On June 16, 2013, CNN premiered "Girl Rising," which documents extraordinary girls and how education can change the world. But what are some of the biggest challenges facing women and girls across the globe today? Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, answers readers’ questions about the challenges women face in the Middle East, Asia – and here in the United States.
Can you explain a little about how your organization works?
First, I want to thank those who sent in such great questions. Our primary methodology is documenting human rights violations through the voices of victims – so our researchers talk to people directly affected by abuse, violence and discrimination to document first-hand what has happened to them and the impact it has on their lives. We also speak to witnesses of abuses and, where possible, the alleged perpetrators. Over 30 years, we have built up a strong reputation that allows us access to high-level policymakers – the people who can actually make change happen for the victims. So, we use our research, the voices and faces of the victims, to pressure governments to act to stop abuse.
The culture of blaming the victim in rape cases is still common in India. What can the country do to tackle the problem?
This is a global problem, and one of the biggest barriers that rape survivors, be they women and girls or men and boys, face if they report the assault. Human Rights Watch has documented in many countries the way the criminal justice system, including police officers, medico-legal examiners, prosecutors and judges do not believe victims, refuse to investigate their complaints, and deny them access to justice.
Most recently, we have documented how the police in India failed child survivors of rape by helping alleged rapists evade justice; how displaced women in Colombia who had been raped were mistreated by medical practitioners and how police officers in Washington, DC discouraged victims of rape and sexual assault from reporting the crimes and treated them callously and disrespectfully.
To counter these problems, we have recommended, among many other things, specialist training for all sexual assault investigators, measures to protect the confidentiality of victims, access to immediate medical and psycho-social care in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault, and effective accountability mechanisms for victims when the criminal justice system mistreats them.
We have also documented how victims experience social stigma and may be ostracized, subject to more violence and abandoned by partners, families and communities when they report rape. In this regard, we have recommended public awareness campaigns that address violence against women, the introduction of human rights programs into school curricula, and training programs for community activists, traditional and religious leaders and other local leaders, journalists and legislators about the reality of how rape happens.
What has been the focus of Human Rights Watch’s work in the Arab world?
Human Rights Watch has worked on women’s rights in the Arab world for almost two decades! Our work has tried to address the many forms of discrimination Arab women experience, including the impact of the male guardianship system on women’s freedom and autonomy in Saudi Arabia; female genital mutilation in Iraq, unequal divorce laws in Egypt and “honor” crimes in Jordan.
More recently, we have focused a lot of our attention on the “transitional” countries of the Arab Spring (Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt) to advocate for women’s political participation and the expansion of their human rights. One of the most heartening things I’ve observed in these countries is the emergence of a women’s movement – it’s still fragile in places and it needs the support of the global human rights community, but it’s definitely there and is already playing an important role in advocating for women’s rights. We have also invested a lot of time trying to document the impact of the terrible conflict on Syrian women, specifically deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Challenges facing women’s rights aren’t confined to developing countries – in the United States, women’s rights are also being challenged. Do you have any specific concerns about the U.S. or indeed other developed countries in particular?
It’s completely true that women face human rights violations in the developed world, so I’m very glad that someone made that point. Many women in the U.S. face significant challenges to realizing their rights when they seek access to reproductive health care and access to justice for sexual and other forms of gender based violence. In the United States, we’ve focused our most recent research on rights abuses against immigrant women, including those in detention. We’ve documented health-related abuses against women in immigration detention and their vulnerability to sexual assault, as well as sexual violence and harassment of immigrant farm workers and the abuse of domestic workers with special visas in the United States.
The work on immigration detention has been very successful, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement accepting and later carrying out many of the recommendations in our reports Detained and Dismissed: Women’s Struggle to Obtain in United States Immigration Detention and Detained and At Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention.
We’ve also focused on sexual violence more broadly and we have worked extensively to document the failure of several U.S. states to test rape kits (which potentially contain DNA and other physical evidence obtained from the bodies of sexual assault victims). Our reports on the backlogs in testing in Los Angeles and Illinois have led to significant changes to practice and policy.
Although we haven’t done any research on access to abortion, we follow the debates and the many attempts to limit women’s rights to make choices about their bodies and their heath very closely, and when possible we comment on the human rights dimension of the issue. Most recently, we encouraged the U.S. government to end the ban on abortion for U.S. servicewomen who had been raped.
Broadly speaking, how do you see women’s rights evolving in Asia over the next 20 years? Are you optimistic?
I am optimistic about women’s rights globally, not just Asia, because I think that there have been very significant progress over the past two decades. If you work on women’s rights, you have to be willing to play the long game because change rarely happens overnight and is incremental. In Asia, there has been good progress in reducing the numbers of preventable deaths during pregnancy and childbirth and increasing women’s political participation, and there is a strong, savvy and vibrant women’s movement that is advocating fiercely for women’s rights.
That said, women in Asia still experience serious violations: few countries in the region have adequate laws to protect women against domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual violence. We had a special report on the so-called two-finger test in India and one on “moral crimes” in Afghanistan. Many women live under discriminatory systems of personal status laws, and they have little control over the most intimate aspects of their lives such as marriage, divorce and child custody.
What do you think of the use of quotas for female participation in politics or business? Is affirmative action the right way forward?
Human Rights Watch doesn’t take positions for or against quotas in any context. Instead, we have advocated for a range of measures that promote and support women’s rights to participation, which have included leadership training, voter education and education for girls. In our view, these measures can help to ensure that women are not only able to participate, but can do in a manner that brings meaningful and lasting change. We have, for example, looked at political participation in Libya.