Police officers, judges, prosecutors, social service workers, and victim advocates are all integral to addressing and combating gender-based violence (GBV), to ensuring that the system protects survivors, and to helping them rebuild their lives. In late March, Meridian hosted a group of 25 dynamic professionals working on these issues for an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) on the “U.S. Justice System: Protecting Women and Children” project.  There were participants from every type of institution that intersects with those seeking protection, and they were from places as diverse as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Norway, Spain, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, India, and the Dominican Republic. Starting in Washington, DC, the participants engaged in dialogue over women’s justice issues with their U.S. counterparts in Jacksonville, Florida; Helena, Montana; Reno, Nevada; Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; and Dallas, Texas.

Experience sharing is central to effective international exchanges, so that participants learn from each other about what has worked (and what hasn’t), and how they might adapt interventions for their local context. The linkages created among professionals both strengthen access to justice for women and children, and promote international cooperation.

The group’s meetings here in the U.S. — with judges, lawyers, police officers and advocates — were structured to help them better understand the legal systems we have in place to protect women and children.  The participants met with policy makers and practitioners at the federal, state and local levels to augment their knowledge and experience, and left with a better sense of how we have strengthened our laws and institutions in the United States.

I worked with the group on its first day to help solidify the framework for their meetings over the three-week visit. The group was clear on the multifaceted nature of addressing GBV and protecting women and children, as well as the importance of taking concrete steps to prevent violence. They understood that it isn’t enough for women to know their rights.  Women and children must have safe spaces to talk about what has happened to them, and believe that the system, and everyone who is part of it, will protect them.

Ms. Stephenie Foster and the participants from 'The U.S. Justice System - Protecting Women and Children' International Visitor Leadership Program. Post credit to Ms. Stephenie Foster.
Ms. Stephenie Foster and the participants from ‘The U.S. Justice System – Protecting Women and Children’ International Visitor Leadership Program. Photo provided by Ms. Stephenie Foster.

Protection and prevention also means strong systems and structures to address violence when it occurs using interventions like one-stop centers where women can access all of the services they need at one time and in one place; hotlines staffed 24 hours a day; free legal assistance; and, specialized police units. It means passing and enforcing strong, up-to-date laws, with remedies that make a difference.

Ensuring women have access to jobs and economic opportunity is also critical, both as a means to utilize women’s talents and skills, but also to ensure that they are able to support themselves and their families.  Protection also means strong values: valuing women, ensuring safety, protecting human rights, and access to justice. Finally, protection (and prevention) means more women in decision-making positions in government and women’s perspective in all these key issues and sectors.

The group candidly shared their own experiences. The conversations were nuanced and reflected local context but also provided a global perspective that it is critically important to address both individual issues and structural problems at the same time.

Originally Published by Meridian International Center.