By Phoebe Lytle

This post is part of our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence series.

“Other cultures’ women-hating practices can obscure the women-hating practices woven into our own cultures” -Uma Narayan

As a citizen of a nation that’s infamous for policing other countries’ human rights abuses, I rarely examine the abuses enabled by the discriminatory structures of the United States criminal justice system. So when I was asked to compile a video playlist for WITNESS’s participation in the global campaign 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I began to think about the lack of introspection amongst Western voices critical of gender-based violence. You can watch the full playlist, and read my insights below.

We often consider gender-based violence to be a scourge that lives primarily abroad. But these videos reveal some of the structures at work in normalizing misogyny in American homes and in the American public sphere. They highlight the failure of judicial systems in the U.S. to uphold legal obligations to sufficiently address cases of sexual violence.


Domestic Violence and Law Enforcement

When Jessica Lenahan frantically called law enforcement to report that her husband had kidnapped their children in violation of his restraining order, she was belittled and dismissed as “ridiculous.” The police took no serious action until eight hours later, when the husband arrived at the police station and initiated a fatal gun battle. When police searched his car, they found the bodies of the couple’s three daughters. The legal system had failed Lenahan once, and it failed her again when the Supreme Court ruled that the city had no constitutional obligation to enforce the restraining order. Lenahan has since dedicated herself to righting the social and institutional wrongs that led to the deaths of her three children.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights later examined the case, and issued a ruling against the US government. It determined that the state violated the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, which provides protection against gender discrimination and equal protection before the law. It also identified violations of Lenahan’s daughters’ right to life and Lenahan’s right to judicial protection.


Native American Women and the Violence Against Women Act

Native American and Alaskan native women face an even more extreme atmosphere of indifference and inaction, continuing a long legacy of human rights abuses against indigenous populations. One in three Native American women experience rape or a rape attempt, a rate over twice as high as other American women. 86% of reported rapes were perpetrated by non-Native men, and issues of jurisdiction and the complexities of the relationship between U.S. and tribal governments place those perpetrators in a system supportive of impunity.

The debate on Native American women’s legal protections has focused in recent months on whether they should be included under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a landmark 1994 law addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. After years of uncontroversial extensions, the act expired in 2011. The act’s current reauthorization provisions, passed in the Senate, extend protections to LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants, and Native Americans, and allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Native perpetrators. The act’s reauthorization, inclusive of the provisions, continues to be blocked by House Republicans.


Sexual Assault in the Military

Finally, we turn the lens on the Department of Defense in their cover-up of military sexual assault. One in five active-duty women have been sexually assaulted; yet only 13.5 percent of victims report the assault. And merely 8% of sexual assault cases are prosecuted in the military.

Only recently have advocates begun to challenge the impunity built in to one of the most powerful institutions in the U.S. Representative Jackie Speire of California has called for an independent office to handle cases of military sexual assault. She has warned that until such time, the existing military training, investigation, and adjudication systems related to sexual violence will continue to place blame on survivors while failing to prosecute perpetrators.

Ways Forward

It is not just the individuals who must be held accountable for sexual assault, but also the state. Warped legislation, inadequate enforcement, and misguided judicial findings dispense impunity rather than justice to perpetrators of sexual violence.  “Women are promised protection in America, and denied it in their moment of need” says domestic violence survivor Jessica Lenahan.

To move forward, she asserts, the only solutions are education and the active efforts of U.S. citizens to hold their public officials accountable. As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence wraps up for 2012, take up Lenahan’s call to action: educate others and engage with your local and federal representatives to ensure that women’s protection is ensured at every level. A good place to start is to contact your House Representative’s office and ask them to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), including provisions to protect Native American women. Or if you’re feeling creative, look at some advocacy ideas from the #PassVAWA2012 campaign.

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