Lessons from Voices: Empirical Findings on Domestic Violence and Legal Empowerment

By Dr. Julieta Marotta, Deputy Academic Director, MPP, UNU-MERIT/MGSoG

We approach the judicial system when facing problems. We assume that legal provisions and state organizations will serve us to find remedies to our problems. Violence against women is a global challenge. UNWomen estimates that 35% of women have experienced gender violence while less than 40% seek for help. For example, in the city of Buenos Aires (Argentina), a larger number of domestic violence complaints are being submitted daily by women.

Yet, how does access to justice legally empower victims of domestic violence? Legal empowerment uses the law as a tool for individual development, and affects legal provisions, providers, and victims. Qualitative empirical legal research is used to understand this given reality from the voices of actors.

Victims that obtain access to justice start visualizing an opportunity to change. Most of them share three characteristics: education, perception of an income, and a social network to reach out for help (mostly female peers). Moreover, victims frequently submit complaints in places commonly accepted by their network.

Victims are passive in their participation during the legal procedures, due to, amongst others, their limited understanding. This leaves them with few options beyond following directions, and gives them no tools to hold providers accountable. The lack of understanding increases the feeling of fear and victims do not know what to expect. Techniques to keep victims informed and flexibility in the process to allow providers to work with these vulnerable actors are recommended.

Concrete procedural rules to implement coordination amongst different organizations are absent. Consequently, coordination is left to the discretion of actors. Providers view the poor cooperation as an obstacle to assist victims effectively. Victims, moreover, express confusion by the amount of organizations participating in their cases.

Victims believe that when they access the police station someone will solve their problems; they soon learn that they enter into a path with unexpected tasks. Victims cannot prepare to participate and the system does not help them either. These vulnerable actors could be given a schedule to allow them to plan ahead.

The fact that domestic violence is in the policy agenda allows for changes in the minds of judges. This is primarily thanks to the work of specialized prosecutors trained in domestic violence, and to the volume of domestic violence complaints that are being submitted daily.

Legal provisions and legal organizations are recommended to further incorporate a legal empowerment approach, because even when access to justice might not entirely resolve a conflict, it can assist individuals to develop new tools to solve conflicts. A better understanding of rights and the process helps victims to embrace their situations, and to decide how they want to position themselves within that scenario. Understanding appears as the main tool to allow individuals to fully voice themselves.


Read more: Marotta, Julieta, 2017, Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment of Victims of Domestic Violence through Legal Organizations in the City of Buenos Aires: A Qualitative Empirical Legal Study, PhD Dissertation UNU-MERIT / Maastricht University.

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