The Centre for Women’s Justice aims to help women and girls who are subject to male violence get better access to legal remedies to defend and enhance their rights. There is no doubt that women, as victims, defendants and witnesses suffer very significant structural disadvantage within the criminal justice system. This is not primarily because of direct unequal treatment (although that does exist) but because of the failure to recognise the structural oppression that underlies the different experiences of women and men as they grow up in a world where violence against women persists.
Violence against women and girls is now widely recognised as a global endemic problem. It takes many forms including, but not limited to, domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, the production of pornography, prostitution, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. A large proportion of women incarcerated in prisons, mental health institutions and immigration detention have suffered sexual abuse and domestic violence. Women who are primarily victims of violence but have either fought back against male violence or been held to be lacking in credibility are being criminalized and punished most severely. Institutions such as the police, that sport impeccable equality and diversity policies, are riddled with levels of sexism within their ranks that at times appears institutionalized.
Great efforts have been made over the past thirty years, with the input of specialist researchers, feminist activists and women’s sector organisations, to change laws, develop policies and guidance within the criminal justice agencies (police, Crown Prosecution Service, court system and so on) to better address violence against women. Just take a look at the Crown Prosecution website for its guidance on laws around rape and domestic violence, for example, to see the progress that has been made. However, there remains a serious disconnect between statements of intent and what we see in day-to-day practice. It is critical, therefore to ensure such policies are worth more than the paper they are written on and to hold the state to account by taking effective legal challenges.
The Centre for Women’s Justice aims to bring together specialist lawyers, academics and other experts in the field of violence against women, with those working on the frontline as activists, survivors and service providers to bring strategic law challenges and ensure access to justice for victims of male violence. By connecting these specialist areas we hope to better monitor the challenges on the ground and identify particular cases to take forward. We hope to access the expertise of a range of experts to enhance our arguments and evidence base and have maximum impact. By networking across the jurisdiction of England and Wales, through publicity and training we aim to ensure that all those who require access to good lawyers in this area can get connected.
When exploring the feasibility of developing the Centre for Women’s Justice last year with a range of potential stakeholders, I received nothing other than enthusiastic support for the idea. We are living in challenging times as the impact of global economic crisis reverberates across the world, the growth of religious fundamentalism, increased levels of racism stoked up by media misrepresentation of migration and the impact of austerity. In this context we are also seeing a general backlash against hard gained women’s rights and the institutions that have helped secure these. Those that suffer additional disadvantage due to their class, race, disability or sexuality are most under threat, although every woman and girl can be a victim of male violence. We need to work together to protect the hard won rights gained through feminist activism, scholarship and practice based learning over the past forty years. There is an important role to be played by way of legal challenges to state failures and threats that we face. We need to work closely together as lawyers, activists, survivors, researchers and other experts in order to protect and advance the human rights of women and girls. We need a Centre for Women’s Justice now more than ever.
Harriet Wistrich, Founding Director