The legal system as a tool to protect women’s rights

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The legal system as a tool to protect women’s rights

by Ruth Schechter on Sunday, May 16, 2010 - 4:59pm

Helen StacyGlobally, women face a unique range of human rights issues, from female circumcision to sex slavery, domestic violence, infanticide, and honor killings.

A number of organizations—including the United Nations—work to create awareness and campaign for change, but their efforts are often stymied by a lack of understanding about tradition, local culture, and national perceptions of independence, as well as their own innate bureaucracies. Helen Stacy, PhD, a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow, proposes taking a new approach to addressing these kinds of human rights violations by using local and regional courts to articulate rights for women.

“A new legal framework is needed for international human rights law. Women are using human rights claims to make their rhetoric known, and some of these will turn into legal claims in regional courts,” says Stacy, who is also a senior fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “The transition from human rights claims to legal claims can be a promising one if it is done with awareness and sensitivity.”


A scholar of international and comparative law, Stacy focuses on how courts can improve human rights standards while also honoring social, cultural, and religious values. Her recent book, Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture, analyzed the effectiveness of regional courts in promoting human rights.

Mechanisms in place like the UN’s Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women are complicated by a complex international structure that slows political action and cultural relativism that allows countries to make exceptions to women’s rights. International judicial bodies, like the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Court of Human and People’s Rights, she says, are steps in the right direction but face a huge backlog of cases.

Woman in Kalahari desert“International law does not have a direct mechanism of enforcement. That’s why I started thinking we needed a way to rethink these concerns from the ground up,” she says. “Regional courts can serve as a mediator between national governments and international standards, especially in concerns of women’s human rights. They can apply pragmatic and historic perspectives, and are better able to disassociate themselves from allegations that human rights courts are simply a cipher of the Western point of view.”

Many questions lie ahead, including which human rights standards can apply to a legal framework and how judicial findings can be enforced. Political leaders in some Asian countries, for example, have claimed “traditional Asian values” as a shield to protect some appalling practices, Stacy says, a stance that will take time to change. And economic and political factors need to be perceived as a real issue in legal and political outcomes, she adds.

“The law is just one tool for protecting human rights, and we have to remember that not every issue is political,” Stacy says. “It’s important that dialog takes place to allow a culture to continue but replace certain practices with a more acceptable alternative. Lawyers need to work alongside anthropologists and historians. The legal process needs to be rethought so our information is not always filtered through the traditional black-and-white legal view.”