Minneapolis-Twin Cities residents, including several representatives from the Human Rights Program, had the opportunity to witness a February 2 hearing on domestic violence convened on behalf of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo. Ms. Manjoo's mandate charges her with the task of reporting on the state of violence against women worldwide. She focuses on four broad areas: violence in the home (domestic abuse, incest, etc.), violence in the community (assault, rape, etc.), violence on the state level (in prisons, condoned by law or practice, etc.) and violence against refugees and other migrants. She visited the area as part of a fact-finding mission in the US. Other areas visited included Washington, D.C., North Carolina, Miami, San Francisco, and New York City.
The purpose of Ms. Manjoo's visit, sponsored by the Advocates for Human Rights, was to listen to the testimonies of community members who had suffered as a result of violence against women and to receive written reports from survivors and activists. Seven women told their stories; two were mothers of victims, while the others were survivors themselves. All reported lives lost and/or destroyed by violence against women. Many made suggestions to improve the legal processes that follow domestic abuse or pointed out stumbling blocks in the system. A few community activists also spoke, adding another perspective to the discussion.
The suggestions and stumbling blocks referenced are:
1. Several mentioned that friends and neighbors knew but did nothing. They either felt threatened by the perpetrator or did not know how to help the woman in need.
2. One woman described her struggles with disability access in the court system. The system's inability to cope with her needs prolonged her legal process, which added to her suffering.
3. Several women noted the time and financial strains of prosecution, which often add to the feelings of powerlessness and impede recovery. Some suggested state funding for victims of domestic abuse as well as a wider availability of state-funded counselors.
4. Others pointed to different problems in the court system: unqualified or disrespectful judges in the family court system, inability to receive restraining orders, the issue of child custody battles, and the repeated release of violent offenders.
5. One activist talked about the increased barriers to justice for refugees and non-native English speakers. The court system seems to have inadequate resources available for these women, in terms of translators and competent legal advice. Additionally, there are extenuating circumstances, such as seeking permanent legal status in the US, that may encourage women to stay with abusive partners.
6. Another activist highlighted the role of men in this systemic problem. Violence against women is perpetrated for the most part by men. Men tend to have more political capital. They are more represented in the policy-making and legal spheres. Therefore, they must be part of the solution. Violence against women cannot continue to be seen as a women's issue.
7. One community member requested that someone make a database of refugees/asylees coming to the US for domestic violence reasons. On occasion, those who perpetrated the violence have also sought refuge in the US. When this is granted, the woman is no longer safe. A database of violent offenders against female refugees would protect these women more fully.
8. Many of the survivors described the pressures on family members, especially children, exposed to this violence. Institutionalized mechanisms to support family members must be strengthened.
9. One theme present in most of the testimonies was the need for education, relevant to signs of domestic abuse and what to do in the case of such violence (as both a victim and a friend or family member).
Ms. Manjoo will be publishing a report on her findings in June of 2011. To read this report, when published, and find out more about work in the Twin Cities area to eliminate violence against women, see the Advocates for Human Rights website (http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/) and their Stop Violence Against Women Campaign (http://stopvaw.org/).
The Human Rights Program commends the efforts of all of the people who make this event possible, including Ms. Manjoo, the Advocates for Human Rights, all the women giving their testimonies and everyone involved behind the scenes.