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Liberating Justice

The silence has been broken! Women’s groups to end violence against women have mushroomed around the globe. Laws expressing public will that this violence be dealt with seriously are in place most everywhere.

But a decade into the 21st century, women’s right to justice remains out of reach. Here in the U.S. where modern laws promise full remedy for these crimes, women are still met by a justice system that more often than not delivers impunity and disregard.

A major study* this year of Dept. of Justice rape data finds that, contrary to popular belief, conviction rates for rape in the U.S. haven’t improved since the 1970's. According to the study, even today, in only roughly 2% of rapes reported to police, will a rapist go to jail.

And a meta-analysis this year by a Univ. of Michigan team** finds that only 1 out of 6 domestic violence cases reported to police results in conviction.

The whole effort to end violence against women is badly snagged on the failures and denial of justice.

Justice denied is especially dangerous for women. It defeats the victim and emboldens the perpetrator. Yet even when justice is wrongfully denied, there is no codified right to justice for women. There is no legal remedy to which women can appeal. No matter how much evidence that the crime occurred, access to justice is wholly dependent on the arbitrary whims and discretion of individual police and prosecutors.

Establishing legal remedies and effective checks on justice systems' denial of justice to women must be a priority goal for ending violence against women.

* Lonsway, K.A. & Archambault, J. (2009). The Widening Justice Gap for Sexual Assault: Future directions for research and reform. Manuscript in press, Journal of Violence Against Women.

** Garner, J. Prosecution and Conviction Rates for Intimate Partner Violence. Criminal Justice Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, 44-79 (2009).

But What is Justice?

Most any kid who has wanted to stay up past their bed time can tell you the meaning of freedom. But even learned adults stammer over the meaning of justice.
Still, across the most diverse cultures, and in the most varied justice systems, the elements strived for in the quest for justice are remarkably consistent and universal.

They are:

  • Truth Finding and Truth Telling
  • Acknowledgment by Others of the Violation
  • Compassion
  • Protection for the Victim and Community
  • Perpetrator Accountability
  • Restitution
  • Vindication

Do Women Really Need Justice?

In 1873, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley first formally articulated the ‘separate sphere ideology’ which rationalized locking women in a legal “class by herself”, a legal cage which effectively excluded women from a right to equal protection of the law for more than a century. “...Divine ordinance,” wrote Bradley, “As well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.” Even today many cling to the belief that the only thing women really need to remedy the brutality against her is counseling, a restraining order, and more counseling. Women's need for justice is still so easily overlooked.

It wasn’t until this last generation that some remarkable women were able to even begin dismantling the legal and social structures that barred women from justice. Preeminent among them, of course, is now Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Ginsberg dedicated much of her early legal career, case by case, for the first time in U.S.history, laying a legal foundation for women’s continuing struggle for rights to equality and justice.

And in 1991, in the social sciences, Judith Herman, Harvard professor of psychiatry, published a book titled, “Trauma and Recovery”, an intellectual tour de force that remains a cornerstone in its field today. Among the many accomplishments of her book, Herman pulled justice into the field of psychology and demonstrated the necessity of justice for healing in traumas of oppression and powerlessness. Perhaps most important for women, Herman dealt with the traumas of domestic abuse as one and the same as traumas of political terror. In short, Herman profoundly legitimized women’s cry for justice.

Then came this interesting study in 2003 by biologist, Sarah Brosnan. Brosnan reached deep into our gene pool and was the first to find what subsequent research is confirming. The human need for fairness and justice is likely rooted deep in biology, and a necessity for fostering cooperation among social beings.

In that first simple experiment which opened the field, Brosnan took pairs of monkeys trained to a task and rewarded them with either cucumbers or the much preferred grapes. All was fine when both monkeys of a pair received the same reward, whichever it was. But when one monkey received grapes and the other got the cucumber, all hell broke loose. The slighted monkeys would burst into outrage and protest. They wouldn’t eat the reward. They hurled food at the tester, and refused further testing. A strategy we may yet have to consider.

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Copyright © Marie De Santis,
Women's Justice Center,

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