criminal justice, public interest law, social change, women's rights

State violence and domestic abuse

As someone who works on issues of domestic violence, one question I frequently ask is: how can we rely on the state’s violent, coercive power to counter and resolve another issue of ‘private’ violence? The criminal justice system and prosecution of domestic abusers is a solution often put forth when it comes to providing accountability and promoting deterrence in cases of gender-based and domestic violence. Perhaps if we prosecute more often (considering the rate of prosecution is incredibly low for a variety of reasons — patriarchal beliefs among police and the justice system, the intimate relationships between abusers and survivors, the mistrust of many communities of the police and criminal justice system, etc) we can drive down the rate of violence by sending a clear message that this kind of behavior is not tolerated in our society, that we are on the side of victims and survivors.

But I often question our ability to turn, automatically, to the criminal justice system to resolve GBV and DV cases. This system is in itself incredibly violent, unjust, and racist, at least in the United States. Here, the criminal justice system is in essence mass incarceration of minorities, especially African American men, as expounded so perfectly by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. There is a disproportionate incarceration and conviction of black men, so the justice system is not enforced equally on all racial and ethnic groups that may be engaging in violence against women at equal/similar rates. Beyond this, the prison system is incredibly flawed. The conditions can be horrific — not just in the U.S. but around the world. In the U.S., prison rape is incredibly common, frightfully so. There are gendered dynamics and hierarchies within prisons, and prisons can be incredibly violent places that create more trauma.  Can a system that produces more injustice, including violent rape, be used to help solve patriarchy? I simply don’t think so, and I am deeply disturbed by these dynamics.

My question is — can we really rely on one inequitable, incredibly unjust system to fix another problem of injustice? In my mind, the criminal justice system involves deep inequity and oppression; and so does patriarchy. We cannot really depend on criminal justice until this system is fair and equitable, in itself.

This excellent article by Victoria Law speaks to this problem in a more eloquent way. She writes,

Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing…..

As these examples demonstrate, strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives, like the women in Halifax, it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.

By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.

I would agree that a sole focus on criminalization is not necessarily productive. We need a more holistic, deeper look at the origin of violence against women and patriarchy, and the social determinants and results of this problem. Moving to criminalization means we are relying on one unjust and patriarchal system (which too often fails survivors and even imprisons them, as the article talks about) that fails to empower anyone or attack the root causes of violence. Until we fix the criminal justice system, in the U.S. and internationally, I don’t think we should feel too comfortable pushing for criminalization as a solution to gendered violence.

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feature friday, legal empowerment, public interest law, social change

Feature Friday: Justice and Empowerment Initiatives

Today (after a long pause between ‘Feature Fridays!’) I’d like to highlight an exciting new community-based lawyering organization in Nigeria, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives.  I’m truly excited about their approach, which truly aims to be far more community-based and involves not just litigation but community paralegalism, advocacy, and mobilization/movement-building.

JEI’s three prongs of work are: training community-based paralegals, engaging in movement building, and finally – strategic advocacy. JEI trains, monitors, and supports networks of individuals providing community-based paralegal services in rural and urban poor communities in Nigeria. A particularly exciting aspect of their model is their community-owned initiatives in Nigera. JEI helps to set up a membership association called the Community Legal Support Initiative (CLSI).  Before joining CLSI, communities set up  ‘community legal support committees’, which join the membership of CLSI and take an active role in overseeing and implementing activities to support paralegal services. CLSI subcommittees work closely with JEI to train, supervise, and mentor paralegals who show capacity and commitment to justice.

Second, through the paralegal network and more broadly, JEI supports movement-building and inter-community solidarity within and between poor and marginalized communities. Finally, when necessary, JEI undertakes strategic advocacy or litigation to backstop the work of paralegals and the activities of the broader community-based movement.  JEI provides direct litigation and advocacy support to individuals and communities in need. Priorities for strategic litigation and advocacy are identified by communities. JEI undertakes litigation before Nigerian courts, regional/international human rights bodies (e.g. ECOWAS Court or the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), and advocacy before the National Human Rights Commission or the World Bank Inspection Panel. JEI works to make this sustainable through the Community Legal Services Initiative, where member communities establish community-managed funds for litigation and advocacy.

Check out this video highlighting JEI’s work in the Otto Ilogbo community in Lagos, Nigeria, which has been sacked by fire and violence that has chased hundreds of innocent residents from their homes.

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human rights, international justice, public interest law, social change

Can courts, lawyers & activists make a difference?

A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.

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