Jane K. Cowan
Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justiceby Sally Engle Merry
Human rights law and the legal protection of women from violence are still fairly new concepts. As a result, substantial discrepancies exist between what is decided in the halls of the United Nations and what women experience on a daily basis in their communities. Human Rights and Gender Violence is an ambitious study that investigates the tensions between/i>… See more details below
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Human rights law and the legal protection of women from violence are still fairly new concepts. As a result, substantial discrepancies exist between what is decided in the halls of the United Nations and what women experience on a daily basis in their communities. Human Rights and Gender Violence is an ambitious study that investigates the tensions between global law and local justice.
As an observer of UN diplomatic negotiations as well as the workings of grassroots feminist organizations in several countries, Sally Engle Merry offers an insider's perspective on how human rights law holds authorities accountable for the protection of citizens even while reinforcing and expanding state power. Providing legal and anthropological perspectives, Merry contends that human rights law must be framed in local terms to be accepted and effective in altering existing social hierarchies. Gender violence in particular, she argues, is rooted in deep cultural and religious beliefs, so change is often vehemently resisted by the communities perpetrating the acts of aggression.
A much-needed exploration of how local cultures appropriate and enact international human rights law, this book will be of enormous value to students of gender studies and anthropology alike.
Angelita D. Reyes
Penny Van Esterik
Elizabeth Heger Boyle
“A great contribution to our understanding of the interaction of international human rights norms and local culture. Sally Engle Merry succeeds in showing the complexity of this relationship through a solid grounding in a great deal of field research.”
“In this fascinating and important book, Sally Engle Merry provides an extraordinary account of the complex articulations of bureaucracy, policy, and local culture around the issue of violence against women. Human Rights and Gender Violence makes a convincing argument for taking seriously the notion of local cultures and provides a model for how context, translation, values, and the particulars of social and institutional life can be given consideration.”Donald Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz
"Merry provides an excellent model of how to conduct multi-sited fieldwork in a deterritorialized world, demonstrating how ethnography permits engagement with the fragments of a larger global system. . . . Wonderfully clear and engaging writing."
"This excellent text offers an orientation and a starting-point for more explorations of the contradictory possibilities and limits of the human rights system."
"A book that should be read by every sociologist interested in globalization, international law, or human rights."
"This is an important book that should receive extensive attention. . . . [It] makes major contributions not simply to studies of human rights and gender violence, but also to our knowledge of law, globalization, culture, and power in a world where transcultural ideas have an important capacity to promote change, but only through the processes by which they are mobilized, translated, and appropriated."
"Merry does an invaluable service by marrying a broad methodological prescription for the analysis of human rights issues to a multi-layered discussion of diverse, compelling cases. Indeed, Merry's lucid writing, diverse tiers of analysis and insightful case studies ensure that this book is appropriate for both scholars and undergraduates with even a passing interest in human rights, ethnography or contemporary women's activism. In the end, the book provides a forcefull call to enlist the nuanced tools of cultural anthropologists and others familiar with non-western law and politics in the service of a spirited defense of the continued political vitality and impact of universal rights law."
"A significant contribution to the study of gender-oriented violence in the context of global north and global south dialogues for the advancement of universal human rights."
"A valuable contribution to our thinking about international human rights, both because it examines in empirical detail the interaction between the transnational culture of human rights and alternative cultural discourses in specific contexts and because it acts as a corrective to oversimplified assumptions about the meaning of international human rights and the meaning of culture."
Read an Excerpt
Human Rights and Gender Violence
Translating International Law Into Local Justice
By Sally Engle Merry
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Culture and Transnationalism
The transnational circulation of people and ideas is transforming the world we live in, but grasping its full complexity is extraordinarily difficult. To do so, it is essential to focus on specific places where transnational flows are happening. The international human rights movement against violence to women provides a valuable site for understanding how new categories of meaning emerge and are applied to social practices around the world. These meanings are often enthusiastically appropriated by regional, national, and local social movements and used to criticize everyday practices of violence. In order for human rights ideas to be effective, however, they need to be translated into local terms and situated within local contexts of power and meaning. They need, in other words, to be remade in the vernacular. How does this happen? Do people in local communities reframe human rights ideas to fit into their system of cultural meanings? Do they resist ideas that seem unfamiliar? Examining this process is crucial to understanding the way human rights act in the contemporary world.
Remaking human rights in the vernacular is difficult. Local communities often conceive of social justice in quite different terms from human rights activists. They generally lack knowledge of relevant documents and provisions of the human rights system. Global human rights reformers, on the other hand, are typically rooted in a transnational legal culture remote from the myriad local social situations in which human rights are violated. Nevertheless, global human rights law has become an important resource for local social movements. This book explores how global law is translated into the vernacular, highlighting the role of activists who serve as intermediaries between different sets of cultural understandings of gender, violence, and justice.
Gender violence provides an ideal issue for examining this process. As a human rights violation, gender violence is a relative newcomer, but since the 1990s it has become the centerpiece of women's human rights. Strenuous activism by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) along with a series of major world conferences on women in the 1980s and 1990s defined violence against women as a human rights violation. But establishing women's rights as human rights is still an uphill struggle. Because violence against women refers to bodily injury as do other human rights violations such as torture, it is a relatively straightforward violation. Like torture, it is about injury, pain, and death. But in many parts of the world it appears to be an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of human rights. Moreover, because gender violence is deeply embedded in systems of kinship, religion, warfare, and nationalism, its prevention requires major social changes in communities, families, and nations. Powerful local groups often resist these changes.
The relevance of human rights for the campaign against violence toward women has taken on new importance as human rights have become the major global approach to social justice. Since the 1980s, human rights concepts have gained increasing international credibility and support at the same time as a growing body of treaties and resolutions have strengthened their international legal basis. The global human rights system is now deeply transnational, no longer rooted exclusively in the West. It takes place in global settings with representatives from nations and NGOs around the world. Activists from many countries enthusiastically adopt this language and translate it for grassroots people. Vulnerable people take up human rights ideas in a wide variety of local contexts because they offer hope to subordinated groups. An Indo-Fijian lawyer told me, for example, that she had experienced racism and discrimination in Fiji and in New Zealand and only the international human rights system gave her the tools and consciousness to fight back. In the New Territories of Hong Kong, women were denied the right to inherit property under a law passed by the British colonial government and legitimated as ancient Chinese custom. The international human rights language of women's rights and sex discrimination proved critical to overturning this legislation.
Yet the idea that everyday violence against women is a human rights violation has not been easy to establish, nor has it moved readily from transnational to local settings. There are fissures between the global settings where human rights ideas are codified into documents and the local communities where the subjects of these rights live and work. Human rights ideas, embedded in cultural assumptions about the nature of the person, the community, and the state, do not translate easily from one setting to another. If human rights ideas are to have an impact, they need to become part of the consciousness of ordinary people around the world. Considerable research on law and everyday social life shows that law's power to shape society depends not on punishment alone but on becoming embedded in everyday social practices, shaping the rules people carry in their heads (e.g., Merry 1990; Sarat and Kearns 1993; Ewick and Silbey 1998). Yet, there is a great distance between the global sites where these ideas are formulated and the specific situations in which they are deployed. We know relatively little about how individuals in various social and cultural contexts come to see themselves in terms of human rights.
Nor do ideas and approaches move readily the other way, from local to global settings. Global sites are a bricolage of issues and ideas brought to the table by national actors. But transnational actors, and even some national elites, are often uninterested in local social practices or too busy to understand them in their complicated contexts. Discussions in transnational settings rarely deal with local situations in context. There is an inevitable tension between general principles and particular situations. Transnational reformers must adhere to a set of standards that apply to all societies if they are to gain legitimacy. Moreover, they have neither the time nor the desire to tailor these standards to the particularities of each individual country, ethnic group, or regional situation. National and local actors often feel frustrated at the lack of attention to their individual situations.
The division between transnational elites and local actors is based less on culture or tradition than on tensions between a transnational community that envisions a unified modernity and national and local actors for whom particular histories and contexts are important. Intermediaries such as NGO and social movement activists play a critical role in interpreting the cultural world of transnational modernity for local claimants. They appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourses into the vernacular. At the same time, they take local stories and frame them in national and international human rights language. Activists often participate in two cultural spheres at the same time, translating between them with a kind of double consciousness.
This book examines the interface between global and local activism, showing how ideas about violence against women as a human rights violation are produced in global conferences in New York and Geneva and appropriated in local community centers in Hawai'i, Delhi, Beijing, Fiji, and Hong Kong. It shows the power of human rights ideas for transnational and local social movements and their contribution to gradually rethinking gender inequality around the world. It explains how human rights create a political space for reform using a language legitimated by a global consensus on standards. But this political space comes with a price. Human rights promote ideas of individual autonomy, equality, choice, and secularism even when these ideas differ from prevailing cultural norms and practices. Human rights ideas displace alternative visions of social justice that are less individualistic and more focused on communities and responsibilities, possibly contributing to the cultural homogenization of local communities. The localization of human rights is part of the vastly unequal global distribution of power and resources that channels how ideas develop in global settings and are picked up or rejected in local places.
I thought about these questions as I sat in the grand conference room of the United Nations in New York listening to the delegation from Fiji present its first report to the committee monitoring the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW Government and NGO representatives had flown halfway around the world for this hearing. It was January 2002 and they found it chilly. As the government delegation presented its report to the CEDAW monitoring committee, made up of 23 experts on gender issues from around the world, some tension developed over a Fijian practice called bulubulu, a traditional village custom for reconciling differences. The conflict illustrated for me the challenges of communicating across the fault line separating the transnational human rights community from local and national spaces. The Fiji country report noted that bulubulu was being used to take rape cases out of court. The committee asked the government delegation when they were going to eliminate this custom. The government minister told me later that bulubulu was essential to Fijian village life and could not be given up. At first I was startled by this defense of bulubulu, but after reading the report again and doing some research in Fiji, I realized that the concern expressed in the report was not about the custom itself but about how its use undermined the legal process. The problem suddenly seemed more complicated than just eliminating the custom. Why did the experts assume that the custom itself was the problem rather than its application to court cases? And why did they focus on culture and religion rather than economic or political conditions that might affect the way the custom functions?
After watching many CEDAW hearings, I decided that the experts concluded that the custom was the problem because they see "customs" as harmful practices rooted in traditional culture. The experts do not have the time to investigate when and how customs such as bulubulu are better able to protect women from rape than the courts or how these customs intersect with state legal systems in new ways. Their task is to apply the law of the Convention. There is a general assumption that problems such as violence against women are the responsibility of the state and that local culture is an excuse for noncompliance. The divide between transnational, national, and local activists is exacerbated by the various ways culture is defined.
There are several conundrums in applying human rights to local places. First, human rights law is committed to setting universal standards using legal rationality, yet this stance impedes adapting those standards to the particulars of local context. This perspective explains why local conditions often seem irrelevant to global debates. Second, human rights ideas are more readily adopted if they are packaged in familiar terms, but they are more transformative if they challenge existing assumptions about power and relationships. Activists who use human rights for local social movements face a paradox. Rights need to be presented in local cultural terms in order to be persuasive, but they must challenge existing relations of power in order to be effective. Third, to have local impact, human rights ideas need to be framed in terms of local values and images, but in order to receive funding, a wider audience, and international legitimacy, they have to be framed in terms of transnational rights principles. Fourth, to promote individual rights-consciousness, institutions have to implement rights effectively. However, if there is little rights consciousness, there will be less pressure on institutions to take rights seriously.
Fifth, the human rights system challenges states' authority over their citizens at the same time as it reinforces states' power. In some ways, the emergence of the human rights system has weakened state sovereignty. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, states are no longer trusted by the international community to govern their own citizens without international oversight. On the other hand, the focus of much human rights activism is the state. Sometimes the state is the human rights violator, when it subjects its citizens to torture or extrajudicial killings, for example. Ironically it is also the agent for carrying out human rights reforms in many cases. Social and economic rights, such as the right to development or the right to adequate housing, require state action, as does the provision of many civil and political rights. Campaigns against sex trafficking encourage increasing policing of borders and control of immigration. Thus, human rights activism ends up demanding more state regulation and services.
The first part of this book examines UN deliberations and the way the texts of human rights law are formed. It describes how a global set of cultural understandings about gender, violence, and the family emerge from major world conferences, UN Commission meetings, special inquiry procedures, and the work of treaty bodies that supervise human rights conventions. The second part explores the extent to which this international discourse is appropriated in a variety of national contexts. The countries I examine differ enormously in size and in many other features. All participate in the UN system in some way; all but the United States have ratified CEDAW; and all have local feminist movements demanding change. But differences in history, colonial experience, NGO activism, governmental structure, and resources have an enormous impact on how international ideas and regulations are adopted. I examine how programs and laws dealing with violence against women are transplanted from one society to another and how international documents concerning violence against women are localized. This is a comparative study of a transnational movement and its legal basis rather than an in-depth examination of a single country. There are good ethnographic studies of the local adoption of global human rights (e.g., Speed and Collier 2000; Goodale 2002; Tate 2005); here I trace the links between global production and local appropriation. It examines how human rights law works in practice.
Theorizing the Global-Local Interface
The global-local divide is often conceptualized as the opposition between rights and culture, or even civilization and culture. Those who resist human rights often claim to be defending culture. For example, male lineage heads in the rural New Territories of Hong Kong claimed that giving women rights to inherit land would destroy the social fabric. Fijian politicians worried that restricting the use of bulubulu might undermine Fijian culture. However, as considerable work within anthropology and sociology has demonstrated, these arguments depend on a very narrow understanding of culture and the political misuse of this concept (see especially Wilson 1996; Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson 2001: 6-7; An-Na'im and Hammond 2002: 13-14). Amartya Sen provides an eloquent critique of this notion of culture in his advocacy of a human rights approach to development (1999: 240-46). As Cowan, Dembour, and Wilson point out, a more flexible and contested model of culture provides a better way of understanding the practice of human rights both in global sites such as international meetings and local sites where these ideas are picked up and used by social movements and nongovernmental organizations (2001: 13-14).
Even as anthropologists and others have repudiated the idea of culture as a consensual, interconnected system of beliefs and values, the idea has taken on new life in the public sphere, particularly with reference to the global South. For example, in 2002, I was interviewed by a local radio station about an incident in Pakistan that resulted in the gang rape of a young woman, an assault apparently authorized by a local tribal council. The interviewer, who was looking for someone to speak on the radio show, wanted to know if I was willing to defend the council's actions. I explained that I considered this an inexcusable act, that many Pakistani women's rights and human rights groups and the Pakistani press had condemned the rape, and that it was connected to local political struggles. The woman was of a subordinate group in the village and attacked by members of the dominant landowning group. I said it should not be seen as an expression of Pakistani "culture." Indeed, it was the local imam, an Islamic religious leader, who talked about the incident in his Friday sermon and made it known to the world, condemning the actions as unfitting for a panchayat (tribal council) and for Islam.
Excerpted from Human Rights and Gender Violence by Sally Engle Merry. Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author
Sally Engle Merry is professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Law and Society at New York University. She is the author of several books, including Colonizing Hawai‘i: The Cultural Process of Law and Getting Justice and Getting Even, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.
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