As a PhD researcher, I investigated early women’s movements’ engagements with law reform in Ecuador. Pioneering indigenous women, leftist organisers, and the first self-identified feminist activists, overall framed the state and criminal law as oppressive institutions. Later, looking at contemporary efforts to tackle gender-based violence, I noticed that a “turn to criminal justice” had occurred alongside the international women’s human rights campaigns of the 1990s. This is linked to a “boom” of specialised VAW legislation in Latin America, whereby many feminist perspectives where reframed through colonial rationalities on domesticity and the family. In addition, my work interviewing feminist organisers, lawmakers, policymakers, and practitioners who were involved in the 2014 Penal Code reform that criminalised VAW in Ecuador, allowed me to see a connection between the call to criminally prosecute women’s human rights violations, the emergence of a “rights-based penalty”, and feminists demands to criminalise VAW. These discursive links challenged a common critique of “carceral feminism”, which regards the decline of the welfare state and the neoliberal co-option of “governance feminists” as key causes of penal expansion in the realm of VAW. Instead, my findings emerged from a “post-neoliberal” setting, during a “pink-tide” regime that despite deploying economic redistribution and public service enhancement, still contributed to penal expansion, not only through the usual “tough on crime” and “citizen security” discourses, but also, through human rights.
This body of research, to which I added empirical work on survivors’ experiences of using specialised criminal courts for VAW in Ecuador, was published in the monograph Feminism, Violence Against Women, and Law Reform. Decolonial Lessons from Ecuador, which has been shortlisted for two book prizes: the Hart SLSA Book Prize and the Hart SLSA Prize for Early Career Academics.
Toward a non-penal human rights framework to counteract violence against women
My current project, funded through a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Research Fellowship, looks at the responses of anti-carceral and feminist activists, in Ecuador and the United Kingdom (UK), to what has been termed “human rights penality”. The expression refers to the mobilisation of the penal apparatus as a response to human rights violations, encouraged or even demanded by international human rights agencies. The project, which also includes a doctrinal research phase focusing on the Inter-American Human rights System and the European Court of Human Rights case law on VAW, asks questions such as: How do anti-carceral feminists address the tensions between human rights and criminal justice? What non-penal approaches to violence against women emerge from their work? Is it possible to advance anti-carceral agendas using a human rights framework? Are “human rights from below” possible, desirable, and/or strategic in the domain of VAW?
The findings emerging from the pilot interviews, ongoing fieldwork, and regular interactions with the participants, suggest that a strategic use of human rights discourses, which centres social and economic rights and the urgency of counteracting the monopolisation of resources by the elites, may contribute, not only to (re)framing VAW as an issue that is aggravated and reproduced by economic inequality, but also to resisting the punitive nature of today’s dominant human rights-based models of justice.