The rights stuff

Globetrotting lecturer Alice Edwards has won a major prize for her research into legal responses to violence against women

January 8, 2009

An article challenging international attitudes to violence against women has earned a University of Nottingham law lecturer a major international prize. Alice Edwards has won the Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship in the Human Rights of Women for her article published this month in the Texas Journal of Women and the Law.

Australian-born Ms Edwards, who submitted her PhD thesis to the Australian National University just before Christmas, graduated from the University of Tasmania in political science and law. She then embarked on the young Australian's traditional rite of passage, the backpacking tour, in 1996. In Geneva, she "stumbled across" the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where she took up an internship, and has worked in human rights ever since.

"The human rights field is one where you have to carve your own career path. It's a joy in that you can decide what you want to do, but at the same time there's no set route or job to apply for," she said.

She has worked in some of the world's most troubled areas, including Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and was impressed by the contribution of academics at round-table meetings. "They really play an important role in human rights. Their work is not just being read by other academics, but is at the cutting edge of policy development, with a real impact on the field of refugee law and human rights."

She broadened her horizons by taking a masters at Nottingham in 2002, and has stayed on in higher education.

"You get the best of both worlds. I love teaching, and do a lot of training for NGOs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I'm able to consult with the UNHCR, and regularly write pieces for them and still draft some of their guidelines," she said. "And with my background, I find my research is grounded in practice. I'm aware that this is an area where people's lives are at risk."

Her prize-winning article argues that women are disadvantaged by the lack of an explicit prohibition outlawing violence against them in any UN human rights treaties. Some bodies have argued that violence against women should be subsumed under sex discrimination, which is recognised under international law. But Ms Edwards disagrees. "While this has been a pragmatic solution to a gap in the law, in reality it's a real strain and a stretch to do it."

Women are treated unequally because they have to satisfy extra criteria, which have usually been created with men rather than women in mind, she said.

"In many ways, women are distorting their experiences so they can receive international recognition for harms done."

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