In 1990, Human Rights Watch established an international Women's Rights Project. The Project, in conjunction with the five regional divisions of Human Rights Watch, will report on abuses of the basic rights of women worldwide. At least at the outset, the Project intends to address issues of violence against women and gender-specific discrimination in employment, education and civil status. In all of these cases, in accordance with the mandate of Human Rights Watch, the Project will limit its focus to instances in which the state plays a role, by legally sanctioning violations of women's rights or by routinely tolerating abusive practices in which the risk factor is being female.
The Women's Rights Project opens new territory for Human Rights Watch, territory which is vast and virtually unexplored by the international human rights community. Consistent with the approach of Human Rights Watch as a whole, the Project will not attempt to chart this territory in the abstract, but will confront issues as they arise in the course of particular country studies. For that reason, in selecting the initial set of countries for examination, we consider an important factor to be the existence of domestic women's rights groups that have begun the process of thinking through and addressing these issues. With these groups, we will assess the cultural sensitivities and other local factors surrounding women's issues, explore the relevant legal framework and determine the areas in which a contribution from Human Rights Watch could be most effective.
The Project conducted its first investigation in October, when a researcher traveled to Algeria to examine rising violence against women and gender discrimination in family law. A report from her trip is expected in early 1991. Other countries likely to be examined include Brazil, where the common-law "defense of honor" exculpates a husband who murders or injures his wife; South Korea, where the government has tolerated the practice of employers in the textile and electronics industries who at times provide extra pay to male workers to beat women protesting low pay and adverse working conditions; and Jordan, where a wife's perceived adultery is legally punishable by death at the hands of her husband or male relative.
In addition to these country-specific issues, we are considering studies that span several countries or regions. Topics under review are the widespread problems of rape in detention and other forms of gender-specific torture and humiliation in custody, and violence against women as a form of counterinsurgency or an aspect of war. We also hope to examine the particular problems of women refugees.
Human Rights Watch established the Women's Rights Project because violence and discrimination against women is an epidemic problem, affecting women of every class and race in virtually all nations of the world. Although most states have committed themselves to respect human rights and in some cases to end discrimination against women, we believe that not enough work has been done by international human rights organizations to expose women's rights abuses and ensure that they are treated as an integral part of any assessment of a government's respect for human rights.
Human Rights Watch has already established a special-focus project on prison conditions. We have found through the Prison Project's work that by singling out an often-forgotten element of a nation's human rights record we can have a greater impact than would be possible were the issue presented as one of many others. We believe that this will hold true in the field of women's rights as well.
Recognition is growing in the United States government that the issue of women's rights, and in particular the issue of violence against women, needs to be addressed as part of both the international and domestic human rights agenda. Congress has required the State Department to include women's rights in its international human rights reporting, and in 1990, for the first time, the issue of violence against women was included in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In addition, both houses of Congress held hearings on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and on violence against women in the United States, and Senator Joseph Biden introduced a bill to "combat violence against women on the street and in the homes." Unfortunately, the violence hearings in particular were hampered by a lack of hard information, reflecting the absence of any systematic reporting by nongovernmental institutions. The Women's Rights Project is designed to meet the growing interest in this issue and help to provide the solid information that has been in such short supply.
To guide the work of the Project, Human Rights Watch is establishing a Project Advisory Committee which will include representatives of each of the five regional Watch committees and several persons who have been active in efforts to promote women's rights in the United States and around the world. Members of the Advisory Committee will participate in certain investigative missions, and help to refine the issues and areas that the Project should emphasize.
The Women's Rights Project is directed by Dorothy Q. Thomas and staffed by Dionne Morris. It is based in Human Rights Watch's Washington offices.