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Women contended with discriminatory laws and practices in the labor force in 2000 that obstructed and conditioned their participation and denied them their human rights. For example, even though across the globe women were entering the formal workforce in record numbers, in Sudan women's very right to work was under fierce attack. On September 3, 2000, the Governor of the State of Khartoum, citing Islamic law, imposed a ban on women working in public places. Only days later, on September 9, 2000, however, amid international and local outrage, the Sudanese Constitutional Court suspended the ban, pending review of an appeal lodged by three women's rights groups.

In addition to statutory discrimination, women faced practical discrimination. Even as the International Labor Organization (ilo) adopted a new international Convention on Maternity Protection in May 2000 and estimated that 50 percent of the labor force was female, in some countries women's participation in the workforce was determined by their reproductive status. Not only were women's reproductive functions perceived to be in the way at work, but their bodies were also at risk at work. Women workers faced sexual harassment and violence on the job, with little hope of redress. Employers often considered women's reproductive and productive roles to be incompatible, and governments did little to challenge them. In Mexico, Guatemala, and South Africa, for example, governments failed to enforce international and national laws to protect women from discrimination and violence during the hiring process and on the job.

In 2000, women's right to exercise reproductive autonomy in the workforce continued to be under attack in Mexico. Thousands of women working in maquiladoras (export-processing factories) faced frequent discrimination based on their reproductive status. Many transnational corporations regularly required women to undergo pre-employment pregnancy testing, with the aim of denying pregnant women work. Other corporations went even further, creating unbearable work conditions for pregnant workers to provoke their resignation. Activists complained that, although some corporations had renounced such discriminatory practices, others continued them without sanction by the Mexican government.

As in past years, in 2000 the Mexican government continued to undertake merely cosmetic action and to use North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta) fora to spread misinformation about its policies. The Mexican government actively used these meetings to undermine women's rights to reproductive autonomy, equality, and privacy in the work sphere by disseminating information-especially designed for and targeted at female workers-that represented an arbitrary government policy with no basis in the labor code as law. In one such example,government pamphlets stated that women workers had an obligation to inform their employers of their pregnancy status. The Mexican government also used the latest nafta-related outlet (a meeting in Puebla, Mexico, on May 30, 2000) to contend that the labor code allowed for postemployment pregnancy testing of working women when that testing was intended to protect the well-being of the woman worker or her fetus.

Working women in neighboring Guatemala suffered similar rights violations, in which their participation and equal rights in the labor force were limited by statutory discrimination and government inaction. In an investigation conducted in 2000, Human Rights Watch found that discrimination on the basis of reproductive status was an inescapable fact for both maquiladora line operators and domestic workers in Guatemala. This discrimination took the form of questions about pregnancy status and pregnancy testing as a condition for employment in maquiladoras, post-hire penalization of pregnant workers in factories and private households, and failure to comply with maternity protections in both sectors. Live-in domestic workers, many of whom were young indigenous women who migrated to the capital from rural villages, were subjected to special regulations in the labor code that excluded all domestic workers from key labor rights protections, such as the eight-hour workday. Often isolated in private households, domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. Government response to gender-specific labor rights violations was negligent at best. While government officials recognized discrimination on the basis of reproductive status as illegal, they did not take any proactive steps to combat it. Despite being lobbied by women's rights groups and community associations, as of late October the government had not adopted legislation on sexual harassment, nor had it revised provisions in the labor code that accorded domestic workers lesser rights than other workers.

In the agricultural sector, women were likely to fare equally poorly. Human Rights Watch research in 2000 found that women farmworkers in South Africa were discriminated against and sexually and otherwise physically abused by their coworkers and employers. Some discrimination was based on marital status. Married women farmworkers, for example, were denied employment contracts in their own names, such that their jobs were dependent on those of their husbands. Often, women farmworkers' access to housing was also determined by their relationship to a man. Because the majority of farmowners offered housing only to permanent male employees, single women farmworkers were generally not able to live on the farm. In addition, women were also paid less than their male counterparts for the same type of work or work of equal value. By denying women's agency and reinforcing their economic dependency on men, these discriminatory practices made women more vulnerable to violence in their homes and the workplace on farms.

Despite laws prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace, the South African government did little to protect women's rights in the agricultural sector. In a landmark April 1999 ruling, the Land Claims Court held that a woman farmworker could not be evicted from the farm where she worked following the dismissal of her husband and that the right to family life afforded the female farmworker the right to allow her husband to continue living in her home on the farm. Yet, in 2000 the government took no active steps to ensure that this important precedent was enforced. Many women continued to face unfair evictions because their husbands had been dismissed, and few knew about their rights or how to enforce them.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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