When was the last time you got excited about architecture? For me, just being in the Finland Hall at the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. this morning was, as always, a delight. But as lovely as the space is, and as hospitable as the Finnish Embassy was in hosting this morning’s event, the real take-away for me was the unquestionable importance of the topic: intimate partner violence.
This morning’s event was all about the release of a new report Whose Justice, Whose Alternative? by the International Center for Research on Women, together with two other organizations (Center for Domestic Violence Prevention from Uganda, and Beyond Borders from Washington, DC). This report has the sub-title “Locating Women’s Voice and Agency in Alternative Dispute Resolution Responses to Intimate Partner Violence”, and it opens with the statement:
Intimate partner violence against women is a complex, enormously prevalent crime with devastating effects on women’s safety, health, and well being. With one out of three women worldwide experiencing this violence, its magnitude presents complex challenges to justice systems when survivors of violence seek to formally prosecute perpetrators…
As is often the case in Washington, the event featured a truly outstanding panel of three experts and an excellent moderator, who together did an exemplary job of bringing the many realities of the above statement to light – as challenging as such information is to hear. We were told how women around the world who have been victimized by intimate partner violence and who seek justice through formal rule-of-law mechanisms (civil or criminal) or through alternative dispute mechanisms (reconciliation, mediation, arbitration, customary law, etc.) routinely encounter difficulties that are legion, as patriarchal norms conspire to obstruct, constrain, shame, or coerce women away from their quests for justice and fairness. Panelists explained in considerable detail the various modalities and processes available, and how they each fare under local norms and cultural pressures. While some progress was noted, overall the picture that emerges is that in much of the world women’s agency and voice continue to be muted, and their efforts at achieving justice or even preventing such violence are often confounded or made impossible.
To my surprise, one concept was absent throughout the discussion (and only warrants a single mention in the document): human dignity. The panelists only just touched upon the notion that many existing social attitudes and values must change so that men and women will be treated with equal respect and dignity , despite what I would argue to be the essential need to foster this concept as a universal value and societal building block among all men and all women. Isn’t the recognition of universal human dignity a prerequisite to preventing intimate partner violence and other forms of gender based violence?
But that isn’t what this blog is about.
In my work life and in much of my social world, I surround myself with people who are passionately focused on and committed to the human dignity and social inclusion of all persons, including sexual minorities (lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons). These people are either LGBTQI-identified themselves, or are committed allies who care deeply. People in this space feel the urgency of the plight of sexual minorities around the world, and have been exposed to many, many compelling narratives of violence directed at this community – including in this context lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender women (LBT). Such violence is often grisly and hateful, extreme or even lethal, and – as with straight or cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) women – the perpetrators frequently include intimate partners. And given my placement within an energized internationally-focused LGBTQI “community of concern”, I attended this morning’s event with the full expectation that violence against sexual minorities would be an important topic.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The organizers of the panel made sure of that. Human rights specialist Fanny Gómez-Lugo from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was one of the three panelists, and she did an outstanding job describing to the audience how “invisible” LBT women are in most research on and advocacy against intimate partner violence… and how dire their circumstances are around the world.
But then again, I was disappointed.
Not a single other person on the panel or in the audience mentioned sexual minorities. It isn’t even mentioned in the report – the focus of today’s event. Ms. Gómez-Lugo is right – the topic is invisible. Among the many people in attendance (almost entirely limited to women, it is sad to note in this day and age), no one directed a single question during Q&A to Fanny. I was stunned to silence myself to note the evident absence of concern among those present to such a vexing topic.
Vexing? What data we have (and it is thin – this clearly hasn’t been funded as a research priority) indicate in one study that 35.4 percent of women living with a same-sex partner have experienced intimate-partner physical violence in their lifetimes, compared to just 20.4 percent for women in only opposite-sex relationships. In another study, transgender women had an incidence rate of 34.6 percent over a lifetime. These are limited results from a few studies, but they ought to be attracting attention. Or maybe not?
As I listened this morning, I was struck by the realization that all of the legal and alternative dispute mechanisms that the other panelists and the report described in great detail are largely irrelevant to addressing intimate partner violence directed at LBT persons. Rule of law systems and personnel (the police, the judiciary, lawyers and paralegals) in most countries, and quite likely also most practitioners of alternative dispute resolution techniques (arbitrators, mediators, and counselors) are hardly immune from the widespread toxicity of homophobic and transphobic attitudes. As Ms. Gómez-Lugo pointed out, in the Latin America and Caribbean region, the 2nd most prevalent source of violence against transgender women (after only homicides) is the police. We have a problem here!
From my perspective, there is incontrovertible evidence that deeply entrenched and widespread bias, discrimination, and targeting is directed against LGBTQI persons around the world, frequently by intimate partners in one of the very few places where this population has a reasonable expectation to feel safe – the home. This reality renders almost pointless any discussion on alternative mechanisms to achieve justice in much of the world – for them. The awkward fact of the existence of one excluded group alone would have made for a very important discussion topic and point of concern this morning and in the report, I would have thought. Ms. Gómez-Lugo certainly gave it her best effort to kindle such a dialogue.
Do I have any justification to expect widespread sensitivity, much less solidarity and support, regarding intimate partner violence directed at those who are “different” because of their sexual orientation or gender identity? OK – I’m definitely reading far too much out of the non-responsiveness of just one sample audience (who may have been distracted by the glorious architecture, after all) – but where do I take the measure of popular concern (among the majority) regarding the plight of LGBTQI persons who are being victimized by their domestic partners (a tiny minority population)?
One thing I am certain of… those LBT women who have been victimized need that support.