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.

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Recently, the excitement of writing in this blog has all but disappeared for me. After years of blogging, it’s sometimes been difficult to decide what to write amidst the constantly changing, incredibly fast-paced nature of the media. The media moves constantly from one hot topic to another, one crisis to another.  In this situation of incredible flux, there often seems to be little to contribute here; should I be talking about sexual violence against women in Syria, the crisis of unaccompanied minors across the southern border, or the offensive on Gaza?  As we all know, it’s also incredibly difficult to stay inspired and consistently excited by blogging over the years — particularly when balancing the desire to write with law school and the workload that accompanies it.

In an attempt to kickstart my excitement for writing, I revamped the design of the blog, thinking that maybe a new & fresh look might jog my latent sense of inspiration into action once again.  Despite liking the new look, I unfortunately don’t feel an incredible jolt of inspiration hit me.

So, for now, this blog will still be here, and I’ll write when I can and when inspiration does strike.  However, the focus in my life will probably still lie in other areas: in finishing up law school, determining the next stage in my life & career, and writing in non-social media forums.  In the meantime, I’ll be hoping that this is just writer’s block and that my creative spark will return someday soon :)  Thank you all for sticking here!

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My heart is breaking for Gaza; amidst all the destruction and pain, this Gaza-based writer seems to capture this well through her words.

All the writing rituals escaped. I possess nothing except a lead pencil and a piece of white paper, even though I am wary of the word lead. I want a pencil of life because life is now so dear in Gaza, and there were so many who insisted on plucking it like a flower whose infanticide they hastened. Especially those small flowers because they are beautiful; the hands snatch them and do not let them live. Our children became flowers stripped of their leaves, colors, and nectar. I feel anguish.

All the rituals of writing escaped after the soul slipped out of the body. It was so simple. While she was preparing her family’s breakfast she and they were all buried under the rubble of their home, without any warning. In this way the nymphs and their families depart the earth. In Gaza everything happens suddenly. She runs and runs all of the time looking for something lost; you always feel that you are being pursued and that eyes are watching you.

All the rituals of writing escaped. Sometimes they love you to death and other times they hate to death. The only sin you have is that you are a Palestinian man or woman expelled from her land in the villages of occupied Palestine to become a refugee in the Gaza Strip. Gaza is a mixture of life of all refugees; it is the taste and the scent of Palestine. Now they grill their flesh. They cut their hands and sometimes their heads before they shut their eyes. Talking has exhausted me. I do not wish for you to see Gaza as anything but a rose. A rose maintains her head and her leg and her roots and, most importantly, she still has her fragrance. Talk has exhausted me, and I have forgotten the rites of writing.

But she is a rose whose delightful fragrance wafted with the sea of blood that restored your senses and your love and perhaps your hatred.

– Hedaya Shamun

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This piece in Politico by Sarah Kendzior is spot on, decrying the state of media representation of powerful women in politics:

Read these women’s magazines today—particularly those articles focusing on the “power women” of the Obama era, and there is a full shelf of them by now, from Mastromonaco to Michelle Obama, Samantha Power to Susan Rice—and you will find a familiar pattern. There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming. When combined, these qualities translate into “having it all,” although “all” must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the “intimidating” category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions.

 

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Sometimes, an image sears itself into your brain — it becomes a snippet of a memory that comes back, flashes back, and horrifies you when you least expect it.  These images come back to haunt you when you are lying down after a long day, about to sleep.  When you take a brief respite from work and take a quick walk outside.  When you are eating dinner.  At the most mundane times, sometimes these images strike — and you feel like you’re back there again.  Sometimes, there are moments you cannot forget, even if you wish you could.

For me, there are several images and snapshots of time that come back to me periodically.

For me, these memories come with flashes of guilt, of sadness, of helplessness.

On this sunny morning in Cambridge, on the day after America’s independence has been celebrated with fireworks and dazzling lights and red-white-and-blue clothing everywhere, I was taken back to a moment in Sierra Leone where a woman ran past our legal services office. She was crying and screaming, and stumbling on her way to the police station.

The minute I remember is when she turned around and I saw the other side of her face: blood was streaming down and there it was — a large, open wound on her head. Her face, covered with blood.  Blood, entering her eyes and her mouth and dripping down her chin onto the ground.

I had never seen so much blood. Sure, I had met women with injuries before — I had interviewed numerous women, girls, and men who spoke of the domestic violence they had suffered — but most often, the violence was somewhat distant from me. There was a barrier in between, and the barrier was that of time and words.  There was a comfortable distance between me and the violence.  The violence was in homes and it was hidden.  When I spoke to and interviewed survivors, I gained their confidence, their voices, their words, and their stories.  And yet, their stories were always in the past tense, even if the past was as recent as “this morning,” or “last night,” or “last week,” or “last month, he strangled me in front of our children.”  These words, these tenses, kept me at a comfortable distance from the violence.  This invisible wall — this barrier — helped me continue those interviews, listen to those words, work with survivors of violence, and honor the confidence they placed in me.  This wall allowed me to keep going, to not be overwhelmed by the violence, to somehow keep moving in the face of inexplicable tragedies.  Over time, I had erected this wall to keep out some of the worst emotions, and to maintain the calmness needed to do this work day after day.

But this was here.  The violence was happening.  It was now. 

There was no past tense in her words, in her blood, in her tears — this was the present moment.  And so it was unavoidable.

The walls had been broken down. 

Then, she turned again.  I saw her tears, instead of blood.  The next moments were also unforgettable: we attempted to help her as she relayed her story to the police.  She had been beaten heavily by her husband, who took a large stick and hit her head after an argument.  She tried to resist and push back, but he was relentless.  She yelled and screamed, but her neighbors did not come to her aid.  So she ran here, to the police, for help.  The moments after this were still more imprinted in my mind.  The police calmly took down her statement, informed her they would search for her husband.

We stayed with her while the police investigated the case, trying to locate her husband.  In the meantime, they told us that if she wanted to pursue prosecution, she needed a medical examination by a police-approved doctor.  We accompanied her while she spoke to her family members, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the money to even travel to the doctor for an examination, let alone pay the bribe that doctors often demand for such an examination.

The story mostly ended there.  Despite consistent pressure on the police, they too lacked the resources to track down the husband, who by that time had supposedly fled to a nearby town.

There was nothing more to be done — to my horror.

This is one story of many, but one story that has seared itself in my brain.  It is a moment in which all the walls were broken down — and I was confronted with violence in the present, before my eyes.  It was something I could not escape.

It was a story too, of heartbreak and regret. Fear that I — we — could do so little for someone who had been through so much.  Fear that there are too many barriers preventing her from having a better life: ineffective and resource-poor police; poverty; lack of healthcare; corruption; lack of financial independence; social stigma.

But a story of hope too — hope that if we identify and attack some of these barriers, change may be possible.  And hope too — because her image is with me, and will always return to remind me of the incredible work that is to be done.

A story too, to remind me: why this is all worth it.

IMG_8278Sewa river, in the backdrop of our Salone town

IMG_8362The local court, where disputes are often resolved using customary and local laws

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Namati has just released an excellent and comprehensive review of 199 studies documenting the evidence related to legal empowerment. Does legal aid and awareness ‘work’? If so, how can we measure and conceive of its impact? As Namati writes:

Our main finding is that legal empowerment, in all its myriad forms and wide range of contexts, works. In total, 97 per cent of the studies reported at least one positive change. Even programs that failed to make the changes they were designed for had other, unexpected positive effects on communities, individuals and the law.

Some of the positive changes Namati noted were: increases in personal agency of participants, improvement in health and education outcomes, increases in income, changes in the way government institutions operate, and improvement in functioning of traditional authorities (such as the shalish in Bangladesh).

Definitely worth a read!

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I just came across a really interesting new article, Domestic violence made public: a case study of the use of alternative dispute resolution among underprivileged women in Bangladesh, which reveals many of the same lessons and learnings I encountered while in Bangladesh. Some excerpts include (note; most of these are direct quotes):

  • “ADR as practiced in Sylhet, Bangladesh provides poor women a chance to be publicly heard in mediations of their domestic crises. However, ADR often fails to deliver lasting, just, and socially progressive solutions. The adoption of ADR practices should not be considered as an alternative to the development of the formal judicial system, because it lacks the power to enforce agreements and supports the hegemonic status quo, leaving the battered woman and her natal family with very limited options.”
  • The gendered income distribution among labourers was one of the contextual factors that reduced women’s options in cases of domestic violence. Because women earn less than men, it was very difficult for women to leave the home and take children or family members with them.
  • “Apart from the economic hardship, the social condemnation of a woman living without a male guardian makes such a choice undesirable for women. The women themselves consider a house without a man as vulnerable to break-in, sexual abuse, and loss of honour.” [...] “Although divorce is an option according to Islamic laws, in practice it is also simultaneously considered unacceptable in Bangladeshi society for both Hindus and Muslims.”
  • The practice of early marriage and dowry, women’s limited property and inheritance rights, obstacles to women working outside the home due to norms of propriety, and social stigma related to marital separation or divorce all contribute to a structural situation in which uneducated, poor women’s options are limited when they encounter domestic violence.
  • The general criminal law has no specific laws on domestic violence against women although some specific acts address issues such as dowry violence, trafficking, and acid throwing. Dealing with ‘ordinary’ domestic violence against women requires going through criminal law or in case of divorce, through family law. One of the shortcomings is that criminal law does not protect a woman by guaranteeing a right to a ‘matrimonial home’, nor does it offer her shelter during the proceedings.
  • Although some legal avenues are available to battered women, economic and cultural constraints can impede women’s access to them. First, the economic resources needed for a legal process are way beyond most socio-economically underprivileged women. Second, women rarely have the social and cultural capital to engage in litigation. And third, the burden on the courts and routine corruption translate to a very slow process and an unpredictable outcome, even if the women should receive monetary and practical support from an organization. Moreover, women are reluctant to proceed through the criminal court because evidence is hard to gain as witnesses do not corroborate in domestic violence.
  • Some organizations do not have sufficiently trained staff to counsel victims of domestic violence and can only provide help by providing legal advice in the mediations. Some advocates have not been sensitivity-trained to reflect on gender asymmetries or to question their own values and conceptions of a woman’s position in the family. They were rarely conscious of the need to find out how the female victims themselves saw their situation and instead concentrated on finding a way to convince the woman to return to her family and on creating goodwill so that they would stop maltreating the young wife.
  • ADR’s impact depends on the structure of power relations within which it operates. Accommodating culture in the process has the effect of privileging existing social relations and thus privileging and strengthening existing forms of domination. The gendered power imbalance in Bangladesh leads to a situation in which divorced women face grave difficulties in arranging their safety and livelihood. Due to this imbalance, the advocates rarely consider divorce an option for a battered woman, leaving her to cope in a domestic situation that may be dangerous for her health and survival.
  • The author proposes the following solution: A better functioning ADR process would require that the local community be more actively engaged in the proceedings. For example, a women’s local collective could act as a pressure group towards the perpetrators of domestic violence to prevent the violation of agreements….The use of ADR should not be an alternative to creating a functioning and just legal system: negotiating without the back-up force of law will not work. The force of a just law has to be available as a last resort. Particularly in cases of domestic violence, there must be a viable option of starting a criminal process at any point of the mediation process.

Everything noted is very much spot-on, and points to my growing discomfort with the way domestic violence is dealt with often through mediations or dispute resolution. Without the real threat of the law, and the criminal justice system, things will not change nor will abuse decrease. I also concur with the suggestion of improving the involvement of the community and urging other local leaders to place pressure on the perpetrators — although this too very much depends on social norms and the willingness of community members to condemn violence.

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This March, I had the incredible fortune of going to Kenya for a week, and had an absolutely wonderful time. The country is beautiful, picturesque and vibrant. Things are constantly changing and developing with the country’s new Constitution and decentralization process, and there is a sense of hope, possibility and optimism. It was an amazing time to visit the country. I wanted to share a few pictures!

2014-03-23 09.50.33-1Church in Nairobi on a Sunday.

2014-03-17 18.57.24A visit to the Supreme Court – a new and dynamic institution in itself.

2014-03-18 12.01.52Visits to iHub, an awesome space for tech startups and social enterprises to grow.

2014-03-19 15.02.14Public artwork in Nairobi; a city with many architectural and artistic gems.

2014-03-19 15.37.58Another view of the church in downtown Nairobi.

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2014-03-20 13.16.06Some enlightening conversations with non-profits providing access to legal services and medical services to survivors of rape and domestic violence in and around Kibera. Amazing work is being done expanding women’s access to justice in a critical time of need.

2014-03-20 13.47.04PAWA254: a space for artists and activists to gather, work & collaborate. Beautiful!

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2014-03-21 09.13.47Overlooking the Great Rift Valley on our way out of Nairobi. Such an amazing place.

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Kenya (March 2014)David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage!

2014-03-16 15.23.52Safari in Nairobi National Park!

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2014-03-21 15.11.43Waterfall in Lake Nakuru National Park

2014-03-21 17.57.09Ending with a surreal, ethereal sunset boat ride over Lake Naivasha.

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I wanted to share a fantastic TEDx talk I just encountered focused on why you should care about access to justice. I think he articulates, pretty well, why I think access to justice is simply so important and why governments should prioritize and fund legal services for the poor. I also loved his idea of a universal legal services/access to justice fund; though I don’t think we’re there politically, it sounds like a fantastic suggestion.

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A great new World Bank Justice & Development Working Paper has been published by Jennifer Franco, Hector Soliman, and Maria Roda Cisnero, focusing on community based paralegalism in the Philippines. The abstract is as follows:

Community-based paralegalism has been active in the Philippines for the past 30 years, and yet its contribution to access to justice and the advancement of the rights and entitlements of the poor has been largely undocumented. This paper attempts to provide a framework study on the history, nature, and scope of paralegal work in the Philippines, based on the experience of 12 organizations that are active in the training and development of community-oriented paralegals. The study first provides a working definition of a community-based paralegal, and then examines the work of paralegals, their systems of accountability or lack thereof, and issues regarding recognition by the state and civil society actors. It also explores facilitating and hindering factors that aid or impinge upon the paralegals’ effectiveness. A major contributor to the work of paralegals was the democratization process after the overthrow of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the continuing evolution of legal rights spurred by the relatively progressive constitution ratified in 1987. Three dimensions of paralegal’s work are identified and explored, namely, building rights awareness, settling private disputes, and increasing state and corporate accountability. The study ends with conclusions and recommendations with regard to sustainability, monitoring and evaluation, funding, and the prospects for paralegal work over the long term.

There is some excellent analysis here of the long-term paralegal movement in the Philippines, as well as recognition of paralegals by the state and some thorny issues that arise when working in the context of violence against women — my specific interest.

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