This summer, I have spent the bulk of my time working on issues of gender, women’s rights, and access to justice. The first half of my summer focused on providing direct legal services to survivors of domestic violence in family and immigration law matters. The second half — which I am immersed in at the moment — involves policy research on issues of sexual assault across the U.S.
In doing this work, I’ve often thought back to some of the assumptions I myself had about gender – and which were broken down - in particular through a course I took this past semester at Harvard. A few key realizations from the course really stuck out to me.
First, having worked before the previous semester and last summer with survivors of domestic violence, I saw the same cycle over and over again and felt that the current system could not adequately address and eradicate the violence and fear felt by the women I worked with. Yet, I was not able to fully articulate why the system was not working. Prior to the course, my immediate inclination had been (and often still is) to improve and expand shelters for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and to ensure that survivors have a safe place/space to go. When working directly with survivors, I always sought – in safety planning – to inform them of shelters that they could go to in an emergency situation. In our discussions, however, we completely rethought this assumption and discussed how the current system places the entire burden on those who are abused to flee their residence and disappear. We are forcing women (by and large) to go underground, to go into hiding, just to escape their abuser. Why are we not circumscribing the freedom of movement of the perpetrator by forcing him/her to go to a shelter or a space where they cannot intimidate the survivor? Instead, alternatives — such as temporary, rehabilitative spaces such as batterer’s detention facilities or shelters could truly shift mindsets. By requiring batterers to leave, we would turn the system upside down.
Another example further illustrates this: when you look at an order of protection, you see that a survivor can tick off certain zones where she would like to be safe. Home. Work. School. But should we be thinking of the survivor’s safety in such a limited manner? Shouldn’t survivors of domestic violence be able to feel safe wherever they are – not just at home or work, but on the streets, in public - everywhere? Shouldn’t we instead be preventing abusers from being able to go anywhere, circumscribing their movements instead of locking survivors of violence into certain areas where they can be assured of their safety? Shouldn’t survivors be free and safe no matter where they are?
How many more assumptions do we have, despite being activists in this field? How many policies, and programs, and laws do we take for granted because this is the status quo, the way things have always been done? How often do we blame the victim, or place the pressure on him/her to leave rather than urging the perpetrator to leave? These considerations are important because they force us to question our assumptions time and time again. And to truly improve our world’s response to gender-violence we must question every assumption that we encounter about gender, about violence, and about abuse.