University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

An Interview with Shannon Drysdale Walsh, August 15, 2012

Residential Fellow Shannon Drysdale Walsh
“Engendering State Institutions: State Response to Violence Against Women in Latin America”

IAS staff writer Amir Hussain met with IAS Residential Fellow Shannon Walsh to learn about the book project she is working on during her residency at the IAS.

Amir Hussain: Can you describe your project and what led you to the project?

Shannon Walsh: Violence against women in Latin America has been increasing, particularly in the northern triangle, which is Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I first came across a report from Amnesty International on femicides (the murder of women) in Guatemala in 2005 – “No Protection, No Justice: Killings of Women in Guatemala.” When I came across this article in particular, it highlighted the widespread impunity for these crimes, and prompted me to undertake this as an area of research. Violence against women is generally understood as gender-based violence that results or likely results in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering. While women are in a particularly vulnerable structural position to become victims of violence, there is also a context of impunity for violence against women in many countries around the world. For example, the conviction rate for femicides in Guatemala is less than 2%. So, less than 2% of femicides ever get solved or ever have someone held accountable, sentenced, or found culpable for those crimes. There are very weak legal or justice system-based deterrents for committing acts of violence against women. I arrived in Guatemala for the first time in 2004 and conducted more extensive research in Central America in 2006. If I had just gone to Guatemala, I would have thought that the issues of violence against women and impunity for crimes against women were a problem of the state and were a problem of the rule of law. I would have thought it was an artifact Guatemala’s lack of rule of law, low responsiveness to crime, and weak state institutions in general.

However, in 2006 I had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica and make this a comparative study. Looking comparatively, I found that all three of these states had relatively weak responsiveness to violence against women but that Nicaragua, in particular—which is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and doesn’t have a particularly strong state—had been able to develop this network of women’s police stations (called Comisarías de la Mujer y Niñez). I should mention that these police stations are run by women for women to address crimes against women and children. By now there are over fifty women’s police stations throughout Nicaragua. So I found that there was this interesting variation of how states were responding to violence against women, and I wanted to explain this difference. It was only in looking comparatively across these three states that I was able to see that it wasn’t just local level forces or international forces that were driving the creation of public policy or the implementation of public policy, but it was transnational advocacy networks that were providing many things—training, information, models, funding, and political pressure—in order to counteract states’ lack of political will and lack of local resources that were obstacles for institution building. For example, in Nicaragua, women in the state as well as in the women’s movement went to Brazil with international funding and learned how Brazil had built their women’s police stations.They brought this information back as a model, or at least as an example, for how this might be able to be done in Nicaragua.

AH: In what ways does your book project hope to contribute to the development of this issue?

SW: This book has a focus on scholarship, but I also draw out policy implications as well as the implications for advocacy on the transnational level. In terms of advocacy and policy implementation, one of the implications is that there’s a need for a stronger coordination between international organizations, international donors, and local organizations and the kind of coordination that situates local organizations in a position of power to formulate responses to violence against women that are appropriate for their own particular context. Local advocates are really the ones who know what’s best. So, if international organizations and international donors can have more contact on the ground and allow local advocates to guide policy change and to guide policy implementation, then it’s going to be more effective.

As far as policy is concerned, I advocate creating the strongest legislation possible, and having local activists create that legislation because they are most aware of how to overcome potential obstacles to policy creation implementation. It is generally better when legislation specifically address some of the root causes of violence against women and women’s vulnerability to violence – such as a widespread context of inequality and women’s lack of access to economic and political power – so that the language of the law can be used to raise awareness and prompt activities that address these more fundamental underlying problems. Laws in-and-of-themselves may not seem that important when looking at policy implementation, but in fact the laws provide one of the most important foundations for advocacy. If you don’t have a law on the books then you have a more difficult time arguing that the state is not living up to its obligations to protect women. Local organizations need to—and do—use these laws as leverage for holding states accountable to their obligations to citizens that are rooted in local law.

The scholarly contribution of this work is in the creation of a theoretical framework for understanding how states build institutions when they lack the political will and the resources to do so. How do we explain why and how states that lack political will and resources construct something like the women’s police stations in Nicaragua? Or the domestic violence courts in Costa Rica? Looking at Central American cases is crucial—Central America tends to be a forgotten region in many ways. There are lots of examples of scholars who have explained the creation of institutions at the local level but there’s not much scholarly work that explains institution building for addressing violence against women comparatively across this kind of context. I argue that transnational advocacy networks overcome a lack of political will and lack of resources by providing pressure, funding, and information that help to create and utilize political opportunities for creating specialized women’s institutions (such as specialized policing units and stations for women). I argue that the history and strength of transnational advocacy networking determines the creation and performance of these new state institutions.

This theoretical framework helps explain not only this particular case of how we build institutions to help prevent and address violence against women, it also explains how we would expect states to build institutions to help other marginalized groups. For example, there has been a lot of activism to protect indigenous populations in Latin America, and I would expect this would also be applicable to any case where you have a marginalized group fighting for responsiveness to marginalization within the state. It’s a puzzle because the state itself is often responsible for the marginalization, and what you’re trying to explain is the conditions under which the state will address and counteract marginalization within its own institutional structures. There are people who would argue that state institutions are the problem and should not be part of the solution. But I don’t agree. I think building state institutions that address marginalized groups is an important tool among many for prompting political and social change. They are necessary for achieving justice for victims and survivors.

AH: What makes the IAS a good home to support this project?

SW: I’m really fortunate to have the fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study because it gives me the time and the space that I need to revise the manuscript and is home for a great group of people. The IAS is a special place because you have a group of scholars that are interdisciplinary so you’re learning to speak to a much broader audience than what you’re accustomed to. I want this book to be accessible not only to my fellow scholars in Political Science, but I want it to be accessible to activists and graduate students, and people outside of my field. I’m looking forward to the lessons that I can learn about my own project and to gaining inspiration from the work of the other scholars here.

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