Moving Slowly to Regulate and Recognize: Human Rights Meets Intimate Partner Sexual Violence

25 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2016 Last revised: 5 Aug 2016

See all articles by Monica McWilliams

Monica McWilliams

Ulster University - Transitional Justice Institute

Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain

University of Minnesota Law School; The Queens University of Belfast

Date Written: April 15, 2016


Over the last three decades, sexual violence against women in intimate partner relationships has become a global health issue. The development of a human rights perspective on the phenomenon has been more recent. Assessing the prevalence of coercive sex in the context of intimate relationships — and marital rape in particular — is challenging for many reasons. Sexual violence is highly stigmatized and is among the few crimes in which the victim might also be blamed for the harm experienced.

Despite that historical baggage, a discernible shift in human rights protections is now emerging, emanating from the specialist human rights treaty regimes. These shifts have potentially significant consequence by delineating the harms women experience and seeking accountability for them. The first part of this chapter addresses the institutional structures of human rights protection, including human rights treaty law and practice. The second part examines the specialist treaty addressing women’s rights under international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the challenges that addressing violence against women has encountered in this area. The chapter concludes with an overview of the European and inter-American human rights treaty systems, where some of the most innovative judicial developments have been taking place in recent years. By drawing on recent jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the chapter demonstrates how this important human rights initiative influenced the changes now in place. Despite these changes, weaknesses and limitations of the human rights system (and law more broadly) in addressing violent harm to women still remain. Legal acknowledgment and redress are only one (albeit important) dimension of an engaged policy and structural response to violence.

Keywords: sexual violence, CEDAW

Suggested Citation

McWilliams, Monica and Ni Aolain, Fionnuala D., Moving Slowly to Regulate and Recognize: Human Rights Meets Intimate Partner Sexual Violence (April 15, 2016). Transitional Justice Institute Research Paper No. 16-10, Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16-24, Available at SSRN: or

Monica McWilliams

Ulster University - Transitional Justice Institute ( email )

Belfast, Northern Ireland BT370QB
00442890368597 (Phone)


Fionnuala D. Ni Aolain (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

229 19th Ave. So.
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States
612-624-2318 (Phone)
612-625-2011 (Fax)

The Queens University of Belfast ( email )

University Square
Belfast, County Down
Northern Ireland

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