Dissertation Abstracts

At The Centre or the Margins? A review of intersectionality in the human rights framework on violence against women

Author: Sosa, Lorena P.A., L.P.A.Sosa@uu.nl
Department: International Victimology Institute Tilburg (INTERVICT)
University: Tilburg University, Netherlands
Supervisor: Prof. Mieke Verloo, Prof. Rianne Letschert, Dr. Leontien van der Knaap
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Violence against women , Intersectionality , Human Rights Law , Inequality
Areas of Research: Law , Women in Society , Human Rights and Global Justice


Violence Against Women (VAW) affects approximately one third of women globally. VAW came under the scope of international human rights following the idea that all women shared the same experiences because of their gender and regardless of differences based on race, class or sexual orientation. This view became contested since gender alone seemed incapable of reflecting the experiences of women belonging to racial or religious minorities, LGBTI, migrant women, women with disabilities, etc. The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Crenshaw, who argued that the intersection of race and gender was insufficiently covered by gender equality policies (aiming at white women) or by race-equality policies (aiming at black men), leaving African American women unprotected. Women’s race had a complex influence on the forms of violence that women suffer and the way they experience such violence. Soon, the relevance of other social categories in addition to race, such as class, sexual orientation, migrant status, age, religion, etc., became acknowledged. This interdisciplinary thesis explores whether including intersectionality within human rights norms on VAW could improve the protection of women who are overlooked by policies focusing on a single social category of distinction.

By looking at human rights documents and case law on VAW adopted by the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization of American States, this thesis shows that while international human rights takes gender as the main ground of women’s inequality, they make implicit references to intersectionality by paying attention to “vulnerable groups”, “vulnerability”, “factors incrementing the vulnerability of women” and “multiple discrimination”. However, explicit recommendations to adopt an intersectional approach to VAW, looking the intersection of socially constructed grounds of inequality and discrimination and their effect on the violence, are only found in the work of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and in General Assembly resolutions on VAW. Based on these theoretical findings, one could argue that the lack of an explicit duty to adopt intersectionality in cases of VAW should not, in principle, prevent States from actually addressing intersecting forms of discrimination affecting women.
Two case studies focusing on women victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), however, showed that in practice, even States that have a very positive track in gender-based violence and gender equality efforts, do not address intersectional discrimination in their laws and policies on VAW. In the first case study, the Spanish system for gender-based violence, celebrated for its comprehensive preventive, protective and rehabilitation measures, failed in protecting Romani women from IPV. The second case study, conducted in the north of Argentina, showed that regardless of comprehensive and holistic protection and prevention measures for IPV adopted at national and provincial level, specific groups of women, namely migrant women, rural women, poor women and indigenous women, had no access to the provision of such services. Applying an intersectional approach to VAW empirically highlighted gaps in laws and policies, leaving specific groups of victims without protection. The combination of legal and empirical analysis confirmed that incorporating intersectionality improves victims’ protection.

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