Gender-rights expert says systemic changes needed

Juhu Thukral delivers inaugural Anita Hill Annual Lecture in Gender Justice

Photos/Mike Lovett

Juhu Thukral, left, said she is a 'superfan' of Professor Anita Hill.

A leading expert in sexual rights and gender-based violence told a packed Rapaporte Treasure Hall that issues arising from gender inequality must be treated as systemic problems, and preventative, not just reactionary, measures are needed.

Juhu Thukral, the director of law and advocacy for The Opportunity Agenda, delivered the inaugural Anita Hill Annual Lecture on Gender Justice on campus Jan. 30. The new series, sponsored by the feminist activist group Soapbox Inc. was inspired by last year’s conference “Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later,” and will be hosted by a different university each year.

In her lecture, “Gender. Sex. Money. New Frontiers in the Fight for Sexual Rights,” Thukral said that sex workers generally choose that course as the best of poor options, though a small number are coerced through violence or threats. She suggested that better education, services, housing and immigration policy changes are needed to prevent incidents of sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking. 

“Our initial reaction is that we always want to punish those who have done wrong,” Thukral said. “But we need to be treating these issues as systemic problems.”

Thukral explained that many inequalities stem from cultural beliefs about women’s real or imagined sexual power and the preservation of chastity. Thukral’s interest in the disparities began with her own upbringing in an immigrant Indian family where she saw inequalities firsthand. She now works to prevent and help victims of gender-based crime recover.

“We have to name it,” she said. “In America today, we still live in a society that devalues women,” albeit in less obvious ways than decades past.

Referencing recent incidents of sexual violence in Delhi, India, and Steubenville, Ohio, which have made national headlines, Thukral said even her own gut instinct was to hope “life” prison sentences were handed down to the perpetrators, before reminding herself, “Oh, yeah, I don’t believe in that.”

She said the justice system sometimes does more harm than good, as many of the women she works with at The Opportunity Agenda, which works to build public support and public policy for greater equality in America, were repeatedly arrested in raids but never identified as victims, perpetuating and aggravating the cycle of exploitation. Victims, who have firsthand knowledge of the problems, also need to be part of the process to prevent future violence and exploitation, she said.

Collaboration on all fronts is important, Thukral said.

“We have more opportunity to create cultural and media output,” she said as one method of beginning to change societal views on sexual rights, and suggested people look to collaborate with others who have creative skill-sets that would help get ideas of gender equality to across to a broader audience.

Hill, of whom Thukral is a self-professed “superfan,” spoke after the lecture, saying she was “deeply, deeply humbled and moved by even the idea of today’s lecture being named for me and even more by the content."

“We wanted a thinker as well as a practitioner…to speak not only to my generation but to younger generations,” Hill said, complimenting the committee's choice of Thukral.

Hill said Thukral’s remarks reminded her of the need for a “continuation of collaboration of practitioners and scholars” and specified that more research is needed on the lives of people being trafficked, for example.

“Bravery is not something you do once, it’s something you do throughout your life,” Hill said, adding that she hopes the talk inspired people to do brave work, to be the researcher who delves into subjects that make others uncomfortable, to live bolder lives.

“The ideas of Eleanor Roosevelt and Justice [Louis] Brandeis are alive and evolving to meet 21st-century” ideas, Hill said.

In closing remarks, President Fred Lawrence, who has known Hill since they were law school classmates, said Hill is a great namesake for the series and a prime example of “theory and practice reinforcing each other.”

He also echoed praise for Thukral’s work.

“Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,’ and you have lit more than one candle,” Lawrence said.

The event was brought to campus by the Office of the Provost, in conjunction with the Office of the President, Women’s and Gender Studies, African and Afro-American Studies and the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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