The proliferation of international human rights treaties, committees and courts over the last sixty years represents enormous achievement. International human rights laws are now asserted throughout the world by individuals of many cultures and traditions. Yet, at the same time human rights ideas and principles continue to have difficulty in establishing their relevance in the daily lives of those who are geographically and culturally distant from international institutions (Stacy, 2009). In my forthcoming piece in Human Rights Quarterly, I argue that notwithstanding the fact that giving voice to those oppressed is a main function of the international human rights movement (Baxi, 2009), and that the meaning of human rights must be grounded in local culture at grassroots levels, relatively little scholarship bases its analyses on the discourse of those actually involved in human rights violations cases in the Global South. What are victims’ conceptions and expectations of human rights and their agendas and experiences in formal and informal justice systems processing their cases? This knowledge is critical to enable greater understanding of victims’ needs, epistemologies and micro-realities in order to innovatively engage the controversies in international human rights theory and practice and to effect realizable change for the subjects of human rights in the Global South.

I provide some such data in my forthcoming book based on my empirical research in India, detailed in my earlier post. This includes voices of female victims of violence discussing their comprehensions, objectives, and practices in processing their cases (74 interviews with victims, and 24 with their family members). I link victims’ discourse to norm diffusion theory in international relations (Risse et al. 1999) and to vernacularization theory in law and anthropology (Merry, 2006), which engage the issue of permeation of human rights standards to grassroots levels.

In terms of female victims of violence in India where CEDAW was ratified in 1993, I show that notwithstanding State enactments of laws in line with international human rights obligations, and the dissemination of human rights concepts by transnational activists and domestic NGOs who work to make them meaningful within particular societies, the subjectivities of victims of violence in two major cities (Delhi, Bangalore) as illustrated in their discourse on their motivations and aims in approaching formal courts and informal justice mechanisms suggest little if any human rights emancipation. Those with little education had either never heard of human rights or lacked an understanding of their meaning. More educated victims who had a general sense of human rights concepts knew little of specifics. Moreover, both groups generally felt that fundamental human rights ideas, though something positive, were primarily of use on an inspirational level.

Many victims of violence, particularly those in the less educated groups, enlisted informal justice systems as a means of obtaining compromise agreements with their abusers in order to peacefully return to or remain in their places of abuse, which were commonly the joint family homes of their spouses. Victims’ desires were colored by their not wanting to harm their biological families’ honor. It is well-established that individuals in most non-Western cultures define themselves as members of larger groups or communities, not as autonomous entities. Yet, it was particularly striking that victims’ understandings of human rights and stated motivations for and perceptions of justice relating to the court or arbitration hearings they underwent regularly corresponded with those of their biological family members who also partook in the hearings. On the basis of this and other similar findings, I argue that human rights understandings and subjectivities of victims of violence in the Indian landscape are bound up intricately within social and cultural structures including networks of family, kin and community. However, this enculturation within particular societies is complicated by factors of poverty, illiteracy and development. Understanding the dynamics of these overlapping normative, rule-encompassing social fields ranging from state or customary law to sociolegal spaces including community, family or other groups is a necessary prerequisite to resolving and theorizing problems relating to the practice of human rights. Below are two interview excerpts from victims who processed their cases in non-state women’s arbitration courts (mahila panchayats) in slum areas on the outskirts of Delhi. This is followed by an interview excerpt from a victim who was a teacher with a masters degree in Bangalore in the south of India, and who processed her case in the formal courts.

INTERVIEW 1 – It has been two years to our marriage. He does not work, but makes me work a lot…My mother-in-law also harasses me. She beats me up, makes me do all the household work…I was supposed to conceive a child but they had beaten me so much that the child in my womb died. In night time my husband forces me…He forces me every night. There are lots of problems…You would not believe that my brother-in-law, he too molests me in the night time. WHAT MADE YOU COME HERE [TO THE MAHILA PANCHAYAT]? …My family members gave their consent…DO YOU KNOW ABOUT OTHER AUTHORITIES…LIKE COURTS, LOK ADALATS?. No, I do not know…I am not educated…DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT LAWYERS No, I do not know anything. HAVE YOU HEARD OF HUMAN RIGHTS OR WOMEN’S RIGHTS?…What is the big deal about hearing all that. Nothing is actually followed. What can those rights be? Women are considered to be a man’s shoes by all family members…My husband does nothing besides beating me up…These rights are nothing…There are a lot of things heard here, all ladies here do speak about them….But my husband does not give these rights.

INTERVIEW 2 – My Husband, his father and mother ill-treated me. They commit cruelty on me. They used to bang my head into walls, used to beat me several times. You can see scars on my back, scratches on my neck and hands. I was subject to both mental and physical torture at my matrimonial home. I think all this happened because of my infertility…WHAT HELP DID YOU WANT OR WHAT WERE YOU SEEKING WHEN YOU APPROACHED THE MAHILA PANCHAYAT? That I be taken back to my matrimonial home with due regard and respect and I shall stay there as a respectable family member. I want to return to my matrimonial home because that is my actual home after my marriage. The matrimonial home is the actual home of every woman. It is the duty of every woman to bind her family with the thread of love and affection. I DON’T KNOW IF IT IS RELEVANT HERE, BUT HAVE YOU HEARD OR NOT HEARD ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS? No, I have never heard about human rights. JUSTTO SEE IF IT IS RELEVANT HERE, HAVE YOU HEARD OR NOT HEARD OF ABOUT RIGHTS OF WOMEN? No, never

INTERVIEW 3 – There was physical ill-treatment and there were times when it was too severe and…I was admitted to the hospital…It was something that happened almost every day…It was my husband but…in the midst of the abuse, his mother, who is a widow, also joined him and both of them basically beat me up…HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS? I have to a very limited extent, yes…from magazines, and I suppose whatever knowledge I had through school. HOW DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT ARE THEY ABOUT?…about equality basically, in its way outmoded and I suppose a very naive concept…DO YOU THINK ANY OF THESE HUMAN RIGHTS AFFECT YOU OR YOUR DISPUTE AT ALL? Human rights in general, I don’t think so…HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS OF WOMEN? Yeah, very general again…through magazines and recent news reports…DO YOU THINK THESE HUMAN RIGHTS PLAY ANY ROLE? I suppose they do. At least on the…surface in the propaganda they do because they aim at restoring rights that have been encroached upon…because women…were made to believe that they don’t have any rights. So, it is an eye-opener.

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