WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Eliminating Violence against Women

united nations day for the elimination of violence against womenI spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our research on sexual violence case attrition and why most rape cases do not go forward to prosecution. The way that cases move through the criminal justice system has been a concern to victims, practitioners, and researchers for the last 40 years. Our recent findings on sexual violence case attrition make it clear that most sexual assault reports made to the police do not result in the arrest of a perpetrator or in any prosecution. This isn’t because no one knows who the perpetrator is—it is not a reflection of random stranger-danger. Women are assaulted, raped, and murdered by someone they know much more often than by a stranger. This is true across the globe and yet the response to violence remains weak.

Societal response to reports of sexual violence reflects deep-rooted cultural ideals about women and a feminine ideal. In our research, we found that cases are less likely to move forward when women have engaged in behaviors that signal “risk taking" like drinking alcohol or are of lower status and reputation. It is the “ideal” woman who is more likely to be believed—the conservatively dressed woman, the woman of means who was shopping or walking home from her professional position, the woman whose career and family life reflects strict adherence to social norms. So, even while we celebrate a changing cultural environment that purports that women now have more agency, independence, and are “permitted” to embrace more of the behaviors that have always been okay only for men, women who were out alone and who had been drinking when they were assaulted are less likely to find that the man who raped her is arrested or prosecuted.

Now, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and after a week of more incidents of violence against women—both sexual violence and gun violence--- and amid concerns about the policy changes taking place on college campuses that will make women’s lives more difficult; and accounts of survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced, denied due process, and pushed back against on many fronts, we know we have not yet eliminated violence against women. Further, gender-based violence—violence that happens to women because they are women—is as blatant and as bigoted as violence perpetrated against one religious group. We are talking gender-based violence and femicide. How far have we really come? And what is needed to keep moving us closer to truly eliminating gender-based violence?

We have evidence of positive changes in rape law and sexual violence prevention, in care and support for survivors, and in bringing this issue of gender-based violence to the forefront both nationally and globally. We know that reductions in gender inequality can happen—this may occur when we elect more women to government leadership and we reverse the reductions in government social spending in areas such as health and education. Internationally, there are many leaders, advocates, and research that help us move the action against gender-based violence forward.

Now we must focus attention on turning research into action and promoting the changes needed in the community. Change requires that we not reify one form of knowledge over another. It’s no surprise to advocates that victim characteristics and victim behavior are associated with whether or not charges of rape go forward to prosecution. Recently in Ireland, an individual was acquitted after senior counsel for the defense remarked on the fact that the young female complainant was wearing thong underwear. This led to protests, the display of women’s underwear, and the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent. Meanwhile, it is reported that an independent review conducted by a legal expert who is examining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in Ireland is due at the end of the year. While such data will no doubt be valuable as are similar reports from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., these provide evidence of what women have known all along--that what women wear or what they drink is used to sway the court system and jurors and to reinforce common stereotypes about men, women, and rape.

Clearly we need to assure that funds for implementing prevention programs and innovative campaigns directed at ending violence against women are available, and that such programs and the research conducted on their impact must continue to draw on feminist roots. All such work on gender-based violence also must be informed by intersectionality—the product of Black women’s activism and scholarship. For example, Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement that later became a global phenomenon to raise awareness about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in society. #MeToo supports all who experience sexual violence and grounds this work in the real experiences of all women—young and old, Black, white, and brown, rich and poor. Research, undertaken in a setting that allows the linking of activism with the research, and that highlights the importance of data as a social change agent, is a necessary step to ending gender-based violence. A call to link activism and research should not be confused with activist research that seeks to prove a particular hypothesis. Sound principles of scientific research must be followed. However, we must assure that the voices of survivors and the skills and approaches of grass roots organizations underpin this work. These efforts are critical to success in eliminating violence against women and girls in all communities across the globe.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on justice system response to sexual violence, commercial sexual exploitation of women and children, human trafficking, intimate partner violence, and child maltreatment.

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Envisioning a World of Feminist Peace

catiapostSince 1981, the United Nations has observed International Day of Peace on September 21. In its resolution, the UN marked the day as a “globally shared date for all humanity to commit to Peace above all differences and to contribute to building a Culture of Peace.” But how far along are we in this process? Terrorism, nuclear weapons, militarization, and other visible forms of violence are in plain sight. And if one considers the hidden and silenced forms of violence, it is difficult to be optimistic.

As a global and long term trend, some popular and academic publications would have us believe that violence in the world (from wars to homicide) is declining. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 2013 Human Security Report, or Joshua Goldstein’s Winning the War on War argue that the data at our disposal shows that, not only has the number of interstate and intrastate wars decreased, battle-related casualties have also been in a downward trend since the end of the Cold War. Pinker goes as far as saying that recorded violent deaths have been on the decline at least since 10,000 BCE.

As feminists, however, we know better than to trust just numbers as if they were the only data at our disposal. Feminist scholarship and advocacy shows that those numbers and statistics are misleading, particularly as they ignore and make invisible violence against women and girls (VAWG). Monash University Professor Jacqui True claims that if qualitative and quantitative data on VAWG are taken seriously, we are not witnessing a decline in violence, quite the opposite. Feminists have exposed the extent and gravity of political violence committed in the home (so commonly characterized as non-political, because ‘domestic’); the underreporting and ignoring of sexualized and gender-based violence; and the multiple forms of harm – psychological, physical or economic – suffered by women and girls as a consequence of unequal gendered power structures during armed conflicts as well as in so-called peace times.

Feminist insights compel us to make violence and threats of VAWG central to our definition of peace. If VAWG is increasing, we cannot really say that we, as a human species, are getting better at peace. The challenge is then to recognize and make visible VAWG, its causes and consequences, as a precondition to, but also as inextricably linked to achieving a more peaceful and just world. In the view of the world’s longest-operating international women’s peace organization – Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), feminist peace is expansive and inclusive. It is about recognizing all forms of oppression and violence as interrelated; about questioning how systems of power and privilege – from neoliberal capitalism and patriarchy, to militarism and racism – underlie and sustain a violent world; about providing feminist visions and models for a different, more just and peaceful future.

catiaquoteWILPF has been one of many women’s peace organizations who successfully lobbied the UN Security Council to recognize, in Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325), that peace and security are linked to gender equality. Specifically, UNSCR 1325 – and several follow-up resolutions in subsequent years – created obligations for UN member states and other parties in armed conflicts – i.e., non-state actors, militias, humanitarian agencies, etc. – to adopt a “gender perspective” in the prevention of war, in peace processes, and in relief and recovery efforts. Often criticized for, among other things, adopting a narrow view of gender, UNSCR 1325 nevertheless recognizes the particular ways in which women are victimized during war, as well as the ways in which they participate in armed conflicts and in subsequent peace efforts.

A 2015 report on the implementation of the resolution – authored in consultation with women’s groups across the world by Radhika Coomaraswamy – shows, however, the chasm between feminist peace activists’ goals and the political and financial support their agenda receives from international and state policymakers. For example, despite growing evidence that women’s participation in peace negotiations contributes to the durability of peace agreements, there continues to be a reluctance to include women in conflict resolution and peace-building processes. Despite strong links between women’s rights (such as the right to education, health, political participation and leadership, or property) and their security and bodily integrity, gender equality is yet to become a central organizing principle of post-conflict humanitarian assistance, development, or human rights work.

Coomaraswamy’s report offers unmistakable evidence of the connections between justice, peace, and gender equality. Commitment to “Peace above all differences” and to “building a Culture of Peace” commands us, then, to take seriously both the work of feminist peace advocates and feminism as a lens with which to approach questions of peace, justice, and security. Only then can we begin to establish the conditions and institutions that nurture and support non-violent and just human relations, and recognize the inherent worthiness and dignity of every human being.

Scholar and activist around issues of peace and gender, Catia Confortini, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Wellesley College and a member of the Wellesley Centers for Women Council of Advisors.

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Approaching Adulthood: Assisting Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

In 1954, the United Nations established Universal Children’s Day (November 20) to promote togetherness and children’s rights. It is a day that reminds and encourages us to work towards a better future by improving the wellbeing of children all across the globe. In recognition of Universal Children’s Day, Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, looks at the obstacles facing children and young adults who are at risk of aging out of foster care and highlights programs that can improve their welfare.


joanblogimageTransitional age youth, those who are leaving state systems of care, are one of our most vulnerable populations of children. Each year in the United States, about 23,000 young people age out of foster care, according to Child Trends, because they reach the legal age of adulthood (18-22 years, depending on the state) and are no longer qualified to receive state services. And each year, these youth lack a permanent relationship with a biological or adoptive guardian, forcing them to navigate the challenges of adulthood without a mentor and critical support systems.

In the U.S., nearly 36,000 children are at risk for aging out of the system, as they are at least 9 years of age and have a case plan for long-term care or emancipation. For those who are at risk of aging out of foster care without a permanent solution and forever family, they are at greater risk for homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, early pregnancy, substance abuse, and struggles with physical, mental, and behavioral health.

Often times, these youth are dually enrolled in multiple state systems of care, including child welfare, juvenile justice, and behavioral and mental health services. In 2015 in Massachusetts, 312 out of 800 youth offenders in the Department of Youth Services had previous involvement with the Department of Children and Families prior to their detention, according to a 2016 Tufts University study. This sequential, often simultaneous, involvement in multiple systems of care place these youth at a crossroads; they lack positive, unconditional supports and mentoring that is offered through adult relationships as well as concrete resources and tools required to thrive independently, including housing, employment, health insurance, education, and basic life skills. Transitional age youth are often removed from conversations pertaining to child welfare and are underserved in the innovation of strategies to best support and strengthen children within these systems.

Approaching AdulthoodThe Home for Little Wanderers believes that these youth deserve every opportunity to thrive and succeed to their full potential as they enter adulthood. By collaborating with the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health, and the Massachusetts Task Force for Youth Aging Out, the Home has developed specific and effective supports to serve this population. Through customized, age-specific services the Home has implemented innovative programs, including the Young Adult Resource Network (YARN) for “wraparound” services, the Roxbury Village to provide transitional housing for homeless youth, Academic Support for College and Life (ASCL), Peer Mentors, Life Skills programs, and Life Coaches. All of these programs share the same goal and ultimate vision for success: to connect young adults with community resources and help them become contributing members in the community while acquiring the skills they need to achieve self-sufficiency.

Alongside this, the Home works tirelessly to collaborate with various agencies through both communication and action to advocate for change and ensure their voices are heard. Through shared partnerships, the Home works to strengthen connections and services for youth who are at risk for transitioning out of care, which not only prepare them for entering adulthood, but also foster connections and relationships with adults and peers that will follow them on their path toward personal and professional success.

For more information on the Home and their work with Transitional Age Youth visit: thehome.org

Joan Wallace-Benjamin, Ph.D. is president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers as well as a graduate of Wellesley College, Class of 1975.

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