Beyond Name and Blame

Human Rights Dialogue 2.10 (Fall 2003): "Violence Against Women"

January 15, 2004

As recognized by BMTP, human rights claims have been instrumental for women’s rights advocates around the globe in changing state practice toward gender-based violence. Increasingly human rights activists worldwide have been applying the body of international norms and standards that address violence against women.

Why, then, do Carrie Cuthbert and her colleagues find that “doing human rights work in the United States presents formidable challenges”? Can it be as simple as American exceptionalism? In order to answer this question, we should pose a preliminary one: what can it mean to use human rights to end violence against women?

Globally, women’s groups have used human rights to transform knowledge, attitudes and practices related to violence against women, through formal international human rights mechanisms as well as by advocating before governments to change legislation and policy on the basis of their international human rights commitments. BMTP conceptualizes human rights principally as an advocacy strategy. Its activities are advocacy-oriented and, by all measures, have been successful in raising human rights awareness in certain populations, such as survivors of violence.

Paradoxically, however, by approaching human rights only as public advocacy, BMTP has created the conditions out of which its frustrations arise. “Battered Mothers Speak Out” is a classic fact finding report, adducing evidence of violations of human rights law by the state of Massachusetts. Such “violations” approaches have been the methodology of choice by mainstream human rights organizations. Human rights reports that expose violations can shine the harsh light of shame on governments and focus external pressure on countries to cease and reform their practices. Or so goes the theory.

However, public denunciation is not the only human rights strategy. Judging by the resistance of the Massachusetts courts to viewing human rights as applicable, it may be unproductive to continue to act only in this manner. Particularly when the objective is more programmatic – to “prompt reform of family court policy and practices in child custody cases…from within the family court system”—it may be more beneficial to constructively engage those institutions rather than confront them.

In order to adopt a less confrontational strategy, groups like BMTP might take a cue from the experiences of UN agencies, donor governments and international NGOs, which base their approaches to programming on the human rights principles of nondiscrimination, equality, participation, accountability and transparency. Such approaches attempt to advance human rights processes and principles, rather than vindicate a rights violation per se.

Governments such as those of Colombia and Peru, which have vociferously denied accusations of human rights violations, have nonetheless been receptive to working with human rights principles in their health and development programming. PROFAMILIA, a sexual and reproductive health NGO in Colombia, has worked with the Ministry of Health and local governments to reach internally displaced people and communities and ensure access to information and services. In Peru, a unique commission involving governmental ministries and women’s and human rights groups was established to investigate the treatment of survivors of sexual violence, and to make and implement recommendations. In the United States, models of success are less easily identified; there are organizations in the United States such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (Philadelphia) and SisterLove, Inc. (Atlanta) – like BMTP—that have framed their community based work within the language of human rights, to ensure access to a range of economic rights, such as housing and health care. For example, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union has used international human rights mechanisms to draw attention to situations of abuses of economic and social rights across the United States.

Human rights based approaches can be particularly useful in building partnerships between governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as working across governmental sectors, both of which are of critical importance in eliminating violence against women, since it is not simply an issue of criminal justice. For example, internationally, and even domestically, the health sector has been responsive to seeing human rights as a way to improve health outcomes and make its programming more effective, and may be proving to be a more receptive entry point than the criminal justice system. Thus, a growing number of countries in Southern Africa and Latin America are developing national plans of action to end violence against women, supported by the Southern African Development Cooperation and the Pan-American Health Organization, respectively. These plans, developed with the participation of affected communities, bring together the efforts of the ministries of justice, health, women’s affairs, and so on, to coordinate policies and raise the profile of violence against women initiatives. Ultimately, the promise of better use of resources and better outcomes provides incentives for the various parts of government—courts, health departments, and education departments—to find common purpose in cross-sectoral programming.

Human rights can therefore be useful in ending violence against women, although the traditional human rights methodology of recrimination may not be the only approach toward achieving this end. As BMTP rightly notes, human rights does provide a more inclusive framework—particularly for women who have been ill served by the criminal justice system. Much could be gained for women should the BMTP objectives be realized; by changing its approach, BMTP might be able to make it so.