Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Paradox of Human Rights: Maintaining Violence against Women?


Sophia Kjeldbjerg


Time to read

4 Minutes

The Problem with Human Rights 

Dr Silvana Tapia Tapia, a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, regularly visits the Mujeres de Frente in Quito, Ecuador. These women distance themselves from the neoliberal, Western, abstract language of human rights, and promote an alternative understanding of rights as human dignity and the fulfilment of material needs. Mujeres de Frente leads numerous community initiatives in Quito, such as childcare facilities, a foodbank, a communal saving fund to promote independent businesses, and a political women’s school that has provided education for many of its members. These initiatives highlight the primordial importance of fulfilling material needs if human rights are to be truly effective, rather than perpetuating existing axes of oppression.   

The criminalisation of a phenomenon like violence against women by international human rights bodies is limited due to its abstract nature. Mujeres de Frente is sceptical of human rights tools in grassroots justice campaigning due to the lived experiences of many of their members. They can corrupt radical social movements that do not feed into the middle-class prototype providing justice access for those with sufficient material resources to access the minimum standard for equality. Dr Tapia Tapia uses the following illustration to elaborate. Many women in Ecuador become domestic workers and endure sexual abuse by their employers. Human rights discourse implies that this crime can be rectified through criminal justice ‘due process’. But how is a female domestic worker materially equal to the middle-class male employer, and as such equal by the international human rights standard? Without the necessary material resources to procure legal advice and representation, she most likely will not access justice. Therefore, ‘due process’ allows the advocates of human rights to claim neutrality and equality, but disguises racialised, classed, and gendered hierarchies of oppression. Human rights become a trap, an often futile emotional and material drain on resources that serves elite interests. The so-called neutrality absolves both elites and states of responsibility for the material inequalities contributing to human rights violations in the first place. 

The framing of human rights as a global concern is a dominant, neo-colonial, liberal interpretation of reality, a hegemonic ontology. It is rooted in Western dualisms, whereby some people are categorised separately from the ‘normal’ (read: elites) as deviants. They are marginalised and dehumanised, and ontologies or knowledge that seek to critique this phenomenon, like indigenous conceptions of non-carceral approaches to justice, are sidelined. This has led to the universalisation and normalisation of prison as inseparable from justice. The Western, neo-liberal human rights framework is interlinked with carceralism and thereby sustains violence against women. In Ecuador, the infiltration of transnational drug organisations and gangs has caused more than 600 deaths since 2021 and ensnared many women in micro-drug dealing. These women would have been classed as consumers for the tiny amount they possessed, and with proper legal representation, they likely would have been acquitted. Instead, they are sentenced to prison. The hegemonic human rights framework is thus fundamentally penal. 

Strategic Uses of Human Rights 

Organisations such as Sociedad Vivienda strategically employ the human rights language because it is the neo-liberal, dominant language of equality. Operating in a heavily militarised neighbourhood, Sociedad Vivienda demands land titles for irregular dwellings from the state. They are framing housing as a key human right, using the human rights language so the state can understand, to increase the residents’ material resources. This strategy challenges the state’s and elites’ monopolisation of resources, and the abstract language of human rights, by centring it in lived experiences. 

Besides organisations like Sociedad Vivienda using the language of human rights to demand material rights,  its use in strategies such as demanding good prison conditions legitimises carceral punishment in itself. Prison reforms assume that prison is a necessary justice approach. For example, la Fundacion Dignidad uses human rights litigation to provide medical attention for gravely ill inmates. Additionally, Ecuador is facing an unprecedented human rights crisis, with increasing prison violence, kidnappings, and killings. In the aftermath of the carceral massacre in Ecuador, human rights tools were used to demand constitutional action reparation for the state’s harsh treatment of the families affected by the carceral massacre and torture practices. This is desirable but inherently supports the reliance on imprisonment. It is, however, often the only path that intersectionally disadvantaged people can take to demand justice, due to the dominance of the human rights framework. 

The Importance of Anti-Carceral Feminism for Meaningful Justice

Dr Tapia Tapia therefore argues for anti-colonial feminist agendas to engage with penal abolition. A strategic non-carceral approach to human rights rejects penality and centres the materiality of life in its discourse. It fights the monopolisation of resources through a socio-economic approach. Mujeres de Frente attributes the moral foundation of human rights to white privilege, and a blindness to racism and neo-colonial racialised hierarchies of oppression. Human rights tools shift the attention away from the everydayness of experiences of violence against women. They collaborate with other regional women’s collectives to show that violence affects women outside and around the prison, as well as the traumatising carceral practices for those on the inside of the prison. In Ecuador, women are often forced to pay a carceral tax to gangs and corrupt prison officials to provide those inside with minimum resources. This unpaid labour disproportionality affects women. This pattern is reflected around the world. In her study of female relatives of inmates in California, Comfort (2003) highlights the significant drain on resources, time, and psychological stability, and the emotional labour, that women face as main supporters of inmates. This echoes theories of secondary victimisation, as women who for example support loved ones in prison are victimised by the carceral sentencing of the offender, and the labour they employ to support them. This drains resources that they could have used for self-development and social ascension and entrenches gender inequalities. 

Anti-carceral feminism also ultimately provides men with access to justice. Dr Tapia Tapia explains that Mujeres de Frente is open to its female members bringing their male partners or relatives who may be their domestic abusers at the same time, to community initiatives. Inviting male offenders to the female-led group is a strategy to initiate the reversal of the patriarchal socialisation that makes many men view women as subordinate. Entering Mujeres de Frente, where women are in charge, helping in the cooking and childcare initiatives, and attending talks in the feminist political school, challenges the traditional, patriarchal gender roles that promote violence against women. This view echoes indigenous approaches to restorative justice, which considers the stigmatisation and exclusion of offenders to be counter-productive for the victims, offenders, and the community as a whole. Mujeres de Frente thus embodies the anti-carceral feminist perspective, by rejecting the inefficient, discriminating, neo-liberal, abstract human rights framework, and promoting grassroots approaches to community justice and socio-economic development.

Links & references




Comfort, M. L. (2003). In The Tube At San Quentin: The “Secondary Prisonization” of Women Visiting Inmates. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32(1), 77-107. https://doi-org.ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/10.1177/0891241602238939


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

S. Kjeldbjerg. (2023) The Paradox of Human Rights: Maintaining Violence against Women? . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/centre-criminology-blog/blog-post/2023/11/paradox-human-rights-maintaining-violence-against-women. Accessed on: 08/12/2023