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THE WOMEN'S WATCH

Volume 10, No. 2
September 1996

 

WORDS AND ACTIONS POST-BEIJING

One year post-Beijing, and throughout the world NGOs and governments are marking the date with conferences and celebrations-in a recent Global Faxnet, the International Women's Tribune Center lists activities in nine countries and regions from among the many we have heard about. In the US, on September 28, an elaborate 90-minute satellite broadcast of Administration officials reporting on plans to implement the Platform for Action served as the centerpiece for community-level workshops and meetings all over the country.

All of us who were at Beijing know that implementation of the Platform for Action will take more than one year, and perhaps in some countries, more than one year of planning. Translation of the Platform into national languages, dissemination and development of programs to use it, can in themselves take a year. In the US, the outline of the national plan of action was not available until June 1996. Women's human rights NGOs monitored development of the national plan and through strategic action succeeded in shaping it to include reference to women's human rights as a basic element, a point that had been lost in the months since Beijing.

The US plan also includes a specific commitment to ratify the Women's Convention. Upon Switzerland's ratification in September 1996, the US became the only industrialized country in the world that has not ratified. In August 1996 US NGOs held a meeting in Washington to launch a new strategy for ratification, targeted at development of constituencies that can put community-based pressures on the process. Under the US Constitution, a treaty can be ratified only by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. With the Republican party controlling the Senate, it is highly unlikely that the US will ratify unless those senators hear from many constituents that the Convention is important to them. The August meeting brought together representatives of NGOs from all sectors-grass-roots groups, women law students, professional organizations. All agreed to return to their organizations with renewed commitment and new information on the potential of the Convention in the US and to develop new plans for moving ratification forward in the US. As part of this effort, advocates need to know how the Convention has been used in other countries. The IWRAW project offered to provide basic information on uses of the Convention around the world to advance women's status.

As a communications and resource center the IWRAW project is continually asked to provide examples of how the Convention has been used successfully, in any country, to promote women's human rights. Particularly with respect to Beijing followup, it is critically important for all of us to keep each other informed about how much attention our governments are paying to the Convention and how we are drawing their attention to it as a commitment made at the Fourth World Conference.

Please send us accounts of your country's responses to Beijing and especially your experiences in using the Convention to reinforce the promises of Beijing. The IWRAW project will publish this information in Women's Watch. A continuing account of action and successes will help us all-long after the celebrations and the conferences are over-to maintain the best of Beijing.

HUMAN RIGHTS - Convention Articles 1, 2, 5

Standard assumptions as to who is benefited by emergency relief work were challenged in a recent Oxfam UK gender workshop for overseas staff. The discussion revealed that women's welfare generally would be ignored or even negatively affected unless the following assumptions are challenged: (1) that working with community groups reaches the most vulnerable (such groups frequently exclude or fail to reach the most vulnerable, including women and elderly); (2) that consultation with management in partner organizations is a gender sensitive process (not unless the workers at lower or community levels, which is where the women are, are consulted); (3) that programs to strengthen the community automatically reach women (not without direct effort!!). Information: Oxfam UK, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford7D2 UK. Tel: 44 1856 312 363; fax: 44 1856 312 600.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has agreed to hold special hearings on violations of women's human rights by members of both the South African security forces and the liberation forces during the period March 1960-December 1993. The TRC accepted in full the recommendations of a recent workshop on Gender and the Truth Commission, including holding at least one hearing in each region focusing solely on women; encouraging women to speak out; negotiating with witnesses whether they wish to be heard by women-only panels; training commissioners on gender-related issues; and holding preparatory workshops, especially for rural women. Information: Washington Office on Africa, e-mail: vlf@igc.apc.org

Human rights groups are concerned about the fate of Afghan women inside and outside Afghanistan upon the takeover by the fundamentalist Taliban forces in late September. When the Taliban took over Herat in September 1995, girls were excluded from school; when Jalalabad fell in September 1996 they declared that women and girls would not be able to attend school. Women have not been allowed to work outside the home, and are required to cover themselves head to foot. These restrictions are not only basic human rights violations but as a practical matter will keep women from caring for themselves and their families, particularly if they are not attached to a male family member. Many of the Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan (which supports the Taliban) are widows or sole supporters of their families, and some have spoken out concerning human rights issues. They will have particular difficulty under the new regime if forced to return to Afghanistan. Further information: Afghan Women's Network, fax 92 51 279 252; email: pam@collet.sdnpk.undp.org

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN - Convention Articles 3, 5, 6, 12, 15 and 16

The damage done to women by female genital mutilation and the pervasiveness of the practice in certain parts of the world have been thoroughly documented. Not a week goes by that the IWRAW mailbox does not contain material on FGM. Now in addition to the accounts and the statistics, some hopeful notes have been sounded.

On June 13, 1996, Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman from Togo who fled her country when her aunt attempted to force her to undergo FGM in preparation for an arranged marriage was granted asylum by the US Board of Immigration Appeals. The decision (not available when the case was described in the June Women's Watch) noted that FGM constitutes persecution, and that a woman who resists FGM has the requisite "well-founded fear of persecution" on grounds of which asylum is granted. The decision also noted that most African women can expect little government protection from FGM, a point that is significant in establishing an asylum claim.

According to the New York Times (September 11, 1996), Kassindja's escape was arranged by her mother, who gave her most of an inheritance to leave the country. The mother then left the country, returning when another daughter told her it was safe, and formally apologized to the family patriarch, Fauziya's uncle. While the apology ritual would seem to reconfirm the tradition that Kassindja fled, the uncle told the Times that a family council had gathered in late August, including relatives from several countries, and the uncle had proposed that women be given a choice to be "cut" or that the practice be abolished altogether so that the girls would not run away. The gathering dissolved into a shouting match, and the village chief intervened, insisting that this is a matter for community decision. The chief declared that a village meeting would be held in October to discuss it. Meanwhile, Kassindja has become a student in the US and plans to use money from a book contract to buy her mother the large market stall she has always wanted.

Another challenge to the FGM tradition, which did not make international headlines but could be extremely effective, is described in the UNICEF 1996 annual report. In a village in Somalia-a country in which FGM is almost universal-the practice has been replaced by a ritual that does not damage the girls. This dramatic shift in custom came about when a Somali nurse, herself a devout Muslim, convinced the strictly fundamentalist local religious authority that FGM is not required by the text of the Quran. The word was spread from the mosque and through the schools, health facilities and public meetings. The annual report is available from UNICEF, 3 UN Plaza, New York NY 10017.

A US law that gives physically abused women the right to sue their attackers is now being tested in the courts. Christy Brzonkala, a student at Virginia Polytechnic & State University, sued the university for denial of her civil rights under the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, after the university reinstated a football player that it had suspended on the basis of her rape complaint. Brzonkala had brought the charges against two players; the charge against one was dismissed when the player produced an alibi. A Virginia trial court dismissed the suit on constitutional grounds, and Brzonkala has appealed. In a similar case brought in Connecticut, another federal judge upheld the law's constitutionality. With additional cases likely to generate additional conflicting decisions, the law will ultimately be tested in the Supreme Court.

EDUCATION - Convention Article 10

In an historic Constitutional case, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the Virginia Military Institute, a males-only military college operated by the State of Virginia, must admit women to its program. In a 7-1 decision (Justice Clarence Thomas did not participate because his son attends VMI), the Court held that the State of Virginia failed to establish that the discriminatory admission policy served an "important government objective." The Court also concluded that establishment of a program for women, the Virginia Women's Leadership Institute, housed at a private college, did not provide a comparable education, because it lacked the military discipline, course offerings, range of sports facilities, alumni network, and prestige degree offered by VMI. Early in the fall term VMI announced that women entering the class would have to have their heads shaved, just as the men do.

High schools in South Korea are for the first time in history admitting girls on an equal basis with boys. When Kim Juheen was denied high school entrance despite holding an entrance exam score that was higher than that of some boys who were admitted, her mother protested, and the President intervened to insist that girls be admitted on an equal basis with boys. Some negative reaction is reported among girls who seem to prefer the status of knowing that their entrance scores had to be higher than that of the boys. The increased presence of girls and changes in curriculum are expected to have a long-term effect on Korean society, which has remained one of the world's most discriminatory. Only 1.9% of Korean civil servants are women, and even the best-educated women face enormous barriers to developing careers.

A regulation requiring pregnant girls to leave college for a year was overturned by a court in Botswana. The Molepole College of Education had required that pregnant students inform the Dean and leave school not more than three months after conception. The High Court found that the regulation violated constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights and protection against discrimination. The court found that the real purpose of the regulation was not to provide a maternity leave-which would have been voluntary-but to punish unmarried students. This case is significant particularly because the practice of forcing pregnant girls-but not the fathers-to leave school is still widespread.

EMPLOYMENT - Convention Article 11

The first major case on sexual harassment in Korea is now on appeal to the Korean Supreme Court. In 1994, a teaching assistant, Ms. Woo, brought the case against a professor, Shin, in the Seoul National University Department of Chemistry. After resisting his attempts to touch her and suggestive invitations, the teaching assistant was fired for "insincerity toward duty." The trial court ordered the professor to pay Woo 30,000,000 Won (US$37,000). On appeal, the verdict was reversed, with the court inventing the term "sexual bothering" to describe the professor's actions. Support for Ms. Woo has been organized by a "Citizen Solidarity Against Sexual Harassment" consisting of the "Joint Committee for Countermeasures" based at the University as well as other groups. Information: Korea Women's Hot Line, 38-84 Jangchung-Dong, 1Ga, Jung-Ku, Seoul 100-391, Korea. Tel. (02) 269-2962/4; Fax (02) 269-2966; e-mail: kwhl@chollian.dacom.co.

A new report from Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project concludes that the highly discriminatory practice of screening women for pregnancy as a condition of employment is prevalent throughout Mexico's maquiladoras (export-processing zone factories). According to No Guarantees: Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector, the Mexican government has failed to protect women whose employment is threatened when they become pregnant. The government also, according to this report, fails to condemn by law or practice the use of urine tests and invasive questioning about contraception as part of the hiring process. Approximately 90% of the factories are owned by US-based corporations. Human Rights Watch urges the Mexican government to take action to live up to its obligations under the Women's Convention, ILO treaties, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also urges the US government to press Mexico to meet nondiscrimination obligations under NAFTA, and US companies to end the discriminatory practices. Report available from Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York NY 10017; Tel (212) 972-8400; fax (212) 972-0905; e-mail hrwnyc@hrw.org.

Six female officers recently were promoted to the rank of general in the Thai military services. According to the Nation, a Thai newspaper, the six serve in nursing or finance units of the Army, Navy, Supreme Command Headquarters, and Defense Permanent Secretary. However, an Army general in command of the military academy has indicated that he does not favor enrollment of female cadets. Unless orders to admit women come from his superiors, the academy is unlikely to produce more female candidates for general.

A Congressional commission has determined that the US Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides for unpaid leave for employees' own medical care and to care for children, parents, and spouses, has been an unmitigated success. In the first 18 months of the law's application, twenty-five percent of the employees who took leave did so for the birth, adoption, or serious illness of a child and ten percent for the serious illness of parents or spouses (the remainder took medical leave for themselves). Between 89% and 98% of businesses stated that the leave resulted in little or no extra costs, and many reported major benefits such as increased productivity and workers' willingness to make extra efforts on the job. While these results would not be news in most other countries, in the US they are remarkable because the FMLA had been intensely opposed by conservative legislators and business lobbyists claiming that it would hurt business and reduce women's employment prospects. It now remains to enlarge the scope of the law to cover employees of small business (current law covers only employers of over fifty workers) and to provide for some level of income replacement.

WOMEN AND PUBLIC LIFE - Convention Articles 7&8

With United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's announcement that he would run for a second term, despite his initial declaration that he would be a one-term SG, member states have been taking strong political positions on the election. Most parties to the debate have ignored one of the most significant factors in this election: the availability of at least six female candidates who are well qualified to be Secretary General. The Fourth World Conference on Women stated clearly that lack of women at the highest UN decision-making levels would make the goal of equality unachievable. Equality Now has circulated a call for action urging women to contact their United Nations missions indicating the importance of electing a qualified woman to the post, and suggesting six candidates: Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway; Frene Ginwala, Speaker of Parliament, South Africa; Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Navanethem Pillay, UN International Tribunal on Rwanda; Mary Robinson, President of Ireland; and Leticia Shahani, President of the Senate, Philippines. Any UN mission can be contacted by writing to that country's Mission to the United Nations, New York, NY. Further information: Equality Now, P.O. Box 20646, Columbus Circle Station, New York 10023 USA

The only independent member of the Zimbabwe Parliament, Margaret Dongo, is a former guerrilla and protege of the late Sally Mugabwe, wife of Zimbabwe's president. Having suffered the special hardships of women in the liberation forces, Dongo was a prominent party member and MP until she was thrown out of the party for openly criticizing its policies. The party did not nominate her for reelection to Parliament in 1995, so she ran as an independent, lost the election, then won in a new election held after she proved in court that the first election had been rigged. Today Dongo speaks in Parliament and outside it, for all who oppose President Mugabe but dare not voice dissent.

Women lost ground in the Israeli elections held in June, reflecting the overall conservative shift of the electorate. Only nine women were elected to the Knesset (down from 12 in the prior session); six of them are in opposition parties, further reducing their influence. One of the candidates who failed to be elected is Nadia Hilou (Labor Party), who had been expected to be the first Arab woman elected to the Knesset. The Cabinet includes only one woman out of 18 ministers, Likud star Limor Livnat, Minister of Communications. An analysis of campaign communications by two experts reveals that only 17% of the people who appeared in campaign telecasts were women, and most of them were either anonymous or celebrities, rather than identifiable as political leaders. Most references to women's issues pertained only to violence against women, and issues of peace and of state and religion were never mentioned as concerning women. Information: Israel Women's Network, POB 3171, Jerusalem 91031; tel (02)-439966; fax (02) 435976; e-mail iwn@netvision.net.il.

Global Exchange has launched a program to establish relationships between women throughout the Western Hemisphere focusing on "healing the conflict between the US and Cuba." This "Sister to Sister" program proposes to organize delegations of women to travel to Cuba and to invite Cuban women to the US, as well as to establish cultural exchanges between women in the two countries. Further information: Global Exchange, 2017 Mission Street #303, San Francisco CA 94110 USA. Tel. (415) 255-7296; Fax (415) 255-7498; e-mail: globalexch@igc.org.

Immediately upon taking office in early June, the new coalition government of India promised to review all laws to remove discrimination against women. According to the New York Times (June 6, 1996), in appealing to women the new Prime Minister would hope to maintain support among one of the groups that traditionally supported the Congress party. India ratified the Women's Convention in 1993 but has not undertaken a formal review of its laws in light of Convention obligations.

A Women's Budget Initiative has been formed in South Africa to produce a gender analysis of every spending sector, indicating the questions to be asked and the priorities to be considered in designing a budget that will promote South Africa's transformation into a truly egalitarian state. According to ANC Member of Parliament Pregs Govender, the Initiative is designed to provide NGOs, public servants, politicians and analysts with information to support effective action for change. Govender indicated that the analysis should include questions about delivery of services, access to services, relationships between government and private action to meet women's needs, burdens placed on women by deciding that "communities" rather than government will provide certain services, impact of policies specifically on poor women and women working in traditionally women-dominated sectors, and the importance of including gender as well as race considerations in affirmative action policies. The Initiative is a joint project of the Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Finance, Idasa's Budget Information Service, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, and the law, Race and Gender Research Unit. Information: Women's Health Project, Centre for Health Policy, PO Box 1038, Johannesburg 200. Tel. (011) 489-9917; Fax (011) 489-9922.

HEALTH AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS - Convention Articles 10, 12, 14, 16

Habitat II, the UN Conference on Human Settlements, held in Istanbul in June 1996, has reconfirmed the international consensus in support of affordable, accessible health care for all women. The Conference Global Plan of Action refers specifically to the language adopted at ICPD with respect to primary and reproductive health care. It also reiterates the Beijing declaration, "While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural, and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of all States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms." According to a number of sources, NGOs were instrumental in retaining language in the Global Plan that supports the progress made in the prior world conferences.

Three South African provinces have undertaken a Reproductive Health Transformation Project, putting into effect many of the recommendations of the Fourth World Conference on Women and ICPD. The projects are using a bottom-up approach to planning and establishing health care systems that respond to user needs. Health care workers are being asked to assess the functionality of their clinics and to suggest changes. Service delivery is being analyzed in light of women's needs. Service transformation was planned at workshops held in June, and the next twelve months are devoted to implementation. The projects are funded in two provinces by the UN Population Fund and in the third by the UK's Overseas Development Agency. Information: Women's Health Project, PO Box 1038, Johannesburg 2000 SA. Tel (011) 489-9917; Fax (011) 489-9922.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation has issued a Charter on Sexual and Reproductive Rights, grounded in basic human rights documents and the results of the World Conference on Human Rights, ICPD, the Social Summit, and the Fourth World Conference on Women. The Charter identifies twelve rights that are essential to the implementation of human rights based family planning programs. With the adoption of the Charter, IPPF emphasizes that sexual and reproductive rights have basic human rights foundations and provides member organizations and states with a set of standards by which to measure the human rights impact of their programs. For copies of the Charter and further information: IPPF, Regent's College, Inner Circle, Park, London NW1 4NS.

A new UNICEF publication, The Progress of Nations 1996, reports that approximately 585,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth. While these figures may not be shocking to experts familiar with the status of women and their access to health services throughout the world, the number is 20% higher than even the experts had thought. Approximately 75,000 deaths are from botched abortions. The study cites lack of trained personnel to treat prenatal women as a primary factor in these largely preventable deaths.

On a more positive note, The Progress of Nations also includes a brief listing of some of the educational initiatives in developing countries that are designed to give girls better access to schooling and, ultimately, raise the status of women so that their needs are more likely to be met. In the 35,000 community schools started by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, 70% of the 982,000 students are girls. In rural southern Egypt, local community schools are being built to cut down the travel distance so girls can get to school; 70-80% of the 3000 children enrolled to date are girls. In Nepal, approximately 70,000 girls who have dropped out of school have enrolled in nonformal classes designed to help them reenter, and the government is offering small subsidies to encourage families to keep their girls in school. And in Mali and Burkina Faso, village schools have been established with mandatory male-female enrollment parity. The full report is available from UNICEF, 3 United Nations Plaza, NY NY 10017 USA.

Women in Japan have reacted fiercely to the passage of a revised abortion law without any consultation with those affected-the women. The revised law provides for abortion only under conditions of endangerment to women's health for physical or economic reasons and requires authorization by a physician or, in some cases, spousal consent. Moreover, the criminal law still applies to abortion, making for a confusing situation that limits women's reproductive rights. In addition to having been passed quickly and without national discussion, the revision addressed neither the restrictiveness nor the confusion of Japanese law. The Japanese government also has postponed approval of low-dose contraceptive pills, despite indications in late 1995 that the pill would become available for distribution in early 1996. Japan remains the only industrialized nation in the world that does not allow use of the pill for contraception. Information: Japanese Organization for Int'l Cooperation in Family Planning, 1-1, Ichigaya Sadohara-cho, Shinjuku0ku, Tokyo 162 Japan. Tel 81 3 3268 5875; fax 81 3 3235 7090.

RESOURCES

A guide for a six-session workshop program designed to inspire creative thinking about implementing the Platform for Action has been published by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The sixth session is on developing one's own action plan. Gender Justice: Women's Rights Are Human Rights is available for US$15 from: UUSC, 130 Prospect Street, Cambridge MA 01239-1845 USA.

The International Women's Tribune Center's Postview '95 (No. 6, April 96) contains a "scoreboard" for tracking commitments made by governments at the Fourth World Conference. In an easy-to-read format it includes the commitments made by each country, as well as information and suggestions on NGO activity to hold governments accountable. From: IWTC, 777 UN Plaza, New York NY 10017 USA. Tel: (1-212) 687 8633; Fax (1-212) 661-2704; e-mail: iwtc@igc.apc.org.

Essential United Nations human rights materials are now available on a World Wide Web site. The site, the Minnesota Human Rights Library, is updated regularly to include proceedings of the Human Rights Commission, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, and the human rights treaty bodies, including CEDAW. Address: http://www.umn.edu/humanrts or http://heiwww.unige.ch/humanrts/.

 


WOMEN'S WATCH subscriptions policy. Women's Watch is sent free to groups and individuals in developing countries and on an exchange basis with libraries and documentation centers. Subscriptions are US$25 per year payable in US dollars only or an international money order. Subscriptions are renewable as of January 1 of each year. If you renew any time in 1996, your renewal will keep you on the list through 1997. Checks in US dollars on a US bank should be made payable to: IWRAW, Humphrey Institute. Other subscription points: In Great Britain and continental Europe, send subscriptions in pounds or Eurodollars to: Marianne Haslegrave, Commonwealth Medical Assn., BMA House, Trafalgar Square, London WC1H 9JP United Kingdom. In Australia, send to: Hilary Charlesworth, Centre for International and Public Law, ANU, Canberra ACT, Australia. In Canada, Susan Bazilli, METRAC, 158 Spadina Road, Toronto, Ontario M5R 2T8. In Japan, Japanese Ass'n of International Women's Rights, Bunkyo Women's College, 1196 Kamekubo, Ohi-machi, Iruma, Saitama 354 Japan.

WOMEN'S WATCH is published by the IWRAW project, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, USA. Editors: Marsha Freeman and Sharon Ladin. IWRAW is a global network of individuals and organizations that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty ratified by 155 countries as of September 1996.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. The Humphrey Institute is hospitable to a diversity of opinions and aspirations. The Institute does not itself take positions on public policy issues. The contents of this report are the responsibility of the editors. IWRAW is grateful to the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Shaler Adams Foundation, SIDA and numerous individuals for financial support. Contributions to the project are welcomed and are tax deductible for US citizens.

 

 


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