Advancing the Human Rights of Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence in the U.S.: Progress Report


Two years ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared that the United States had violated the rights of Jessica Lenahan, a domestic violence survivor, and her three daughters. Jessica's case initially made headlines when Colorado police refused to act after she reported that her estranged, abusive husband Simon Gonzales had kidnapped their three daughters in violation of a restraining order. She repeatedly pleaded with the police, over a span of ten hours, to rescue the children. The next morning, Simon drove to the police station, opened fire, and was killed; the bodies of the three girls were found in his truck.

After the U.S. Supreme Court held that Jessica had no due process right to enforcement of her restraining order, we represented her in filing a petition with the Commission, which sits in Washington D.C. Its August 2011 ruling marked the first time the Commission had decided a case against the U.S. brought by a domestic violence survivor. The Commission found that the U.S. had violated Jessica and her daughters' rights to life, nondiscrimination, and judicial protection. It then recommended several remedies that would offer redress to Jessica individually and also systemically reform the U.S.' response to domestic violence.

Since the decision, the ACLU and its partners have been working to implement these recommendations. Two years into this process, it's worth asking: what is the role of human rights strategies in advocacy to end violence against women and girls in the U.S.? What progress have we made?

The IACHR ruling spurred advocates to think in new and creative ways about incorporating into litigation, policy advocacy, and organizing strategies to end violence against women and girls here at home. While U.S. law narrowly defines the obligations of governments to survivors, human rights law requires governments to act with "due diligence" – to prevent violence from occurring in the first place, to investigate it when it does occur, and to provide remedies for victims.

We've relied on these principles in briefs we filed with the Court about law enforcement accountability when serving orders of protection and with a Puerto Rico federal court about how the police department there must comprehensively reform the ways it responds to domestic and sexual violence.

We've urged federal policymakers to highlight how discrimination in policing domestic and sexual violence can violate civil rights laws, leading to the Department of Justice's recent announcement that prevention of sex-based discrimination by law enforcement is a "top priority." Recognizing that systemic failures in investigating these crimes constitutes police misconduct, DOJ has entered into agreements with the police departments in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and Missoula, Montana to strengthen their policies and practices. We've pushed for better policies and training of officers in Colorado, and law enforcement there have since received new training on how to respond to domestic violence. The IACHR ruling also led to the adoption of ordinances declaring freedom from domestic violence to be a fundamental human right in localities including Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Miami-Dade County. Advocates there are now using these ordinances to further the anti-violence work they do in their communities.

The decision in Jessica Lenahan's case has impacted women and girls outside the U.S. as well. Just a few weeks ago, the Kenya High Court cited to it in concluding that police in Kenya had violated the rights of twelve girls by refusing to investigate their reports of sexual assault and child abuse.

So that is all real, concrete progress. But of course we have a long road ahead.

During a recent convening of Move to End Violence, a ten-year initiative of the NoVo Foundation to build the U.S. anti-violence social justice movement, we discussed the root causes of violence against girls and women. These causes are many and multi-layered, but one theme that emerged which struck a chord with me was dehumanization – denigrating others' lives and experiences, and particularly those of survivors. This denigration happens at the individual level – e.g., when a police officer doubted Jessica's report that her children were endangered after being abducted by their father – and at a systemic level – e.g., when the U.S. Supreme Court denied Jessica and other survivors in similar situations any recourse or ability to hold law enforcement accountable in federal courts. The human rights framework resists and fights against that denigration, by focusing on the inherent dignity of each person. And for that reason, I believe that human rights advocacy will continue to be an important tool moving forward.

This post was also featured at On the Move - part of Move to End Violence. Move to End Violence, a program of the NoVo Foundation, is a ten year initiative to strengthen our collective capacity to end violence against girls and women in the U.S. On the Move creates the space for MEV to engage allies in an ongoing effort to learn from the past, envision the future, and share strategies for how we will get there together.

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I am a domestic violence survivor, and I am soo shocked this morning listening to fox news talking to 2 women regarding domestic violence, the aclu person I totally agree with, as that if a person is being in a domestic violence situation,they should Not be evicted under any circumstance that is not their fault.
It's not their fault they married or lived with the person and did Not know they were like this, that was my situation. My abuser harassed me and called me on the job regarding,taking away my alimony, which I did sign a paper to release him of this, because I was informed, Not to contact the police nor the security at the store I worked for, because I could be fired, they consider it a liability to have someone work at their place with this. We have moved far away out of state, and now some of his family is cyberbullying, me, so I had to put my fb under a middle name of mine, this is totally ridiculous, 14 years ago marriage ended. I am remarried now to a sane person who is wonderful, why do I keep
having to endure this kind of stuff. Please whoever is reading this KNOW the person you are living with beforehand or going to marry, get to KNOW their family for awhile before jumping into something you'll regret later on. and if you are abused the FIRST TIME leave that situation immediately, and call the police and file the report. File the report because that shows you will not put up with it. Also when children are involved, it will affect them for life, so I didn't realize this at the time, that is why leaving as soon as it starts is so very very important, man or woman Men can also be having this issue also, go ahead and file the report, it needs to be done for everyone's safety.


Other than the ACLU and the National Center for Victims of Crime website, there is a dearth of any assistance for abused, stalked, poisoned, cyberstalked, cyberharassed women - and there are too many of us. Cruel, sick and incompetent men, incompetent state laws and cops who do not care in the least (although one little town in NH's police department is courageous, unflinching, educated and proactive regarding domestic abuse, stalking, cyber stalking, cyberharassing and its constant, daily, minute by minute insanity - the norm for so many dysfunctional, mentally ill men. Having been stalked, cyberstalked, poisoned, all of my retirement savings stolen, belittled with many attempts to poison and murder me since 12.2005, it is clear a state by state overhaul of the rule of law is in order. (CA, thank goodness, has actually put teeth and thought into law) - most states have done nothing whatsoever useful to protect abused men, women, children.

Stalking and bullying in schools is getting some cover due to tragic deaths and suicides, and a few thoughtful changes have been made by some educators - but there is such a long way to go. Local support groups do great work in supporting and listening to victims - but real progress must be underpinned by equitable, practical federal law and in each state. Luckily, a few federal laws, including 18 USC 2265 "Full faith and Credit given Protection orders" (2006) are crucial - but are only scratching the surface. The national center for Victims of Crime group has contributed/supported clear law, training, strategies that are so valuable - but we must do more, much more. If I am ever free of my tormentors' psychopathic craziness, stalking me every minute of every day, in every way possible for the past eight plus years, I will begin working for legislation, state by state, as well as beefed up and recognized federal legislation (which seems key to me) to makeweight this outrageous,, worldwide epidemic. Stalkers need to go to prison and we should just circumvent an incompetent Supreme Court by effecting federal laws that protect all of us - just as our 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution should afford every American Citizen and all residents due process of law. Enough challenges to our constitutional protections and educating/voting for courageous advocates of victim's rights needs life. It would be helpful if the ACLU's all over the country would coalesce to move forward in each state - a tall order,
but in one state, for example - which does fairly well with civil rights, an 18th century law belittling abuse and mentioning one's "servants" is still on the books. There has been such resistance to progress re: victims' rights all over the country it may take electing more courageous women to legislatures all over America - authentic women of action. Pie in the sky, but the alternative is just more unconscious, vicious abuse heaped upon our daughters, sisters, grandchildren. Another woman of substance on the Court would help as well - but stalking, abuse, cyberstalking, cyberabuse are daily, nitty-gritty realities for so many of us - we should work to face into this craziness in our families and communities, every day. A trained peer going to court or to the hospital or police station with a victim is such an crucial, strengthening support as well.

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