Why do we need to talk about the limits of criminal justice to address violations of sexual and reproductive rights?
Where does our interest in questioning the limits of criminal law to protect sexual and reproductive rights (SRHR) come from?
RESURJ members began to reflect on the use of criminalization as a response to violations of SRHR when many of our countries  passed laws to address gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation and the prohibition of child marriage – among other social issues – without a comprehensive strategy of how to address the root causes of such violations.
We participated in in-depth discussions about the threat of criminal punishment and, in particular, imprisonment, which in our contexts and from our empirical experience, do not lead to changes in the behaviour or attitudes of the perpetrators, and do not consider the impact on survivors. Furthermore, this approach was perceived in our initial analysis as a way for our governments to ” relieve ” their obligations to develop and implement comprehensive policies to more adequately address rights violations or to invest in strategies to prevent such violations.
Through our work, we have always promoted measures that contribute to positive behavior and attitude change through holistic interventions such as comprehensive sexuality education, access to sexual and reproductive health information, and breaking the taboos and stigma associated with these issues. However, when we saw the trend that was generating changes in laws, we felt uncomfortable, partly because they were happening in many countries and there was no deep discussion within our movements about thinking in other ways, but also because we could not articulate a clear message that called for a pause to rethink our strategies.
Also, we felt (and still feel) that as a movement we sometimes take up terms that we assume are common, but when we analyze them in depth we realize that we do not agree with them. Concepts like “eradicating child marriage” do not fully unpack what the strategy is and whether we are really taking into account the needs of the people who are living what we want to address by using those rigid terms.
Having this initial conversation set the stage for what is now a major area of RESURJ’s work. In 2016, RESURJ did what it does best – articulate with feminists from the global south – and organized an inter-regional meeting to share our questions and concerns with fellow southern feminists so that we could deepen our analysis. This resulted in a statement on the limits of criminal policies to address sexual rights violations and a webinar on criminalization to share experiences from different countries and contexts, as well as beginning to explore possible alternatives to criminalization.
Since then, RESURJ has continued to identify allies in all movements working on different approaches to criminalization, interacting with feminists on the issue, exploring alternatives and deepening our collective analysis, focusing that analysis from a younger, feminist perspective from the global south.
In our different moments of analysis, it has been very much highlighted how inequalities and systems of oppression are not only part of the structural causes of such rights violations, but also, that these inequalities and marginalizations are perpetuated and even deepened through the criminal system.
All of this work led us to commission a desk review that questioned, from a feminist perspective, criminal justice interventions to address violations of sexual and reproductive rights. The report “examines the ways in which violations of sexual and reproductive rights can be prevented and addressed, enabling a more comprehensive approach that does not lean too heavily towards or focus only on criminal law. The report discusses preventive measures, including those to address structural causes, the use of an intersectional approach or solution, comprehensive sex education, community mobilization and advocacy, as well as response measures taken after violations have occurred, such as restorative justice.”
Injusta Justicia in Latin America
In April 2019 we met with Vecinas Feministas (Feminist Neighbors for Sexual and Reproductive Justice in Latin America) and with Balance to think about the limits of punitivism as a strategy to defend sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. We questioned what we are asking from the States when we look for increased criminal law and more prison. We questioned what kind of model of society we are proposing as feminists when on the one hand we ask for less criminal law (as in the case of abortion), but at the same time we demand more criminal law (as in the case of femicide/feminicide).
We decided that we wanted to focus on the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents. Therefore, we felt it was important to explore how the use of criminal law and protectionist laws affects the sexual autonomy of adolescents in their diversity. During the discussion, we realized that one of the factors that do more harm than good when addressing these topics, is to generalize or to base a rule on the worst possible hypothetical case and not on real cases; therefore, it seemed fundamental that the campaign amplified concrete cases, as it was the way to give voice and space to those stories; and also because they allow us to see in a tangible way what those laws and policies imply for a specific person.
After a thorough research work interviewing partners and allies, we found all kinds of cases. Several are now part of the campaign, but we also found cases in adults and others where the problem was not the text of the law, but the unwanted or unexpected consequences of the application of the laws. Just as we found cases, we found 8 partner organizations  to continue this reflection and deepen the issue in this region.
Injusta Justicia does not have or pretend to have answers. What we want is to deepen the debate around feminist strategies for the defense of sexual and reproductive rights, specifically around how we can build comprehensive approaches that guarantee the autonomy and sexual rights of adolescents and youth in the region. We want to continue thinking about how to build truly transformative alternatives. Injusta Justicia intends to be a space to have this debate that can no longer be postponed among the diverse feminisms in Latin America.
1] Resurj members come from the following countries: Taiwan, Libya, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, India, Pakistan, United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay, Egypt, Malawi and Fiji.
2] Aireana, BECA, Casa Rara, Intersecta, Las Ramonas, REDI, Surkuna and Tik Na’Oj