What Works in Feminist Law Reform? Lessons from the Local

02 Jul to 03 Jul

Coordinators: Becky Batagol (Monash University, Australia), Janice Richardson (Monash University, Australia), Angela Cameron (University of Ottawa, Canada), Sonia Lawrence (York University, Canada), Debra Parkes (Centre for Feminist Legal Studies)

Description of the meeting

This workshop aims to make a difference to the lives of women and gender-diverse people by considering how law reform can be used to address persistent gender inequalities. Bringing together case studies of successful, semi-successful and failed feminist law reform projects from around the world, the workshop will build understandings of the features that enable or imperil feminist law reform.

This workshop is organised by four key centres for feminism and the law across Canada and Australia. It brings together diverse feminist scholars from around the world, including from the Basque Country and the global south, to address the question of what works in feminist law reform to achieve better lives for women, in all their diversity.

There are two key strengths of this workshop. First, is the links that will be made between the centres and socio-legal scholars in feminism/gender and law across Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Basque country, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Middle East and Europe. Our centres have contribute additional money to facilitate the participation of scholars from the global south for school;ars unable to secure travel funding. Second, is the synthesis of global feminist law reform methods and tactics, drawing from the case studies of local feminist initiatives. Together, these strengths will enable a workshop that is grounded in practice and ambitious in scope to improve diverse women’s lives through law reform.

There has been progress on improving women’s lives through law reform in almost every country, including growing participation in public life and improved education and economic circumstances. However questions remain about the methods and gains of feminist law reform. Enormous disparities exist between women along lines of race, disability, and income. These differences render precise identification of crucial reforms to benefit all women a complicated and fraught task. Despite sustained law reform efforts on the issue of gendered violence, it still affects more than one third of all women globally (WHO 2013) and an average of 137 women worldwide are killed by a partner/ family member every day (UN Office on Drugs and Crime 2018). Indigenous women and women with disabilities are far more likely to suffer domestic, family or sexual violence (AIHW 2018). Laws to prevent female genital mutilation have only led to small gains in the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated (UN 2018). Reforms for women’s reproductive freedom have left half of all women and girls aged 15 to 49 years married or in union still without the ability to make their own informed decisions about sexual relations, contraceptive use and access to sexual and reproductive health services (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2018). We know that women continue to be paid less than men and on average, women do 3 times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2018).

Women’s subjugation has persisted in the face of concerted campaigns to use law to achieve change. In some cases, feminist law reform efforts have improved the lives of some women at the expense of others. This has led many feminists whose work engages with law to question the utility of law as a means of bringing about effective social change for women. Armstrong (2004) describes the spectrum of feminist approaches to law reform as ranging from sceptics, who cautiously engage in law reform, to abstentionists, who reject engagement with the law and seek alternative justice for women. Prominently, Smart (1989) has argued that feminists should be wary about engaging in law reform because of the power of law to subjugate women. Other feminists such as Hunter (2008) and Fehlberg, Sarmas, and Morgan (2018) have challenged the utility of the concept of “equality” for women in law reform claims, or pointed to the challenge of ensuring that benefits of the reform are felt by all women (Johnson 2002; Crenshaw 1990; Spade 2013). Tapia Tapia (2018) following Elizabeth Bernstein (2010) Halley, Kotiswaran, Thomas and Shamir (2006) argue that feminist discourses can potentially eclipse other important concerns and possibilities that affect women. Graycar and Morgan (2015) conclude that law provides “one (albeit limited) forum” for addressing women’s oppression.

This project aims to take the discourse on feminist law reform one step further. Starting with existing feminist critiques of law reform projects, we will take a case study approach to focus on what works and doesn’t work in feminist law reform. Drawing on case studies of successful, semi-successful, and failed feminist law reform projects from multiple jurisdictions around the world, participants will synthesise the socio-legal factors, including context and strategies,which may assist reforms to work better for all women.

The project is both cross-jurisdictional and interdisciplinary, with participants coming from the Basque region, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Asia, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Middle East and Europe. Areas of feminist law reform covered include reforms across public including criminal law, and so-called “private” law, reforms built through litigation and others through political action.

Participants will be asked to divide their papers by theme so we can collectively address three important questions:

  1. What Reforms? (Including areas of law, what is “feminist” reform, connection to political and social movements, local contextual factors, transnational links, diverse feminist views, past failures and new challenges.)
  2. How is Reform Pursued? (Including changing tactics, engagement with diverse women, use of litigation and parliamentary processes, local and international sharing of strategies.)
  3. What are the Outcomes? (Including evaluation, definition of success and failure, unintended consequences, sharing successes and regrouping after failure.)

We will produce an edited collection of papers to be published as a book or special edition of a journal in 2021. In addition, the workshop will connect participants into a transnational network of reform-oriented feminists working in law in universities, law centres and legal practice. This network will provide assistance and inspiration in practical reform projects and further research.

 

For more information: 

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