THE WOMEN'S RIGHTS PROJECT
Women's Human Rights
In 1997 voices as disparate as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright called for the full integration of women's human rights into the policies and practices of national governments and international agencies. Secretary-General Annan stated that he remained "dedicated to mainstreaming a gender perspective into the work of the entire United Nations system and to ensuring that women's rights and women's programs remain integral parts of the Organization's global mission." Secretary Albright called on all states to act on their responsibility to end violations of women's human rights.
This surge in high-level pronouncements on women's human rights represented a watershed in the decade-long effort by women's rights activists from around the world to highlight human rights issues. Years of often frustrating lobbying by women's rights activists in national, regional, and international fora finally bore significant fruit, with the statements of international leaders reflecting the growing strength and influence of the global women's human rights movement. Whether at the World Trade Organization or during the negotiations for a permanent International Criminal Court, the growing presence of women and increased attention to women's rights concerns were keenly felt.
Unfortunately, as is the case with international human rights practices generally, the political rhetoric surrounding women's human rights was rarely accompanied by any significant action, whether at the international or national level. At the United Nations, the Commission on Human Rights, the two ad hoc war crimes tribunals, and the various specialized agencies continued to give only inconsistent attention to women's human rights and in general acted only when prompted by outside pressure or media coverage. The gap between principle and practice was no less evident at the national level, where governments continued not only to tolerate widespread violence and discrimination against women but to commit such abuses themselves. In fact, as research by the World Bank and others revealed, the world's governments continued more often than not to abuse women's human rights rather than observe them.
One of the most pressing human rights concerns of 1997 was the continued prevalence of violence against women by both state and non-state actors. Conflict-related violence and its effects on women were evident everywhere from Colombia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and prison abuse of women emerged in several countries as a growing concern. Both wartime and custodial violence continued in large measure to occur with widespread impunity and persistent international inaction. This was no less true of abuse by private actors which, while affecting women everywhere, was adequately addressed by governments virtually nowhere. Police, prosecutors, and judges commonly exhibited indifference to or outright bias against women victims of such abuse who themselves experienced little meaningful relief.
Some bright spots in this otherwise bleak record included important legal reforms in the domestic violence laws of several countries, including South Africa and Peru, lawsuits brought by the U.S. Department of Justice against Arizona and Michigan for the sexual abuse of women in custody, and the decision by the U.N. Human Rights Commission to renew the mandate of the special rapporteur on violence against women.
While violence against women continued to be universally condemned, if infrequently combatted, discrimination against women was still publicly and vigorously defended in many countries. Defending draft legislation that would deny women equal inheritance rights in Nepal, opponents to such equality argued that it would "create a state of social disorder." The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) continued to be the U.N. treaty with the most reservations and did not include an optionalprotocol-a formal mechanism that establishes the right of individuals as well as governments to petition. Some countries, including the United States, failed to ratify CEDAW altogether.
The worldwide prevalence of violence and discrimination against women was particularly worrisome in the age of economic and labor globalization. In 1997 more women entered the formal and informal economic sectors than ever before, yet too often they were forced to choose between their jobs and their rights. This was particularly evident in the growing problem of the trafficking of women, which is reported in virtually every region of the world. Moreover, while the U.S. National Administrative Office (U.S. NAO), which oversees compliance with the labor rights side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), did take initial steps to investigate violations of anti-discrimination provisions of the labor rights side agreement to NAFTA, such concern for the ways in which workforce discrimination hinders or harms women's participation in the workforce was notably absent from debate about trade regulations-whether bilateral, regional, or transnational-elsewhere.
The inattention to women's human rights in the policies and programs of both national governments and international bodies was mirrored in their failure to commit adequate resources in this area. Thus, the U.N.'s repeated pledge to uphold the rights of women and integrate attention to these issues throughout its programs was not meaningfully reflected in the distribution of its resources. This assessment applied equally to national governments, including the U.S., the 1997 budget of which reflected only a minimal contribution to the protection and promotion of the human rights of women.
The following section is designed to provide an overview of the state of women's human rights in 1997. It focuses in particular on the problems of violence and discrimination against women as committed and tolerated by states and is drawn from the work of Human Rights Watch in these areas over the past year.
Violence Against Women
Violence against women by both state and non-state actors was among the most serious and pervasive human rights abuses that the international community confronted in 1997, yet most countries were at best ineffectual and at worst negligent in taking action to end such abuse. Private actors often committed acts of violence against women, including rape and physical abuse, with impunity because states failed to prosecute and punish them. Moreover, in some countries, state agents themselves, such as military, police, and prison personnel, inflicted rape and other forms of violence on women without sanction.
While no reliable statistics exist regarding the scope of wartime or custodial violence against women, such abuse was clearly common. For example, reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo indicated that violence against women was prevalent during fighting between rebels and government forces. In both Rwanda and Bosnia women continued to face the consequences of wartime violence with little assistance from national governments or international entities. They continued to experience inadequate criminal justice, widespread displacement, and discrimination in access to property and financial resources.
The problem of custodial sexual abuse fared little better in 1997. Because of the routine failure of states to uphold the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, particularly with respect to cross-gender guarding, women were particularly vulnerable to custodial abuse, often by male officers. For a variety of reasons, including the relatively small population of female prisoners in most countries, this abuse was routinely overlooked. In one important exception to this inattention, the European Court of Human Rights, in a September 1997 judgment, found that Sukran Aydin, a young Kurdish woman from southeastern Turkey, was subjected to torture when she was raped by guards who detained her in June 1993. In addition, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights issued an important decision related to custodial violence against women. In a September 17 judgment, the court ordered the immediate release of María Elena Loayza Tamayo, a Peruvian professor who was tortured and raped by police in February 1993 and then convicted of terrorism in Peru's "faceless court" system and given a twenty-year prison sentence. While the Inter-American Court found that there was insufficient evidence to prove rape, Peru was ordered to release her immediately and to pay her reparations for the "grave material and moral injury suffered."
Domestic violence has been one of the principal causes of female injury in almost every country in the world. Because most countries do not collect yearly data on the incidence of domestic violence, there is a dearth of current global statistics tracking the prevalence of this abuse. Nevertheless, the data that are available indicate that domestic violence is widespread. The World Health Organization reported in 1996 that in twenty-four countries across four continents, 20 to 50 percent of adult women had been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, and that in 50 to 60 percent of those cases, the violence included rape. In some countries, estimates were higher. For example, in Lima, Peru, over 6,000 cases of domestic violence were reported in 1996. According to the Peruvian Ministry of Justice, only one out of every five domestic violence cases actually gets reported. While the U.S. Department of Justice reported that approximately one million women suffered intimate violence in 1994, the American Medical Association estimated that the true incidence neared four million. In Russia, officials estimated that in 1993 15,000 women were killed and over 50,000 hospitalized because of domestic violence; however, there are no official statistics on its actual incidence, and the statistics department of the general prosecutor's office does not compile statistics on domestic violence. A 1994 study in India found that 91 percent of female murder victims had been killed by their husbands.
In addition to domestic violence, sexual assault was a persistent threat to women globally. Because so little official attention was devoted to the subject, the true dimensions of this problem must be inferred from partial studies. One 1994 study found that 23.3 percent of Canadian college students surveyed had been victims of rape or attempted rape. In the U.S., the Department of Justice reported that in 1994 there was one reported rape for every 270 females twelve years old and older, and a 1996 American Medical Association report estimated that one infive women is sexually assaulted by the time she reaches twenty-one years of age. In Russia, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 10,888 rapes were reported to officials in 1996-a figure believed to be significantly lower than the actual incidence. In Peru, women's rights activists estimated that 25,000 women are raped every year.
In 1997 we investigated the effects of wartime violence in Rwanda, Bosnia, Liberia, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; custodial abuse in Peru, the United States, and Venezuela; and private actor violence against women in Pakistan, Peru, Russia, and South Africa.
and Post-Conflict Abuse
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, women from both the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups were subjected to sexual violence-individual rapes, gang rapes, rapes with objects such as sharpened sticks or gun barrels, sexual slavery, and sexual mutilation-on a massive scale. These crimes were perpetrated, directed, or sanctioned by military and political leaders, as well as heads of militia, with a view toward furthering their political goals. Extremist propaganda denouncing the sexuality of Tutsi women, for example, served as one means to incite the widespread use of rape as an instrument to degrade and destroy the Tutsi community.
Throughout the war from 1991 to 1995 in the former Yugoslavia, countless women were victims of rape and other crimes of sexual violence-forced pregnancy, forced maternity, and sexual slavery. While these crimes were committed by all parties to the conflict, they were undertaken most notably by Bosnian Serb soldiers as a military strategy to seize territorial control in the former Yugoslavia. Whether committed against women in front of their families or in the village square, in the home or in a rape camp, once or repeatedly, the deliberate use of rape advanced a political objective: to humiliate, intimidate, and terrorize women and others affected by their suffering as well as to seize territory through the ethnically motivated expulsion of civilians.
In large part, however, the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) failed to deliver substantive justice to the thousands of women who endured brutal acts of sexual violence. After three years of operation, only in June 1997 did the ICTR levy charges of rape against two alleged war criminals. Moreover, shortcomings plagued the few initiatives undertaken by the ICTR to strengthen its investigative and prosecutorial strategies concerning sexual violence. The nascent sexual assault team, for instance, remained severely understaffed and ineffective. Moreover, the appointment of a gender advisor to address the needs of female witnesses, although a step in the right direction, failed to compensate for the overall absence of sufficient protection for witnesses at all stages of the trial. The ICTY, too, experienced limited success in securing women's access to international justice. Its failure to apprehend persons indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia exacerbated women's fear of reprisals against them and their relatives. Wholly inadequate protection measures before and after trial reinforced these fears and further deterred women's participation with the tribunal.
In the wake of warfare, Rwandan and Bosnian women assumed critical roles in rebuilding the social and economic infrastructures of their transformed societies. At the same time, however, they continued to face discrimination in their access to property or financial resources, social stigmatization resulting from rape, deteriorating physical health, and intensifying poverty. Beyond suffering from psychosocial trauma as a consequence of the sexual violence committed against them during the genocide, Rwandan women faced dire economic difficulties as a result of their second-class citizenship status. Because Rwandan women, pursuant to customary law, are unable to inherit property absent explicit designation as beneficiaries, thousands of widows or orphaned daughters had no legal claim to their late husbands' or fathers' property or finances. Many women were thus rendered destitute, living 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, in exile, or imprisoned on charges of genocide dealt with similar issues of poverty, as well as with the recrimination directed at them on the basis of their ethnicity or their ties to alleged war criminals.
Women in the former Yugoslavia fared no better. "Ethnic cleansing" campaigns during the war there resulted in staggering numbers of refugee and internally displaced women. Many were unable to return home, in part because of the failure to apprehend war criminals, who enjoyed not only freedom but the power to obstruct the return of refugees and displaced persons. In significant numbers, displaced women lived in collective centers, abandoned houses, or other temporary accommodations, dependent on minimal humanitarian aid for basic survival. Moreover, rampant unemployment continued to threaten the future of Bosnian women as they coped with heightened economic responsibilities, particularly after the loss of their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons to the war.
Despite their obvious needs and vital roles in rebuilding the social and economic infrastructures in their post-war societies, Rwandan and Bosnian women were not viewed as a priority, either by their respective governments or by international donors, humanitarian organizations, and reconstruction and development agencies. Shortchanged in the reconstruction process, Rwandan and Bosnian women continued to suffer personal, social, and economic hardships, in part because of a dearth of services and programs designed to assist these women in rebuilding their lives. The only monetary aid specifically targeted to assist Bosnian women in the transition-the U.S.$5 million Bosnian Women's Initiative from the United States-was scheduled to end in 1997. Although U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pledged to sustain the initiative, the only member of the international community that responded to appeals for support was Denmark with only $150,000. A similar United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative in Rwanda commanded almost $1.6 million, but despite praise for the program, it was planned to run only through 1998.
Unredressed custodial violence against women affected both political prisoners and those accused or convicted of common crimes. In Nepal, for example, border police allegedly gang-raped a female Tibetan refugee in December 1996. At the time of this writing, more than ten months later, this case has still not been seriously investigated. Similarly, in Peru, against the backdrop of the lingering effects of the armed conflict between the Peruvian military and the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), members of the Peruvian police and army continued to enjoy nearly complete impunity while committing sexually violent torture against women. As far as Human Rights Watch could determine, there has been only one successful prosecution of sexually violent torture against a detained civilian. Juana Ibarra Aguirre was gang raped and tortured by members of the Peruvian army at the Monzón base on August 29, 1996. On February 17, 1997, a military court convicted Lt. Cpl. Luis Daniel Figueroa Fernández Dávila of abuse of authority against Ms. Ibarra Aguirre and Jorge Chávez Espinoza (who was beaten to death). Fernández Dávila was permanently separated from the army and sentenced to twenty-five months of prison for both crimes and a reparations payment equivalent to $118 to Ibarra Aguirre.
In the common-crimes context, women were the victims of widespread, unchecked violence. In the United States, for example, where the female prison population increased by nearly 400 percent between 1980 and 1995, a Human Rights Watch investigation revealed that women warehoused in overcrowded prisons were regularly subjected to verbal degradation and harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks, rape, and sexual assault. This situation resulted, in part, from the fact that women prisoners in the United States were guarded predominantly by male officers, most of whom were not properly trained to refrain from custodial abuse. Some guards threatened to deny women visitation by their children unless the women submitted to sexual advances-a glaring instance of the abuse of power by those charged with overseeing and protecting the women prisoners.
This abuse of women prisoners in the United States was compounded by the failure of both the state and federal governments to establish effective grievance and investigatory procedures to sanction abusive officers appropriately. Women who resisted sexual overtures from guards or who filed grievances alleging unprofessional and abusive conduct on the part of the guards were typically subjected to retaliatory actions such as threats by the accused corrections officer or his peers, physical abuse, or disciplinary sanctions, including solitary confinement or transfer to another facility. The U.S. Department of Justice, in charge of investigating civil rights violations of prisoners, does not have a mechanism in place to track complaints of sexual abuse. As a result, despite the filing of numerous complaints, it may be years before official action actually occurs.
Women in prisons in Venezuela also suffered from civil and political rights violations, including regulations that discriminated on the basis of gender. Human Rights Watch investigations found that, like their male counterparts, two-thirds of the women being detained have not been sentenced. For example, one woman with nine children ranging in age from four to nineteen had waited more than four years for her case to be resolved. Incarcerated women were stigmatized by society and many women were rejected by their families and communities. Although Venezuelan law prohibits cross-gender guarding, male National Guard personnel had access to the women, and the cases of brutality Human Rights Watch documented were at the hands of the guardsmen. An example of discriminatory regulations was the contrast between a liberal conjugal visit policy for men and a very stringent conjugal visit policy for women that effectively precluded most women from qualifying for the visits, further alienating them from their families.
Violence by Private Actors
In Pakistan, Peru, Russia, and South Africa, where Human Rights Watch investigated sexual and other violence against women, there were gross deficiencies in the states' response to such abuse by private actors. Access to justice was blocked or extremely difficult at every step of the legal process, from the police to the forensic doctors, prosecutors, and judges. In many cases, survivors who lodged complaints of domestic violence were further victimized by hostile and unsympathetic authorities who refused to accept the gravity of their assaults, routinely acted as if these assaults were provoked or deserved, and ultimately denied complainants protection or redress. These practices reflected both deficiencies in the laws of each country with respect to private actor violence as well as discriminatory and prejudiced practices on the part of state authorities.
Police routinely failed to exercise minimum diligence in the recording and investigation of rape and domestic violence complaints. It was common practice for police to refuse to accept domestic or sexual violence complaints outright, and in many cases victims were told that they deserved to be beaten, or had provoked their rapists, or were simply lying. In Russia, police blamed women for making themselves vulnerable to rape because of the clothing they wore, because they went out late at night, or because they consumed alcohol. In Peru, women reported that they were told by police, prosecutors, and justices of the peace that they deserved to be beaten for being disobedient, stubborn, or refusing sex with their partners.
Given such official bias against women, medical evidence can be crucial to the effective prosecution of such abuse, despite the fact that the victim's own testimony should be sufficient. Some countries even went so far as to require medical exams for victims while at the same time failing to ensure that those exams were properly or expeditiously conducted. Access to such exams was often geographically or financially impossible to obtain, and the exams themselves were ordinarily inadequate, incomplete, and conducted by poorly trained personnel with distinct biases against corroborating victims' claims. Doctors frequently failed to examine thoroughly sexual assault victims for any evidence other than obvious signs of forced vaginal penetration and usually centered on prejudicial and, in most cases, irrelevant information regarding the victims' imputed sexual history. In Russia and Peru, doctors tended to focus on the condition of the victim's hymen and how recently she was "deflowered," regardless of her age, marital status, or prior sexual experience, in some cases claiming that there was "nothing to find" in women who were not virgins. In Pakistan, it was standard procedure for doctors to insert several fingers into the victim's vagina to determine whether she was "habituated to sex."
The actual prosecution of private actor violence against women was recurrently hampered by the official tendency in both law and practice to treat such abuse as a lesser offence. In Peru and Pakistan, cases of domestic violence and of rape of adult women were seldom prosecuted by the state. (Children's cases were treated more seriously.) Many Peruvian survivors of rape could pursue their cases only through private suits that they or their families initiated. In Pakistan, domestic violence victims could seek redress only through private suits. In Russia, the state rarely prosecuted domestic violence, and the law does not provide for protective orders to prevent the continued abuse of the victim. In the countries we investigated, only a very small percentage of domestic and sexual violence complaints ever reached adjudication. It was considered normal for judges to examine victims' behavior and reputation more exhaustively than the defendants' acts of violence. For example, one Pakistani judge dismissed a divorce case in which domestic violence was alleged, saying that the Koran allows men to admonish their wives. Criminal judges in Peru routinely suspended the sentences of convicted rapists, letting them free.
Another form of violence by private actors practiced in over thirty African countries, in parts of Asia, and among immigrant communities in the U.S. and elsewhere was female genital mutilation (FGM), also called female circumcision. FGM was performed on infants, children, teens, and adult women and was defended by practitioners as an appropriate way of controlling women's sexuality, an important initiation rite, or a prerequisite for marriage. In Egypt, where a 1995 government-supported study indicated that over 90 percent of the female population underwent FGM, a July court decision undermined initial government efforts to combat the practice by overturning the health minister's ban on FGM on the grounds that it exceeded his authority. Egyptian human rights activists lobbied hard for the government to stand by its opposition to FGM, and the government pledged to appeal the court decision.
In addition to violence against women, which itself reflects and perpetuates discrimination, systematic discrimination against women persisted in 1997 in myriad forms throughout the world. Numerous states, including those that have ratified CEDAW, continued to maintain and enforce statutory laws that require differential and discriminatory treatment against women. In many states without such de jure discrimination, de facto discrimination flourished. The belief that discrimination on the basis of sex is acceptable in some forms or on certain occasions frustrated efforts both to eliminate sex discrimination-as called for by CEDAW-and to secure justice for women suffering its consequences.
In a major setback in the struggle to secure equal rights, women in Afghanistan saw their status plunge in 1997 as the Taliban took control over much of their country. Taliban edicts severely restricted women's freedom of movement and denied women and girls' access to education. Women whose dress did not comport with Taliban standards-which outlawed makeup, jewelry, and shoes that make noise-reportedly were beaten in the street. Variations of these extreme forms of sex discrimination exist in countries around the world. In 1997, we investigated state-committed or -tolerated discrimination in Morocco, Russia, Nepal, Egypt, Guatemala, Mexico, Malaysia, and Lebanon.
As governments adopted the language of women's human rights in the wake of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, many pointed to their constitutional guarantees of equal rights to all citizens, equal opportunity regardless of sex, or equal protection of the law. Yet these guarantees were often nullified by specific statutes that, among other things, limited women's access to divorce or their ability to inherit property or denied them equal citizenship rights. Morocco's constitution, for example, provides limited equality: women are guaranteed equality in politics, education, and the workplace but are not guaranteed equality as a civil right that would apply in other areas, such as the family law. The government of Morocco submitted its record on complying with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women for the first time in January 1997. Although Morocco could claim that certain forms of discrimination had been eliminated through legal reform-women no longer needed their husbands' express permission to work outside the home-it defended as consistent with religion and tradition the sex discrimination that pervades its Family Code and makes women minors under the law regardless of their age. Morocco succeeded in exporting this discrimination to France. Despite a French constitutional guarantee of equality, the French and Moroccan governments have operated since 1981 under an agreement to apply Moroccan family law to Moroccan nationals living in France.
Egypt's constitution provides a much stronger guarantee of equality, stating, "Citizens are equal before the law. They have equal rights and duties without distinction because of sex, origin, language, religion, or belief." Nonetheless, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak continued to refuse women equal citizenship by denying their right to pass on their nationality to their children. Instead, in 1997 his government offered to eliminate some of the consequences-high education fees, barriers to residency, visas-faced by families with Egyptian mothers and non-Egyptian fathers but failed to remove the discriminatory provisions from the law.
Women's rights in the workplace were also curtailed by law. In Russia, for example, labor legislation adopted in 1996 denied women the right to work in 400 professions considered inconsistent with their femininity and maternal responsibilities. Morocco also denied women access to certain jobs, specifically prohibiting them from working at night (with some exceptions), from holding jobs that are "immoral," and from serving in particular posts in the ministries of interior and defense, in national security, and in the government post and telecommunications office. In addition, in April 1997, the Taliban, who controlled nearly two-thirds of Afghanistan, announced an outright ban on women working outside the home, except in the health sector.
Unfortunately, tenacious efforts to eliminate sex discrimination continued to be undercut by official and broad-based opposition to women's equality. Nepali women's rights activists lobbied their parliament to grant women equal inheritance rights. As of September 1997, the bill under discussion allowed only unmarried daughters the right to inherit parental property. Opponents of giving women equal inheritance rights argued that, in the words of Supreme Court lawyer Madhab Koirala, it would "create a state of social disorder."
In another example of the state's participating directly in the subordination of women, Guatemala's civil code allows husbands to refuse their wives permission to work outside the home and appoints the husband as the representative of all family concerns. In 1994 María Eugenia Morales de Sierra, represented by the Center for Justice and International Law, challenged these provisions as discriminatory on the basis of sex. Morales de Sierra brought her case to the Inter-American Commission in Human Rights, which inexplicably and uncharacteristically declined to consider the case for eighteen months. At the September 1996 hearing, Guatemala agreed to promote legal reform but did not act on this promise. Despite continued government failure to reform the challenged laws, as of October 1997, the Inter-American Commission has not issued a ruling on the case.
The state's direct role in perpetuating discrimination and violence against women was evident not only through the promulgation of biased laws but through its complicity with private actors in failing to enforce protective law. By failing to take measures to prohibit discrimination and protect the right of women to nondiscrimination, governments throughout the world contributed to the creation of an environment in which non-state entities could openly discriminate against women without fear of condemnation or prosecution. In 1997 Human Rights Watch focused on the particular abuses suffered as a result of state-tolerated sex discrimination by women in the paid workforce and trafficked women.
Although many countries of the world have outlawed some of the most pernicious forms of workplace discrimination, many de facto discriminatory practices persist. This is a particularly troubling fact given that women participated in the workforce (informal and formal sectors) in increasing numbers in the developing world as well as in industrialized nations. The United Nations estimated that in 1994 approximately 41 percent of the world's women age fifteen and over were economically active but that most of the job growth for women had occurred in low-wage positions. Unfortunately, women's participation was often defined by conditions that kept them chronically poor or subsisting. Women worked in segregated, primarily low-wage industries that offered them the least amount of benefits, pay, potential for advance, skills development, or job security. According to a 1995 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, women were paid less than men for comparable work, including in developed nations. Moreover, the ILO found that when women began to enter in significant numbers any category of work previously dominated by men, there was a simultaneous downgrading of that occupation, in both pay and status; examples included teaching and senior civil service positions.
Regardless of the sector in which women worked or how much they were paid, they continued to face de facto discrimination in the labor force. One glaring example of such discrimination was hiring practices. Associating women primarily with their reproductive capacities, many employers assumed that women would leave the workforce once they bore children and thus saw female workers as bad investments and tried to avoid hiring them. Such biased notions against female job applicants resulted in discriminatory hiring practices in many countries, often despite clear labor laws and international obligations to the contrary.
In Mexico's export processing (maquiladora) sector, for example, Human Rights Watch research in 1996 and 1997 found that women applying for work as line assemblers were required to undergo mandatory, hiring-related pregnancy testing before they were offered work. Those found to be pregnant were denied jobs. Those who became pregnant shortly after being hired risked being forced to resign. Some companies required new female employees to certify that they remained non-pregnant, typically by forcing them, at regular intervals, to undergo mandatory checks of their used sanitary napkins. When confronted with evidence of these discriminatory practices, few of the responsible parties made any effort to address it. General Motors Corp., the largest employer in the maquiladoras, and ITT Corp. were two notable exceptions: after receiving our findings, these corporations pledged to discontinue pregnancy-based sex discrimination. The government of Mexico, however, characterized such discriminatory hiring practices as legal and failed to sanction offending companies, among them Zenith and Johnson Controls, which continued to argue that such discriminatory practices were legally permissible.
Few international remedial bodies exist to explore and make judgments on workforce discrimination against women and to require reforms. The Mexico maquiladora sector, however, is subject to such a mechanism. In July 1997, the United States National Administrative Office (U.S. NAO, the body charged with hearing cases of alleged violations by Canada or Mexico of the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, commonly referred to as the labor rights side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA) accepted for review a petition filed by Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Fund, and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos), which charged the Mexican government with failure to enforce its domestic labor code or set up effective mechanisms to adjudicate labor disputes. The U.S. NAO was expected to issue its findings by November 1997. ( For more information on the U.S. NAO process, see the Mexico chapter.)
The experiences of migrant women workers provided another striking example of de facto discrimination against women. All over the world, women migrated from their home countries to wealthier receiver countries to work in factories or to provide in-home domestic or other services. A variety of government action or inaction, including the implementation of legislation with a negative disparate impact on migrant women workers, the condoning of discriminatory contractual agreements, and the failure to enforce contractual protections for migrant workers, resulted in violations of women workers' rights. Migrant women workers faced not only loss of promised wages but exploitative hours, physical abuse, and confinement by their employers, and arbitrary detentions and summary deportations by the state.
Governments' failure to provide remedies to violations of women workers' rights, at times combined with overtly prejudicial laws and regulations, resulted in discrimination and physical abuse; some governments or their agents tolerated or collaborated in discriminatory, arbitrary detentions and deportations. In Malaysia, for example, the government, by promulgating a law that excludes domestic workers from labor protections, indirectly but nonetheless effectively sanctioned discrimination against migrant women workers. Malaysia's Employment Act, the primary law governing worker rights in that country, extends to both foreign and Malaysian workers but specifically exempts domestic workers from key provisions. These provisions include those guaranteeing maternity leave, those which place limits on advances, and those governing permissible working hours. Although many of the exemptions are couched in gender-neutral language, because the vast majority of domestic workers are women, it is clear that these provisions have had a particularly significant impact on decreasing protections afforded to women workers.
The Malaysian government's complicity with private discrimination against migrant women workers was also evident in its inaction with regard to the discriminatory contracts issued by Malaysian employers. A Human Rights Watch investigation in 1997 found that thousands of Indonesian women migrated to Malaysia to work as either factory workers or domestic servants. Contracts for the domestic servants generally included a standard prohibition on association, barring them from "forming or participating in any social club in Malaysia" during their employment. Contracts for the migrant factory workers often included bans on trade union activity and on pregnancy. With regard to the latter, factory employers were able to enforce the pregnancy provisions because of Malaysian immigration regulations, which require migrant women to have full medical examinations that screen for pregnancy prior to their entry into Malaysia, a follow-up examination one month after entry, and then subsequent yearly examinations. Those found to be pregnant are barred from working in Malaysia and are subject to immediate dismissal and deportation.
Even when women were able to negotiate labor contracts that satisfactorily protected their rights, they were still not safe from abuse by their employers. These situations arose because of some governments' failure to provide adequate mechanisms for the women workers to enforce their contracts or seek remedies for their violation. In Lebanon, for example, women from as far away as Ethiopia migrated with the help of Lebanese employment agencies to work as household servants. In one widely publicized case, an Ethiopian woman, Zenebech Girma, alleged that she had been working in Lebanon as a domestic servant, yet her wages were underpaid (or not paid at all), she was confined to her employers' home and denied freedom of movement, physically and mentally abused, and refused permission to end her contractual relationship with her employer and return to her home country. At this writing, the Lebanese government had initiated an investigation but had yet to take any action on their findings.
The lack of adequate legal protection was particularly stark not only for household domestics, migrant workers, and workers in assembly plants but also for victims of trafficking. In virtually every region of the globe, women were coerced or tricked into migrating to work in prostitution, the garment trade, or other sectors, in addition, frequently, to suffering abuses in the workplace. Human Rights Watch has investigated trafficking in women in the United States, Thailand, Nepal, India, Brazil, and Pakistan.
Once transported to an unfamiliar and often hostile milieu, women were inevitably left at the mercy of traffickers who then more easily exploited their labor and operated outside of applicable frameworks of labor, criminal, and contractual laws. Trafficking victims were hence particularly susceptible to a range of abuses in the workplace, including debt bondage, forced labor, illegal confinement, enforced isolation, wage withholding, deprivation of identity documents, and sexual and other physical abuse. Women who had not been trafficked into these sectors frequently found themselves suffering such abuse as well.
Trafficking victims were commonly denied access to legal remedies and redress for severe human rights violations both during recruitment and in the workplace. Most trafficked women were socially, linguistically, culturally, and legally isolated in their host countries. Frequently they were under the physical control of their employers, lacking any identity papers and uncertain of their status and rights in the receiving country. Most were illegal migrants, subject to the constant threat of detention and deportation. Women trafficked into prostitution feared, in addition, harsh criminal sanctions. All these factors contributed to an atmosphere that inhibited trafficked persons from speaking out to officials or seeking redress from state agencies.
Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that even when trafficked women did come in contact with law enforcement officials, they were frequently treated as illegal migrants or as criminals or both, routinely detained, and summarily deported. With few exceptions, officials failed to investigate or record the testimony of victims in state custody as to the abuses they suffered during recruitment and in the workplace or to allow them an opportunity to file charges or bring civil suits against their employers and traffickers. Rarely were systematic efforts made to track down and prosecute the employers or traffickers. On the contrary, in many countries law enforcement and immigration officials profited from the traffic in women. For a price they aided and abetted the coercive passage of women and ignored abuses in their jurisdictions.
In the United States, as in many other countries, upon their detection in brothels or sweatshops, trafficked women were generally detained and deported unless their testimony was required for criminal cases against their traffickers or employers. Where criminal suits were instituted against the latter, in many cases, the charges did not reflect the full range of civil and human rights violations committed against the women. Rather, the traffickers and brothel owners were typically prosecuted for harboring illegal aliens and conspiring to commit prostitution. This pattern was due, in part, to domestic criminal laws that failed fully to protect the rights of trafficked women and others held in debt bondage and involuntary servitude and to practices which often reflected an official bias against both immigrants and prostitutes.
Notably Belgium and the Netherlands have domestic laws that afford a measure of due process protection and allow for the provision of basic support services to women believed to be victims of trafficking. The laws allow trafficked women who want to bring charges against their traffickers and employers to obtain temporary residence permits for the duration of the judicial process. Furthermore, victims of trafficking are entitled to social security benefits, safe shelters, legal aid, medical care, and psychological counseling while they consider whether to press charges, and, in some cases, beyond that as well. The Dutch and Belgian governments also support nongovernmental organizations working with trafficked women and cooperate with them in implementing government initiatives for trafficking victims. Neither the Dutch nor Belgian governments criminalize prostitution, although Belgium does outlaw procurement and brothel keeping.
The Role of the
In recent years, the international community has made important advances in the recognition of violence against women as a human rights concern, recognizing the need for states to respond appropriately. In 1992, the U.N.'s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (the CEDAW Committee), which monitors state compliance with the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), issued General Recommendation No. 19, finding that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that states must take measures to eradicate. The U.N. General Assembly subsequently adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993. Later that year, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, states reaffirmed that governments have a duty to eliminate violence against women in order to ensure women's enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. In 1994 the Commission on Human Rights appointed a special rapporteur on violence against women. That year the Organization of American States adopted the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (the Belem do Pará Convention). These efforts reached an apex in 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where states adopted a Platform of Action and individual states made commitments to take specific actions to promote gender equality, including the eradication of all forms of violence against women.
The international community's commitment to achieving the goal of gender equality did not, however, lead to sustained efforts to eliminate other forms of sex discrimination, including laws and practices that deny women equal rights in the workplace and in the family. For example, in June 1993, governments at the World Conference on Human Rights asked the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the CEDAW Committee to create a stronger enforcement mechanism for victims of sex discrimination. Four years and much discussion later, the CSW had managed only to draft and circulate a proposal for an optional protocol that would give victims of sex discrimination the right to petition the CEDAW Committee. Moreover, in negotiations over the draft proposal, most governments refused to integrate specific means to make the petition mechanism available and functional for actual victims of sex discrimination.
While it is widely acknowledged within the United Nations that attention to women's human rights must be integrated into the U.N.'s programs and mission, the international body's actual practice fell far short of its rhetoric during 1997. A press release issued by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in July 1997, for example, quoted a Russian delegate as stating that the U.N.'s approach to mainstreaming women's issues was over-theoretical and "risked being nothing but arcane paper-churning." This observation followed the release of a June 1997 ECOSOC draft outlining concepts, principles, and specific recommendations for integrating women's concerns and issues into the overall work of the United Nations. In this draft, ECOSOC recognized that "a gender perspective has not been fully integrated." A July 1997 report by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on humanitarian assistance acknowledged that the U.N. had yet to implement specific measures to address the protection of women's human rights in times of conflict.
The U.N.'s failure fully to address women's human rights concerns was perhaps best reflected in its allocation of resources. Although a wide variety of U.N. officials have publicly committed to promoting women's human rights, these commitments have mostly failed to lead to concrete programs or, because of the U.N. accounting system, actual work to promote women's rights cannot be measured. Secretary-General Annan acknowledged in a report issued in June 1997 that the U.N. method of budgeting made it impossible to assess allocation of resources disaggregated by sex or by beneficiary. However, even absent such information for 1997, it was clear that women's human rights got short shrift. In December 1996, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) issued a directive committing 20 percent of its 1997 budget for programs to promote gender equality and the advancement of women, but this purported increase in support could not be assessed because UNDP failed to modify its reporting system so as to clarify whether the goal would be reached. On an even more disturbing note, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), an autonomous body in association with UNDP and the only U.N. agency that provides direct support to promoting women's human rights and development projects, received less than 2 percent of the UNDP's 1997 budget of $1 billion.
In addition to concerns about budgeting, the U.N. reform process, spearheaded by Secretary-General Annan, prompted concerns both within and outside the United Nations that women's human rights would become increasingly marginalized. Not only was Angela King, the special adviser to the secretary-general on gender issues, excluded from the initial reform process, but the final ninety-page document guiding the process makes only three references to women's human rights. Furthermore, despite repeated pledges to achieve gender parity at all levels within the U.N., in his first round of high-level appointments in January 1997 Secretary-General Annan named two women and seventeen men. On a positive note, he later appointed Mary Robinson to be High Commissioner for Human Rights.
While overall, the U.N.'s actions failed to match its rhetoric, the organization did make some progress in addressing specific women's rights, particularly with respect to human rights bodies. The reports of Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women Radhika Coomaraswamy continued to make a significant contribution to exposing the issue and securing government action to address it. The rapporteur's February 1997 report on sexual violence in South Africa, for example, highlighted the relationship between the high rate of violence against women and the legacy of apartheid and recommended a complete "overhauling of the criminal justice apparatus to respond to violence in general and violence against women in particular." The Commission on Human Rights, in recognition of the importance of the rapporteur's work, renewed her mandate for three additional years.
In addition, the Human Rights Committee, responsible for reviewing country reports under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, increased its focus on violence against women. For example, in considering Peru's latest report, the committee focused on violations which were gender specific, including de jure discrimination. Specifically, the committee recommended the repeal of the provision in the Peru's Penal Code that exempted a rapist from punishment if he married the victim. The committee criticized the fact that rape in Peru can only be prosecuted privately as well as provisions in the Civil Code that discriminate against women, including a difference in the minimum age of matrimony.
Though such specific improvements were welcome, the U.N.'s human rights system continued in general to accord too little attention to women. Thus, a UNIFEM review of reports to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights by special rapporteurs and by countries characterized them as providing "inconsistent attention to, and analysis of, gender-specific violations." UNIFEM also noted that few reports included analysis of the relationship between the abuse suffered by women and their subordinate status in public and private life. In a March 1997 letter circulated at the fifty-third session of the Commission on Human Rights, UNIFEM presented specific suggestions on how to analyze human rights violations from a gender-sensitive perspective. The letter called for differentiating gender-specific forms of violence and discrimination, for analyzing the circumstances and consequences of violations which may be gender-specific, and for identifying gender-specific barriers in access to remedies.
The United Nations' uneven treatment of women's human rights was equally evident in its approach to trafficking. The 1997 report of the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women noted that existing international instruments are clearly inadequate to address the problem. She emphasized that the 1949 Convention on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons is flawed, lacks widespread support, and has a weak enforcement mechanism. Yet when the Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities' Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery issued a report five months later, it failed to take into consideration the special rapporteur's analysis and called for widespread ratification of the 1949 Convention.
Attempts to address the human rights of women more fully were increasingly evident in U.N. programs, which until recently have not viewed this work as within their mandate. Both United Nations Po6pulation Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have taken welcome steps in this direction and in 1995 and 1996, respectively, adopted mandates based on promoting human rights and in particular the rights of women and girls. UNFPA adopted a rights approach to family planning which incorporated the objectives set forth at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo Conference), including gender equity and equality; education, especially for girls; infant, child, and maternal mortality reduction; and universal access to reproductive health services. UNICEF officially changed its mandate to make its mission the universal ratification and implementation of Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), with an explicit reference to the fact that the well-being of children is directly correlated to that of their mothers. In the Progress of Nations - 1997, an annual UNICEF publication, the commentary on women focused on violence against women and girls. Whether these changes will translate into full-fledged programmatic attention to women's rights by these agencies remains to be seen.
The potential gap between policy and practice with respect to the treatment of women's human rights by U.N. agencies was also evident during 1997 at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). When UNHCR staff did implement procedures to protect women refugees and train workers, we were able to document significant improvements in the situation for women refugees. However, the failure to translate these policies into practice continued, as evidenced by a 1997 International Rescue Committee (IRC) survey of approximately 3,800 women refugees from Burundi who have spent the last three years as refugees in Tanzania that revealed that 26 percent had been victims of sexual violence in the camps. UNHCR had no protection officers assigned to the camp and only conducted trainings on preventing sexual violence after learning of the IRC report.
An important U.N. initiative in the area of accountability and access to justice was the move to create an International Criminal Court, negotiations for which continued through 1997. However, here again women's issues fared poorly and were nearly always at risk of being overlooked entirely without the watchful eyes and targeted efforts of women's rights activists. The proposed establishment of an ICC has great significance for women because they are commonly the targets and victims of egregious international crimes and, at the same time, have frequently been denied access to justice at both national and international levels. The conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia are only the most recent examples of horrifying levels of violence against women, including acts of rape, enforced prostitution, and other forms of sexual assault. Although it is well established that these abuses can constitute genocide, serious violations of the laws and customs of war, or crimes against humanity, the prosecution of sexual and gender violence presents unique challenges in terms of developing appropriate investigative methods and legal theories, as well as particular difficulties in ensuring the participation and protection of victims and witnesses. This fact might account, in part, for the initial reluctance of the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to investigate and prosecute these crimes with the seriousness they deserve. Drawing on lessons learned from the experiences of the ad hoc tribunals, the permanent International Criminal Court must be fully empowered to prosecute sexual and gender violence if it is to fulfill its mandate to end impunity for the most serious violations of international law.
Nevertheless, the Preparatory Committee on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, convened by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1995, did not deal in any detail with the specific concerns of women victims of violence until February 1997, when, owing to the pioneering efforts of a few committed delegations and a caucus of women's rights activists, these concerns entered the debate on the definitions and scope of crimes within the court's jurisdiction. At the conclusion of the meeting, the draft consolidated text expressly categorized crimes of sexual and gender violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although this move does not represent a progressive development of international law, such express reference is necessary for the prosecution of these crimes to be treated as an integral part of the court's mandate.
Although the momentum created in February was sustained during the August meeting of the preparatory committee, it was again the result of the labors of a small number of dedicated and outspoken delegations and women's rights advocates. Based on their efforts, the draft consolidated text on principles of criminal procedure included an explicit direction to the prosecutor to ensure that the investigation of crimes of sexual violence be carried out in a manner conducive to eliciting relevant testimony from victims and witnesses. It also contained an instruction to the court to take necessary measures to ensure the safety, physical and psychological well-being, dignity, and privacy of victims and witnesses and explicitly referenced victims of sexual and gender violence in this regard. Beyond this hard-won success, the August meeting was marked by setbacks on critical foundational issues (see the discussion of the ICC in the Special Issues section).
The World Bank, which is charged with promoting social and economic development through loans, investment, and technical assistance, has publicly recognized the impact of violations of women's rights on women's participation in the social and economic development of their countries. In his address at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn stressed the critical role that governments and development institutions have to play "to support the investments which can help women to achieve equality and escape poverty." He called for an end to "empty words" in place of real action to improve the lives of women worldwide.
Unfortunately, the World Bank did not successfully respond to this call for action by its own president. A 1994 study by the bank did acknowledge violence against women as a human rights concern and a health issue that greatly affects women's participation in socioeconomic development, but the bank did not undertake projects to follow up on the report-its first and only comprehensive work on violence against women. This lack of institutional support meant that in 1997 violations of women's human rights committed by recipients of World Bank assistance were not explicitly addressed by bank project work on gender inequity. In a potentially important step, the bank in 1996 and 1997 developed "gender action plans" for every region. However, the extent to which these plans, and particularly their attention to women's rights, were being implemented was difficult to assess given the lack of monitoring of this undertaking.
U.S. leadership shared with that of the U.N. a flair for strong statements in defense of women's rights. Much less obvious were the effects of this rhetoric on the implementation of U.S. policy in countries around the world. With the December 1996 appointment of Madeleine K. Albright as secretary of state, the Clinton administration gained a forceful advocate for making women's human rights a foreign policy priority. President Clinton emphasized his administration's intent to make women's human rights a U.S. foreign policy priority at a Human Rights Day ceremony on December 10, 1996 that honored women's rights activists from around the world. In early March 1997, Secretary Al-bright underscored that improving the status of women is the "mission" of U.S. foreign policy, saying, "Women will only be able to contribute to their full potential if they have equal access, equal rights, equal protection, and a fair chance at the levers of economic and political power." First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton also supported women's rights activists in her trips to Asia in late 1996 and to Africa in March 1997 and raised women's human rights in her speeches, including on International Women's Day and in a meeting with human rights activists in Costa Rica in May.
The rhetoric was accompanied by some modest signs of progress within the State Department. The senior advisor on international women's issues, Theresa Loar, appointed in late 1996, increased the scope and reach of her staff's activities in 1997 and created interagency working groups to coordinate U.S. policy on violations of women's human rights such as trafficking and female genital mutilation. Loar's office began work to ensure that a G8 initiative involving the governments of the United States, Russia, Japan, France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and Canada to promote democracy building, announced in Denver in early 1997, would translate into aid and trade policies to advance women's human rights, especially their political participation. The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor also stepped up efforts to integrate women's rights more consistently and prominently into U.S. foreign policy by raising women's human rights concerns in bilateral talks with governments such as Russia and Mexico, requesting more reporting on women's rights from embassies around the world, and supporting small grants for women's rights organizations and programs in different countries. At the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a legal rights initiative supported legal rights education for women in the newer independent states of the former Soviet Union, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Breaking new ground in 1997, the Department of Justice brought lawsuits against the states of Arizona and Michigan for violating women's constitutional rights by allowing prison staff to sexually abuse female prisoners with impunity.
Overall though, U.S. government claims to international leadership in promoting women's rights were undermined by its inconsistent pursuit of this mission. In some cases, the U.S. government made no effort to translate verbal pledges into concrete programs. Despite the Clinton administration's repeated commitment to combat domestic and sexual violence against women throughout the world, the State Department's country reports did not denounce the failure of states to prohibit and remedy such abuse. Not surprisingly, U.S.-supported programs also did little to combat such state inaction. Only after pressure from Congress did the administration dedicate $1 million of the $12 million allotted to the State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Matters, Office of International Criminal Justice, for work in Russia to train Russian law enforcement to investigate violence against women. Moreover, the department's initial undertaking with these funds-a Washington, D.C. conference on trafficking of women and children for senior Russian and U.S. officials-focused more on child pornography and the Internet than on improving Russian law enforcement's response to violence against women. In the cases of Peru and Pakistan, none of the available U.S. assistance funds for democracy, rule of law, or civil society programs squarely confronted government failure to provide justice to women victims of violence.
Nor did the U.S. actively seek to secure justice for women victims of violence in international negotiations to establish a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). Since the beginning of the U.N. process to create this critical body for trying serious human rights abuses, the United States has been conspicuously silent on the need to ensure that the court emerges as a mechanism for justice for women victims of egregious international crimes. In fact, at the August 1997 meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, the U.S. questioned the rationale for including in the draft statute an explicit reference to the witness protection needs of victims of sexual and gender violence, hence obstructing efforts toward this end. Furthermore, by aggressively taking restrictive stances on critical issues that bear on the independence and effectiveness of the ICC in general, such as the preconditions for triggering the court's jurisdiction and the independence of the prosecutor to initiate investigations, the U.S. has worked to restrict access to justice at the ICC for all victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Even where the U.S. government did initiate specific policies and programs to promote women's rights, they received only small-scale resources. Since its 1995 inception, the USAID women's legal rights initiative, for example, was allocated a total of just over $6 million. By contrast, in 1997 alone, USAID committed over $400 million to democracy programs. And, although Secretary of State Albright stated in March that "we will take part in a global effort to crack down on illegal trafficking in women and girls," the only resources devoted to this problem funded the above-mentioned conference. In late 1996, President Clinton did announce a $5 million initiative to promote women's participation in the economic and social reconstruction of Bosnia, but the initiative was not renewed for fiscal year 1998. On a more positive note, for a similar program in Rwanda to assist women to participate in the rebuilding of their country, USAID increased its funding from $1 million in 1996 to almost $1.6 million in 1997 and extended the program's mandate, but only until the end of 1998.
The U.S. commitment to women's rights as a cornerstone of U.S. policy took backseat in 1997 when other policy concerns conflicted with this goal. In one significant example, the U.S. pursued trade relations with Mexico despite widespread, blatant pregnancy-based sex discrimination in Mexico's maquiladora (export processing) sector. In its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1996, 1995, and 1994, the State Department reported this practice but stopped short of condemning the discrimination and the Mexican government's tolerance of it. The U.S. also passed up a key opportunity to press for better labor rights: at an April 1997 meeting on women and work hosted by the Mexican government for all signatories to NAFTA, the U.S. failed to speak out against or even to mention pervasive pregnancy-based sex discrimination in Mexico's private sector. Later in the year, however, the U.S. did express its concern over discrimination in the maquiladoras in human rights meetings with Mexican officials. At the same time, systematic discrimination in other countries with claims to U.S. interests never appeared on the U.S. agenda. Although Secretary Albright invited her counterparts to join her in a discussion on women's status in the region during a September 1997 visit to the Persian Gulf, the administration produced no evidence that it had pressed for women's rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where women's mobility, education, job opportunities, and rights are restricted on the basis of sex.
While some U.S. officials called for improved respect for women's rights abroad, U.S. women could not benefit from international standards at home. Despite entreaties from President Clinton and Secretary Albright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms refused to move toward ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). That women in the U.S. need the protection of international human rights standards was made pointedly clear by revelations in late 1996 and through 1997 of widespread sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons. Although presented with extensive evidence of sexual abuse and harassment by prison staff against female prisoners, state and federal authorities did precious little in 1997 to put an end to the abuse. Thirty-three states and the federal government expressly criminalize custodial sexual misconduct, yet efforts to enforce these prohibitions were wholly inadequate. For example, the U.S. failed to ensure that prison guards were trained to refrain from abusing their authority by having sexual contact with female prisoners, to respect women's privacy, and to avoid subjecting prisoners to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Congress did indicate its interest in ending this custodial abuse by introducing legislation in October 1997 that sought to compel all states to criminalize custodial misconduct. The bill also would establish a hotline for women to report custodial sexual misconduct to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and would prohibit the rehiring of guards found liable for such misconduct.
Human Rights Watch
In 1997, Human Rights Watch capitalized on high-level pronouncements of support for women's human rights-coming from governments, U.N. officials, and other international actors-to press for programs and policies that would move states toward meeting their international obligations to protect women's rights. We conducted field investigations in Mexico, Peru, Pakistan, Bosnia, the Hague and Arusha, Tanzania that documented violations of women's rights and the international response to such crimes and used this fact base to demonstrate the serious shortcomings in policies promoting women's rights.
Key among our efforts was securing accountability for acts of violence against women, whether committed by soldiers during conflicts, by jailers guarding female prisoners, or by husbands behind apartment doors. In January 1997, Human Rights Watch other women's rights activists, including the International Human Rights Law Group, the Center for Women's Global Leadership, and the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, initiated efforts to press governments negotiating the creation of an International Criminal Court at the U.N. to ensure that women's rights concerns were fully integrated into the treaty. We drafted and helped distribute action alerts to concerned organizations around the world on the status of negotiations and prepared position papers in February, August, and November for government delegates to strengthen support for taking up women's rights. We also joined coalitions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to emphasize the need for an effective, independent ICC in meetings with delegates to the negotiations and policy makers in the U.S. government.
The acute need for creating international mechanisms to secure justice for women victims of human rights abuse is underscored by Human Rights Watch's work monitoring the tribunals established to prosecute violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda. In 1997, we investigated the progress of the two tribunals in improving efforts to investigate crimes of sexual violence. We pressed governments at the 1997 session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to ensure that the resolution on Rwanda expressed concern about ongoing violations of women's rights and stressed the need for justice for victims of sex-specific crimes. In October 1997, Human Rights Watch participated in a workshop convened by Justice Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor for both tribunals, to reinforce her staff's commitment to and develop their skills in investigating and prosecuting sexual violence in both Bosnia and Rwanda.
Human Rights Watch raised the issue of securing justice for women who suffer violence in conflict situations at the first meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to take up the issue of women's status in the region. At the October meeting in Warsaw, governments agreed on the importance of improving OSCE attention and response to problems of violence against women and several expressed support for creating a high-level advisor on gender integration into OSCE activities.
We also fought to increase access to justice for women abused while in custody. Following the December 1996 release of our report on sexual abuse of women in U.S. state prisons, we began working with congressional staff to draft and introduce legislation requiring states to make it a crime for prison staff to have any kind of sexual contact with female prisoners and creating a secure hotline for prisoners to report instances of sexual abuse. In June 1997, we wrote to Illinois Gov. James Edgar, urging him to sign into law a bill criminalizing custodial sexual misconduct in Illinois state prisons, a step he did take.
Based on detailed investigations into state responses to violence against women by private actors, we pressed governments to acknowledge their role in denying women access to justice. In August 1997, we released a report on violence against women and the medico-legal system in South Africa detailing the government's failure to respond adequately to violence against women, particularly the obstacles created by the state's forensic medical system which women must navigate in order to prosecute successfully the abuses committed against them. In July 1997, we joined experts and activists at a World Health Organization meeting in Copenhagen to discuss ways of improving the forensic medical treatment of victims of violence.
In the case of the U.S. government, we urged officials to commit foreign assistance to improving law enforcement handling of violent crimes against women. Although the U.S. government devotes millions of dollars each year to training police and judicial authorities around the world, almost none of those monies target law enforcement failures to respond to violence against women. Human Rights Watch thus urged that Congress renew its request-and it did so in October 1997-that the State Department devote a portion of its law enforcement budget in Russia to improving the response to violence against women. We also urged that U.S. assistance support a pilot program in Moscow to serve as a model of an effective, coordinated response to women who report violence, a project now being developed by the State Department.
In November 1997, Human Rights Watch honored Marina Pisklakova and her work fighting official indifference to violence against women in Russia. Ms. Pisklakova is the founder and executive director of the Moscow Crisis Center for Women and started one of the first domestic violence hotlines in Russia. Since its 1993 founding, the center has helped more than 8,500 women, providing them with counseling and social and legal support services.
Although international attention is more and more directed toward violence against women, discrimination on the basis of sex often goes unchallenged. In 1997, Human Rights Watch confronted official indifference to sex discrimination in a variety of fora. In collaboration with the International Labor Rights Fund and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers, Human Rights Watch filed a petition with the U.S. NAO challenging the Mexican government's failure to enforce its laws protecting labor rights and prohibiting sex discrimination by allowing pregnancy-based discrimination to flourish in its maquiladora sector. The U.S. NAO accepted the petition and scheduled a hearing for November 1997. We raised concern over these practices in a March letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and in meetings with U.S. human rights officials and representatives of companies perpetuating such discrimination. Our work on sex discrimination in the maquiladoras inspired Working Assets, a long-distance telephone company that promotes social responsibility, to design a call-in and writing campaign to General Motors, one of the chief offenders. Working Assets enclosed in its phone bills information urging its subscribers to send protests to General Motors to urge it to stop discriminating against women workers in its factories in Mexico. The highly successful campaign generated 22,228 letters and 4,425 phone calls from subscribers of Working Assets.
Earlier in the year, we focused on discrimination against women under Morocco's family law and submitted to the members of the CEDAW committee a memorandum presenting our findings on the effects of laws that render women legal minors regardless of their age. Committee members drew upon the memo in critiquing Morocco's failure to comply with CEDAW. In meetings with Senate staff and Clinton administration officials, we joined other groups in urging immediate U.S. ratification of CEDAW.
Human Rights Watch also worked in 1997 to document trafficking of girls and women into forced prostitution, marriage, domestic service, and other forms of labor. Our advocacy strived to turn the international response from cracking down on trafficked women as undocumented migrants to protecting women's rights in the recruitment process and in the abusive situations in which they worked and lived. In April 1997, we submitted a statement to the U.N. Human Rights Commission detailing our findings and recommending action to combat trafficking and abuses against women workers. We also participated in meetings in Uganda and Canada to discuss the international dimensions of trafficking. In July, we worked with Rep. Louise Slaughter's office to prepare a resolution condemning trafficking and calling for improved response by the U.S. and the international community. In November, we joined U.S. officials, congressional staff, and other NGOs to assess the problems associated with trafficking in the U.S. and the needed response.
Much of Human Rights Watch's work on women's human rights in 1997 was directed toward the overarching goal of ensuring that women's human rights were treated as a priority concern by governments and international actors. Thus, in meetings with officials such as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck and his Russian counterpart, Teymuraz Ramashvilli, we urged specific actions to improve their governments' records on ameliorating women's status. At the U.N., we pursued this goal by supporting the renewal of the mandate of the special rapporteur on violence against women and by meeting with the Human Rights Centre staff about integrating women's rights into all aspects of their work.
On another level, we continued our work with women's rights activists to discuss with and train them in using international human rights methods, standards, and mechanisms to increase the power and visibility of their work. To this end, in June 1997 Human Rights Watch released a women's human rights advocacy manual, produced jointly with Women, Law and Development International. This manual is designed to train women rights activists in using women's human rights fact-finding, documentation, and advocacy. The manual is designed to demystify human rights documentation and advocacy to make it accessible to activists the world over in their efforts to promote the human rights of women. We plan to conduct training sessions, to be sponsored by regional women's human rights organizations around the world, aimed at increasing women's awareness of and expertise in human rights law and practice.
Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
Violence Against Women and the Medico-Legal System in South Africa, 8/97
All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons, 12/96
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