Reclaiming Universal Human Rights for Gender-Based Violence in a Plural Global Order: Opportunities and Challenges

Reclaiming human rights in a plural global order is a complex endeavor. It is one that requires Western hegemonic ideas of what “human rights” are to be critically analyzed for their implementation in non-Western contexts. Author Bianca Braganza asks if a universal conception of ‘human rights’ is even achievable in a world that is fraught with different context-contingent normative paradigms of the way things should be?
Image by Geordanna Cordero-Fields.

Reclaiming human rights in a plural global order is a complex endeavor. It is one that requires Western hegemonic ideas of what “human rights” are to be critically analyzed for their implementation in non-Western contexts. One might say there is a tendency to impose outcome-based approaches, such as those purported by international agencies in the case of gender equality for example, without sufficient consideration to cultural, historic and colonial factors that produce these given outcomes. In that sense, is a universal conception of ‘human rights’ even achievable in a world that is fraught with different context-contingent normative paradigms of the way things should be?

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a leading example of a complex human rights issue that cannot be resolved by a singular, global human rights “fix all” approach. When we think of domestic violence in general terms, historically it was treated as a private matter, one that occurs within the confines of a household, to be resolved internally between the parties involved. Furthermore, in cases of violence and abuse, we are quick to assign blame to the immediate perpetrator. It becomes easy to villainize men broadly for example, and believe that the problem lies within individual actors. What is not so readily discussed are the structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality and systemic oppression in a given society. Problematically, this elision displaces the struggle for public power and ownership into the private realm of the home.

Thus, gender-based violence is not a binary issue of abusers and abused; behind each individual lay a narrative and structures beyond one’s control that shape and mold actors to behave in a certain way and make choices. When it comes to violence, we are quick to personalize the issue into individual actors, and fault the person, rather than study those narratives and structures. What is desperately needed then is an expansive analysis of the social, political, and economic forces that structure society and cause the translation and deformation of public struggles and oppression into the private sphere. This piece will focus on the operation of these various structures and forces in India and Namibia. Both contexts may serve as useful post-colonial case studies that demonstrate the ways in which colonization impacted indigenous structures and as a result, shifted the quest for native centralized public power, into domestic realms.

While GBV may be characterized as a private issue, the product of individual actors and choices made, upon closer analysis it can hardly be separated from the phenomena of colonialism, which brought along with it patriarchal institutions and structures. The cases of India and Namibia offer telling examples of this, as domestic and native power structures, political mechanisms, and everyday ways of being were displaced by colonial structures and rule. In India, gender disparity and GBV are interlinked and impacted by social oppression (such as caste, class, religion, and rural versus urban location). GBV in the Indian context can result in brutal violence, including dowry deaths, domestic violence, burnings, and honor killings.

There is a strong correlation then between “private” and “public” violence, and the ways in which sociocultural, political and legal systems such as traditional family structures, marriage, the laws, police and government are all part of a patriarchal structure that allows for gender-based violence. These very systems are relics of British imperialism, which some academics argue substituted and reconfigured Hindu and Muslim native laws and customs with British imperial structures. India provides a unique example of the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’, as the existence of the highly evolved religious systems practiced by the Hindus existed in opposition to the colonial assumption that cultures outside of/ apart from Christianity were primitive, tribalistic and animistic.

The British thus sought to win the allegiance of existing religious authorities (as opposed to effacement in other colonized societies, notably in Africa and the Caribbean), thereby utilizing local structures of power to achieve their colonial goals.[3] The precolonial Hindu-Muslim harmony was then subjected to, and marred by, manipulations by state and local political forces, which now persist into the structure of post-colonial India, especially in the aftermath of Partition.[4] This effectively created a modern society molded by imperial values and ideals. Ultimately, this violent disruption and colonial control reconfigured Indian society, creating the gendered systems of power and control that persist today.

Namibia, on the other side, has one of the most progressive understandings of rape in the world, culminating in the Combatting Rape Act of 2000. This act has an expansive definition of rape which includes the non-specification of gender identifiers for victims and perpetrators, its detailed description of what constitutes coercion, its limitation on the use of the survivor’s sexual history in criminal trials, and its prohibition of marital rape.[5] Yet, the incidence and brutality of GBV in Namibia is increasing at an alarming rate. While armed conflict ended after the Independence in 1990, simultaneous to an improvement of the status of women in the public sphere, levels of sexual violence have concurrently seen a sharp, epidemic rise.[6] Namibia’s reference to “passion killings” erases the systemic nature and severity of the pervasive presence of GBV, and fails to explain the complex and deep-rooted nature of GBV. Much like India with caste, tribes were manipulated by outside colonial forces to destabilise and divide the people.

In both India and Namibia, the effects of colonialism have been persistent long after independence, with new internal social orders created based on race, class, and of course, gender. As a result, in both countries, GBV became a tool employed to enforce racial and gendered hierarchies, and reclaim misplaced power and order, as established under colonial rule and apartheid.

In the case of Namibia, women interviewed during the liberation struggle expressed that the quest for gender rights was subordinated to the struggle for national liberation; their search for recognition and equality was placed second to the domestic priority of ending Apartheid.[7] Other reasons for GBV’s sustained presence in the country are offered by activists, who argue that gender violence is linked to entrenched patriarchal attitudes found in society dating from colonial times, where women are akin to property and subject to the regulation and control of men. A more modern view of GBV against women in Namibia is that it is the result of a backlash against the progress women have made in society, elected office, the public sector and business since Independence. Violence is the way in which men feeling threatened by a modern, Post-Apartheid gender structure in society lash out and put women back in their place.[8]

All three arguments explaining the presence of GBV in Namibia point to underlying values, paradigms and societal orders that have been produced by a violent reconfiguration of the country post colonization and post-apartheid. Independent Namibia is only 29 years in the making, yet struggling to undo and re-establish a country decimated by colonial histories that have destroyed native peoples’ land and ways of being in order to establish a new order founded in patriarchy that normalizes GBV. As Namibians try and restore a country in the sentiment echoed by the current President Hage Geinob – in the spirit of Harambee where ‘No One Should Feel Left Out’[9] -- there is a disjuncture between progressive laws, and regressive constructions of power and gender in the country.

This phenomenon of gendered violence and power restructuring is not one unique to these contexts, which speaks to the universality of reclaiming power through sexual domination over the female body. There has been a recent coming to light of patterns of GBV in the North American context, with the “Incel” movement. The term “incel” short hand for “involuntary celibate” and is a violent ideology based on the perceived injustice of women’s refusal to have sex with men, all the while so-called “incels” are not seeking sex, but absolute male supremacy.[10] What is furthermore pertinent is that in the long-term cycle of social change, which has seen women, people of color, LGBTQ persons, and immigrants for example, demand recognition and rights, there is the perception that these rights are coming at the expense of incel members.[11] This posits a divergent view within the discourse of rights and pluralism, whereby incel subjective perceptions reject the idea that the rights of different marginalized communities are capable of coexisting without compromising or repudiating the rights they hold in society.

Whether in India, Namibia or North America, GBV is a tool employed to enforce racial and gendered hierarchies and wholly reconfigure power, order and gendered constructions originally formed under colonial rule and apartheid.[12] With this expansive understanding of the nature of GBV, we can take a prospective approach in the decolonization of countries and nations. This starts with our children, our youth, and teaching respect for girls, women, and all beings - from sexual minorities, to those with disabilities, and beyond - from a young age.

Reclaiming human rights in a plural global order is just this; creating context-contingent strategies by communities, for communities, and working within cultural paradigms that are indigenous to the very communities being targeted. Decolonizing the discourse on GBV in Namibia as in India includes a need for civic education and engagement, and using powerful tools such as the arts, film, theater, and visual arts, to invite communities to engage with the subject, and understand their own narratives and lived experiences as contextualized within a gendered, racialized and colonized framework.

Emerging initiatives have already taken shape in the Namibian context, through using short films aiming at creating awareness against GBV[13] as well as the introduction of a mock trial documentary in partnership with the UNODC to provide guidelines to criminal justice practitioners on how to handle reported GBV cases and survivors with sensitivity.[14] In India, a creative strategy being used to work directly with the community is participatory or interactive theatre, to change community attitudes on violence against women whereby a skit is created and audience members are invited to intervene in the skit to propose and act out solutions, examples of which could include lack of freedom to forced prostitution.[15]

GBV is not simply a binary issue of abusers, and those abused. Nor is it a human rights issue which can be solved by a universal approach imported from the West. Behind each individual lies a narrative beyond one's control, shaping and moulding each one. When it comes to violence, we are quick to individualize the issue and fault the person and transpose this understanding irrespective of the sociocultural context in which violence occurs. This is unfair, and paints an incomplete picture. What is desperately needed is an expansive analysis of the social, political, economic and colonial forces that produce toxic masculinity[A3] , that thereby cause the historical struggle and oppression nation states have experienced in the public realm, to bleed into the private.

About the author

Bianca BraganzaBianca Braganza is a second year BCL/LLB student at McGill’s Faculty of Law. She holds an Honour’s Bachelor of Health Sciences from Western University, and a Master’s of Global Health from McMaster University, with an exchange completed at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. Her undergraduate thesis examined the bio-medicalization of trauma in Canadian Residential School Survivors, while her Master’s thesis focused on the rights of unaccompanied children seeking asylum through irregular border crossings into Canada. Bianca is passionate about children and youth access to education and justice; the intersection of health, migration, and the law; and the anthropology and philosophy of international human rights law.


[1] Ahmed-Ghosh, H. (2004). Chattels of society: Domestic violence in India. Violence Against Women, 10, 94-118. doi:10.1177/1077801203256019

[2] Viswanathan, G. (2003). Colonialism and the Construction of Hinduism. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, 23-44.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Thomas, Cheryl, Rosalyn Park, Mary Ellingen, Mary C. Ellison, Beatriz Menanteau, and Laura Young. 2011. “Developing Legislation on Violence against Women and Girls.” Report. United Nations, Advocates for Human Rights.

[6] Samuelson, Meg. 2007. “The Disfigured Body of the Female Guerrilla: Militarization, Sexual Violence, and Redomestication in Zoe¨ Wicomb’s David’s Story.” Signs 32ð4Þ:833–56.

[7] Becker, Heike. 1995. Namibian Women’s Movement, 1980 to 1992: From Anticolonial

Resistance to Reconstruction. Frankfurt: IKO. ———. 2011. “Commemorating Heroes in Windhoek and Eenhana: Memory, Culture and Nationalism in Namibia, 1990–2010.” Africa 81ð4Þ:519–43.

[8] Britton, H., & Shook, L. (2014). “I Need to Hurt You More”: Namibia’s Fight to End Gender-Based Violence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 40(1), 153-175.

[9] State of the Nation Address 2019:



[12] Scully, Pamela. 1995. “Rape, Race, and Colonial Culture: The Sexual Politics of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Cape Colony, South Africa.” American Historical Review 100 2Þ:335–59.




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