Feminism, Violence Against Women, and Law Reform. Decolonial Lessons from Ecuador

Silvana Tapia Tapia, University of Birmingham

In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Silvana Tapia Tapia, whose new book Feminism, Violence Against Women, and Law Reform was published in April 2022 with Routledge.

What is the book about? 

Using a decolonial lens and centring the Global South, this book addresses the role and dynamics of feminism and feminists in producing a criminal justice-centred response to violence against women (VAW). The book traces the history of feminist criminal law reform in Ecuador, which was part of the Latin American “Pink Tide” between 2007 and 2017. As penal expansion occurred during the rule of anti-neoliberal governments in these countries, the book invites questions regarding the limits of the analyses that connect “carceral feminism” to neoliberal policy and the co-option of social movements. In 2008, Ecuador adopted a Constitution that recognised legal pluralism, the rights of Mother Nature, and Sumak Kawsay (the Andean approach to living well) as the guiding principles of social organisation. Still, the state continued to expand penality, while feminists across the political spectrum accepted the coercive dimensions of human rights, and the newly enacted criminal laws on VAW did very little to reduce the incidence of the problem. 

In the book, the continuity of colonial power, the dominance of rights-based justifications of criminal justice, and the displacement of women’s experiences from law and policy-making are presented as patterns that should inform our understanding of the feminist turn to criminal law. Even under a regime that implemented social redistribution, rights-based penality produced a system specialising in VAW that offers little more than procedural rules.The system also acts a proxy for state action, keeping violence survivors unprotected and without access to the services and resources required to overcome VAW. Overall, the book offers a re-theorising of the relationships between criminal law, gender, coloniality, human rights, and neoliberalism.

Why did I write it? 

Many (robust and insightful) accounts of “carceral feminism”, which, as do I, aim to interrogate penal strategies to address VAW, are based on the experiences of the Global North. Feminist movements in Latin America, however, have formed and developed not only influenced by, but also opposing resistance to, US-based and NGO-centred feminisms. These experiences shed light on the colonial history of law and of feminist resistance to androcentric policymaking.

One key insight that emerged as I developed this project was the role of non-feminist actors in re-shaping feminist demands, the lingering effects of colonial approaches to domestic violence and family life, and the protagonism of human rights-based discourses in feminist justifications of penality. I also observed that constitutional law, including concepts like due process and penal guarantees, contributes to establishing the idea that a human rights-compliant, efficacious and fair criminal justice is possible.

Therefore, the book was written to posit novel arguments on the coloniality of liberal criminal land human rights, contending that they have been complicit in smoothing the path of feminist appeals to criminalisation and punishment. They have also displaced non-Western and non-penal understandings of justice and facilitated the framing of criminal prosecution as the only adequate pathway to address VAW.

How did I go about doing this research?

This project utilised a multi-method interdisciplinary approach, building on socio-legal research traditions. I combined archival research —including seminal feminist texts as well as colonial and early republican legislation and parliamentary debates— with in-depth interviews conducted with feminist activists and lawmakers. The project also included a careful doctrinal analysis of historical and recently created criminal laws, to expound the colonial implications of the legal institutions through which gender inequality is framed. This tracing unveiled how unequal power relations —also within progressive movements— play a role in silencing feminist voices. The methods overall revealed that coloniality, penality and human rights have co-produced feminist engagements with criminal justice, resulting in complex and contradictory effects.

Scrutinising the discourses that promote penal solutions to VAW entailed examining how legal knowledge shapes social reality, privileging some experiences while disqualifying others, and empowering people selectively. I used the notion of coloniality to refer to this displacement of subordinated subjectivities and knowing practices. A feminist decolonial lens, paired with empirical methods, sheds light on how non-neoliberal (but still colonial) discourses justifying penality are sustained by liberal legalism. As a result, even when Ecuador’s left-leaning government reduced poverty and expanded public services, survivors of VAW remained at the margins of the state’s justice system. The book shares a lesson on the role of rights-based discourse, framed as colonial knowledge, in facilitating this exclusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *