THE WOMEN'S RIGHTS PROJECT
The Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch was established in 1990 to work in conjunction with Human Rights Watch's regional divisions to monitor violence against women and discrimination on the basis of sex that is either committed or tolerated by governments. The Project grew out of Human Rights Watch's recognition of the epidemic proportions of violence and gender discrimination around the world and of the past failure of human rights organizations, and the international community, to holdgovernments accountable for abuses of women's basic human rights. The Project monitors the performance of specific countries in securing and protecting women's human rights, highlights individual cases of international significance, and serves as a link between women's rights and human rights communities at both a national and international level.This section does not evaluate progress in women's human rights throughout the world, but describes developments in countries most closely monitored by the Project in 1992: Pakistan, Poland, Kuwait, Czechoslovakia, Peru, Egypt, and Brazil.
Women's Human Rights Developments
This chapter does not evaluate progress in women's human rights throughout the world, but describes developments in countries most closely monitored by the Project in 1992: Pakistan, Poland, Kuwait, Czechoslovakia, Peru, Egypt and Brazil.
In June, the Women's Rights Project and Asia Watch released Double Jeopardy: Police Abuse of Women in Pakistan. The report documents routine discrimination in the incarceration of women in Pakistan and finds that, once imprisoned, women detainees are often denied basic protections guaranteed under domestic and international law. More than 70 percent reported physical and sexual abuse in custody, yet not a single officer has ever been criminally punished for such abuse. More than 60 percent of all female detainees in Pakistan are imprisoned under the Hudood Ordinances, Islamic penal laws that criminalize, among other things, fornication, adultery and rape, and prescribe punishments for these offenses that include stoning to death and public flogging. Women alleging rape are often accused of adultery because as women the courts tend to disbelieve their testimony and thus suspect them of having consented to the rape they report. If medical evidence indicates that sexual intercourse has occurred, the victim may herself be charged with adultery or fornication. Discriminatory treatment of women's testimony is built into the Hudood laws. For example, proof of rape for maximum punishment requires a confession or the testimony of four male Muslim witnesses to the act of penetration; the testimony of women carries no legal weight. In one case that was investigated, 18-year-old Majeeda Mujid was abducted by several men who repeatedly raped her. When she complained to the police, they charged her with illicit sex and let the men go free.
Although acquittal rates for women in Hudood cases are estimated at over 30 percent, by the time a woman has been vindicated she often has already spent months and in many cases years in prison and, in all likelihood, has been subjected to police abuse while in custody. It is also common for judges to remand female rape and abduction victims as a form of indefinite "protective custody" to private detention facilities where they are often subjected to further abuse.
The report also found that women and girls from Bangladesh, many of whom have been forcibly trafficked through India to Pakistan for the purpose of domestic or sexual servitude, are arrested by the Pakistani police, often for Hudood offenses, andsubjected to the same abusive and discriminatory treatment as that suffered by their Pakistani counterparts.
On March 12, the Women's Rights Project and Helsinki Watch published Hidden Victims: Sex Discrimination in Post-Communist Poland. The report concluded that although the current Polish constitution outlaws sex discrimination, legalized discrimination exists in health care, freedom of association and-an especially vital field in this time of economic hardship-employment.
Laws allowing for jobs to be reserved and early retirement to be imposed on the basis of sex remain in force in Poland. Qualified women are often openly denied employment on the basis of sex, and employers suffer no legal sanction for such practices. Women, who previously counted for less than half of Poland's working population, now constitute more than half of the unemployed. They are the last hired and first fired.
Polish women are also suffering discrimination in the area of health care, and the government is failing to protect them against such abuse, despite its constitutional and international obligations to do so. Under a new national medical ethical code, abortion and pre-natal testing-both medical procedures used exclusively by women-are the only two otherwise legal medical procedures that are banned. Although the code was issued by a private institution, the Medical College, every doctor must join the college to practice medicine, and those who perform the prohibited services are subject to having their licenses revoked. A suit by Poland's Ombudsman challenging the code's constitutionality to our knowledge remains unsettled.
Women seeking to organize Poland's first independent women's groups have also met with discrimination from state authorities.
In August, the Women's Rights Project and Middle East Watch released Punishing the Victim, Rape and Mistreatment of Asian maids in Kuwait. The report found that nearly 2,000 maids have fled their abusive Kuwaiti employers since Kuwait's liberation in March 1991, yet no more than a handful of cases had ever been investigated or prosecuted. Rather than investigate or prosecute alleged abusers, Kuwaiti authorities often detained maids seeking to report crimes to the police or simply returned them to their abusive employers. Worse, there have also been credible reports of abuse of women domestic servants in police custody, which likewise goes unpunished.
One third of the 60 cases investigated involved rape or sexual abuse of maids, over two thirds involved physical assault. Almost without exception the women interviewed spoke of debt bondage, passport deprivation and near-total confinement in the homes of their employers. All of these abuses are illegal, but have been largely ignored by the Kuwaiti government.
Since the report's release, no action has been taken by the Kuwaiti government either to prosecute abusive employers, or to provide Asian maids better protection against abuse. Domestic servants continue to be excluded from Kuwait's labor law, whichregulates working hours and salaries and provides for arbitration of employment disputes. As of September 22, over 200 Filipina women were crowded into their embassy in Kuwait. Some 130 to 140 Indian women have sought shelter in their embassy since May. In September, the Kuwaiti government reportedly prohibited Asian embassies from housing the women, but has offered no viable alternative shelter.
The new government brought about by the victory of the opposition in the recent elections may offer hope for better results. The new parliament has formed two committees dedicated to human rights and may be more responsive to the Asian maids' plight.
Also in August, Helsinki Watch released Struggling for Ethnic Identity, a report on Czechoslovakia's Endangered Gypsies. The report included a chapter on involuntary sterilization of Gypsy women, which is also to be released as a separate Women's Rights Project newsletter entitled Against Their Will. The researchers found that Czechoslovakia's past policies toward Romany women have gone unpunished by the present government and continue to effect Romany women today. In particular, the current governments have failed to investigate, publicly condemn and prosecute those responsible for state-supported medical procedures in which Romany women were sterilized without their full, informed and voluntary consent by doctors in the state's employ.
During the communist period in Czechoslovakia the government took specific steps to encourage the sterilization of Romany women in order to reduce the "high, unhealthy" Romany population. As a result, a disproportionately high percentage of Romany women were sterilized, often involuntarily and in violation of existing sterilization law and of their right to equal protection under the law without regard to sex or ethnicity.
Many Romany women reported that they were sterilized without their knowledge during a caesarean section or an abortion. Others told us they were not fully informed about the irreversible consequences of the operation. Most women said they had agreed to the operation to obtain monetary and material grants that were aggressively offered to them by government social and health workers.
Czech prosecutors, informed in early 1990 by the Committee for Human Rights In Prague of 90 cases of possible involuntary sterilization of Romany women, have yet to respond. Perfunctory investigations by Slovak prosecutors have yielded no punishment of accused medical or other government officials. The failure of the Czech and Slovak governments to investigate and prosecute past sterilization practices has allowed both doctors and government workers implicated in the involuntary sterilization of Romany women to go unpunished and denied Romany women their right to equal protection of the law. Moreover, discrimination against Romany women continues in some state medical facilities.
In December, Americas Watch and the Women's Rights Project released Untold Terror: Violence Against Women in Peru's Armed Conflict. The report found that despite explicit international prohibitions onmurder, torture and ill-treatment of noncombatants, both the government security forces and the Shining Path insurgency use violence against civilian women as a form of tactical warfare. Soldiers and police routinely rape women. The Shining Path frequently murders them. The violence is often undertaken to punish, coerce or intimidate female victims or to achieve broader political ends. At times, the violence takes gender-specific forms, as in the security forces' use of rape exclusively against women. At other times, the victim's gender does not influence the form of the abuse, but affects its motivation, as in the Shining Path's execution of community activists, many of whom are women.
In one case described in Untold Terror, a combined Army-civil defense patrol entered a hamlet near Tarma, Junin, on May 27, 1991, invaded a women's home, executed her husband as a "terrorist" and then hung her from the ceiling and raped her repeatedly. In another July 1991 case, in San Pedro de Cachi, Ayachucho, soldiers gang-raped 39-year-old Luzimila, whose son had reportedly been murdered by civil defensemen earlier that year. She explained, "They said my husband was with the terrorists, so I had to pay the price." Even in cases in which the soldiers' intent is not overtly political-as when two women waiting for a bus in Lima in August 1991 were abducted by an Army patrol and raped by 12 soldiers-the effect is the same: women are being terrorized by the state security forces and rape is the method of choice.
Rape of women by the Shining Path is much less common, perhaps due to explicit prohibitions within its ranks and the high number of women militants. More often the Shining Path threatens and murders women activists with the express purpose of intimidating them and their peers, terrorizing their families and communities, and destroying what the Shining Path considers to be competing popular organizations. Since 1985, 10 female grassroots leaders have been killed. One of the most brutal attacks was on Maria Elena Moyano, the vice-mayor of Villa El Salvador, a Lima municipality of 300,000, and a founder of the Villa Women's Federation (fepomuves). Moyano was shot by a Shining Path assassination squad on February 15, 1992, and her body was blown up in the town square. In the weeks before her murder, Moyano strongly condemned guerilla attempts to bully others into joining them. The Shining Path is not known to have taken any action to discipline those responsible.
Violations of women's basic rights by both sides to the Peruvian conflict routinely go unpunished, as do human rights abuses in Peru more generally. However, women victims of human rights abuse often face an added obstacle, when the prosecution of rape is concerned. Accused rapists tried under Peru's penal law often go unpunished as a result of the courts' routine acceptance of discriminatory attitudes toward female victims. The conduct of secret military courts is unknown, but police and soldiers accused of rape and tried under the code of military justice are often acquitted. The Shining Path, far from disciplining those within its ranks who murder women, actively promotes this heinous crime, referring to it in the case of Maria Elena Moyano as "exemplary punishment."
The Right to Monitor
In Pakistan, activists who have attempted to highlight abuses of women's rights are generally able to function without fear of interference or harassment by the authorities. However, on November 18, eleven members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent monitoring organization, who were observing a protest march in Islamabad by the opposition Peoples Party of Pakistan (ppp), were detained at the Margalla police station after the demonstration was broken up by police. The monitors, including two women, and the driver, who was beaten, were detained in one cell for 36 hours. They were not produced before a magistrate.
In Poland, however, women's rights activists are somewhat more constrained. For decades, Poland had no independent women's movement. Women's groups independent of official sponsorship first appeared in the early 1980s, but like other independent organizations, they could obtain legal recognition only after the 1989 law on associations went into effect. That year a few small feminist organizations were registered and gained legal status, but in November 1991, a Provincial Court judge refused to register a woman's rights group, partly on the grounds that, as she put it, Polish women have too many rights, are very tired as a result, and do not need any new rights. The decision is being appealed.
Of those countries closely monitored by the Women's Rights Project in 1992, Peru poses the biggest threat to women's rights organizing and monitoring. The level of violence against women by both parties to the conflict has made women afraid-even terrified-to organize in opposition to violence by either side. Women who have been raped by the security forces are deterred from reporting the crime by the prospect that the public humiliation and risk of retaliation that they will endure will have little likelihood of breaking the pattern of impunity enjoyed by official abusers. As for those who contemplated speaking out against abuse by the Shining Path, Maria Elena Moyano and other victims like her, while revered as symbols of courage, are also object lessons of the risks involved. The insurgents have denounced women's rights groups as "madam feminists [who are] sleep-inducing mattresses...that serve as an instrument of oppression and retardation of women with the goal of leading them from the path of the people's war." Many of the women community activists killed by the Shining Path were leading feminists as well.
In 1991, the Women's Rights Project and Middle East Watch reported on the closure of the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (awsa), a prominent women's rights organization, by the Egyptian government. On May 7, 1992, an Egyptian administrative court decided to uphold the decree dissolving awsa, and refused to grant an injunction that would have allowed awsa to continue operating while it awaits the outcome of a further appeal. The court ruled that awsa's activities "threatened the peace and political and social order of the state by spreading ideas and beliefs offensive to the rule of Islamic Shari`a [Islamic law] and the religion of Islam." awsa officials believe that the Egyptian government clamped down on the organization because it had questioned the government's policy during the Gulf crisis, although the dissolution culminates years of official harassment of the organization's founder, Dr.Nawal el-Saadawi, for her work on behalf of women. awsa's women's rights activities in Egypt have had to end.
The International Response
One of the primary obstacles to ensuring and promoting the human rights of women worldwide is the failure of the international community, in particular the United Nations, aggressively to investigate abuses of women's rights that fall within its mandate. On August 14, the Project's Advisory Committee wrote to Antoine Blanca, Secretary-General of the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights, to be held in Vienna in June 1993, urging him to ensure that women's rights were fully integrated into the World Conference's agenda. The Committee made several recommendations for improving the implementation of existing human rights instruments; evaluating the effectiveness of existing human rights mechanisms; and improving the effectiveness of the U.N. human rights machinery specifically with protecting women's human rights. In October, the Project, together with the International Human Rights Law Group, hosted a meeting with several Western government officials, including U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission Kenneth Blackwell, to discuss how the full integration of women's rights into the World Conference agenda might best be achieved. A similar meeting with a broader range of government representatives is scheduled for December 17.
Although the abuse of women in police custody in Pakistan and the discriminatory nature of the Hudood Ordinances are noted in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, issued in January 1992, concern for these human rights issues has not figured prominently in relations between the two countries. On July 6, U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Platt stated in a letter to the Women's Rights Project that "the U.S. has supported programs in Pakistan aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law." He added that embassy and consulate staff have been "actively engaged in raising public awareness of human rights issues," notably through a country-wide seminar on women's legal rights held in April 1992.
Members of Congress have raised concerns about police abuse of women in Pakistan. On July 27, Representatives Dante Fascell, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Stephen Solarz, chair of the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Gus Yatron, chair of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations, wrote to Pakistani Ambassador Syeda Abida Hussain to urge: "[I]n the fourth year of Pakistan's return to democratic rule, it is our hope that your government will also make its laws and legal system truly democratic for all Pakistani people." They called on the Pakistan government to "prosecute officers who engage in sexual or physical abuse of women in custody, take immediate steps to enforce the laws and rules pertaining to the detention of women in police custody, comply with the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and...consider repealing the Hudood Ordinances and the Law of Evidence which fail to guarantee the full equality of womenbefore the law." The Congressional Human Rights Caucus sent a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging him to "ensure an end to torture-including rape-while in police custody and prosecute those responsible for the abuse of detainee."
Legal issues concerning women have also been raised with the World Bank. In August, the Women's Rights Project and Asia Watch met with Bank officials to discuss the report on Pakistan and its recommendations.
In June, the Women's Rights Project hosted Anna Popowicz, the former Commissioner for Women's Affairs in Poland, in a series of meetings with human rights organizations and congressional staff in Washington, to discuss rising sex discrimination during the transition to democracy in Poland. The Senate Appropriations Committee report accompanying the 1993 foreign aid appropriations bill reflects these conversations and the need for the U.S. to focus on the transition's particular effects on women in Eastern Europe. It states that "women throughout Eastern Europe are shouldering far more than their share of the burdens of political and economic reforms and receiving too few of the benefits. In access to employment, health care, and other social services, women are suffering disproportionately." The Committee instructed the U.S. Agency for International Development to "make sure that U.S. assistance programs in Eastern Europe take into account the impact of reforms on the status of women and promote the equal status of women."
Despite its preeminent influence in Kuwait, the U.S. government has not taken a firm public stand, either before or after the Gulf War, on behalf of abused Asian maids. This low profile has been maintained despite glaring evidence of an endemic problem.
In meetings in Kuwait with representatives from the Women's Rights Project and Middle East Watch, the U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, Edward Gnehm, said that the U.S had been "pressing the Kuwaitis to rewrite and revise their laws and to strengthen" the channels of redress available to the maids. In an August meeting in Washington, State Department officials from the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs told us that they concurred with the report's findings and were raising three issues in particular with the Kuwaiti government: the need for legal reform, the provision of shelter to abused maids, and the creation of an office to handle disputes within the Ministry of the Interior. At no time did the State Department mention urging the Kuwaitis to punish abusive employers. Nor has existing U.S. policy produced notable results in Kuwait: no shelters have been created, efforts at legal reform have been limited to unsuccessful attempts to regulate Kuwaiti recruiting agencies, and no effective means has been created to handle the maids' employment disputes.
On August 13, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder wrote a letter to the Emir of Kuwait, Shaik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, highlighting the findings of the Women's Rights Project/Middle East Watch report on abuse of Asian maids in Kuwait and calling on the Emir to "help these women reach safety, investigate their claims fairly, and punish their abusers fully." In October, 53 members of Congress, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chair DanteFascell, also wrote the Emir, again calling attention to the report's findings and urging the Emir to "take the necessary steps towards addressing and preventing the abuse of domestic servants in Kuwait." The letter called on the Emir to order a thorough investigation of past and pending cases and to hold accountable those responsible for abuse.
On February 5, 1992, Human Rights Watch gave testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights, evaluating the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1992. Although we found that the State Department's reporting on abuses of women's rights had generally improved, its reporting on violence against women was scant and several reports contained exactly the same sentence: "Although violence against women is known to occur, little is known about its extent." We urged the State Department to investigate the incidence of violence against women more vigorously and to analyze why so little information is available.
In addition, we noted that the State Department continues inappropriately to relegate reporting on violations of women's rights exclusively to the report's section on discrimination, rather than also classifying them under the appropriate substantive violation. For example, the report on Algeria mentions in the discrimination section that women are often denied the right to travel on the basis of their gender, but makes no mention of this restriction in the section on freedom of movement. Relegating abuses of women solely to the discrimination section gives the false impression that they are merely "women's issues" as opposed to classic human rights issues affecting large numbers of Algerians. On August 6, 1992, the Women's Rights Project sent a letter to the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs making additional recommendations concerning how the State Department's reporting on women's rights in the annual Country Reports might be further improved.
To redress these inadequacies in U.S. policy, the Clinton administration should make a more concerted effort than its predecessor to integrate attention to violations of women's rights into its human rights policy. In the absence of such attention in the past, in Pakistan for example, abuses of women's human rights have been allowed to occur without sustained opposition from the human rights community and, as a result, have reached epidemic proportions.
Bilateral action to include women's rights in U.S. human rights policy should be accompanied by efforts on the multilateral level to improve the effectiveness of international mechanisms to protect women against human rights abuse and to hold states accountable for committing or tolerating women's human rights violations. In particular, the United States should take a leading role in the forthcoming 1993 U.N. World Conference on Human Rights to ensure that women's rights are fully integrated into the conference's agenda and that specific recommendations emerge from the conference designed to better ensure and promote women's human rights worldwide.
The Work of the Women's Rights Project
In addition to releasing the five reports detailed above, the Women's Rights Project engaged in several follow-up activities and missions. Throughout 1992 the Women's Rights Project and Asia Watch met with Pakistani officials at the embassy in Washington to discuss the mission's findings and the report's recommendations. The release of Double Jeopardy and its coverage in the press led to public exchanges with the Pakistani government. In a letter to The New York Times on August 20, the Women's Rights Project and Asia Watch noted that the majority of female prisoners had been improperly charged, unfairly tried and routinely subjected to custodial abuse. Shortly after the letter was published, Naem Chatta, Minister of State, Women's Division, requested a meeting to discuss the report. The Pakistani embassy then responded with a letter to The New York Times on September 18 which criticized the report because it dealt only with the treatment of women, who constitute a minority of those imprisoned. The government claimed that women are protected by a law requiring the presence of a female constable during a woman's arrest; that women cannot be remanded to police custody; and that a wife cannot be punished for adultery.
On October 7, The New York Times published a response by Pakistani human rights lawyers Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, which pointed out that none of the embassy's claims is true. With the introduction of the Hudood laws in 1979, adultery became a criminal offense. Legislation prohibiting the overnight detention of women in police custody was proposed in September 1992, but does not yet exist. And the presence of a female constable, of whom there are few in the entire country, is not mandatory.
In October, an Asia Watch staff member traveled to Pakistan to investigate recent cases of abuse of women prisoners and to meet with government officials.
With regard to Poland, the Women's Rights Project arranged the meetings for the former Polish Commissioner of Women noted above. On May 13, the Project together with Helsinki Watch issued a press release calling on the Polish government to suspend provisions of the new national Medical Ethics Code that discriminate against women in their access to health care services at state-run hospitals-the principal source of medical care in Poland.
On June 15, the Women's Rights Project and Middle East Watch wrote the Emir of Kuwait to call his attention to the cases of Singala Bolassi, a Sri Lankan domestic servant in immediate danger of being returned to her employer whom she accused of raping her and throwing her from a third-floor balcony, and of Helen Demitillar, a Filipina domestic servant who reportedly already had been returned to her employer despite her charge that he had raped her. The Emir sent no response.
On September 13, the Women's Rights Project, together with former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Patt Derian, who participated in the Kuwait mission, met with Kuwait's Ambassador to the United States, Shaik Saud Nassir Al-Sabah, now a high-ranking official in the Kuwaiti government. Ambassador Al-Sabah said that while his government must shoulder some of the blame for the maids' problems, the maids' themselves are also at fault and often wrongfully charge abuse inorder to secure better jobs. He agreed that to some extent the maids' vulnerability to abuse was attributable to the lack of regulation of their employment in Kuwait, and that the government should give attention to this problem, but he claimed that it was constrained by a lack of adequate resources.
In August, the Women's Rights Project released the Portuguese version of its first report, Criminal Injustice: Violence Against Women in Brazil, originally published in 1991. A Project representative gave a plenary address at the first Latin American regional meeting on violence against women and human rights held in northeastern Brazil, and talked with press, government officials and local monitors in Brazil about the report's findings. Since the report's release in 1991, the police in Rio de Janeiro have begun a training course on violence against women, a nongovernmental project has begun research on the continuing use of the honor defense to acquit men who kill their allegedly adulterous wives, and a government campaign has been launched to eliminate discrimination against women in the state of Sao Paulo.