Navigating Feminist Faultlines: From Accountability that Punishes to Accountability that Transforms 

December 3, 2023

BY Nadia Mohd Rasidi

Artwork credit: Francesco Ciccolella

As a member of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific) team, my work is centred around the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Our position within the treaty body ecosystem requires that we reflect on and assess the nuances of using judicial systems and legislation as feminist organising tools. A significant portion of CEDAW advocacy by women’s rights organisations across the world involves calls for increases in punishment — whether to demand longer sentences or to address and expand definitions of ‘crime’. Part of the reason these calls gain traction is that the limited responsiveness of the state to requests for preventative measures encourages the development of a binary where the only option to counter passivity is the seemingly ‘active’ nature of punishment. Coming down strongly on acts of gender-based violence is an easy way for a state to appear progressive and gain political goodwill. This approach by the state also further reifies the conceptualisation of crime and violence as inevitable outcomes of an innate pathology instead of being social and structural constructs.

Advocacy goals that do not foreground punitive measures and instead focus on long-term systemic overhaul receive less attention from the state because of the deep changes they require. Implementing meaningful shifts in a country’s healthcare, education, workforce, economic system, and social structures — that try to address root causes behind gender inequality, gender-based violence and other forms of discrimination, inequality and rights violations — requires a reevaluation and reorganising of priorities. This includess, for example, the reallocation of funds away from military spending, making a commitment to tax justice, creating policies or processes that strengthen and support economic independence, developing access to protection measures, and building all forms of literacy. These are addressed far less often because that would need a clear-eyed acknowledgment of factors such as the imperial drives that propel ballooning national defence budgets and the influence of capitalist profiteering by the 1% in political decision-making.

I acknowledge that there are arguments to be made against a reformist position, against working within the system, if we believe that the inherent self-interest of states will always prevent them from making the substantial changes needed towards ending GBV. But those of us who are part of human rights spaces, especially ones with direct involvement in treaty body systems, must reflect on our positionality in order to understand where our energies are most usefully deployed. In the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic when CEDAW sessions were postponed, IWRAW AP was contacted by numerous organisations with myriad areas of focus about how difficult it was to get their governments to respond to them without the political leverage afforded by treaty body engagement. In this way, it is imperative to recognise the role that those spaces and accountability mechanisms continue to play in our movements and collective advocacy. Furthermore, as anti-rights and anti-gender actors co-opt multilateral spaces, driven by punitive mindsets directed towards marginalised groups and using the language of justice to push for policies and programmes predicated on the stripping and restriction of rights, it is imperative that feminists build a cohesive front to combat these dangerous demands and hold the line to prevent regression.

If we choose to participate in the treaty body space, what is within our control is the critical eye that we bring to the advocacy asks being made. It necessitates both confronting the existence of feminist faultlines and affirming our willingness to occupy and contend with points of divergence, allowing ourselves to imagine that these moments hold the potential for path-breaking steps forward. To that end, I believe that the work of ending GBV cannot forge ahead without recognising the many harms of incarceration. It confers impunity onto those with the power to define and designate criminality, facilitates the unchecked proliferation of police brutality, reproduces violence and trauma through reporting and judicial processes, and enables a lack of imagination in the law to take into account structural inequalities. Thus, when confronted with calls for legislative changes that create more crime and criminals without making substantive difference, it is on us to pause and question the function of these calls. People experiencing GBV deserve protection and safety but their well-being cannot be considered only after the harm has been done, if it can even be said that the carceral system factors in their well-being at all. 

If we accept a major driver of GBV to be material paucity, such as lack of access to healthcare, deprivation of housing and shelter, gatekeeping of education, and denial of the right to work, how do we shift from a reactive response that sees more and longer prison sentences as a solution to a comprehensive understanding of the interlinked systems that create the conditions for people to be trapped in cycles of violence and abuse? It is our responsibility to give thorough and careful thought to how certain advocacy strategies result in creating neat boxes of ‘perpetrators’ vs ‘victims’ that absolve the state of its failures.