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Warwick Law Alumna listed among 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy

Warwick alumna Madhu Mehra has been named in Apolitical’s 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy for 2021. Madhu who studied on our LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights (previously Law in Development) from 1991-1992, is now Head of Research and Training at Partners for Law in Development (PLD).

2020 was not an easy year, from the coronavirus pandemic to the “Shadow Pandemic” of violence against women and girls. Nevertheless, public servants, civil society, feminist leaders and networks made huge strides in their efforts to advance gender equality. Drawn from over 1,100 nominations, Apolitical’s 100 recognises and celebrates the hard work being done on gender policy by so many around the world. The list honours and celebrates people of all genders working on gender policy and making the world more equitable, whether they exert their influence through policymaking, public service, research, philanthropy, advocacy or activism.

Madhu told us “It's an honour to be on the list, sharing space with many whose work I greatly admire. Although individual validation is very heartening, I have to say it does not accurately capture the collective work that is inevitable part of policy advocacy processes. So I must acknowledge the strength of the alliances and co-creation, that helped impact policy advocacy processes I have been part of.”

Madhu Mehra is a feminist lawyer in India at Partners for Law in Development (PLD), a women’s rights non-profit in India where she heads research and training initiatives. Her innovative approach to gender and social justice has been to anchor policy and activism within rigorous evidence collection and research through genuinely collaborative methods.

Her work critiques the predominant reliance on criminalisation at the cost of transformatory victim centric approaches to redress gender based violence, whereas her advocacy for sexual justice combines accountability for sexual violence with decriminalisation of adultery, adolescent sexuality and same sex relations.

Through PLD she leads the National Coalition Advocating for Adolescent Concerns. Beyond India, she has contributed towards human rights norm setting, review and capacity development processes. She undertook the review of 15 years of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (1994-2009) for the OHCHR; and contributed extensively towards training government, civil society and judiciary for implementing the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in South and Southeast Asia, including through the IWRAW-Asia Pacific. She helped institutionalise the feminist legal theory and practice trainings within the Asia Pacific Forum for Women, Law and Development in mid 90s, when critical legal studies was yet unavailable in formal legal education.

We caught up with Madhu to find out a little more about what her work on gender policy entails and the challenges it poses.

Give an example of elements that make for sound advocacy agenda.

The issue of child marriage, which we’re working on currently, is one example. A series of field studies and case law analysis were undertaken by my organisation, Partners for Law in Development, in relation to child marriage to understand how law interacts with contexts of marginalisation, and the extent to which it serves its intended goals. The findings suggest that the law is largely used by parents against eloping daughters, and often combine with prosecutions for statutory rape against the husband. Such prosecutions are enabled by the age of consent law which criminalises all adolescent sex in India. In contrast there is negligible legal action against arranged or forced marriages. Studies by child rights and public health organisations also show ways in which the law is weaponization against consenting adolescents. This led us to consolidate cross sectoral evidence and forge a national alliance, to push back against punitive legislative approaches to child marriage. Instead of punitive responses, we seek measures that protect adolescent empowerment and agency, including through provisioning opportunities for education and livelihoods for adolescents from marginalised populations. We are also advocating for reducing age of consent for non-coercive relations between adolescent peers, and access to sexual and reproductive information and services. Two noteworthy aspects of policy advocacy, evident from this example are – the need for cross sectoral evidence gathering and coalition building, as a range of stakeholders are invested in preventing criminalisation of young persons, while ensuring those from poor populations have access to adequate resources and opportunities.

This concerted policy action became necessary for us to carry out at national levels and beyond as much of the global efforts to eliminate child and early marriage focus on punitive no-exception laws, when in fact, across contexts, there is growing evidence of the harmful impact of law on its young beneficiaries.

What kinds of challenges are most common in your area of work in gender policy?

My work has largely been on violence against women, and more recently in relation to early marriage, where the dominant policy approaches rely on punitive laws. Criminalisation is a necessary though limited response – which needs to be combined with restorative and preventive approaches to be effective. Yet, the frustration with an unresponsive criminal justice system leads to periodic calls for higher punishments and more stringent laws, expanding the reach of criminalisation. In contrast, much less attention has been placed on victim centric support services, and structural interventions that seek alter the inequalities from which gender based violence arises. This gap has come to hurt us with Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns, with victims of domestic violence having scarcely any safe spaces to turn to, a breakdown of counselling services and helplines; and reports of early marriage being on the rise with increased impoverishment, closure of schools, and adolescents from poor populations without access to digital connectivity, being left entirely without education. The public health and economic crisis, has made it clearer than ever, that responses to gender based violence cannot be limited to criminalisation, but must in fact, pay equal attention if not more attention to provisioning restorative justice and transforming structural injustice.

Congratulations Madhu and best of luck for the future work of PLD.

Thu 27 May 2021, 17:00 | Tags: Alumni