Prepared by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR)*

In June 1999, the estranged husband of Colorado citizen Jessica Gonzales abducted and killed their three young daughters―Leslie, Katheryn, and Rebecca. Though Gonzales had repeatedly forewarned the local police about the unsafety of her children, the police refused to enforce a restraining order against her husband. Gonzales therefore filed a Fourteenth Amendment due process lawsuit against the police; but in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of the restraining order. In 2008, her U.S. remedies exhausted, Gonzales filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), asserting human rights violations by the police for failing to protect her and her children, and by the U.S. courts for failing to provide a remedy.
In August 2011, in Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) v. United States, the IACHR ruled that “the State failed to act with due diligence to protect Jessica [and her three daughters] from domestic violence, which violated the State’s obligation not to discriminate and to provide for equal protection before the law under Article II of the [1948] American Declaration [of Human Rights].” It also ruled that “[t]he State . . . failed to undertake reasonable measures to prevent the death of [the three children] in violation of their right to life under Article I of the American Declaration [and] their right to special protection as girl-children under Article VII of the American Declaration.” In addition, the Commission held that the State violated the right to judicial protection of both Jessica Lenahan and her next of kin under American Declaration Article XVIII. Finally, the Commission recommended that the U.S. provide “full reparation” to Jessica and that it also initiate and implement reforms of federal and state laws to address and prevent gender-based violence.
As the first suit ever brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the U.S. before an international human rights tribunal and the first instance of the U.S. being held accountable for such violence under international human rights law, this case was groundbreaking. By framing domestic violence as a human rights violation, the case challenges advocates and policymakers to rethink current approaches to domestic violence in the U.S. and asks whether fundamental rights are being respected and protected. Supported by numerous international instruments, including the newly adopted 2011 Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, it illustrates a departure from the traditional notion of domestic violence being purely a private matter. It evidences a conceptual shift to hold private as well as public actors responsible under international human rights law.

2 — Percent of the 4,000 cases that have been successfully prosecuted relative to women and girls murdered in Guatemala from 2000 to 2010, meaning that 98 out of every 100 killers of Guatemalan females literally got away with murder during this period―a significant factor in the growing number of cases of violence against women, with two women being murdered in Guatemala on average each day (Hastings Women’s Law Journal 2010)

3.1 — Number of females per 1,000 persons in the United States who were victims of domestic violence by intimate partners or relatives in 2010, 62 percent of whom did not report the crime, 38 percent of them explaining that they were afraid of reprisal or of getting the offender in trouble (U.S. Department of Justice 2011, 2012)

5.8 — Billion dollars estimated by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to be the cost of U.S. intimate partner violence in 2003, $1.8 billion of it attributable to productivity loss resulting from consequent employee absenteeism―in contrast to, for peer example, Canada ($1.16 billion) and Australia ($11.38 billion) (UNIFEM 2011)

7 — Number of members of the 10-member Topeka, Kansas, City Council who, in October 2011, voted to decriminalize domestic violence in Topeka, outnumbering three members opposed to the repeal―a response to budget cuts that created tension among the city, county, and district attorneys over responsibility for prosecuting domestic violence cases (New York Times 2011)

14 — Years it took for Rody Alvarado to successfully petition for asylum in the United States based on a domestic violence claim, ending a 14-year legal battle after fleeing her abusive husband in Guatemala where police refused to intervene during the 10 years that her former husband, a soldier, brutally beat her (Center for Gender and Refugee Studies 2009)

22 — Number of women killed each day in dowry-related murders in India in 2007, a 14.4 percent increase since 1998 (UNIFEM 2011)

40 — Percent of South African women who, in a World Health Organization multi-country study updated in September 2011, reported their first sexual experience to be forced―in contrast to 30% in rural Bangladesh, 28% in Tanzania, and 24% in rural Peru; additionally, 42% of South African females and 38% of males aged 13-23 years reported being victims of physical dating violence (World Health Organization, UNIFEM)

70 — Estimated percent of women in Ethiopia who experience physical or sexual violence from intimate partners in their lifetime, Ethiopia having the highest recorded rates of physical and sexual abuse in the world, in contrast to 24.8 percent of U.S. women, for example, who experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes (UN Women 2012).

90 — Percent of women surveyed in Jordan who believe that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife in certain circumstances (e.g., going out of the home without telling her husband, arguing with him, refusing sex with him, neglecting the children, and burning food) (The Economist 2012)

125 — Number of countries that had passed legislation against domestic violence as of April 2011, but with only 52 countries having amended their legislation to make marital rape explicitly a crime―enacting legislation being particularly important because general acceptance of domestic violence is less where there are laws against it (UN Women 2012)

275 — Estimated millions of children worldwide who are exposed to violence in the home and who consequently experience behavioral and emotional difficulties later in life, such as depressed cognitive functioning, leading to poor social adjustment and lower average IQ scores (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2012, UNICEF 2006)

5,000 — Number of women and girls murdered each year worldwide in so-called “honor killings” (i.e., lethal violence directed at females perceived to have brought dishonor to their families or communities and carried out by their relatives, usually male)―often associated with countries in the Middle East, but occurring also among immigrant families in Brazil, Canada, Sweden, and the United States (Amnesty International 2012)

24,067 — Domestic abuse victims in Iowa served by the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence in 2010, resulting in 72,033 answered crisis calls and 99,585 nights of provided shelter that year; in New Jersey in 2010, there were 22,738 arrests for domestic violence offences, 31 percent of the New Jersey arrest rate overall (Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2012, New Jersey State Police Report 2010)

1,500,000 — People who experience intimate partner violence annually, with approximately 20 percent of all victims obtaining civil protection restraining orders, more than two-thirds of which are against intimate partners who had raped or stalked their victims (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2007)

2.000,000 — Number of injuries inflicted upon women in the United States annually due to intimate partner violence, with 1,200 women dying each year as a result (Center for Disease Control 2008)

15,500,000 — U.S. children living in homes where domestic violence occurred at least once in the past year, 30 to 60 percent of whom were victims themselves―with boys who witness domestic violence being twice as likely as boys raised in non-violent homes to abuse their partners and children when they become adults (Futures Without Violence 2009, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence 2007)

* Copyright © 2012 by The University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR). Prepared by Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus and UICHR Senior Scholar Burns H. Weston with the generous assistance of Brittany Bermudez, Michael Judd, and Chelsea Moore, students at the UI College of Law, and Abigail Behr, a former pre-law student at The University of Iowa, now a student at the University of Chicago School of Law. For additional information on human rights generally, please visit the UICHR web site.