Two teams of California State University, Northridge students tomorrow will present to members of the United Nations, their representatives and grassroots organizations from around the world on the criminalization of gender. They will present via Zoom at the 67th Non-Governmental Organizations’ Committee on the Status of Women, New York Forum, where international grassroots organizations and activists discuss gender equality, women’s rights and the empowerment of women.
The forum — which takes place at the same time as the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women — was conceived to add more context and perspective to narratives provided at the UN commission. The forum hosts many attendees who also have seats on the commission, offering opportunities to learn about a wider range of issues from perspectives of grassroots organizers and those who identify as women.
The event consists of hundreds of sessions from March 6-17, hosted by non-governmental organizations. The CSUN teams will present via Zoom from 4 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, March 15.
This year, the UN commission has chosen innovation, technological change and education in the digital age as the primary theme. L. Denice Labertew, a lecturer in CSUN’s Department Criminology and Justice Studies and advocate for women’s rights, and her students will highlight these issues during a portion of the Women Lead Network’s session. They plan to discuss non-consensual sterilization in women’s prisons and the criminalization of self-defense for survivors of gender-based violence
“Criminalization is the way that society determines what we consider criminal and who should be punished by our governmental enforcement agencies,” said Labertew, who teaches in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “Therefore, the process of criminalization is this thing that we use to ensure that our social contract is understood and enforced. Despite a largely held belief that this process is neutral, it is most definitely not.”
The students presenting are in Labertew’s “Human Rights Crime and Justice” class, a field-experience course at the university. She said the class functions like an internship, examining concepts of criminology and justice from a perspective that emphasizes justice, advocacy and the importance of using a human-rights-based framework.
Many of the resources Labertew provides her students are based on a human rights model. The lecturer asks that they investigate the idea that “we all have inherent rights as human beings,” questioning the idea that governments grant certain individuals civil rights. “Thinking about what we should have access to based on human dignity can allow us a much broader spectrum in terms of advocacy work, and could truly change how we approach our work around systemic societal issues,” she said.
Fourth-year criminology and justice studies major Kayla Jeffress, who is minoring in psychology, is on one of the teams presenting at the forum. Her team plans to discuss non-consensual sterilization, focusing on how reparations could be made to the women who were formerly incarcerated.
Jeffress and her peers noted a bill signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in January 2021, introducing an involuntary sterilization compensation program — which designated $45 million for the victims of forced sterilization. For victims to receive the monetary compensation, they have to apply for the funds and provide proof of the procedure. Many of the women who had been formerly incarcerated do not have access to their medical records or do not know what happened to them. Some women in prison facilities were still being sterilized against their will as late as 2013, she explained.
“We’re constantly trying to understand, not only how these systemic injustices affect one group — women, people of color, etcetera — but we’re using the framework provided by Professor Labertew, and analyzing the issues while asking, ‘how is this a human rights violation?’” Jeffress said. “The discussion of these issues, and practicing these skills, go way beyond this class assignment.”
The second group will discuss survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, highlighting the criminal treatment and unjust sentencing experienced by women who defended themselves against their abusers.
“This is not just for a grade — the work that we’re doing is set to make a difference,” Jeffress said. “When we talk about human rights or human rights violations, the way we learn things is very United States-centric, and we often don’t acknowledge the faults in our own country’s history. It’s time to look at ourselves — we need to be looking at the United States and we need to be looking at California — because we can no longer pretend that we’re not culpable.”