Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 11 (Spring 2004): Environmental Rights: Online Exclusives: Readers Respond: Violence Against Women

May 18, 2004

Women in AfghanistanI appreciate Christopher Harper’s approach to addressing violence against women ("Rights for All in the New South Africa," Fall 2003), and in particular the idea of working with men—both perpetrators and supporters. Much can be learned from Harper's experience and efforts, especially for those of us addressing violence against women in post-conflict contexts. In many cases, gender biases of post-conflict reconstruction and development programs are exacerbating violence against women. My previous work experience in Afghanistan and my research interests in gender-focused international aid are leading me to explore ways to prevent violence against women in post-conflict contexts, particularly by engaging men.

Almost two years into the reconstruction process, conditions for women in Afghanistan remain challenging: an illiteracy rate of 85 percent, female-headed households living in dire poverty, and an inability to access training and economic opportunities. Despite improvements (largely confined to Kabul), women’s human rights are still being violated across Afghanistan. Rates of self-immolation and violence against women at home and on the street have increased in the so-called post-conflict period. Women are struggling to be heard and to find alternatives to lives of despair. Only a small fraction of women—and only those in Afghanistan’s cities—are accessing economic opportunities and are able to support themselves and their families.

Although Afghanistan’s new constitution—approved in January 2004—secures women’s rights and ensures equality before the law, many Afghan women fear that these words may not reach the right ears. Human rights and women’s rights organizations have begun to identify fissures in the document through which women’s rights may vanish. Afghanistan is also a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), signed without reservation in March 2003. Afghan women are using both CEDAW and the new constitution to guarantee their rights, but the battle is just beginning.

Women’s rights and development are not luxuries; they are fundamental to the success of Afghan society. With increased support, we can strive to offer women the tools with which they can achieve self-sufficiency, a choice, and a voice.

Lina Abirafeh
Former Country Director
Women for Women International – Afghanistan

Reforming the CourtsThe abuses that the Battered Mothers’ Testimony Project (BMTP) so superbly documents ("Battered Mothers vs. U.S. Family Courts," Fall 2003) are not unique to Massachusetts. Sadly, they are typical of what battered mothers experience in courts throughout the nation.

Those of us working to help victims of family violence have been trying for years to educate judges and reform the court systems in the United States. In the late 1990s the Family Violence Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges brought together domestic violence, child welfare, and judicial experts to develop recommendations for making the court system work better for battered mothers. Their report, popularly known as “the greenbook,” has been in great demand by domestic violence service providers, child welfare experts, and judges around the country who are eager to address the gaps in their systems.

By failing to improve the situation for battered mothers and other victims of intimate partner violence, is the United States violating women’s human rights? And is it useful to apply a human rights framework to this issue?

The BMTP asked these questions, and the answer was “yes.” My organization, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, has also begun using a human rights framework to alter the debate on gender-based asylum in the United States. Through a unique collaboration of advocates for battered women, immigration reform, and human rights, we are working to define certain types of violence against women as human rights violations. We hope to raise awareness about the plight of women who seek asylum in the United States to escape gender-based violence in their native countries and, in so doing, create pressure for immigration law reform.

A human rights framework is a useful tool in raising the public’s awareness about the prevalence and severity of violence against women. And raising awareness puts pressure on lawmakers to support prevention measures and to advance reforms that bring real help to victims.

Esta Soler
President, Family Violence Prevention Fund
United States

Impunity in Ciudad JuarezLydia Alpizar’s essay on the dynamic campaign to end the killing of women in Ciudad Juarez ("Impunity and Women’s Rights in Ciudad Juarez," Fall 2003) is a testament to the fierce dedication on the part of border-based and national organizations to end impunity for the murder of over 300 women in the past decade.

Alpizar highlights the challenge of bringing traditional human rights groups into the process of addressing violence against women. Prior to the campaign, violence against women was seen as a “women’s issue” by many organizations, peripheral to their mandate or less important than their other concerns. Some traditional human rights organizations had difficulty with the issue of accountability of non-state actors, and were reluctant to address the killings in Juarez without evidence that directly implicated state agents. The campaign’s broad definition of violence against women to include the right to work, the right to development, and other economic and social rights pushed mainstream organizations into unfamiliar territory.

One of the great successes of the Juarez campaign is that border-based organizations as well as the women’s movement in Mexico have been extremely effective in demonstrating that this is not just a “women’s issue” but a human rights issue. The campaign has clearly stated that the Mexican state is responsible for protecting the rights of all of its citizens, and has defined these rights to include the right to work and the right to a life free from violence. Advocates have also made the case that the government’s continued inaction to investigate the killings at the local level is not only a violation of human rights but also a reflection of a national crisis of impunity and a lack of access to justice in Mexico.

The use of what is generally considered a body for addressing “mainstream” human rights issues—the Inter-American Human Rights Commission—is also breaking new ground in bringing some of the first cases on women’s rights to the Commission. As Alpizar’s essay so aptly demonstrates, the Juarez campaign has pushed the boundaries of our understanding of human rights, and has turned what was originally seen as a local problem into an international human rights issue.

Holly Bartling
Human Rights Advocates Program Director
Center for the Study of Human Rights
United States

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