Women=s rights activists left the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing armed with a Platform for Action adopted by 189 governments who had committed themselves to improving respect for women=s human rights. In 1996, women around the world pressed their governments to live up to these promises by, among other things, ensuring in law and in practice the equality of women and men, repealing laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, removing gender bias in the administration of justice, and combating violence against women, whatever its causes. Following the Beijing conference, some governments stepped up efforts to promote women=s rights: the South African parliament ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the legislature in Nepal introduced legislation to allow women to inherit property; and the governments of Colombia and Ecuador passed laws to protect women in cases of domestic violence. But these important steps will have little impact if they are not backed up with changes in government practice.
Aware that governments often must be compelled to follow up policy pronouncements with on-the-ground implementation, the Women=s Rights Project worked in 1996 to monitor women=s human rights developments in Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, and the United States and to expose the gap between government rhetoric on women=s human rights and the reality of the continuing abuse of those rights. In addition to these countries, during 1996 we conducted missions to investigate violations of women=s human rights in Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.
In September 1996, the Women=s Rights Project began to investigate problems of legal discrimination against women in Egypt and violence against women in the family, including spousal abuse and female genital mutilation (FGM). Although Article 40 of the Egyptian Constitution guarantees women equality under the law, numerous laws deny women rights that are accorded to men. Egypt=s nationality law provides a striking example of women=s unequal status under the law by denying women who marry non-Egyptians the ability to pass on their Egyptian nationality to their children. In February 1996, the Egyptian People=s Assembly adopted an omnibus law on children but rejected draft language reforming the nationality law. An estimated 250,000 Egyptian women thus continued to suffer the consequences of unequal citizenship; they must obtain visas to allow their Aforeign@ children to live in Egypt and must pay for state education and health services to which Egyptian citizens are entitled. No similar restrictions are placed on male Egyptians who marry non-Egyptian women. The Mubarak government resisted efforts to reform this law and thus accord women the full benefits of citizenship. The government defended its position by arguing that a law conveying citizenship on children of non-Egyptian fathers presents a threat to security: as citizens, these children would, among other things, be required to serve in the army.
Other forms of legal discrimination underscored the secondary status of women. The criminal code, for example, allows a husband to receive a reduced penaltyCthree years maximumCfor killing his wife if he can prove that he killed her to defend his honor. Women who kill their husbands for whatever reason are subject to the standard punishment for murder: prison and hard labor for a term between three years and life. Throughout 1996, reports of such Ahonor@ killings and the light sentences given in response to them appeared frequently in the Egyptian press.
Human rights and women=s advocates provided evidence that domestic violence was a widespread and seldom acknowledged phenomenon in Egypt. Initial research conducted in 1996 by the New Woman Research Center and El Nadim Center for Victims of Violence indicated high levels of spousal abuse and widespread acceptance of men=s right to beat their wives. Despite growing awareness of the scope of the problem, the government made no statements acknowledging or condemning domestic violence. Moreover, advocates stated that law enforcement authorities, ranging from police to judges, tended to dismiss domestic violence as a private matter between husband and wife. Women were successful in filing domestic violence complaints with police only when they were prepared to insist on their right to do so. Although domestic violence by definition is committed by private individuals, states nonetheless are obliged under international law to protect women=s lives and physical security. Further, where states routinely fail to prosecute domestic violence because of the sex and status of the victim, they deny women equal protection of the law.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, continued to be widespread in Egypt despite government condemnation of the practice. A demographic and health survey funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and released in late 1996 estimated that 97 percent of girls in Egypt undergo FGM. In July 1996, Minister of Health Ismail Sallem announced his intent to enforce a ban on FGM; the announcement followed the highly publicized death of an eleven-year-old girl on July 12 consequent to FGM performed by a barber. The government=s ban, however, was not consistently enforced, and the decree actively banning the practice had not been issued in writing or distributed to state medical facilities as of early November. In August 1996, a fourteen-year-old girl died after being subjected to FGM, in this instance performed by a doctor. And, in October, press reports indicated that two young girls, ages three and four, bled to death after a government doctor tried to circumcise them in their homes.
Following the health minister=s July announcement, a doctor and professor at Ein Shams University, Munir Mohamed Fawzy, filed a lawsuit against Minister Sallem challenging the ban on FGM as unconstitutional; Fawzy argued that FGM is both required by Islamic law and medically desirable. In a September 29 court hearing, the judge postponed consideration of Fawzy=s case until November 1996, and the hearing had not taken place by the time of this writing.
The Egyptian People=s Assembly rejected an attempt to ban FGM explicitly as part of the law on children adopted in February 1996. In doing so, members of parliament argued that the criminal lawCwhich prohibits severing a part of the body without medical necessityCprovides adequate legal recourse.
The UNHCR has continued to offer human rights training to Kenyan police officers and has taken other steps to offer material support to the police, including the construction of a police post near the refugee camps, and advocated for the protection of refugees with the Kenyan government. Counseling, medical and legal services have been instituted for rape survivors, and procedures have been put into place to ensure that medical and police reports are filed as a matter of routine practice.
The result has been a significant decline in the incidence of rape, a number of successful prosecution of rapists, and improved protection provided by Kenyan police officers. Reported rapes of refugee women and children have declined by more than half, from over 200 cases in 1993 to seventy-six in 1994 and seventy in 1995. While these figures cannot be deemed to reflect the actual incidence of rape because of the ever-present factor of under reporting, they do indicate a clear trend. However, problems continued to exist. First, rapes occurred when women and girls left the relative security of the camps in order to tend livestock and find firewood. It is most frequently young girls who engage in these tasks, and since late 1994, they have constituted a higher percentage of rape victims. Second, justice continued to elude most rape survivors. Long distances to the nearest court, coupled with an overburdened court calendar, have caused long delays in the few cases which have been prosecuted. Lastly, through 1996 there were still no women police officers posted in the area, despite assurances from the Kenyan government that it would assign policewomen to the area once housing was constructed.
Women victims of pregnancy-based sex discrimination were extremely reluctant to challenge the discriminatory hiring practices of Mexico's maquiladoras because they depended almost exclusively on work in that sector to support themselves and their families. For the most part, women who worked in the maquiladoras were heads of households, had little work experience outside the manufacturing sector, were undereducated for work in other sectors, and were ill-informed about their labor rights.
Women=s reluctance to challenge workplace discrimination has been compounded by an official labor-adjudication system that was ill-equipped to investigate and remedy pregnancy-based sex discrimination. The Mexican government's labor-resolution mechanisms could not be accessed by most victims of pregnancy-based sex discrimination because these mechanisms only examined cases in which people already had an established labor relationship with an employer. Pre-hire sex discrimination prevented pregnant applicants from establishing such a relationship. Moreover, even were female employees to challenge workplace discrimination, they would face government officials who largely have failed to investigate, or who have refused to address the problem because maquiladoras were a major source of employment and foreign-income earnings. Our research showed that some labor officials feared reprimand from higher officials in Mexico City if they were to seek to enforce Mexico's labor laws in the maquiladoras.
In responding to the Women=s Rights Project report, the Mexican government took the position that it was not illegal for employers to try to determine a female job applicant's pregnancy status in order to avoid placing the woman in a position that would endanger her life, physical and mental health, or that of her fetus. However, this view is inconsistent with both Mexican and international law. Mexico's federal labor code prohibits an employer from refusing to hire someone for reasons of either sex or age. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) both prohibit discrimination. Moreover, the Mexican government failed to address the fact that corporations such as Zenith and General Motors had stated publicly that their only reason for screening prospective employees for pregnancy was not to protect them but to deny them work and avoid paying legally mandated maternity benefits.
Women=s inequality in marriage begins before the union is finalized. A girl=s or woman=s consent to marriage is required, but it is rarely exercised contrary to the wishes of a father or other male relative. A woman of any age is prohibited from contracting marriage without the permission of a male guardian. Men over the age of eighteen are not required to seek anyone's permission to marry. Moreover, the Moudawana also requires womenCand not menCto provide information about their marital and sexual history before receiving a marriage certificate. For example, the law requires that a woman disclose whether she is a "spinster-celibate" or has been previously married.
Women's status as legal minors also denies them equal participation in marriage and divorce, which can leave them particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. The Moudawana requires that a woman obey her husband and submit to his authority; custom condones even the husband's use of force in dealing with her refusal to submit. Women who attempt to leave abusive marriages have been thwarted by their unequal access to divorce: men may divorce their wives without cause or a court proceeding, while women must have specific grounds and court approval. The law compounds the unequal status of women in the marital relationship by allowing men up to four wives simultaneously. The law does require that wives be notified of their husbands= intent to marry again and that judges authorize polygamous marriages, but wives have no power to consent to or reject their husbands= decisions. Nor do women have the right to contract polygamous marriages themselves.
The Moroccan government has refused to eliminate sex discrimination from its laws. The only reform of the Moudawana, undertaken in 1993 after intense pressure from women's organizations, reaffirmed specific discriminatory laws. Morocco defended this discrimination as intrinsic to its laws based on Islamic jurisprudence. Judges and magistrates charged with interpreting Morocco=s family code have reinforced the discrimination embedded in the law by undermining and resisting women=s efforts to exercise their rights. Magistrates in the Moudawana courts have been hostile to divorce proceedings initiated by women. And, even where the courts do rule in favor of respecting those women=s rights that are protected by lawCfor example, providing financial support for women divorced by their husbands or recognizing women=s right to control their own propertyCthe lack of enforcement mechanisms or meaningful penalties have made it easy to evade compliance with such judgments.
Our research indicated that the United States has the dubious distinction of incarcerating the largest known number of prisoners in the world, of which a steadily increasing number are women. Since 1980, the number of women entering U.S. prisons has risen by almost 400 percent, roughly double the incarceration rate increase of males. Fifty-two percent of these prisoners are African-American women, who constitute 14 percent of the total U.S. population. According to current estimates, more than half of all female prisoners have experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to incarceration. Many women are incarcerated in the 170 state prison facilities for women across the United States, and more often than not, they are guarded by men.
The custodial sexual misconduct occurring in the prisons we investigated takes many forms. We found that male correctional employees have vaginally, anally, and orally raped female prisoners and sexually assaulted and abused them. We found that short of using actual or threatened force, male officers have exploited their ability to provide or deny goods and privileges to female prisoners to secure sexual relations from them. In some instances male officers have engaged in sexual contact with female prisoners without using force or offering material reward in violation of their professional duty. In addition to engaging in sexual relations with prisoners, male officers have used mandatory pat-frisks or room searches to grope women=s breasts, buttocks, and vaginal areas and to view them inappropriately while in a state of undress in the housing or bathroom areas. Male correctional officers and staff have also engaged in regular verbal degradation and harassment of female prisoners, thus contributing to a custodial environment in the state prisons for women which is often highly sexualized and excessively hostile.
Political and economic change in Russia have in no way been matched by improved respect for women=s rights. In fact, abusive practices such as sex discrimination and violence against women have flourished virtually unchecked in recent years. The Women=s Rights Project visited Russia in April-May 1996 to investigate the barriers to justice faced by survivors of sexual and domestic violence. This mission followed our 1995 report, Neither Jobs Nor Justice: State Discrimination Against Women in Russia, revealing both widespread employment discrimination on the basis of sex that was practiced, condoned, or tolerated by the government and the role of Russian law enforcement agencies in denying women their right to equal protection of the law by failing to investigate and prosecute violence against women.
Our 1996 mission documented how police, prosecutors, state forensic doctors, and the criminal code itself created substantial obstacles that prevented women=s complaints of violence from being successfully investigated and prosecuted. The police often rejected reports of violence against women, particularly those alleging spousal abuse. In cases of sexual violence, police officers and prosecutors often suggested that the woman provoked the rape or that her report was fabricated. Women reporting crimes of sexual violence also faced difficulties in obtaining a referral by an official evidence center for a required medical examination. Such referrals, which must be authorized by police or prosecutors, are not provided unless the complaint is accepted. In some cases investigators refused to give women referrals to the evidence center. In other cases, investigators often did not inform women of the importance of being medically examined as soon as possible or spoke to the woman for several hours, thus delaying her medical exam and risking the loss of valuable evidence, or told women to go to the evidence center days after filing their reports. Consequently, women often did not have the medical evidence necessary to support a rape conviction.
In response to public outcry about violence against women, the Russian parliament drafted a family violence law in 1995, which is designed to prevent domestic violence. This draft family violence law languished in the parliament in 1996 and was not expected to pass. Many activists asserted that the law did not contain sufficient criminal penalties for domestic violence and would be a setback in protecting women from violence. For example, crisis centers would have to obtain a state license to operate. This licensing provision was already included in a social welfare law passed in 1996. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized licensing as a tool to allow the government to close any crisis center that it does not want functioning.
The state=s failure to address violence against women was compounded by its unwillingness to combat sex discrimination more generally. In 1996, Russian women continued to confront unchecked employment discrimination in law and in practice. New labor legislation effective July 1, 1996 increased the number of occupations forbidden to women, despite an appeal by fifty-three women=s organizations asking parliament to ensure that the draft legislation provided equal opportunities for women. In addition, the request of women=s groups that the new labor law prohibit employers from denying women jobs because of their sex was rejected.
Throughout 1996, women=s rights NGOs experienced significant difficulty in getting access to government officials. In July 1996, only one women=s rights activist was invited to the hearings on the draft family violence law. This activist was only given a few days notice and did not receive a copy of the draft bill prior to the hearings.
Women from both the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups were raped, although the preponderance of victims were Tutsi. The extremist propaganda which exhorted Hutus to commit the genocide specifically attacked the sexuality of Tutsi women, which it said had been used to dominate the Hutus. During the genocide, attackers frequently expressed their intent to use rape as a means to degrade and destroy the Tutsi community.
One result of the genocide is that Rwanda has become a country of women. An estimated 70 percent of the population is female, and some 50 percent of all households are headed by women. Regardless of their statusCTutsi, Hutu, displaced, returneesCall women are facing overwhelming problems because of the upheaval caused by the genocide, including social stigmatization, poor physical and psychological health, unwanted pregnancyCthe National Population Office in Rwanda estimates that some 2,000 to 5,000 children have been born of rapeCand increasing poverty. Yet, the Rwandan government, international donors, and the U.N. Human Rights Field Operation based in Rwanda have not addressed the past and present problems facing women, and there continued to be a lack of services designed to assist women victims of human rights abuses.
In addition to the social and personal trauma resulting from the injuries suffered from sexual violence, women also faced dire economic difficulties in large part due to their second class status under Rwandan law. General practice has established that under Rwandan customary law, women cannot inherit property unless they are explicitly designated as beneficiaries. Accordingly, thousands of widows and orphaned daughters had no legal claim to their late husbands= or fathers= property or finances because they are women. Many women thus were living destitute, in abandoned houses or with relatives or friends, struggling to make ends meet, to reclaim their property, and to raise children. Hutu women whose husbands were killed or were in exile or in prison accused of genocide, dealt with similar issues of poverty as well as with the recrimination directed at them on the basis of their ethnicity or the alleged actions of their relatives. The Rwandan government had initiated a legal commission to address these issues and to introduce legislation to allow women to inherit equally with men, but the reforms were expected to take a long time.
The prospects for justice for Rwanda's victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence were grim during 1996, at both the national and international levels. The Rwandan judiciary faced systemic and profound problems that have made the likelihood of justice for both the genocide perpetrators and their victims a remote possibility. Over 80,000 prisoners were being held without trial in prison, and the judicial system was still not functioning. However, even should the system begin to function, rape victims will face specific obstacles, including that police inspectors documenting genocide crimes for prosecution are predominantly male and have not been collecting information on rape. At the international level, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which is tasked with bringing the organizers of the genocide to justice, opened trials in September 1996. In its first two months, there were no indictments for rape, although rape constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity. The Rwanda tribunal has faced serious resource constraints and continues to confront problems of staffing and methodology. (See below).
The Role of the International Community
The U.N. General Assembly similarly took its cue from the Beijing Conference, and, in December 1995, adopted a series of resolutions encouraging U.N. agencies to raise the profile of women=s rights in their work and governments to increase efforts to fight violence against women.
Consequent to efforts to integrate women=s human rights into all U.N. human rights work, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights also played an increasingly important role in promoting respect for women=s rights. At its 1996 session, the commission adopted resolutions condemning violence against women and advocating the full integration of women=s human rights into the human rights work of the U. N. The commission acknowledged that fulfilling these commitments is critical to improving the quality and consistency of U.N. monitoring of women=s human rights. Yet the commission refrained from committing itself to specific steps advocated by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and instead reiterated general promises that had been made at previous sessions and inconsistently implemented. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his report to the Human Rights Commission on the extent to which violations of women=s human rights have been addressed in U.N. human rights work, noted that some progress had been made in integrating women=s human rights into the U.N. human rights program but recognized that changes in policy had not consistently resulted in changes in practice.
Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy reported to the Human Rights Commission on violence against women in the family as a human rights abuse in 1996, in the second report of her three-year term. She also submitted her first report on a specific human rights problemCsexual slavery imposed by the Japanese military during World War II. The rapporteur denounced the Japanese military=s forcing of women and girls from across Asia into sexual slavery and called for the government to apologize to and compensate each individual survivor. The Japanese government strongly opposed this report and urged other delegations not to support the rapporteur=s findings. Ultimately, however, the commission adopted the special rapporteur=s report in its entirety.
The war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are important areas in which to assess the international community=s commitment to the examination of abuses against women as methods of warfare, such as rape and sexual slavery, and the need to ensure that such abuses are investigated and prosecuted. Human Rights Watch has supported the work of the international tribunals for both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda since their creation and publicly called on all governments to support the tribunals and to cooperate with their work. An international procedure which condemns genocide and holds the perpetrators accountable will send a message that the international community does not tolerate impunity for such crimes.
In 1996, the Women=s Rights Project focused particularly on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). From the beginning, the Rwanda tribunal faced serious resource constraints and problems of staffing and methodology, and with regard to gender-based crimes, these problems were magnified throughout 1996. In contrast to the former Yugoslavia tribunal, where rape was prominently condemned as a war crime and indictments brought against alleged rapists, the ICTR appeared to be allowing rape, yet again, to be overlooked as a crime. As of November 1996, there were no indictments for rape, despite the widespread sexual violence which occurred during the Rwandan genocide (see above).
The lack of rape indictments in Rwanda was largely due to a lack of political will among those responsible for the investigations. There was a widespread perception among tribunal investigators that rape was somehow a "lesser" or "incidental" crime not worth investigating. Some at the Rwanda tribunal also held the mistaken view that Rwandan women would not come forward to talk about rape. The initial interviewing techniques used by investigators were poorly designed to gain the confidence of the women and elicit rape testimonies. Furthermore, inadequate measures were put in to place to protect those who gave evidence from retaliation.
The ICTR did take some steps to address the problem of sexual violence. In July 1996, the tribunal created a sexual assault committee to coordinate the investigation of gender-based violence. The committee began to operate in October, with the aim of addressing strategic, legal and methodological questions confronting the investigations. However, the Witness Protection Unit based in Arusha, Tanzania, did not put into place mechanisms to ensure that women who testified would be protected from reprisal as well as to provide necessary support services. In the absence of immediate steps to address these problems and collect testimonies from rape victims, time was running out for including evidence of rape in cases to be brought before the judges. In October 1996, Canadian judge Louise Arbour replaced Richard Goldstone as chief prosecutor of both tribunals and, in an October 7 letter to the Women=s Rights Project, pledged that allegations of sexual assault would be vigorously investigated and prosecuted and announced that she would seek to establish a sexual violence investigation team to operate from Kigali, Rwanda.
The impact of the Beijing conferenceCand its emphasis on protecting women=s human rights as key to improving their statusCwas reflected in parts of the U.N. that previously overlooked women=s concerns. Governments that gathered in Istanbul in June 1996 at the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) vowed to protect and promote women=s human rights. Governments specifically pledged to secure gender equality in all housing and community development planning and urban and rural policy. The Habitat consensus agreement recognized that discrimination against women and family violence were causes of women=s restricted access to shelter and homelessness. Governments attending the conference agreed to eradicate, and provide legal protection against housing discrimination against women; ensuring women equal access to land and their ability to retain control and use of their homes, land, and property; and undertaking legal and administrative reform to ensure that women have equal access to economic resources, including inheritance rights, land, property, credit, natural resources, and technology. Moreover, governments committed their efforts to promoting shelter and basic services to survivors of family violence and recognized the need to pay special attention to the needs of poor women and victims of sexual exploitation. Finally, governments recognized that there are various forms of the family, affirmed that marriage must be entered into voluntarily, that husband and wife must be equal partners, and that the rights of family members must be respected. The Habitat commitments, however, were not backed up with resources for implementing them.
At the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Amb. Geraldine Ferraro, head of the U.S. delegation to the commission, spoke out strongly in defense of women=s rights as human rights. She condemned violence against women and the denial of women and girls of access to food, education, health care or property because of their sex. Ambassador Ferraro expressed the U.S. government=s desire to see every nation fulfill the commitments made in the Beijing Platform for Action and underscored the U.S. intent to make good on its own promises. She offered two examples of U.S. efforts to implement the Beijing platform: the national campaign in the U.S. to fight violence against women, and new programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to encourage women=s participation in micro-enterprises.
Although the U.S. clearly is making an effort to address women=s rights concerns, it can still be very slow to take concrete initiatives in this regard. It was not until over two years after the genocide and more than one year after the creation of the tribunal that the U.S. dedicated any specific resources to the prosecution of rape by the Tribunal, or even gave any high-level public recognition to the existence of this problem. In October 1996, during his visit to Tanzania, Secretary of State Christopher took the welcome step of designating $650,000Cof a total of $5,650,000 for the Rwanda tribunalCfor the prosecution of rape and other genocide-based crimes. The U.S. has yet to turn its attention to ensuring that funding to the Rwandan judiciary and the U.N. Field Operation in Rwanda also be used to assist in bringing to justice the perpetrators of rape and other abuses against women.
The U.S. did take an initiative early on in post-genocide Rwanda by establishing a fund for Women in Transition in Rwanda, which in 1995 provided U.S.$1,000,000 to assist women, particularly widows, in their efforts to grapple with the economic and social upheaval of life after the genocide. Such programs are part of an increasing and welcome effort by the U.S. government to provide women with assistance as an integrated element of its development and democracy programs. Thus, with regard to Bosnia, President Clinton announced on June 29 that the U.S. would contribute U.S.$5 million to establish the Bosnian Women=s Initiative. The funding was aimed at providing women with business development loans and skills training and ensuring them access to resources like day care, legal services and education. In a similar effort in Asia in 1996, USAID started projects in AsiaCto train women workers in their legal rights and strategies to protect themCand in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union (NIS)Cto promote new legislation to guard women=s rights in the process of economic transition.
The State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 included its most comprehensive reporting to date on violations of women=s human rights around the world. Increased reporting, however, did not necessarily translate into greater integration of women=s human rights into U.S. policy towards specific abusive governments. For example, although the U.S. acknowledged in its Country Reports on Human Rights for 1995 that discrimination and violence against women occurs in Russia, it made limited efforts to incorporate remedies for such problems into its assistance programs for Russia. Despite awareness, for example, that Russian police consistently failed to respond to and investigate violent crimes against women, none of the $2.5 million for the law enforcement assistance program in Fiscal Year 1996 went to training Russian police on investigating such crimes. Only after representatives of Human Rights Watch briefed staff of the U.S. Congress on violence against women in Russia and a Senate subcommittee then earmarked $1 million for support of law enforcement training programs to address violence against women, did the State Department commit to training programs targeting this problem.
In another example, the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 noted that while there existed statutory equality between men and women in Mexico's labor codes, employers frequently require women to certify that they were not pregnant at the time of hiring. Nevertheless, in a meeting with a Human Rights Watch representative in Mexico City, an official at the U.S. Embassy then in charge of labor issues argued that such discrimination did not constitute a human rights violation, suggesting that maquiladoras actually discriminated against men because they preferred to hire people they could pay less: women.
In order for the administration to translate its general commitment to women=s rights into consistent policy, it must coordinate the sources of that policy with those responsible for carrying it out. The State Department senior coordinator for international women=s issues could have played a critical role in augmenting U.S. integration of women=s rights into its foreign policy. Unfortunately, the potential of this position went largely untapped in 1996 because, after the first appointee resigned in April, the post was vacant until September. Moreover, the exact mandate of the position remains unclear, and the Department has failed to ensure that the special coordinator has both the resources and access to play an effective role in ensuring that women=s rights issues are fully reflected in the human rights policies of the U.S. with respect to abusive governments.
In Beijing, the U.S. had committed itself to establish a White House Inter-Agency Council on Women (IACW) to implement the platform for action adopted in Beijing, to improve the protection of women=s rights in the U.S. and to increase the visibility of women=s rights in U.S. foreign policy. The IACW began by pledging to cooperate with NGOs to develop a national action agenda to be revealed at a conference on women and girls on September 28, 1996Cone year after the Beijing conference. But no national action agenda was drafted. Instead, at the September meeting, members of the IACW presented several initiatives undertaken in areas relating to the Beijing Platform for Action and discussed priorities for implementation. The measures touted at the national conference addressed important concernsCa nationwide, twenty-four-hour domestic violence hotline; providing loans to women who have little access to credit; promoting gender equity in education; and increasing research in breast cancerCbut they failed to raise women=s human rights as a priority.
This omission came despite the efforts of the Women=s Rights Project and others to press the U.S. to make women=s human rights a priority post-Beijing. In December 1995, the Women's Rights Project wrote to Secretary of State Christopher, urging the U.S. government to match its stated commitment to uphold women's rights around the world by co-sponsoring a U.N. General Assembly resolution aimed at increasing U.N. support for efforts to combat violence against women. The resolution called, among other things, on the administrator of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), in consultation with the secretary-general and other competent U.N. organs and bodies, to establish a trust fund within its existing structure that would consolidate UNIFEM's existing efforts to combat violence against women around the world and to ensure that its programs have adequate funding. The U.S. government was among the last to support this resolution.
The U.S. Congress, meanwhile, maintained a mixed record on international women=s human rights in 1996. As noted above, the Senate failed to ratify CEDAW. At the same time, the Congressional Working Group on International Women=s Human Rights, composed of fifty-six members of both houses of Congress and both parties, denounced violations of women=s human rights in BangladeshCthe abduction of the leader of a women=s federation; in PeruCrepeated threats of rape and harassment against a human rights lawyer; and in RwandaCthe sexual violence during the 1994 genocide. Formed in April 1994, the working group sends urgent letters in support of women who are at imminent risk of abuse or who require international support in their search for justice for past abuse.
The Work of the Women's Rights Project
In August 1996, with the release of No Guarantees: Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector, the Women=s Rights Project initiated a campaign to persuade the Mexican government to denounce pregnancy discrimination as sex discrimination; to investigate and stop such discrimination in the labor force; and to compel corporations active in the maquiladora sector to stop discriminating against women workers. The Women=s Rights Project cooperated with Mexican and U.S. nongovernmental organizations to include gender-specific discrimination in the maquiladoras among the issues in workers= rights education campaigns. In October 1996, we wrote to Mexico's secretary of labor, Javier Bonilla García, expressing concern that the Mexican government seemed unwilling to honor its international obligation to protect its female citizens from discrimination and in fact appeared to countenance and rationalize this sex discrimination as a Aprotective@ measure. In November we also wrote to the thirty-three corporations named in No Guarantees to ascertain the concrete measures they intended to take to eradicate pregnancy-based sex discrimination in their Mexican factories. These companies included General Motors, Zenith, and Johnson Controls, among others. The campaign included working with U.S. and Mexican groups to focus on specific corporations for reform, urging them to stop exporting sex discrimination and to end discrimination in the hiring process in their Mexican maquiladoras.
We and other members of this coalition then met in May 1996 with Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Crime Robert Gelbard to urge that the International Police Task Force (IPTF) deployed consequent to the Dayton Accords in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Eastern Slovonia and Republika Srpska be responsive to women=s human rights concerns. We urged that training for IPTF officers address women=s human rights and that these forces have expertise in or be trained in responding to and investigating violent crimes against women, including domestic violence and sexual assault. We also stressed that permanent police officers to be trained by IPTF must be screened for a history of human rights abuse, including abuses against women.
The Women=s Rights Project also worked with U.S. Senate staff to call on USAID to integrate attention to women=s rights into its economic development and humanitarian assistance to Bosnia-Hercegovina.
In the process of establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, women=s rights activists made significant gains in pushing the international community to recognize rape and other forms of sexual violence as war crimes and in securing the promise of accountability for such crimes. Human Rights Watch worked consistently throughout 1996 to ensure that these gains were not lost for women in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch held several meetings with members of the staff of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), including the chief of investigations and the deputy prosecutor in Kigali as well as the legal advisor of the sexual assault committee based in The Hague, to call on the Rwanda tribunal to investigate and prosecute sexual violence and to step up efforts to improve the ability of its investigators to investigate such abuse. In June, Human Rights Watch protested to the Rwanda tribunal after a number of indictments were brought against Jean-Paul Akayesu, a local official of Taba commune. Rape was not among the charges, despite the widespread sexual violence in the Taba area during the 1994 genocide. Human Rights Watch called on the tribunal to investigate the reports of sexual violence in the Taba area in order to determine whether Mr. Akayesu bore command responsibility for the sexual violence in his area. In August, Human Rights Watch participated in forming a coalition of eighty-five women's rights and human rights organizations which wrote to the Rwanda tribunal to ensure that the progress made by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to prosecute rape not be undercut by a failure to pay appropriate attention to the crime of rape in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch also pressed U.S. State Department officials to ensure that its programs to and support of the Rwandan government and the Rwanda tribunal addressed the needs of Rwandan women.
During 1996, we actively promoted the U.S. government=s implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and pressed the Clinton administration to fulfill its commitments to protect the human rights of women in the U.S. and throughout the world. We continued to urge the U.S. government to ratify CEDAW. We also participated in local and national efforts to build a grassroots campaign to educate women about CEDAW and mobilize for its ratification. As part of our ongoing effort to persuade the U.S. government to fully integrate women=s human rights into the foreign policy process, we urged the U.S. to condition aid and trade benefits to other countries on enacting laws and committing resources to the investigation and prosecution of crimes of violence against women and on enacting reforms to discriminatory laws.
Key to raising the visibility of women=s human rights at the U.N. is enhancing the status of the bodies that have traditionally handled these issues. The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), for example, has second-class status within the U.N. system as well as in the eyes of many governments. In 1996, at the CSW meeting itself, as well as in meetings with U.S. government officials and with our colleague organizations, we sought to strengthen the work of the CSW, to enhance the quality of U.S. government representation to that body, and to foster greater participation by NGOs in its session. Our efforts with respect to U.S. government participation were severely hampered by the Clinton administration's failure to appoint a U.S. representative until just ten days before the start of the CSW session, giving the delegate little time to prepare, giving the NGO community little time to communicate its concerns to the U.S. delegation, and casting doubt upon the seriousness of the U.S. approach to the CSW. Nonetheless, we met with the head of the delegation after her appointment and pressed for a series of reforms to expand CSW=s influence in the U.N. At the CSW session itself, the Women's Rights Project pressed to have stronger human rights and gender-specific language included in two Philippines-sponsored resolutions, one on trafficking of women and girls and the other on violence against women migrants. The Women's Rights Project met with delegates of the Philippines, Canada, and the U.S. to urge them to ground the language of the two resolutions in international human rights instruments, including taking note of the gender-specific violence women migrants face.
Unlike the CSW, the U.N. Human Rights Commission had, until the early 1990s, paid little attention to women=s human rights. Women=s rights activists have consistently pressed the commission to integrate women=s human rights into its reporting and monitoring, but, as noted above, have met with limited success. One exception to this pattern came in 1994 when the commission appointed the first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences for a three-year term. In 1996, the Women=s Rights Project worked to ensure that resolutions in specific countries expressed concern over women rights and that the commission step up its integration efforts. Prior to the fifty-second session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch urged Amb. Geraldine Ferraro, head of the U.S. delegation, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck, Amb. Paolo Torella of the European Union, and the representatives of the permanent missions to the U.N. to make women=s rights one of their priorities at the first commission meeting after the Beijing conference. Human Rights Watch advocated that the commission=s resolution on Rwanda emphasize investigating and prosecuting sexual violence and that a resolution on the former Yugoslavia stress protection of women=s physical security and training of international police to respond to crimes of violence against women. We also urged support for a resolution on violence against women and called for a resolution setting forth concrete measures by which the commission would integrate women=s human rights more fully into its work. The commission adopted both resolutions, although it declined to commit itself to the specific actions we recommended for integrating women=s human rights into its work.
In statements submitted to the Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch drew attention to the worldwide problem of domestic violence and the failure of governments to prevent, condemn, and punish such crimes. We urged the commission to call on governments to denounce and criminalize domestic violence, to protect women from such assaults, and to uphold women=s right to equal protection of the law. Human Rights Watch also reported to the commission on the trafficking of women and girls into forced prostitution, on abuses against women migrant workers, and on sexual abuse and degrading treatment of women in prisons in the United States. Women=s Rights Project reports documenting forms of violence against womenCfrom unpunished wife murder to forced virginity examsCwere cited in the special rapporteur=s report to the full session detailing violence against women in the family and states= failure to protect women=s human rights.
The Women=s Rights Project worked on increasing international understanding of the critical link between the respect of women=s human rights and the improvement of women=s social and economic status with our advocacy in preparation for Habitat II, the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, in Istanbul in June. We proposed specific amendments to the Draft Agenda for the Global Plan of Action that would specify the range of housing problems women face as a result of violence and statutory discrimination and other abuses of their human rights. We urged that women=s heightened vulnerability to becoming homeless consequent to acts of violence be recognized and addressed, stressed the need for legal reform in order to provide equal and nondiscriminatory access to property and land, and recommended that strategies to cope with the shelter requirements of returnees and internally displaced persons must account for the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women, including the protection of their personal safety. The final Habitat action agenda did specifically commit to protect and promote women=s human rights, including with respect to women=s equal access to property and resources and to promoting housing for victims of violence in the home.
The Women=s Rights Project also participated in and coordinated campaigns protesting specific violations of women=s human rights. In March 1996, we wrote to the prime minister of Malaysia to express deep concern about the arrest of Irene Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, a women=s rights organization in Kuala Lumpur. Fernandez stood trial for false reporting in connection with a July 1995 Tenaganita press release on abuses against migrant workers in Malaysia=s immigration detention centers.
In 1996, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) for the first time recognized that female genital mutilation may constitute persecution and grounds for political asylum. Fauziya Kassindja had sought asylum on the grounds that she would have faced the threat of violenceCin the form of FGMChad she been compelled to return to her native Togo. In an April 1996 letter to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Doris Meissner, Human Rights Watch supported her asylum application. We also expressed our dismay about the abusive treatment Kassindja had endured during her confinement in the Esmor detention facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey. On June 13, the BIA granted Kassindja asylum. Responding to our letter, the INS stated its support for the position that forced female genital mutilation can be a basis for asylum.
In a September 1996 letter to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, we protested the denial of the right of twenty-one-year-old Saima Waheed to marry the person of her choice. We also worked that month with Human Rights Watch/Middle East on a statement signed by a coalition of human rights, Arab-American, women=s rights, and academic organizations condemning an Egyptian court decision declaring Cairo University professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid an apostate and ordering his separation from his wife, Prof. Ibtihal Yunis, on the grounds that she, a Muslim woman, could not remain married to an apostate. The organizations protested the court decision as violating the rights to marry and to freedom of expression. We also denounced the discriminatory effects of the ruling on Dr. Yunis, given the limited rights granted divorced women under Egypt=s family law. On September 25, another court suspended implementation of the June 1995 ruling ordering the couple=s separation.