Autonomy vs Protectionism looking back on our HRC 53 Side-event

In 2004, in an article titled “Sexuality, Violence Against Women, and Human Rights: Women Make Demands and Ladies Get Protection”, the legal scholar Ali Miller outlined a paradox. Despite the recognition of women’s human rights and increasing attention paid to violence against women in countless spaces, including through the media, the violence was not understood, prevented or adequately responded to. Miller points to two interconnected phenomena to explain this paradox. Firstly, the rise and practice of respectability politics. Due to this, more ‘explosive’ aspects of sexuality such as desire or autonomy are set aside in favour of issues that present less challenge to the systems of patriarchy, racism and class. And secondly, protectionism.

The Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI) hosted a side event during the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council to discuss protectionist policies and practices relating to gender and sexuality and the impact they have had on women and other marginalised people. 

A panel of activists was invited to speak on the subject of Autonomy vs Protectionism in the context of sexuality and gender. The moderator, Carrie Shelver, Manager of SRI’s Geneva office, proposed a definition of protectionism to frame the conversation: “Protectionism refers to a worldview and attitude that sees certain individuals and groups – notably, women and girls, and other gendered and sexualised people – as “naturally” vulnerable to violence and discrimination and as requiring the protection of the state and the patriarch.”

Protectionist policies and practices ostensibly aim to reduce an individual’s or a group's vulnerability to discrimination and violence. Despite their ubiquity, such policies and programmes offer their benefits at the expense of people’s autonomy and freedom and fail to deliver on even the modest promises they make. Instead, these policies, more often than not, deepen the inequality and marginalisation of the very people they claim to protect, and neglect to address systemic inequality and the root causes of discrimination and violence.



Anthea Taderera, SRI’s Advocacy Advisor for the Universal Periodic Review, provided a compelling case for the fundamental problems of protectionist policies, such as the attitudes of paternalism and infantilisation that is inherent in the rationale of these policies. They often deepened the inequalities of the marginalised groups they aimed to protect. Lobna Darwish, who leads the gender and human rights program at Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), drew attention to protectionism within authoritarian contexts, the idea of patriarchal respectability, and the consequences of protectionist policies. Shalini Singh, a program director at CREA, addressed the implications of protectionist policies for women with disabilities, young women, and other gendered minorities. She highlighted how such policies impact their access to resources, information, and opportunities.  


Protectionist policies: Do they really protect? 

Protecting (as well as respecting and fulfilling) women's rights would require that women be considered agential subjects entitled to make choices about their bodies and their lives. In this context, women should not be treated as objectified wards of the patriarchal state or the patriarchal family. Conversations around the protection of women’s rights have embodied the language of patriarchal respectability for a long time. Instead of upholding the rights of women and other marginalised groups, states repeatedly introduced protectionist policies that focused on controlling marginalised individuals. The implementation of these policies is often done at the expense of other fundamental human rights, such as freedom of movement, expression, and self-determination. These policies essentially absolve the state of responsibility and accountability for not enabling the autonomy and agency of the marginalised individuals that the policies aim to protect. 

In Zimbabwe, until 2015, women were frequently arrested on soliciting charges if they were in public spaces at night. Until outlawed by the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe, police operation code-named “No to robberies and prostitution” served as a de facto curfew for women. This practice served to reinforce respectibility norms: “Decent” women should be at home with their families or run the risk of being labeled a sex worker along with the social stigma and legal consequences that accompany this. And secondly, the operation was justified on the grounds of keeping “decent” citizens safe from crime and indecency. In Egypt, there is a tradition of “morality” prosecutions of women for posting their videos on social media, talking about being beaten or raped. This type of expression or speech has been termed “indecent” and “undermining family values”. In India, survivors of rape are blamed and shamed for wearing “inappropriate” clothing or existing in public spaces beyond a certain time, naturalising the occurrence of rape. Indian authorities often impose unreasonable curfew timings on girls living in hostels or lock them up on the pretences that the outside is unsafe for them, limiting their autonomy and freedom of movement. 


Protectionism: An intersectional approach

Protectionist policies, just like colonial policies, allow many states to patronise marginalised people and groups by curtailing the autonomy of individuals “for their own good”. In a colonial context, these policies were put in place to protect populations from themselves, because it was assumed that “they didn’t know any better”. Colonialism led to the infantilisation of “inferior” peoples, which was in line with the colonisers racist and sexist orientations. Thus, the post-colonial states’ sexist and racist orientations reflect the vestiges of a colonial past. As Taderera stated, “If you linger outside, you risk triggering classist and often colonial vagrancy laws that are used against informal workers, sex workers, the poor, the racialised, the undesirable others that are terrorising the outside for the good people.”

Taderera foregrounded how the discourse of sexual and gender rights was intimately related to conversations around racism, colonialism, capitalism, and classism. Discriminatory beliefs and actions intermingled to create hierarchical systems that resulted in complex effects. These complex effects involved, for instance, the states’ instrumentalisation of protectionist policies as a way to draw a line between those who were protected, i.e., deemed worthy of such protection and those who were considered “disposable”. These effects materialised when, for instance, states and patriarchs believed in protecting a particular kind of woman who they idealised: the married woman, who stayed at home, and was of a certain race and class. “The racialised and sexed woman is fallen and hence, not deemed worthy of this protection”, notes Taderera. 

The settler colonies of southern Africa have idealised white women. These women were active agents in enabling white supremacy and at the same time, were in a subordinate position to white men. Black women were considered to be of an “inferior” race and were over-sexualised and deemed dangerous. In Zimbabwe, women of all ages were recognised as minors by the law until 1982. This restricted their access to healthcare and formal education. These ideas about race, gender and class are still perpetuated today by post-colonial states. 

Northern states have also applied protectionist policies to the states of the Global South. They imposed social and developmental models imported from the North, which have undermined the agency, autonomy, and the right to self-determination of individuals and peoples from the South. This has raised questions regarding how willing Northern - specifically Western - paternalistic states are in understanding and embracing socioeconomic and cultural diversity. The imposition of harsh sanctions by the Global North on countries in the Global South in order to condemn these states for violation of human rights is a form of economic violence. It eventually ends up hurting the very people whose rights they claim to want to support through these sanctions. 


The state and the family

Kate Millett stated in Sexual Politics that “Patriarchy's chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole”. Patriarchal respectability dictates the importance of protecting a woman’s honour. Policies of numerous states are motivated by such patriarchal beliefs, and thus, the state and the family work in tandem with each other. Talking about the widely-held notion of the familial space as the only kind of realm that is safest for women, Darwish stated, “This [notion] plays a role in reinforcing the message within the family, that protectionism is the only way to protect the girls and women within that family, which kind of gives more space and legitimacy for violence.” Essentially, patriarchal states created protectionist policies and reiterated the need for women to stay at home, sheltered from the dangerous outside. This reinforced patriarchal attitudes limiting women’s autonomy, legitimising violence and giving more leeway for the perpetrators of violence in public spaces. 

Significantly, patriarchal states rely on women’s economic dependence on men since this dependence has the effect of stifling reports of abuse. When a man is penalised for abusing his wife, his wife has nowhere to go without having the guarantee of an independent income. She will either end up penniless because her husband was convicted or will continue to live in a violent atmosphere. The survivor of violence is conveniently ignored. 

States enacting protectionist policies have essentially passed their obligation in the private and the public spheres onto the family. Putting the family at the center of the protection of their citizens has enabled states to defund social protection. The family is assumed to be the only safe space (mistakenly so, since families can be very violent towards women). Moreover, protectionist policies are developed without the participation of women, girls, and gendered minorities they claim to protect. This allows the states to not take any steps towards making systems of reporting (police stations) and redress (for example, domestic violence shelters) more accessible. 

Many states, instead, repeatedly emphasise the role of penalties and harsh punishments meted out to the accused and pass it off as justice delivered. Survivors of sexual violence are wholly absent from the equation. For instance, the metro system in Egypt is being surveilled as a way to fight sexual harassment. However, as Darwish said, “This does not deliver on anything related to justice […] This sends across a message in the society that the only way to intervene in society is not through education, not through services, not through healthcare, is not through giving people opportunities and rights. It’s actually through the law. Especially, the penal law.”

What about the survivors’ access to healthcare services? Do they undergo rehabilitation? How are they compensated? Is there any effort on the part of the state to make public spaces accessible to everyone by, for instance, improving public transport, fixing poor lighting, or even educating people regarding their rights? If prevention is better than cure, how are states practically working towards integrating that into various systems that govern daily life?


Lack of access to resources, information, and opportunities

Singh reiterated that only certain women were deemed worthy of protection: “Although feminists have made some progress in relation to preventing gender-based violence, we have also seen that many of our interventions still address women who are deemed deserving of protection, which [include] married women or who identify themselves as heterosexual.” Speaking in the context of young women, women with disabilities, and other gendered minorities in India, Singh drew attention to the increased surveillance, control, and forced medical treatments that women undergo at the hands of healthcare providers. Instead of communicating with concerned women, they tend to value their guardian’s opinion. This denies them any say in alterations performed on their own body. They are stripped of all agency. 

Parents tend to control access to the digital space for women with disabilities, further limiting their opportunities which were especially glaring during the pandemic. This restricted their ability to access formal education as well. As Singh stated, “Increased restrictions on public space, in-person, physical space also get extended to the digital space.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to legalise safe abortion in India in 2022 was a huge step towards increasing women’s reproductive autonomy. However, healthcare providers continue to be reluctant to perform such procedures. Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012, it is mandatory for individuals to file a First Information Report (FIR) before they can access medical facilities and other healthcare services. Owing to the reluctance of many individuals to file an FIR, many women and gender non-conforming people resorted to acquiring services from unauthorised persons through illicit means. 


Alternatives to protectionist policies: New frameworks

Some genuinely meaningful interventions could be made in the direction of protecting the rights of individuals who have been discriminated against and marginalised. This could be done by enacting policies and enabling environments that make possible the realisation of an individual’s autonomy and agency. States must step out of their tendency to be performative. The states’ reliance on carceral forms of punishment and meting out harsher sentences to convicts is not enough. On the contrary, this functions as a part of the performative actions of states meant to express their condemnation to pacify the outraged public; the survivor of violence is conveniently ignored. The individual cannot be reduced to a passive victim in need of protection from the state and the patriarch. Instead of focusing on punishing perpetrators of violence, the focus should shift to survivor-centred approaches. Women with disabilities, nonbinary individuals and other gendered, racialised and marginalised minorities must have a say in policies pertaining to them. 

It is an important reminder for all of us, whether working at the Human Rights Council or in any other policy space, that equality and non-discrimination can only be achieved when laws, policies and programmatic interventions are focused on protecting women’s and girl’s rights and freedoms. This includes freedom from violence, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of residence, freedom of opinion and expression, and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion among others. 

As activists and advocates committed to social justice for all, we must resist the path of least resistance with the understanding that this is often also likely to be the one that leaves the systems of power least challenged.