Gender Justice and Human Rights: Revisiting the Links between Domestic Violence and Reproductive Rights Advocacy
Posted: 24 Mar 2011
Date Written: January 24, 2011
Domestic violence and reproductive rights are often viewed as separate spheres of women's rights advocacy in the United States. Indeed, our non-profit/non-governmental organizations focusing on these issues are rarely in dialogue with one another about the commonalities that the issues and the advocacy share. (A most extreme version of this dichotomy is the ACLU, whose Women's Rights Project (which focuses, in large part, on violence against women and domestic violence) and Reproductive Freedom Project (which focuses on reproductive rights) operate completely separately). Yet the links between domestic violence and reproductive justice – links that are underscored when one brings a human rights lens to the inquiry – run deep. Women facing domestic violence and a denial of their reproductive freedom often share a common ground: the expropriation of their sexuality by a patriarchal system that dominates the family and the law. These links implicate a variety of other areas of human rights, including economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights. Moreover, the legal and political frameworks with which we analyze these social problems often fall far short of capturing their nuance and multi-dimensionality. For instance, the discourse in progressive circles focuses on government regulation of women's bodies (negative rights, e.g. right to privacy, liberty) when we discuss reproductive rights; whereas the parallel discourse focuses on lack of government protection (affirmative obligations, e.g. duty to protect) when we discuss violence against women. This dichotomy does not always hold up in practice, however. Domestic violence rates are highest against pregnant women and that pregnancy often marks the onset of domestic violence. Moreover, an abused pregnant woman may have problems accessing reproductive health services as a result of her isolation from society – a problem rooted in the State's failure to provide meaningful protection to her from abuse. Likewise, a woman experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse may shape her reproductive choices around her wish not to have a child with an abusive partner. Other areas in which the traditional spheres of reproductive rights and domestic/sexual violence advocacy (and their kin) break down include: shackling of women while giving birth in prisons; judicial rulings ordering abused women to make certain reproductive/childcare decisions (as in a recent New York Supreme Court case ordering a mother to be sterilized in order to regain custody of her children); law enforcement's role in responding to domestic violence versus abortion clinics.
In this article, I seek to use a human rights and feminist framework to explore the interstices of this debate and unpack the often-false dichotomy that has been set up to distinguish the areas of domestic violence and reproductive rights in advocacy and academic circles in recent years. I also hope to further analyze what a human rights framework brings to the inquiry and how it might be useful in re-establishing the commonalities between these all-too-frequently separate spheres.
This scholarly inquiry comes at a particularly opportune time: in February 2011, I will be co-hosting a convening at University of Miami Law School on Gender Justice in the Americas: A Transnational Dialogue on Sexuality, Violence, Reproduction & Human Rights. As the title suggests, the focus of the convening is multifold. We view this convening as an opportunity to promote a transnational dialogue among a key group of advocates and scholars working on gender and sexuality issues throughout North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean. In an intimate setting, we will discuss recent law and policy developments at the local, national, and international levels in the areas of women's rights, gender and sexuality. We hope to develop a robust dialogue exploring the significance of these developments, as well as the legal and advocacy strategies employed by the women's and human rights movements in the region to deepen their effect. By examining these inter-related areas, we seek to take a collective step back and examine the opportunities that a human rights approach may offer to make connections between the fields of reproduction, violence, and sexuality – connections which are all-too-often forgotten in our increasingly specialized world. It is our hope that the convening will serve as a catalyst for a revitalization of the women's rights movement and will foster the development of a new network of advocates and scholars across the Americas engaged in using the international human rights framework as a tool for advancing gender and sexuality advocacy and scholarship in the region.
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