resolve to combat the violence will emerge.

A principal false assumption is that violence between spouses or other intimate partners is a private family matter with no effect on the world outside. This is simply untrue. The societal costs from domestic violence are staggering to educational systems, legal systems, health systems, criminal justice systems, neighborhoods, and workplaces. The World Health Organization, for example, estimates that the economic consequences of domestic violence cost the United States billions of dollars annually based on the costs of medical treatment, lost worker productivity, and quality of life.

Domestic violence also affects future generations. It is the leading cause of birth defects in newborn children in the United States. Children who witness abuse – meaning they are not physically abused, but have heard or seen a loved one being abused – are 1,000 percent more likely to be our next abusers or victims. They are also six times more likely to commit suicide, twenty-four times more likely to commit a sexual assault, fifty percent more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and seventy-four percent more likely to commit crimes against others.

Another false assumption is that battered women provoke their abuse. In the United States, the first domestic violence interventions, based on this premise, were aimed at making the battered woman more submissive or compliant assuming her husband would then stop beating her. The victim was identified as the problem, and therefore, if she would do something different, he would change. Evidence of this thinking can be seen in OSCE countries where, for example, forensic medical doctors have been known to downgrade their report on the severity of a woman’’s injuries if the doctor believes that the woman provoked the assault. Ironically, women living with abusers often find that becoming more submissive or compliant has the opposite effect. The violence towards them actually escalates. Giving women assertiveness training doesn’t help either. Basically, no matter what the victim does, the abuse continues and usually escalates over time.

The third assumption is that alcohol or drugs cause domestic violence. Many studies have proven this assumption false. Clearly violent incidents may be increased and the level of injury to women and children more severe, but neither alcohol nor drugs cause the violence as not all batterers drink or abuse drugs nor do all those who drink or abuse drugs batter. The use of violence or abuse is a problem that resides in the abuser. Only when domestic violence is treated as a violent crime, abusers are held accountable, and services are provided to keep women and children safe, will the violence end. This message that domestic violence is intolerable must be reinforced through the criminal justice system, media, religious institutions, educational systems, economic and business settings, and in families. National and local authorities must provide a comprehensive legal response to domestic violence involving support for victims, treatment for abusers, legal remedies and judicial reforms.

OSCE participating States can and must immediately take steps to eliminate barriers that prevent effective criminal prosecutions of domestic abuse. Physical and sexual assault are crimes, regardless of the sex or marital status of the victim. Domestic legal codes should treat them as such. Laws and procedures must be designed to take the burden for reporting and prosecuting the crime off the victim by giving the police a more active role in the process. Laws should be written requiring police to arrest anyone who physically assaults or makes violent threats against an intimate partner. While the abuser is taken to jail, the victim is provided with referrals to shelters and services designed to help her and her children. When the law and its enforcers take domestic violence seriously, many abusers’’ beliefs of entitlement begin to be challenged. They begin to rethink their roles, rights and responsibilities within the relationship. Many experts believe that an arrest and incarceration for domestic violence is the most successful technique for getting violent men to stop abuse.

In the United States, police officers report that domestic violence calls are the most dangerous calls to respond to and have necessitated specialized training. In many developing democracies in the OSCE region, law enforcement authorities refuse to intervene in situations of ongoing violence in the home. More often than not, police are not trained how to properly intervene in cases of domestic violence. Police may not be taught about the unique issues victims face or the human rights implications of failing to respond adequately to a call for help. Police and judges must come to understand that physical abuse is never a private affair, it is not an inevitable part of family life, and it can never be justified. I would like to reiterate and support an idea previously made by Canada to engage the OSCE Police Advisor to provide police training “tool kits” for OSCE States to utilize.

Likewise, criminal proceedings cannot be made dependent on obtaining the consent of the abused person, nor can the State abandon victims of so-called “minor” domestic violence incidents to prosecute their own cases without assistance from a state prosecutor. Courts must be willing to accept medical evidence other than forensic medical certificates that can be obtained only from a limited number of inaccessible or costly facilities. Moreover, courts must impose proper penalties. In many countries, batterers are more often fined than jailed. If the perpetrator is married to his victim, she then becomes legally responsible for ensuring that the fine is paid. Therefore, a financial burden falls on her as the only result of her having complained to the police about being abused.

Battered women and the children who watch the abuse are amongst the most fragile members of our society. I encourage all OSCE participating States to redouble their efforts to end domestic violence for the sake of us all.

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