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Ending Violence Against Women Shouldn’t Be Controversial—But it Is


Each year around March 8 (International Women’s Day), representatives of world governments come together to draw up a statement that is supposed to communicate the notion that women and men are equal. This has been a key tenet of international relations since the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, so one would think it would not be terribly controversial.

One would be wrong.

The UN Commission on the Status of Women, which has met each year since 1946, tries to set aspirational priorities for women’s equality, and it largely succeeds in doing so. However, for the past several years, members of the commission have disagreed so vehemently about what “equality” means that, in 2012, the meeting ended at an impasse. One week into the 2013 commission meetings, it seems possible that this year’s negotiations are headed down the same path. 

This is all the more frustrating because the main theme of this year’s meeting is violence against women. This is not a new, obscure issue that should require more than two weeks’ discussion to reach an agreement about steps forward. Prevent, protect, prosecute, punish—it is not that complicated.

More to the point, violence against women requires urgent attention. At least 1 in 3 women has been beaten, forced to have sex, or otherwise abused at some point in her life. Most often the perpetrator is someone she knows, and frequently it is not a one-off incident. Furthermore, domestic violence contributes to a culture of violence; boys who witness their fathers beat up their mothers are, as adults, twice as likely to abuse their own partners as those who grew up in homes without violence.

Many politicians and government officials are also complicit in violence against women. In Egypt last month, parliamentarians tried to make the sexual assault of female protesters the responsibility of the women themselves, arguing that if they hadn’t been on the streets in the first place, they would never have been groped, harassed, and raped.

In Somalia, Lul Ali Asman Barake, who says she was gang-raped by police officers, was jailed for telling a journalist about her attack. Barake was released this week, but the journalist remains in jail.

And this past Monday, Kenyans were given the option of voting for a presidential candidate who is being sought by the International Criminal Court on charges that include orchestrating sexual violence against supporters of his political opponents in 2008.

In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that government officials have a hard time agreeing about how, and even if, to end violence against women—after all, some of them represent leaders who believe victims are at least as responsible as their perpetrators. Indeed, Russia, the Vatican, and Iran, whose representatives have reportedly derailed negotiations the most this year, all have recent records of punishing women for speaking out, demanding justice, and simply being female.

So I am not surprised that these negotiations have not gone smoothly. I am, however, appalled. And you should be too. Today, on International Women’s Day, contact your foreign ministry or head of government and tell him or her that you expect to see an agreement in New York next week. A consensus outcome at the Commission on the Status of Women may not necessarily lead to gender justice and equality. But without an agreement, it will be clear to perpetrators that individuals in charge are not planning to clamp down on abuse.


How Do You Prove That Discrimination No Longer Exists?


This week, the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which reauthorizes funding for the fight against domestic violence in the United States. The bill passed after a prolonged partisan fight over specific protections for Native-American women and lesbian, bisexual, and trans women. Also this week, the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the need for the promotion of equal voting rights, and, in particular, the continued need for oversight of equal rights in states that historically have discriminated against African Americans.

Each story elicited a pundit storm of outrage over the partisan divide on discrimination on the basis of sex, race, or sexual orientation. Many politicians and justices quoted in the press perpetuated the notion that liberals care about discrimination while conservatives do not.

But that would be an oversimplification.

At the heart of the discussion about the need for both VAWA and the Voting Rights Act is a fundamental disagreement about what governments should do about discrimination, and, even more so, what they shouldn’t do.

That difference of opinion is what led Justice Antonin Scalia to refer to the Voting Rights Act—a law that was conceived of as a tool to overcome racial entitlement among whites—as perpetuating a sense of racial entitlement among non-whites. By portraying people of color as receiving, or rather demanding, special treatment, Scalia converted the legal protection of equal rights into a situation of enforced discrimination.

It is also why some Republicans cited “inclusiveness” as the reason they supported explicit benefits for generally underserved populations in VAWA, while other Republicans claimed to vote against these benefits for the very same reason. While the former acknowledge that some women need to be explicitly named in order to be visible to policymakers and service providers, the latter promote the notion that by treating everyone the same, we will somehow magically be equal.

Simply put, the difference is not so much whether someone cares about discrimination but rather if they choose to see the full range of its reach. With some notable exceptions, most people across the political spectrum recognize flagrant forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The real divide is on how much we believe can and should be done to overcome historical disadvantage and internalized prejudice. Should the government allow quotas in universities to promote race and gender equality? Should states actively promote a diverse workforce?

International human rights standards are clear that affirmative action can only be legitimate while it serves a purpose; when a situation of historical disadvantage has been overcome—that is, when those who were meant to benefit from affirmative action genuinely are equal—the special measures must go.

The question, of course, is how to determine the exact moment when everyone truly has equal opportunities. This is a question that necessarily will have different answers for different people. Recent studies suggest that discrimination is still a reality for many of the subgroups that benefit the most from both the new incarnation of VAWA and the Voting Rights Act: Blacks, Latinos, working women, and Native Americans. Still, the American public just reelected a Black president, and the minority leader of the House of Representatives is a woman. In other words, systemic inequalities persist even though some people manage to escape their consequences. In this situation, perhaps the best test of whether temporary special measures are still warranted is conversational. When we stop talking about how strange it is that President Obama and Representative Pelosi got to where they are, there will be equal opportunity for all.

Of course, the courts cannot use conversation as a legal test to determine when to mandate an end to temporary special measures. Conversation can, however, be a rule of thumb for the rest of us until such time where it is no longer remarkable to find African Americans or women in positions of power.

In the meantime, the onus should be on the government, including members of Congress and justices of the Supreme Court, to prove when affirmative action has run its course, both when it comes to the prevention of domestic violence and voting rights.


TV Recognizes the “Modern Family”—Why Not Governments?


I don’t watch “Modern Family,” the prime-time sitcom depicting “non-traditional”—e.g., same-sex, interracial, and inter-generational—couples. Still, I’m struck by how fast family realities change and how slowly laws and societal perceptions about what’s “right” reflect those changes.

The couples depicted in “Modern Family” were surely seen by society at large as more unusual in 2009, when the show first aired, than even just five years later. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases that might pave the way for federal benefits for same-sex couples, the number of interracial marriages is steadily growing, and the combination of reproductive technologies, longer life-spans, and the normalization of serial monogamy has taken age somewhat out of the equation when it comes to forming a family.

Even so, real-life individuals in same-sex couples, or those who live with someone of a different race or generation from themselves, often face daily struggles to protect their families from legal uncertainty and publicly articulated disgust. Depending on where we live, our intimate lives and families may be subject to criminal sanctions, unequal legal protections, scrutiny, shaming, and belittling.

Often, the protection of our families in law—while welcome—does not mean we are immune to community shaming and violence. In Latin America, for example, a wave of new marriage equality laws has not yet had an impact on pervasive community violence against LGBTI individuals. And though it is more than 45 years since the Supreme Court invalidated the prohibition of interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, prejudices against interracial couples—in particular where one of the partners is Black—are expressed frequently in social media and in some cases result in discrimination.

This tug-of-war between perceptions, laws, and reality expresses itself clearly where courts have to decide to what extent legislators get to put their own—or their constituents’—prejudices before principles of equality and facts about child welfare.

This week, the European Court on Human Rights issued a ruling in one such case. The court held that Austria had violated human rights by denying two lesbian women a proper evaluation of their adoption petition. One of the women had petitioned to adopt the biological son of her female partner, a child they both had been parenting since infancy.

The Austrian government argued that its adoption laws are based on the notion that all children ideally grow up with a father and a mother. The European Court on Human Rights countered that this vision does not adequately protect child welfare and certainly is not enough to implement discriminatory laws. So far, so good.

However, the case also permitted subjective perceptions of what a family should be to persist in the law. In this week’s ruling, the European Court highlighted the fact that Austria allows unmarried different-sex couples to adopt each other’s children, whereas unmarried same-sex couples cannot (and same-sex couples are not yet allowed to marry in Austria). Had Austria reserved adoption for those who are married and marriage for those who are straight, a close read of the ruling indicates that the court might have allowed this; after all, the Court had allowed precisely this set-up in a 2012 ruling involving France.

To be sure, governments have the mandate, and even the obligation, to encourage family structures that benefit society generally and children more specifically. And the laws and policies that flow from this mandate must to some extent be subjective. The state may, for example, believe that marriage has a value in and of itself, and not only as it relates to parental and economic stability, and, as such, seek to promote marriage through tax structures and inheritance laws.

But beliefs only go so far. The obligation of the state to protect the human rights of both children and adults must find its expression through science and facts. One fact is that same-sex couples and LGBTI individuals already parent children. Another, that the welfare of children correlates with parental support and love, and not with the parents’ sexual orientation, race, identity, or age.

But the overarching fact that governments across the world should address immediately is that there are any number of “modern families” who are discriminated against by law and ostracized in their communities.


The Death Penalty, Life Imprisonment, and Other Punitive Measures: What's the Point?


If you ask children what the purpose of a punishment is, most will say “to learn your lesson.” This is why life imprisonment and the death penalty don’t make much sense to them. Yet in the United States alone, 140,000 people are currently serving life sentences, and 41,000 of them have no chance of ever getting released. Meanwhile, more than 3,200 people were on death row by the end of 2011, also in the United States. 

Recently, a 10-year-old child from my daughter’s class asked me this pertinent question: “What’s the point of learning your lesson if you never get a chance to show that you did?” The answer is simple: not much. Unfortunately, rehabilitation (the adult word for “learning a lesson”) is often not at the heart of criminal justice reform. In fact, the harshness of a punishment is frequently not determined by the possibility of recidivism, but rather by public opinion.

Take, for example, sex offenders in the United States. Long sentences and additional punitive measures such as sex registries and zoning laws are often imposed with the explicit goal of preventing further crime after news reports of particularly heinous acts, notably those involving children or that end in death. Yet the majority of former sex offenders do not re-offend and most sex crimes are not committed by former offenders. Meanwhile, most sexual abuse against children goes unreported. Further, about 30 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a relative of the child, and another 60 percent by someone the child knows well. 

In other words: the imposition of harsher punishment does little to generate the lesson-learning and change we need to prevent abuse in the first place. But punitive measures meted out through criminal laws and restrictive policies often have other objectives than rehabilitation, the two most prominent being deterrence and control.

Deterrence is perhaps the most frequently mentioned reason to strengthen sentencing laws. This Sunday, India’s president approved new sexual assault provisions, including for the first time the possibility of death sentences for rape cases in which the victim dies. The Indian government’s sudden and accelerated interest in sexual violence was fueled by the public uproar after five men viciously raped a young woman, Joyti Singh, on December 16, 2012. Singh later died as a result of the rape. The new ordinance has been criticized by Indian women’s groups for side-stepping several very real issues, such as for example marital rape, which is rife in India (and many other places too). 

Equally to the point, not very many of the rapes that do occur in India (or elsewhere) are reported, let alone investigated, and prosecuted. An infinitely small proportion of rapes committed end with convictions and actual sentences imposed. The resulting impunity means that perpetrators have little incentive to look at or think about the potential consequences of their acts in terms of jail time. 

Social control through stigma is another objective for longer sentencing. The length of the punishment assigned by the law signals the weight of our disapproval of that act. This is the reason we are offended by laws that mete out stronger sentences for stealing a cow or growing pot than for rape: we expect the law to be proportional and “fair.” And control through stigma certainly has a role in rehabilitation and lesson-learning. Studies show that people are less likely to engage in behaviour they believe is wrong than in behaviour they know to be illegal but don’t think of as morally wrong. 

But stigma cuts many ways. When we criminalize an act, the stigma attaches both to the act and to the person doing it—or even to persons associated with the act. The stronger the stigma, the more likely the person will be vulnerable to abuse and discrimination. It is, for example, virtually impossible for a convicted felon to find a job after jail, yet studies are clear that getting a job is key to preventing recidivism.

Obviously, the relationship between morality, the law, and criminal behaviour is complex and has been subject to study for decades. But at the most basic level, whenever we as a society agree to impose sanctions and punitive measures, we should be asking ourselves the question of a 10-year-old: what’s the point? In many cases, we’ll find that even if there was an original point, it doesn’t bear out in practice.


Trans Inclusion: Trust, Verify, Educate


Last week, the pundit-sphere erupted in vicious back-and-forths over the (lack of) space for trans women in mainstream feminism, and how to talk about transgender people to begin with.

The comment that led to the storm has since been described by the author, Suzanne Moore, as a throw-away line, and, while certainly thoughtless, it was indeed a minor and non-essential component of the essay in which it appeared. In short, in an article about the current state of women’s rights activism, Moore described the perfect body women are expected to have as “that of a Brazilian transsexual.” 

A twitter-storm of criticism ensued, making the point that trans people are victimized and excluded by mainstream feminism (I am paraphrasing the hostile tone of this debate which went both ways). The controversy peaked when the Observer on Sunday published a retort by another writer, Julie Burnchill, that included such offensive language about transgender people that the Observer ultimately took it down

It is obvious that not all women face the same challenges. Every disadvantaged group of humanity has a different history of exclusion and suffers in different ways. How we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we believe they see us: all of this has an impact on our experience of discrimination and abuse. 

As a result, the two main substantive points in this debate were not mutually exclusive, though they were presented as opposites. On the one hand, it is true that girls are treated differently (in most cases less advantageously) than boys most everywhere, and that this suffering has an impact on adult women’s self-worth, identity, and ability to exercise our rights. It is also true that many transgender individuals suffer a different—and often both violent and invisibilized—type of exclusion throughout their lives, an experience that would color anyone’s understanding of what is safe and what is not. This is so whether we are talking about trans women or trans men.

Add to any of these one-dimensional exclusion narratives issues such as age, ethnicity, nationality, education, money, and religion, and it will be clear that discrimination varies greatly from sub-group to sub-group. This is hardly news. The point here is that entering into a debate over who is more excluded than whom is a non-starter. The answer will always be: “it depends,” and it is hardly conducive to change to get into a bidding war of wrongs.

There are, however, two lessons to be learned from the Moore/Burnchill vs. Transgender debacle. 

Lesson number 1: we have a long way to go on trans inclusion

I highly doubt that the editor of Suzanne Moore’s original piece saw the troublesome comparison of “ideal female body” with “Brazilian transsexual” as anything other than descriptive or maybe funny. It would surprise me to learn that there had been any conversation about its potentially inflammatory nature. The same is true for the editorial process that led to the publication of Julie Burnchill’s piece, which has been made public. It is abundantly clear that no one thought to seriously question the taste-level or justifiable offense that would be felt upon its publication. 

To be sure, both Moore and Burnchill are free to express both tasteless and insensitive views. The articles may be offensive, even very offensive, but they don’t incite to violence or discrimination and so are publishable without criminal liability—or should be. 

My concern is that the trans community seems to be invisible or “other” to the editors. If these editors did think about the offense the pieces or mentions would cause, that concern was dismissed as irrelevant. This happens most frequently where the butt of the “joke” is already in a disadvantaged position. In a distant past, for example, it was considered reasonable to publish offensively abusive language about Irish immigrants in the United States, because the Irish were seen as less than human and in any case not “one of us.” 

The sentiment that trans people are lesser, have brought it upon themselves, and should just get over it, has permeated a good part of this debate, down to a very unhelpful conflation of “transsexual” with “trans women” with “cross-dressing.” We can do better.

Lesson number 2: we have a long way to go on trust and solidarity

Suffering is felt subjectively: this is the very reason the experience of the victim is central to the definitions of sexual and racial harassment in U.S. law. Imagine a situation where the person who calls a colleague “bitch” or “sexy mamma” gets to decide if that contributes to a hostile work environment or not. No one would ever get beyond the “you just don’t have a sense of humor” defense. 

Of course, identifying abusive language is easy where it so far oversteps existing ideas of propriety that the suffering it generates is “objective” or felt by most, and where the intention to insult is explicit. 

It is much harder where the injury most probably is a result of ignorance rather than intentionally injurious. In such cases, as for example where a mainstream feminist writer compares the ideal female body to that of a “Brazilian transsexual,” our law and practice should allow for trust. Not the kind of trust that leads to impunity and abuse. But the kind of trust where the first reaction to sub-par communication isn’t to assume intentional insult but rather to educate and inform. 

For example, the first time a former boss called me “Sweetie,” I didn’t retort by calling him a sexist pig, I told him I preferred to be called by my name, and not by terms that, to me, implied he had little respect for my professional abilities. He never called me anything other than Marianne after that. And, at least in my presence, he started calling other female colleagues by their names too.

In short: the invisibility of trans communities is real. So are unthinking insults. By treating the latter as intentional, we do nothing to inform and educate about the first.

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