Remaking the Rules: Bureaucratic Discretion and Women’s Rights

In her thought-provoking working paper, Lina Buchely makes the case for a new understanding of “bureaucratic activism” through a case study of women who work in Colombia’s Community Welfare Houses (CWH), a state-funded social program intended to improve the health and education of children. Bureaucratic activism is usually understood as the actions of state officials which are outside or explicitly against established laws; for example, a police officer who does not follow an existing protocol for handling a domestic violence case. Buchely demonstrates how many of these women, known as “community mothers,” exercise significant discretion in their role as “street level bureaucrats,” calling into question the “inevitability and certainty of the rule of the law” (p. 7). For example, although the stated aim of the CWHs is to benefit children, activist community mothers articulate and act upon an alternative vision of their work—supporting the needs of other women. Buchely’s analysis has many implications for the design of community programs intended to enhance welfare.

Given the decentralized nature of the program (which is run out of women’s homes) and their affiliation with a prominent government ministry, community mothers possess significant discretion which they regularly exercise to subvert program criteria, such as the program’s hours of operation or the acceptance/rejection of certain children. Early in the paper, Buchely provocatively claims, “community mothers benefit both from belonging and not belonging to the State” (p. 8). However, the text does not flesh out this intriguing assertion (one that might find echoes in the work of sociologist Nancy Naples), but rather illustrates how the discretion of community mothers manifests itself, and explicates a typology of bureaucratic activism based on (1) the social networks of community mothers and (2) their awareness of their discretionary authority.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, some scholars and policy makers assume that laws will be implemented exactly as written. Buchely explicitly seeks to combat this bias, and yet at times unwittingly follows a similar logic, noting for example that “daily life in the CWH is not mediated by…technical guideline[s] as would be expected” (p. 11; emphasis mine).

Why should we expect people to follow laws or policies precisely as written or intended? I think that we should expect that subjective decision-making and informal transactions of state and quasi-state actors in street level bureaucracies permeates much of their everyday routines. If we assume that contradictions between policy and practice are actually quite common, we can move beyond explaining why people don’t follow a particular policy, and instead try to explain why they do what they do, and what the various unintended consequences of these actions may be for differently situated individuals and communities.

In this vein, Buchely’s work prompted several important questions. What conditions affect the discretion exercised by street-level bureaucrats? In this instance, discretion may be paradoxically enabled by the state’s limited capacity for oversight and the considerable respect that affiliation with this specific program afforded community mothers in their neighborhoods. Would a less desirable government program with low oversight produce a similar kind of bureaucratic activism? How might these dynamics differ in the context of a highly politicized bureaucracy?

Here I think of my own research on the case of Nicaragua, which recently instituted neighborhood level “Family Councils” (Gabinetes de Familia), affiliated with the ruling Sandinista party, which are now charged with hearing gender-based violence cases before they go to the police. This worrisome development means that the already high levels of bureaucratic discretion found within Nicaragua’s criminal justice system will now be extended to highly political neighborhood groups which are unlikely to take women’s claims of domestic violence seriously. Indeed, even within Nicaragua’s specialized comisarias (women’s police stations, where the police are all women), the claims of women victims are often met with suspicion.

Workshop run by a feminist organization in Nicaragua on laws addressing violence against women

Workshop run by a feminist organization in Nicaragua on laws addressing violence against women

One particular incident I observed during my fieldwork exemplifies this dynamic. One morning as I sat in the waiting room of a local comisaria, a woman in her early 20s came in, clearly experiencing emotional distress. As she tearfully described her situation, the captain interjected, telling her she should go to a therapist first and return to the police when she knew what she wanted. In this situation, the official perceived the young woman’s emotional vulnerability as evidence that she was not yet prepared for the grueling legal process. This official used her discretion to punish the young woman for her perceived weakness rather than come to her aid. Over time, these kinds of practices reproduce particular hierarchies of femininity which limit some women’s access to legal justice.

Given these realities, is there not a risk that certain kinds of bureaucratic discretion may reproduce gendered, racial, and class-based hierarchies? For example, Buchely notes that community mothers tend to prefer the children of friends and family members, and actively seek to exclude or expel “bad people” (p. 19). This demonstrates that women and families with greater social capital (e.g. positive relationships with community mothers) are more likely to receive preferential treatment. Although activist community mothers intend to support women’s reproductive labor, clearly not all women and children are deemed worthy of such assistance. Thus, even within a fairly homogenous neighborhood, community mothers may perpetuate certain forms of social exclusion. In my view, more systematic attention is needed to these less positive implications to balance the author’s generally favorable portrayal of activist community mothers. Future research should address these questions by examining how different forms of bureaucratic discretion mitigate or exacerbate gender and racial inequalities.

Pamela Neumann

Pamela Neumann is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas, Austin. Her current research examines women’s experiences navigating the judicial process in Nicaragua in cases of domestic violence. She has also conducted research in Peru on community perceptions of environmental contamination. Her work has been published in Gender & Society, Social Problems, Qualitative Sociology, and Latin American Politics and Society. Pamela is also a co-author of Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City (UT Press). Her paper “‘We are not retarded’: Explaining Collective Inaction in a Company Town” won the SSSP’s Conflict, Social Action, and Change Graduate Student Paper Award in 2015.

#2/2015: Lina Buchely, “Bureaucratic activism and Colombian community mothers: The daily construction of the rule of law”

PDF: Lina Buchely, “Bureaucratic activism and Colombian community mothers”


Whereas mainstream literature affirms that the rule of law is an abstract concept that comes from democracy and liberal institutional systems, people in the local Global South do not experience this certainty. In some ways, the rule of law is a product of the daily life transactions and bargains of social actors. This article analyzes the case of community mothers as street-level bureaucrats who produce the rule of law in their local spaces, within an institutional or democratic mechanism. This case study of community mothers, developed between June 2012 and February 2013, shows how street-level bureaucrats use the rule of law as a tool of empowerment. Community mothers display an undocumented agency that develops a feminist agenda of helping fellow women, contrary to the government agenda that promotes childcare and the early childhood program policies. In this sense, the fieldwork undertaken portrays mothers and children as conflicting actors. Despite this, the social policy hides this conflict reproducing the normative image that ideologically links mothers with their children. The results of this research project reveal, therefore, that the local agents as the street level bureaucrats play an unexpected role in the power dynamics inherent to the rule of law.

Keywords: community mothers, feminism, Latin America, street level bureaucracy, rule of law

#1/2015: Carla Silva-Muhammad, “Eliciting Self-determination: The Kayapo Mobilization Through Activism and Global Indigenous Media”

PDF: Silva-Muhammad, “Eliciting Self-determination”


Exactly how do indigenous actors elicit the right of self-determination as inherited, and to what extent does such agency reconstitute or validate human rights norms? This essay proposes that within their unique project of self-representation and activism, the Kayapo indigenous society is indeed reformulating the concept of self-determination. I suggest that by denouncing injustice and human rights violations through self-documentation and use of global indigenous media, protests, and political alliances, this indigenous group is not only claiming reparations from the Brazilian government, but also reshaping the language of human rights. Moreover, this essay explores how the Kayapo communities engage in activism pertaining to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, developing an international political identity in order to guarantee their right to self-determination and survival.

Keywords: indigenous peoples, self-determination, collective rights, global indigenous media

#2/2014: Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, “Human Security and Women’s Human Rights: Reinforcing Protection in the Context of Violence Against Women”

PDF: Estrada-Tanck, “Human Security and Women’s Human Rights”


Considering the human security approach to critical risks and vulnerabilities, this paper explores violence against women as one of the most pervasive and widespread threats worldwide. While there is a general understanding that the human security analysis and the human rights legal framework intersect, so far the ways in which the two concepts can mutually reinforce each other has rarely been assessed. Thus, this paper looks more closely at the UN conception of human security in relation specifically to violence against women. It reflects critically on how a gendered human security would have to be shaped and studies its connection with human rights, covering the UN and regional normative landscapes and reviewing paradigmatic cases by the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights as exemplifying some of the potentials of the human security-human rights symbiosis. The concept of violence against women, strongly developed by international human rights law, has seldom been contemplated explicitly in human security concerns of violence. This text then examines the consequences of applying a human security lens to the legal analysis of violence against women and their human rights, and of including the human rights definition of violence against women within the human security sphere. In doing so, it spells out the added value of this dialogue and brings to light the synergies between human security and the human rights of women experiencing structural vulnerability in everyday life.

Keywords: women’s rights; violence against women; human security

#1/2014: Aziz Rana, “Constitutionalism and the Foundations of the Security State”

PDF: Rana, “Constitutionalism and the Foundations of the Security State”


Scholars often argue that the culture of American constitutionalism provides an important constraint on aggressive national security practices. This article challenges the conventional account by highlighting instead how modern constitutional reverence emerged in tandem with the national security state, functioning critically to reinforce and legitimate government power rather than simply to place limits on it. This unacknowledged security origin of today’s constitutional climate speaks to a profound ambiguity in the type of public culture ultimately promoted by the Constitution. Scholars are clearly right to note that constitutional loyalty has created political space for arguments more respectful of civil rights and civil liberties, making the very worst excesses of the past less likely. But at the same time, public discussion around protecting the Constitution – and with it a distinctively American way of life – has also served as a key justification for strengthening the government’s security infrastructure over the long run.

Rana argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, significant popular skepticism actually existed concerning the basic legitimacy of the Constitution. But against the backdrop of World War I and the Russian Revolution, a combination of corporate, legal, and military elites initiated a concerted campaign to establish constitutional support as the paramount prerequisite of loyal citizenship. Crucially, such elites viewed the entrenchment of constitutional commitment as fundamentally a national security imperative; they called for dramatically and permanently extending the reach of the federal government’s coercive apparatus. In the process, defenders of the Constitution reproduced many of the practices we most associate with extremism and wartime xenophobia: imposed deference and ideological uniformity, appeals to exceptionalism and cultural particularity, militarism, and political repression. Moreover, the problem with such World War I origins for today’s constitutional climate is not simply that of a troubling but distant past. Rather, the foundations developed nearly a century ago continue to intertwine constitutional attachment with the prerogatives of the national security state in ways that often go unnoticed – emphasizing the real difficulties of separating the liberal and illiberal dimensions of American constitutional culture.

Keywords: constitutionalism; national security state; American constitutional culture

#1/2013: Kali Yuan, “Translating Rights into Agency: Advocacy, Aid and the Domestic Workers Convention”

PDF: Yuan, “Translating Rights into Agency: Advocacy, Aid and the Domestic Workers Convention”


In June 2011, the International Labor Conference adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (the Convention), the first international labor standard to set out legal obligations that specifically protect and improve the working lives of domestic workers. This paper argues that previous regulatory attempts to protect domestic workers have been inadequate and, although it is an improvement, the Convention is currently also an insufficient legal instrument. However, although the Convention is not yet in force, educational and advocacy work on this legal instrument are already underway. For example, in September 2011, I volunteered as an advocacy officer with the recently-established Working Women’s Centre Timor Leste on its first project, providing education, support and advocacy based on the rights expressed in the Convention to domestic workers in Dili and four other rural Districts. My experiences while working with this project suggested that a convention, as a legal instrument, can still have significant impact at a grassroots level without reliance on its legal mechanisms. This paper argues that the Convention may still be effective in improving the lives of domestic workers, by changing norms at the grassroots level. Crucially, the degree of effectiveness will depend on how successfully the Convention’s norms can be translated into local contexts.  But there are tensions within the process of translation: between remaking rights resonantly and faithfully; between affecting local consciousness and retaining the essence of the Convention’s rights. How then to successfully harness the normative power of the Convention? This paper considers Community Conversations – a radical, participatory approach where domestic workers themselves drive the translation process – as one method of negotiating the tension inherent in translation. Such an approach may effectively engender the key Convention rights of solidarity and collective industrial agency. Through this approach, the normative power of the Convention’s legal obligations may successfully affect the protection of labor rights at the grassroots level.

Keywords: Domestic workers; labor rights; participatory development; law and society


El junio de 2011, la Organización Internacional del Trabajo adoptó elConvenio sobre las Trabajadoras y los Trabajadores Domésticos, el primer estándar laboral internacional que incluye obligaciones legales especificas para proteger y mejorar las vidas de trabajadores domésticos.  Este artículo sostiene que los anteriores intentos de reglamentación para proteger a los derechos de los trabajadores domésticos no han sido suficientes, y que aunque es una mejora, el Convenio es actualmente un instrumento jurídico insuficiente. Sin embargo, a pesar de que el Convenio no ha entrado en vigor, la labor educativa y de promoción de este instrumento legal ya están en marcha.  Por ejemplo, en septiembre de 2011, trabaje de manera voluntaria como encargada de labores de apoyo y defensa en el primer proyecto del recientemente establecido Centro de Trabajo de las Mujeres de Timor Leste, proporcionando educación, apoyo y defensa basada en los derechos del Convenio para trabajadores domésticos en Dili y otros cuatro distritos rurales.   Mis experiencias trabajando con este proyecto sugieren que un convenio, como un instrumento legal, aun puede tener un impacto importante al nivel local sin depender de los mecanismos legales.  Este artículo sostiene que el Convenio todavía puede ser efectivo para mejorar las vidas de trabajadores domésticos, mediante el cambio de normas al nivel local.  Fundamentalmente, el grado de eficacia dependerá de cuan efectivamente las normas del Convenio puedan ser traducidas al nivel local.  Pero existen tensiones dentro del proceso de traducción: entre reconstruir esos derechos resonantemente y fielmente al mismo tiempo; entre afectar la conciencia local y mantener la esencia de los derechos del Convenio. Entonces, ¿cómo aprovechar con éxito el poder normativo del Convenio?  Este artículo considera las Conversaciones Comunitarias – un enfoque radical y participatorio donde los mismos trabajadores domésticos manejan el proceso – como un método para negociar la tensión inherente en la traducción.  Quizás aún más fundamentalmente, esta metodología puede generar derechos claves del Convenio tales como solidaridad y agencia industrial colectiva.  A través de esta metodología, la fuerza normativa de las obligaciones legales del Convenio puede contribuir a la protección de los derechos laborales de los trabajadores domésticos.

Palabras claves:  Trabajadores domésticos; derechos laborales; desarrollo participativo; derecho y sociedad

About the author:
Kali Yuan completed a Juris Doctor (Honours, 1st Class) at the Australian National University in 2012.   Prior to undertaking the graduate law program, she completed a Bachelor of International Studies (Development Studies) at the University of New South Wales in 2008.  Since late 2010, Yuan has worked at the Australian Attorney-General’s Department in the Human Rights Policy Branch and Indigenous Justice and Community Safety Branch.  Yuan has worked at the employment law firm Slater & Gordon and will begin working at the Australian Agency for International Development in 2013.  Yuan’s academic and professional interests include gender, labour law, international human rights law, and international development and aid.

#6/2012 Knop, “International Law and the Disaggregated Democratic State: Two Case-Studies on Women’s Human Rights and the United States”

PDF: Knop, “International Law and the Disaggregated Democratic State”


The two United States case studies in this paper demonstrate that whether or not a state is party to a particular treaty, in a disaggregated democratic state both the central government and different parts of the state have a remarkable range of possibilities for configuring their law and politics around that treaty and thereby configuring the contours of the state internationally.  The cases center on women’s human rights: San Francisco’s “implementation” of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), despite the fact that the United States is not a party; and the work of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bi-partisan federal agency which advises the President on sanctioning other countries for severe violations of the international right to religious freedom and is increasingly taking on issues of women’s equality in that context.

The paper shows that the normative effects produced by San Francisco’s CEDAW initiative are not well captured by existing schematic approaches to the behaviour of sub-state actors, which tend to apply either a linear measure of compliance with international law or some general idea about good and/or bad local variation.  Applying a more ethnographic alertness to mutation and transposition, the analysis reveals that in the case of USCIRF as well, the result is both under- and ultra-compliance as these sub-state actors transform the substantive content of the treaty.   The hallmark of both cases, however, proves to be more the replication of the treaty’s form than the application of its substance.

KEYWORDS: human rights; gender; United States

About the author:
Karen Knop is a Professor of Law at the University of Toronto.  An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference “We, the Peoples: Engagement and Participation in Government” held at Victoria University of Wellington Law Faculty/New Zealand Centre for Public Law.  This paper is dedicated to Martha Morgan with admiration and affection.

#5/2012: Karen Engle, “Self-critique, (Anti)politics and Criminalization: Reflections on the History and Trajectory of the Human Rights Movement”

PDF: Engle, “Self-critique, (Anti)politics and Criminalization”

This article is a forthcoming chapter in a volume edited by José Maria Benyeto and David Kennedy. The book is entitled New Approaches to International Law: The European and American Experiences and is to be published by T.M.C. Asser Instituut.


Today’s human rights movement places the fight against impunity at its center.  Such a focus is the culmination of a governance project in which the movement has been engaged for close to two decades that puts an enormous amount of attention on and faith in criminal justice systems—international, transnational and domestic.  This article situates the fight against impunity in the history and trajectory of the human rights movement from the 1970s until today.  It argues that the movement’s early ideology of antipolitics has reemerged in recent years, functioning to defer—even suppress—substantive debates over visions of social justice, even while relying on criminal justice systems of which the movement has long been critical.

Keywords: anti-impunity; amnesty; human rights movement; Uruguay; Inter-American Court; international criminal law


El movimiento de derechos humanos hoy en día se centra en la lucha contra la impunidad.  Este enfoque es la culminación de un proyecto de gobernanza que viene desarrollando el movimiento por casi dos décadas, y que pone una enorme cantidad de atención y fe en los sistemas de justicia penal—internacional, transnacional y nacional.  Este artículo sitúa la lucha contra la impunidad dentro de la historia y trayectoria del movimiento de derechos humanos desde los 1970s hasta la actualidad.  Se argumenta que la ideología antipolítica que detentaba el movimiento en sus comienzos ha resurgido en los últimos años, y que aplaza o suprime debates substantivos sobre distintas visiones de la justicia social, al mismo tiempo que se apoya en sistemas de justicia penal de los cuales el movimiento ha sido crítico durante mucho tiempo.

Palabras claves: lucha contra la impunidad; amnistía; movimiento de derechos humanos; Uruguay; La Corte Interamericana; derecho penal internacional

About the author:
Karen Engle, Minerva House Drysdale Regents Chair in Law, Founder and Co-Director, Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice. University of Texas.
Email: KEngle at

#4/2012: John D. Ciorciari, “Archiving Memory After Mass Atrocities”

PDF: Ciorciari, “Archiving Memory After Mass Atrocities”


Archiving and disseminating records of past atrocities is crucial in societies emerging from periods of conflict or repressive rule.  It advances victims’ “right to the truth” and promotes broader social goals of accountability and historical truth.  This working paper explores legal and policy issues that arise when collections of documents pertaining to past atrocities are discovered in societies emerging from civil war, state collapse, or dire misrule.  It argues for a foundational approach to documentation focused on sound archival methodology and the application of a transparent set of norms as fairly as possible to build a credible base for accountability and accurate historical memory.  The paper considers the difficult questions of who should lead such efforts, how the interests of preservation and dissemination can best be advanced, and how to deal with concerns pertaining to privacy and national security. To develop the argument for a foundational approach, the paper draws on examples from a number of cases, including Cambodia, Guatemala, Iraq, Paraguay, Serbia, and others.

Keywords: documentation, archives, human rights, transitional justice, right to the truth, duty to record


El archivo y difusión de los registros de las atrocidades del pasado es fundamental en las sociedades que emergen de períodos de conflicto o gobierno represivo.  Se avanza a las victimas el “derecho de la verdad” y promueve objetos sociales de la rendición de cuentas y la verdad histórica.  Este ensayo investiga cuestiones jurídicas y políticas que surgen cunado las colecciones de documentos sobre las atrocidades del pasado se descubrió en las sociedades que emergen de guerra civil, colapso del estado o desgobierno.  Se aboga por un enfoque fundacional a la documentación centrado en una metodología sólida de archivo y la aplicación de un conjunto transparente de normas para construir un base creíble por la arendición de cuentas y la memoria histórica precisa.  El ensayo considera las preguntas difíciles sobre quién debe dirigir estos esfuerzos, cómo los intereses de preservación y difusión se puede avanzar, y cómo se puede manejar las preocupaciones relativas a la privacidad y la seguridad nacional.  Para desarrollar el argumento por un enfoque fundacional, este ensayo se basa en ejemplos de una serie de casos, entre ellos Camboya, Guatemala, Irak, Paraguay, Serbia, entre otros.

Palabras claves: Documentación, archivos, derechos humanos, justicia de transición, derecho a la verdad, deber de constancia

Author’s contact information:
John D. Ciorciari, joncior at

#3/2012: Joyce Wu, “‘The People Follow the Mullah, and the Mullah Follows the People’: Politics of Aid and Gender in Afghanistan post-2001″

PDF: Wu, “The People Follow the Mullah, and the Mullah Follows the People”

Joyce Wu’s paper was the runner-up in the 2011 Audre Rapoport Prize for Scholarship on Gender and Human Rights writing competition. The piece has also recently been published in an edited volume concerning gender and occupation.

© 2012 From Gender, Power, and Military Occupations: Asia Pacific and the Middle East since 1945 by Christine De Matos and Rowena Ward. Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa pic.


This article is based on two months of fieldwork conducted in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2010. It is a feminist reflection on the politics of aid, gender, and religion within the context of civil society organizations’ efforts to address violence against women in Afghanistan. As gender and ending violence against women are “sensitive” topics in the country, donors increasingly adopt an Islamic framework when engaging with men and local communities. While Afghan women’s organizations have always engaged with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, amongst whom are the religious clerics and scholars, I argue that a donor-driven approach that treats Islam as the only entry-point not only simplifies the complexities of Islam, but it also creates a distinction between “religious” vs. “secular” dichotomy which makes the work of local women’s organisations and activists even more challenging as their engagement strategies are narrowed.

Keywords: Afghanistan; faith-based approach; men and development; women’s rights


Este articulo se basa en dos meses de trabajo de campo llevado a cabo en Kabul, Afganistán en 2010.  Se trata de una reflección feminista sobre la política de ayuda, del género y de la religión en el contexto de los esfuerzos de las organizaciones de sociedad civil para hacer frente a la violencia contra las mujeres en Afganistán.  En cuanto al género y la eliminación de violencia contra las mujeres son temes “sensibles” en el país, los donantes adoptan cada vez más un marco Islamista al tratar con los hombres y las comunidades locales.  Mientras las organizaciones de mujeres afganas siempre han comprometido con un amplio espectro de partes interesadas, entre los cuales están clérigos religiosos y académicos, yo sostengo que un enfoque impulsado por los donantes que trata el Islam como el único punto de entrada no sólo simplifica las complejidades del Islam, pero también crea una distinción entre el “religioso” frente “secular” dicotomía que hace que el trabajo de las organizaciones locales de mujeres y activistas aun más difícil como sus estrategias de participación se estrechan.

Palabras Claves: Afganistán; el enfoque religioso; los hombres y desarrollo; los derechos de las mujeres

Author’s contact information:
Joyce Wu, joyce.wu at