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In 1998 discriminatory practices, tolerated and even encouraged by states, continued unabated around the globe. Despite commitments made under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and “national platforms for action” to implement the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women Platform for Action adopted in Beijing, many states continued to enforce discriminatory laws and to tolerate discriminatory practices under customary law.

Although international attention focused largely on the repressive policies enforced by Afghanistan’s Taliban, serious and systematic discrimination persisted in many regions. For example, Guatemala’s civil code denied women the right to administer marital property, allowed husbands to prevent their wives from working outside the home, and limited women’s exercise of guardianship over children. A 1994 challenge to these laws by María Eugenia Morales de Sierra, represented by the Center for Justice and International Law, was finally accepted for review on March 6, 1998 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. At the time of this writing, the commission had yet to issue a decision on the merits of the case.

In Pakistan, concern about escalating discrimination against women increased with the election of Muhammad Rafiq Tarar as president in January 1998. While serving as a judge, President Tarar called a rape victim a liar and openly opposed laws giving women the right to divorce and seek custody of their children. Women’s rights activists feared that Tarar’s election was indicative of a more conservative mood in the country, likely to have negative consequences for women’s rights in Pakistan. In a move thatseemed to confirm these fears, the prime minister introduced a constitutional amendment in August that would replace British common law with religious laws based on the Koran and Sunnat. Local activists feared that absent a specific guarantee of women’s equality, the amendment would be used to justify a rollback in women’s rights. As of this writing, the amendment was still being debated.

On a more positive note, a new Ugandan law passed in July granted women equal say in decisions about family property. The new land law recognizes women’s right to own property and forbids one spouse from dispensing of property unilaterally. And, in India, the Mumbai (Bombay) high court in August 1998 recognized women’s equal right to the marital home when it restrained a man from entering or claiming his family home after he was found guilty of abusing his wife and children. Women activists hailed the ruling as a significant departure from past practice in which women separated from husbands were expelled from the marital home, regardless of circumstances.

State-sponsored discrimination
In many countries, statutory restrictions curtailed women’s freedom of movement, prevented women from inheriting property, limited their ability to divorce, restricted their access to education, and barred them from the workplace. Guarantees of equal protection under law, due process, and equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens did not protect women from discrimination. In many cases, this discrimination was encouraged and enforced by state actors.

Despite constitutional guarantees of equality, the Moroccan family code continued to subject women to discriminatory treatment in 1998 . Under the family law, women’s autonomy remained subject to male guardianship and authority. Discriminatory laws governing the dissolution of marriage, for example, severely restricted women’s access to divorce, even in cases of domestic violence. Magistrates’ hostility to divorce proceedings initiated by women severely curtailed women’s ability to exercise their rights under law. Battered women filing for divorce lived in fear of retaliation without hope of state intervention or prevention of further violence.

The opposition’s victory in November 1997 elections and the new government’s pledge to address the plight of Moroccan women raised hopes among activists for a more egalitarian reform of the family code. At this writing, however, the new government had taken no significant steps to eliminate discrimination against women in law or in practice.

Perhaps the year’s most glaring attacks on women’s human rights were seen in Afghanistan, where the Taliban stripped women of their rights to work, travel, and attend school. The Taliban further barred women from obtaining health care unless they were accompanied by a male family member, the treating doctor was a woman, and the medical facility maintained segregated services for women. These policies drastically limited women’s access to health care even in emergency situations with deadly results; for example, women turned away from doctors and clinics died from obstetric complications. Throughout 1998, the Taliban countered any attempts to protect women’s basic rights with more restrictive policies. In June, for example, the Taliban closed down scores of home schools for both girls and boys. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) providing relief for Afghans tried with little success to protect their ability to deliver food, health care, and education to women as well as men and to hire local female staff.

In a disturbing development, Afghan women refugees in Pakistan providing services to Afghans inside Afghanistan and in refugee camps and working to monitor and expose violations of women’s rights received threats from Taliban representatives directing them to cease their activities and return to Afghanistan.

In Iran, despite women’s increasing visibility in public life and open discussions of women’s rights, the government continued to enforce discriminatory civil and criminal laws that subordinate women’s status in Iranian society and restrict their personal freedom. In addition, new laws drastically restricted the scope of public debate on women’s rights and threatened women’s access to adequate health care, while activists were subject to intimidation and arbitrary arrest.

In August 1998, the Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly, or Majles, attempted to silence the proponents of women’s human rights by amending the press law to prohibit discussion of “issues that entail opposition between men and women by defending their rights outside the framework of the Shari’a. ” On June 30, the Iranian government arrested Hojatoleslam Mohsen Saeid-Zadeh, an outspoken women’s rights advocate who questioned the religious legitimacy of state imposition of the Shari’a . At this writing, no charges had been filed ( see section on Iran.) Restrictions on women’s access to employment also continued in 1998. The government of Bangladesh imposed a total ban on women traveling abroad to work as housemaids and nurses. Authorities passed the discriminatory act in response to growing reports of abuse of Bangladeshi women working abroad. Women’s rights organizations protested the ban as an inadequate and inappropriate state response to the problem. Rather than address the abuse through education, warnings, and diplomatic relations, the government instead curtailed the rights of women to travel and to seek employment.

Rwandan women faced discriminatory inheritance laws. After the devastating genocide that left more than half a million people dead, many widows were unable to return to their property because of discriminatory customary laws denying them the right to inherit from their husbands. Government initiatives to reform the law crawled through the legislative process; as of November 1998, the draft law was stalled in parliament. Some women whose husbands were arrested and imprisoned for the genocide were forced off their property. Many refugee women returning to Rwanda from Burundi and Tanzania found their homes occupied. No legal recourse was available to them.

In a few cases, women’s activism bore fruit, if belatedly. Nigerian women’s rights organizations celebrated a landmark court decision in February 1998 which invalidated the customary practice of denying inheritance rights to widows. Caroline Mojekwu challenged her uncle-in-law for denying her the right to inherit her late husband’s estate. The decision, after thirty-nine years of legal wrangling, was seen as a victory for women’s human rights in the region. Some activists questioned whether the decision wasenforceable in rural areas of Nigeria, but many viewed it as a first step in eliminating discriminatory customary and religious practices harmful to women.

Meanwhile, women continued to suffer under Pakistan’s discriminatory Hudood Ordinances. These penal laws, which criminalize adultery but not domestic violence, remained a stark example of the gender bias built into the legal system. One well-publicized case involved Kanwar Ahson and Riffat Afridi, a man and woman from two different ethnic groups who chose to marry without their families’ consent. The Afridi family initially charged Ahson with kidnapping, which both he and Ms. Afridi denied. The family then charged the couple with adultery, a crime under the Hudood Ordinances. Ms. Afridi’s elders sentenced her to death for dishonoring her family. Ahson was arrested and charged with adultery, then later critically wounded by a group of his wife’s kinsmen, including her father and brother. Afridi turned herself in to the police to face charges of illicit sex. After Ahsan was acquitted of the charges, the couple sought asylum abroad.

In Turkey, Women and Family Affairs Minister Isilay Saygin provoked the fury of women’s human rights organizations internationally when she defended the practice of virginity exams for young women. After five girls who were forced by the director of their state foster home to go through the exams attempted suicide, the minister stated, “If girls commit suicide because of the virginity tests, they would have committed suicide anyway. It is not that important.” Women’s groups immediately demanded Saygin’s resignation. Saygin refused to resign and claimed that she had been “misunderstood.”

State-tolerated discrimination
Elsewhere, states continued to tolerate discrimination against women by private actors, failing to live up to the commitment to “end all forms of discrimination” mandated in CEDAW. Instead, states turned a blind eye to evidence of discrimination or actively encouraged such discrimination.

Sex discrimination had a particularly egregious impact on women displaced by war. Bosnian women, for example, faced discrimination in the reconstruction period. Micro-credit programs aimed at women provided significantly smaller loan amounts, in some cases only one-third of the amount, offered to male entrepreneurs under similar programs. Women found themselves ghettoized in training programs developed to prepare them for gender-stereotyped, low-paying occupations, including secretarial positions and hairdressing. According to a World Bank official in Republika Srpska, public works jobs went solely to male applicants. The World Bank and USAID insisted that their programs included women as beneficiaries, but in general, these and other aid agencies failed to maintain reliable statistics on women’s participation in employment, training, and loan programs. Women remained the vast majority of the displaced, eking out an existence and served by disproportionately limited programs. Many displaced women found themselves stuck in collective centers where deplorable conditions, poverty, hopelessness, and health concerns plagued all of the occupants. Many hoped to return home but feared reprisals ( see section on Bosnia-Hercegovina).
In other instances, employers’ discrimination against women based on their reproductive capacity—practices tolerated by many governments—undermined women’s attempts to participate fully in the labor market. The assumption that women would become pregnant, and therefore were a “bad investment,” perpetuated de facto discrimination. The Mexican government, for example, continued to allow transnational corporations to discriminate against women in the export processing (maquiladora) sector there. Human Rights Watch research in 1997 and 1998 found that women applying for work as assemblers were required to reveal their pregnancy status as a condition for employment. Women were required to undergo pregnancy testing through analysis of urine samples, revelation of birth control use, the provision of information regarding sexual activity, and by submitting to abdominal examinations. Those found to be pregnant were not hired.

Factories also discriminated against women after they were hired. Some maquiladoras required women workers to submit urine samples for pregnancy analysis after they had been hired as a condition for maintaining their employment. Moreover, factories practiced more invasive types of pregnancy checks, such as requiring women workers to prove that they were still menstruating, and therefore not pregnant, by showing factory medical personnel their used sanitary napkins.

The government of Mexico did nothing to remedy hiring-process sex discrimination and made only token gestures to condemn and investigate on-the-job pregnancy discrimination, failures that violated Mexico’s domestic labor law and its international human rights obligations. In fact, the government argued that pregnancy testing in the hiring process was permissible under Mexican law. With regard to on-the-job pregnancy discrimination, the government’s sole remedial effort was to reiterate that such practices are illegal in Mexico.

In the face of Mexican refusal to enforce its own domestic laws, human rights organizations sought redress through the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, commonly referred to as the labor rights side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, (NAFTA). Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Fund, and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos) submitted a petition against Mexico to the United States National Administrative Office (U.S. NAO, the body charged with hearing cases of alleged violations by Canada or Mexico of the labor rights side agreement) that charged unremedied sex discrimination.

In January 1998 the U.S. NAO found that Mexico’s constitution and labor code prohibit discrimination based on sex; pre-employment pregnancy testing did occur in Mexico; there were contradictory interpretations of Mexico’s law regarding the illegality of this practice; and while on-the-job pregnancy-based sex discrimination was clearly illegal under Mexican labor law, greater efforts needed to be made toward awareness programs for women workers. This was the first case heard by the U.S. NAO that dealt explicitly with the right to gender equality in the workforce.

Discrimination against women in labor markets in their own countries only increased the likelihood that women and girls would be trafficked into forced labor abroad. Unable to find work at home, women from virtually every region of the globe acceptedseemingly lucrative opportunities to work as domestic servants, dancers, waitresses, or sex workers abroad. Others accepted apparently legitimate offers of marriage, only to find themselves caught in situations of battery and extreme cruelty, forced labor, and sexual abuse. Young girls tricked into migrating or sold by their families to traffickers found themselves trapped in brothels or sweatshops, unable to return home. The United States government estimated that one to two million women and girls were being trafficked annually around the world for the purposes of forced labor, forced prostitution, servile domestic labor, or involuntary marriage.

Women trafficked into forced labor experienced human rights abuses such as debt bondage, slave-like conditions, illegal confinement, enforced isolation, wage withholding, deprivation of identity documents, rape, and sexual and other physical abuse. Trafficked women’s status as illegal migrants and their complete isolation left them at risk for exploitation by traffickers. Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch in several countries expressed reluctance to approach police or state officials, fearing traffickers’ reprisals against themselves or their families, imprisonment and prosecution for illegal entry or employment by the state, and deportation. In many countries, women forced into prostitution feared even greater penalties for engaging in an illegal occupation. While many officials in countries such as Thailand, India and Israel considered the arrest and deportation of the women and girls a form of “rescue,” this impression did not reflect the reality of the experience. For trafficked Burmese women detained in Thai prisons, for example, “rescue” meant potential rape by police and the possibility of sale back to the same or another brothel owner.

Traffickers worldwide operated with near-impunity, as corrupt officials, economic crisis, and states’ failure to prosecute this modern form of slavery coalesced to guarantee high profits and low risk. In Cambodia, economic and political crisis led to a surge in domestic trafficking of women and girls, as families desperate for money sold their children into the sex trade. With the spread of HIV and AIDS, the demand for younger and younger girls increased. According to local press reports, traffickers in Phnom Penh commanded prices of up to U.S.$1,000 for a virgin. Thai NGOs reported that corrupt police officers received bribes from brothel owners and free sexual services from the trafficked women as pay-offs to guarantee their turning a blind eye. Such extortion on the part of officials was not uncommon. In Macau, local press reported that police arrested a police constable for allegedly leading a racket which blackmailed women overstaying their visas.

In policy terms, states focused on trafficking as an issue of illegal migration and prostitution, but crackdowns and criminalization of prostitution often led to incarceration and further abuse of the trafficked women. Due to corruption among officials and police, enhanced enforcement measures led to higher bribes by traffickers resulting in higher debts for the women and girls. When arrests were made, it was the women, not the traffickers, who were detained. In Israel, for example, the government arrested and deported over 1,000 women back to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union from 1994 through 1998, according to an Israeli women’s NGO. Law enforcement officials blamed the women themselves for the lack of prosecutions of traffickers, despite the complete absence of witness protection for the women.

Across the globe, women victims of trafficking were by and large unable to bring civil cases for lost wages, violations of civil rights, and violations of labor codes against traffickers and others engaged in the buying and selling of human beings. Few states offered support services such as safe shelter, legal aid, psychological assistance, and medical aid. The Netherlands and Belgium continued to provide funding to women’s organizations offering some of these services. Dutch, Italian, and Belgian legislation provided for stays of deportation while women decided whether or not to participate as witnesses in criminal proceedings. During that period, women received temporary work permits, psychological counseling, shelter, social security benefits, and medical care.

In an effort to set standards for the protection of the human rights of trafficked women, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women drafted a set of standard minimum rules concerning the treatment of trafficked persons. These draft rules included the right to freedom from persecution or harassment from authorities, access to competent translators during legal proceedings, access to free legal assistance and representation, access to legal possibilities of compensation and redress, legal permission to stay in the country of destination if unsafe to return home, and protection against reprisals from authorities or perpetrators.



Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch