Examining my punitive impulses, examining our punitive impulses 

December 3, 2023

BY Sachini Perera

Photo credit: Sachini Perera

Content warning for mentions of experiences of violence

Recently I was at a feminist gathering where a former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women recalled the history of the mandate and how it came to be. The South feminist activists who tirelessly advocated for the mandate. The political significance of such a mandate even being considered, let alone being set up and recognized as it was in 1994. Interestingly, she also mentioned a friendly caution she received about the slippery slope of the mandate given that it would require collaboration with the police, thus defeating or diluting the watchdog function human rights defenders play when it comes to the police and the state. Her response had been that she sees their/our function more as a watchdog of impunity and while I don’t necessarily disagree with her, this little anecdote has been playing on loop in my mind ever since I heard it. 

Rewind a few more weeks, and I was at another gathering of an informal feminist formation where we convened with the intention of strategizing and building on our work and discussions over the last few years on the limitations of criminal justice as a response to gender-based violence and the feminist faultlines we occupy when we employ criminal law and criminalization in our quest for justice. Brain stretching, gut uneasy-ing, life affirming stuff. Once again there was an interesting bit of history we learnt on how CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) didn’t spell out violence against women in the text of the convention — while still understanding it as a form of gender-based discrimination — and the demands (or maybe needs) for specific recognition of violence against women that resulted in General Recommendation (GR) No. 19 of 1992 (which was later updated by GR No. 35 of 2017). At the time and even now this GR is lauded as a historical milestone in moving violence from the private realm to the public and the realm of human rights, one that undoubtedly influenced the mandate of the Special Rapporteur being introduced just a couple of years later. 

Why am I sharing these stories (and perhaps repeating them clumsily)? Because my personal journey of questioning my punitive impulses — quite connected to and informed by RESURJ’s collective journey in questioning punitive impulses of our movements — needs these stories to ground myself in our feminist histories, the political positions, decisions, and asks that were responding to specificities and urgencies of their times, and the need for collective compassion and care as we try to understand the ripple effects over the years. 

Of course my punitive impulses are older and closer to home than CEDAW or special mandates. They run back decades and centuries and have roots that run deep. They are fortified by how I was parented, by teachers at school, by literary classics, by popular culture, by religion, by majoritarianism, by war, by the media, by a dominant and fairly uncontested narrative that where harm is caused, there must be consequences. C O N S E Q U E N C E S. Add to this mix a few years reading for a law degree where criminal law is learnt by rote with little to no critical engagement with structural issues, so I stepped into feminist organizing with hardwired punitive impulses and values. Not just in terms of believing in the criminal justice system as a legitimate albeit broken avenue of recourse for women and girls who faced violence and other rights violations but also in terms of how I understood accountability. Of course this sequence is not unique to me but I mention it because punitive measures for both rights violations and intra-movement/organizational accountability were widely accepted in feminist and social justice organizing as well as NGOs, as I experienced them in Sri Lanka and beyond. 

As with the examples of the SR mandate and CEDAW, there’s contextualization here too. I was getting involved in feminist organizing in Sri Lanka a few years before the war ended, a time of heinous human rights violations and related impunity, and at the cusp of the passing of the much awaited and advocated Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) of 2005. The PDVA was a triumph of sorts given the level of political pressure and public narratives to keep domestic violence in the private sphere but as observed by feminists at the time and in retrospect, it was not fully reflective of feminist demands nor was it an avenue many women wanted to explore despite it offering civil remedies including protection orders. However it resonated with calls — at national level as well as across the region and in international norms — for the full implementation of existing criminal laws against gender-based violence (GBV) as well as the need to introduce more criminal laws for forms of GBV and violations of SRHR that were not yet criminalized, such as marital rape or female genital mutilation. From CEDAW reviews and recommendations to 16 days campaigns (including this little campaign I began in 2011 that I find myself often unpacking with all the hindsight of less binary and more messy personal politics) to One Billion Rising to regional ripple effects of the horror and heartbreak of Nirbhaya in India, the struggle was to have GBV recognized as harm at all. I went back to a blog I wrote 10-11 years ago, after we had co-organized the very first One Billion Rising campaign in Sri Lanka, and remembered the anger and frustration we shared about the rising incidence of GBV, the number of suspended sentences in the few cases that do go to court, etc. We wanted there to be C O N S E Q U E N C E S, even as we weren’t clear on what we wanted those to be. 

It is highly possible I was not privy to ongoing conversations amongst feminists in Sri Lanka at the time about the need to evaluate if criminal justice has been effective in preventing and addressing GBV, examining tensions between our anti-death penalty stances and our demands for punitive and carceral consequences for GBV (where does one begin and the other end?) and the need to think beyond criminalization in our feminist articulations of justice. Highly possible. So I hadn’t critically reflected on this until I joined RESURJ in 2017 and caught bits and pieces of conversations amongst members that I didn’t fully understand nor felt relevant to my context. But I kept listening and reading and slowly the light bulbs started going off. I distinctly remember our former member and lifelong friend Jasmine George taking the time during our annual retreat to patiently and compassionately walk us through RESURJ’s analysis on shortcomings of penal policies and the need for comprehensive responses to GBV that don’t start and end with laws, and finally feeling as if I get it. 

As anyone grappling with these faultlines can share, what comes next is even harder. It means taking stock of your life’s work, uncomfortable reflections about your punitive impulses in work and in life, challenging yourself in how you frame your advocacy asks, being honest about how classism, neoliberal individualism, and lack of intersectional power analysis influence our appetite for carceral solutions, learning how to start conversations about going Beyond Criminalization by calling people in instead of calling them out, and most importantly continuing to work with laws and the judicial system (because quitting these is not a choice at hand) and working on cases/provide accompaniment to people who have experienced GBV while you’re perched on these faultlines. It also becomes a moment to realize just how entrenched the need for C O N S E Q U E N C E S, and punitive consequences at that, is in our feminist organizing and organizations. We mimic corporations in how we define leadership, practice accountability, review work performances, etc. and even when we’ve broken out of those models, the ones we create for mutual accountability are more embedded in making people feel alone, ashamed, ostracized and punished rather than in care, compassion and trying to get to personal and structural root causes. Perhaps that’s where introspection begins, in how we define and practice justice and accountability in our movements and organizing, and constantly reminding ourselves that feminist praxis is to never consider our processes, systems and movements as static or permanent but rather be reflexive, or as our friends at DIVA for Equality say, build and break, again and again. 

MeToo was a moment of such introspection for me, both personally and politically (and those are not always as perfectly aligned as we might think or want them to be). As stories kept coming out in Sri Lanka, again influenced by similar ruptures in the sub-region, there were questions within closed circles as well as public forums about what kind of consequences were intended by those who were sharing their experiences. Not surprisingly, concerns were primarily about those who caused harm, with those who experienced violence facing legal threats, expulsion from jobs and endless accusations colored by whatever intersections they occupied in terms of ethnicity, class, sexuality and so on. By the time I shared my own story, within firm boundaries that I was not willing to cross in public, the consequence I knew I wanted was for myself. “Because the first thing survivors need is to be heard and believed. Sometimes it’s the only thing we want. I’d know this.” I repeated this again and again, not because it’s a singular truth, but because it was and is what I experienced and was also what I heard quite often from people I’ve accompanied through their experiences with violence and harassment on the internet. It became less about a dichotomy between perpetrators and survivors/victims and more about structures of power that enable us to harm each other as well as to allow harm. Even in moments of absolute fury and disappointment in friends and colleagues who were named or alluded to in MeToo in Sri Lanka — in a mostly upper middle class bubble at that — I felt and expressed frustration there were no consequences for them while also not wanting consequences that would continue cycles of harm. Less answers, more questions.

I need to stop this stream of consciousness somewhere so maybe this is where I stop. Circling back to the anecdotes I started with, I guess the question I sit with is .. if we allowed our feminist impulse for freedom, autonomy and liberation get wrapped up in — and limited by — laws, norms and systems that don’t share those same impulses at their core, then how do we find our way out?