I have been involved in legal and systemic reform about violence against women since 1992. That was before we had a Violence Against Women Act in the U.S., and before the United Nations formally stated that violence against women is a human rights issue. The depth and breadth of violence against women globally is jaw dropping. We have laws all over the world that prohibit violence against women, but there is little expertise to enforce them.
There are deep challenges in this work. Gloria Steinem said that when there are dramatic gains for those who have been marginalized and vulnerable, and those groups of people start to raise their voices and demand their rights, people who have traditionally been in power get dangerous in their resistance.
I wanted to create an organization that draws on knowledge and expertise on issues of legal and systemic reform. Global Rights for Women (GRW) builds partnerships around the world that advance laws, values, and practices to create communities where women and girls live free from violence.
We recently completed an entire curriculum for training prosecutors in Southeast Asia. We bring in prosecutors and experts to help us create curriculum and consult with stakeholders in the region to make sure it is relevant.
Domestic violence and sexual assault are the most common form of violence around the world. There is very little accountability for sexual and domestic violence offenders.
Minneapolis is a massive metropolitan area that has diverse populations. It has to be adaptable and open for new solutions. We now have a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to work with the Minneapolis police.
There are very few arrests of domestic violence offenders. Impunity is the norm, not the exception. The goal is to reform our police response to ensure victims’ access to safety and justice.
I was talking to police in another part of the world, and what they see are increasingly brutal and severe kinds of assaults — indicating to them that an abuser feels they can act that way with impunity. This is exacerbated by women’s isolation during Covid-19. Child marriage has been on the rise. Women and girls are locked in their homes. In Southeast Asia, shelter workers were not labeled essential services workers [during the pandemic], so the shelters closed. The danger of isolation of women and girls in their homes is generally not widely understood.
Think of the socialization that men and boys go through to identify their masculinity with power and control. That has gone awry. If you identify your masculinity with power and feel like you are not as valuable in your identity without that, then that is going to lead to the kind of abuse we see people feel entitled to act out. Authoritarian leaders, like Donald Trump and other leaders of large countries — Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Narendra Modi (India) — embolden people.
For example, U.S. embassies were often supporting our work all over the world, focused on police reform, violence against women, training prosecutors — and that went away when the messaging from the U.S. changed. Human rights activists like GRW had previously contributed to setting the tone for a lot of viewpoints and approaches around the world.
We have a direct service program called Pathways to Family Peace. We are working with men who have been convicted of domestic assault. Our program is aimed at having them take responsibility for violent behavior. Our work begins with a listening focus group with victim survivors. That is both a healing approach and necessary to considering any reform.
When we first started this work back in the 1970s, it was all about victims leading the way, so their voices were at the forefront. As we have become, at least in this country, more institutionalized, I think sometimes we have been leaving that important part of the process out.
In the Minnesota legislature the last couple of years, there has been a lot of attention paid to reforming our sexual assault laws. Those kinds of victories and steps are what I take heart in. Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Violence Free Minnesota, and others did a fabulous job at the legislature. I encourage people to be involved, knowing what our legislators are considering and what obstacles might be occurring at the state and federal levels.
Survivors tell us we need a better systemic response to violence against women. Their needs should be front and center, and we need to be right there with them.
Cheryl Thomas (she/her) is the founding director of the Minneapolis-based Global Rights for Women, created in 1993. She co-chaired a team that drafted a United Nations Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women. She was recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of “150 Women Who Shake the World.”