human rights, social change

The Paris attacks and a call for more empathy

This weekend, I have spent a lot of time scrolling through my newsfeed, reading about and mourning the horror of the terror attacks in Paris that killed over 120.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families and loved ones, and the French people.  I am deeply saddened and stand in solidarity with France in this moment.

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A poem by Warsan Shire, capturing some of these sentiments more beautifully than I ever could. (H/T to my friend Asiyah for this image)

And yet, in the depth of my heart, I admit that I have found myself thinking:  why has the world paid so much attention to attacks on lives lost in Paris, but so little to lives lost elsewhere in recent months and even days — like the bombing in Beirut just a few days ago in which ISIS killed over 40 people and left over 200 injured or the attack in Baghdad which killed at least 18 and wounded over 40?   Why has the mainstream media reported so heavily on the attacks in Paris, and less so on the recent tragedies in Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere in the world — Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Kenya — the list goes on.  Why are many of us, ordinary citizens, taking to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to show our solidarity with the French people – even changing our profile pictures to the colors of the French flag to show support – while often not even being informed of what is happening in other parts of the world, let alone posting about such tragedies? Why did Facebook activate a “safety check” feature for the Paris attacks, but neglect to do so for any of the other attacks that have recently transpired?

To put it bluntly: are we – as a global society – acting on an assumption that certain lives matter more than others? Does the disparity in attention show how little the lives of people of color in the “global south” are valued in comparison to Western lives?  If so, this is deeply problematic. As Paul Farmer has said, “The idea that some lives matter more than others is the root of all that is wrong with this world.”

The truth is that certain tragedies have been getting more airtime than others, and we do need to critically interrogate why.  The world is bleeding in so many places, and particularly for those of us who work on human rights issues across the globe or those who are directly affected, it can be disheartening to see the lack of attention to the hundreds of victims we know are suffering, literally dying for this very lack of attention.  Activists and journalists spend their lives trying to raise this kind of awareness – they meticulously document human rights violations, report on abuses, and try to get policymakers and the public to care.  But even a portion of this show of solidarity rarely comes through for some of the most marginalized groups. It can feel like a losing battle at times.

Many others have begun sharing similar sentiments of anger and frustration via social media as well.  Certainly, we should all be critical and ask these questions — and indeed, question our own reactions to crises like these as well.

But while doing so, we must keep in mind that we cannot “rank” injustice.  We should not be turning this into a game of “oppression olympics.”  While criticizing the way the world pays attention to tragedies in different regions, we should not devalue the lives lost in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, or elsewhere.  Each life is important, and this tragedy in Paris was horrific and unprecedented.  Many people are genuinely grieving, and they grieve in different ways. It will take some time for those affected and the broader community to understand, process what has happened, and fully grieve.

In this time of grief, is anger really right response?  Is it right to deny someone else’s right to mourn? There is much to be frustrated about, no doubt, but perhaps the core message must be that we do not need less empathy, but more – much more empathy.  We can all show more empathy for tragedies and victims and survivors in our own backyard but also across the world. We can all take moments in future tragedies to seek out information, read what is happening on the ground, understand, share with our networks and take action. We can all do more to highlight on our newsfeeds what is happening not just in our own countries, but also in the most marginalized of communities. We can seek out alternate media and figure out new, different ways to inform ourselves about what the mainstream sources are not always reporting. More empathy paired with action could be crucial in changing the status quo.  And so, let’s call for this change with empathy for all those lives lost, without devaluing a single person’s grief, and with a change in our own behavior and the way we consume and process media.

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human rights, international development, legal empowerment, public interest law, women's rights

The role of access to justice in combating gender violence

In the worldwide movement to end domestic and gender-based violence, most efforts to combat violence against women and girls fall into two spheres: so-called prevention and response — similar to interventions in other realms, such as the healthcare field.

‘Prevention’ efforts approach gender violence with the idea that breaking down systems of patriarchy and oppression is the ultimate goal, and the root cause of gender violence. If we can disrupt the patriarchal order, we can begin to more effectively reduce and end gender violence. Many prevention efforts seek to change social and cultural norms as an attempt to reduce gender inequity. By changing patriarchal mindsets and attitudes – by shifting culture, which is never static – it may be possible to actually shift society in a more equitable direction. Many campaigns in the prevention realm thus focus on efforts such as: educating communities about domestic and gender-based violence; educating children on sexuality and healthy relationships; empowering women to be stakeholders and political leaders with power; changing unjust laws and policies and implementing better ones; and changing the portrayal of women in ads, mass media, music, and entertainment. Movement building and coalition building can also aid in challenging and changing unjust laws and structures that allow violence to perpetuate.

On the other hand, response is the area I have been largely focused on. As a (hopefully!) soon-to-be attorney, my mind is automatically drawn to solutions targeting the treatment of survivors after they have been abused. After being subject to abuse, are survivors they receiving the legal and social support and services they need? The response considers a holistic response to gender violence: legal aid and access to justice, safe housing, economic support and employment opportunity, childcare, protection by the police and an order of protection, social support and networks, and land/property rights. And on the criminal side, is the perpetrator apprehended, and ideally – rehabilitated?

In many ways, the ‘response’ is a limited solution, though. Response means the system has already failed the survivor at some level — she has been subject to abuse already. It also does not necessarily prevent the violence from being perpetrated again by the same abuser on the same victim/survivor, or a different one. However, research does indicate that access to a lawyer can increase the likelihood of obtaining an order of protection – and that about 86% of women who received a protection order or restraining order state that the abuse greatly reduced or stopped. At the least, then, the ‘response’ has a positive impact by reducing violence for the survivors who receive help; and at the most, taking action may have a deterrence effect on abusers who are prosecuted, experience the consequences of their actions, or obtain therapy/counseling to understand their behavior. In this way, ‘response’ can also be prevention in itself if it is implemented effectively.

The Response: Accessing Justice

Within the spectrum of responsive service delivery for survivors, access to justice is just one of the prongs. But interestingly, in one study comparing numerous social and legal service programs, only legal services was found to significantly reduce a woman’s likelihood of abuse – as noted above, in large part by facilitating the receipt of orders of protection – but also by providing the survivor with assistance on economic matters, thus increasing her financial stability and independence. Access to justice, then, has a measurable impact. It may not end domestic violence, but plays a vital role in ending domestic violence for survivors and may pay dividends to the extent that it can also increase defendant accountability.

The “justice” component really has two prongs:  civil and criminal.  Access to civil legal services can aid the survivor in moving forward and healing, and prevent further violence against her.  The criminal justice response, however, focuses largely on preventing the perpetrator from committing abuse again — and may have a broader deterrent effect, at the optimistic end.

Will access to justice end domestic violence in the world? Probably not; these efforts will need to be supplemented by the prevention components detailed above. But, can we end domestic violence without access to justice? It seems less likely.

Zooming out to the situation worldwide, there seem to be a few key barriers to effective access to justice, both civil and criminal.

1.  Lack of access to lawyers for the poor:

First, the poor – and survivors of gender-based violence – all too often lack access to a lawyer in civil cases. In the U.S., there is no ‘civil Gideon’ — no right for the poor to access a lawyer in civil cases.    This is the case in much of the world.  This makes access to a lawyer incredibly difficult for the poor, who face numerous — countless — barriers. These include the cost of hiring a lawyer, physical distance to a lawyer’s office or a court, the language barrier – particularly for those who are illiterate, as well as a ‘cultural barrier.’  I have seen firsthand how a survivor of domestic abuse in rural Bangladesh, for example, cannot easily go to an attorney. She faces numerous cultural barriers in that going to court may be seen as inappropriate and as taking a private, family matter ‘outside’ the allowed zone. This, then, becomes insolent behavior to be further punished. There is an informal, mandated culture of silent suffering for survivors of gender violence. In addition to this, lawyers are often seen as highly educated and in a different social class, and thus less relatable for low-income individuals. And finally, many communities utilize customary justice or alternative forms of dispute resolution, and may be unfamiliar with the formal legal institutions in place.

Solutions need to tackle increasing the number of trained lawyers and lawyers providing free services to the poor, and must make it more desirable for lawyers to provide justice for the poor. Currently, this is not a prestigious option in many countries. Incentives must be provided to attract more lawyers to this space – and salaries and job opportunities are key!   The most sustainable solution might be government-funded or subsidized legal aid. Other options are promoting paralegal corps to provide justice services at a lower cost, and in a form far more accessible to communities.

2.  Lack of appropriate laws in place:

But even where the poor have access to a lawyer, the right laws may simply not be in place. In the U.S. it is possible to generally obtain an order of protection, or to obtain sole custody of the children as a woman, or to obtain a divorce and equitable distribution of marital property including title to the marital home. Survivors of sexual assault can, generally, benefit from rape shield laws preventing prosecutors from inquiring into the survivor’s past sexual behavior. And those in a same-sex relationship can generally avail themselves of laws relating to GBV.  There are sexual harassment laws in place protecting one in the workplace.  In certain countries and regions, these laws may not exist. It is not always possible to obtain title to the marital home and avoid homelessness, or to shield inquiry into past sexual history. Marital rape remains legal in much of the world.  In such a situation, the just laws must be in place for access to justice to become a reality for survivors.  Without the laws, ‘justice’ is meaningless and in fact, impossible.

3. Systemic barriers in the justice system:

Formal justice systems are often not accessible for the poor due to systemic barriers — even if a survivor obtains a lawyer.  A single case can take years, even decades in an inefficient justice system with backlogs of thousands of cases.   Case backlogs may sound innocuous and technical, but they can be incredibly dangerous in allowing injustice to perpetuate.   Reports have documented that individuals are kept in pretrial detention for 10 or 15+ years, often because of inefficiencies and backlogs in the justice sector.  In addition, judges may not be well trained on the law, or may harbor patriarchal biases themselves. Finally, corruption in the system often prevents the poor from moving forward with their case, and contributes to backlogs.

4. Systemic barriers in police accountability:

Finally, prosecution or enforcing a restraining order can be effective only with the assistance of the police. In many places, police accountability and effectiveness is limited. The reasons are numerous: the police as an institution are often underfunded and lack the resources to track down offenders and implement the law, particularly in poor countries; the police may have poor training on dealing with gender violence cases; the police themselves may harbor patriarchal biases against intervening in gender violence cases; and the police may also be corrupt – sometimes a consequence of poor salary and support from the institution.  Without the help of the police, it can be near impossible to enforce the law and keep survivors safe. What is the solution? This one is a bit harder; it might require a combination of funding and training — and governments simply need to make it a priority to well-equip police to fight crime. More female police officers may also be a small part of the solution.

Ultimately, if these 4 barriers are addressed, access to justice can become much more a reality, even for poor survivors of gender-based violence.  While improving access to justice will not end violence, if it is implemented effectively, it can reduce it for survivors and may have a deterrence effect that is felt throughout society.

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human rights, international justice, legal empowerment, public interest law, women's rights

Online Symposium on Justice and Customary Law

Hello friends! Yet another (shameless?) plug: I recently organized an Online Symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on access to justice, particularly via customary and informal systems, and we received a range of fascinating submissions from scholars and practitioners around the world. Read more below and check out these illuminating articles:

From the Informal to the Formal: Examining Access to Justice and Customary Justice Mechanisms 

The HHRJ Online Symposium this year centers on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world, with a particular focus on examining the challenges that exist within informal, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the  shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura Jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

Alongside such concerns, however, there have been innovations and experiments that are promising in their initial stages, improving access to justice in ways that comport with human rights norms, both via formal state-run systems as well as NGO-led and non-state mechanisms.  We have published five pieces by leading scholars, academics and practitioners in this field that build upon this theme and explore in greater depth the complexities inherent in working to promote grassroots access to justice to communities, and especially the added questions raised by customary justice systems:

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