The Importance of an Intersectional Approach to Justice Reform

Posted on August 21, 2019 | Cherice Hopkins, Rights4Girls

Youth participate in activities about the prison system and school discipline at a Love Us. Don’t Harm Us. workshop on racial and gender equity.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our Equitable Justice grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. Learn more about these powerful organizations by visiting their websites.

Rights4Girls is a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization dedicated to protecting the rights of marginalized young women and girls in the U.S. Founded in 2011, Rights4Girls has been at the forefront of juvenile justice reform by working to change the narratives as well as policies that allow girls to be criminalized when they are victimized, and advocate for approaches that provide girls and young people with safety and support. Our strategic approach includes advocating for the dignity and rights of young women and girls through youth engagement, policy reform and advocacy, coalition building, research, and technical assistance.

Central to our efforts to dismantle the abuse to prison pipeline is uplifting the voices and centering the needs of marginalized girls. For decades, girls’ lives and their experiences in the system were completely ignored in conversations and movements around justice reform. As a result, girls quickly became the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population—making clear that gender-neutral approaches to justice reform were leaving them behind. It was with this in mind that Rights4Girls implemented an intersectional approach to justice reform—one that not only contemplated race and ethnic disparities in the system, but also employed a gender equity lens so that reforms could actually bring about solutions specifically tailored to meet girls’ distinct needs. We are immensely proud that our Abuse to Prison Pipeline report and related advocacy has not only gained national attention but helped shape the narrative around women and girls’ incarceration in this country.

But we did not stop there. We also wanted to elevate the experiences of girls in our home of Washington, DC that we knew were not benefitting from reform efforts locally. We recently published a report with Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative exposing girls’ increased contact with the juvenile justice system in DC and how black girls in particular were suffering the bulk of those arrests. Beyond the Walls, was a first of its kind report highlighting the outrageous over-criminalizing of black girls in the District for nonviolent offenses.

    Some of our startling findings included the following:
    1. during the same time arrest rates for boys fell, girls’ arrests swelled by 87%,
    2. 60% of girls in DC arrested were under age 15,
    3. 86% of girls arrested were for nonviolent offenses, and
    4. Black girls are arrested at rates 30 times that of both white girls and boys.

The report made clear, once again, that when reform efforts fail to apply both a racial and gender lens, girls of color are adversely impacted.

To help address some of the issues locally, we recognized the critical importance of empowering girls with the tools to be their own agents of change.

    As a result, in 2018 we launched two youth workshops series for DC youth:
    1. Life of Girls, created in partnership with the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative, empowers girls of color who have been touched by the juvenile or criminal justice systems to become powerful advocates for system reform, and
    2. The Love Us. Don’t Harm Us. workshop series, created in partnership with Black Swan Academy, is open to all DC youth and provides them with a safe space to discuss the issues they are grappling with in their communities.

Both workshops series provide youth with the tools to advocate for themselves and their peers as well as cover a variety of topics geared towards the needs of the participating youth, including public speaking, self-care, community violence, school pushout and the abuse to prison pipeline.

To learn more about Rights4Girls and our work, visit rights4girls.org.


Cherice Hopkins is a Staff Attorney at Rights4Girls where she engages in advocacy to enhance the safety of young women and girls and improve responses to those who have experienced violence. Her work includes policy reform, research, public education and awareness, and coalition building. Cherice is the co-author of two innovative reports: Survivor Protection: Reducing the Risk of Trauma to Child Sex Trafficking Victims and Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in D.C.’s Juvenile Justice System, and co-manages the Girls at the Margin National Alliance.