On the frontline of defending women’s rights: A conversation with Human Rights Watch

May 14, 2014

By Anna Reitman

From the Frontline

From left to right: Agnes Odhiambo, Gauri van Gulik, Liz Ford, Liesl Gerntholtz, Rothna Begum and Samer Muscati.

The Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch joined The Guardian’s Liz Ford on Tuesday 13 May to discuss the highs and lows of the challenges faced in improving the lives of women and girls around the world.

The event took place as the world’s attention focuses on Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls and subsequent failure to free the more than 200 victims from militant group Boko Haram.

Shining a spotlight on this specific issue is important, but everyday, harrowing realities are being lived by 39,000 girls subjected to forced marriages globally, said Agnes Odhiambo, researcher for women’s rights in Africa.

“You see it happening so much every day that actually you don’t stop to ask yourself what kind of suffering, what kind of abuses do these girls go through? In South Sudan, some girls actually think that death is better than a forced marriage. There are many cases of girls committing suicide.”

In the African context, she added, children being born into the family are of course celebrated but behind the scenes there may be a far more disturbing story, particularly around the issues of sexual violence and maternal health.

The panel was also keen however to point out successes in the fight for women’s rights, highlighting international treaties and conventions moving forward in earnest as well as grass roots initiatives that aim to tackle abuses against women and girls.

Director of HRW’s Women’s Rights Division Liesl Gerntholtz explained that the work her team is doing by collecting accurate information and evidence across some 90 countries is about “the long game” in making positive change.

“We believe, perhaps naively, that if you can just get the information in front of the right people that of course they will want to stop what is going on on the ground, and sometimes they do and sometimes not so much,” she said. “Particularly in human rights, those of us who work have to be willing to play the long game because change is always incremental.”

In some instances, the significant advances made grow out of local anger at terrible abuses, which HRW is able to take to the policy makers. In Yemen, marriages were happening at extremely young ages and both local and international outrage were ignited when an eight-year-old girl, Rawan, died of internal bleeding after being married to a man five-times her age.

The incident came in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and after a transitional government took hold. HRW recognised an opportunity to bring gender issues to the negotiating table in the midst of a national constitutional dialogue.

Yemen now has a Child Rights Act, which includes setting a minimum age of marriage at 18 and criminalising those who take part in child marriage. Additionally, FGM [female genital mutilation] has been criminalised. The Act is going to cabinet, and HRW is pressuring them to pass it and send to Parliament along with other constitutional guarantees, said Rothna Begum, researcher for women’s rights in Middle East and North Africa region.

Still, hard and long fought for rights can be very fragile and quickly rolled back, particularly in post-conflict environments, said researcher for women’s rights in emergencies Samer Muscati, pointing to Iraq as an example where the space for women has shrunk considerably despite constitutional guarantees of parliamentary representation set at 25 per cent.

In Somalia’s Mogadishu, Muscati describes a conflict in which sexual violence is an every day fact of life for women and girls with a backdrop of stigma and lack of services to help them.

“They are on their own. One of the positives is that the international community has worked with Somalia to develop joint commitments. The challenge is trying to ensure that those commitments are met,” he said.

Pressure from developed countries could go far in changing the lives of millions of girls and women around the world, however, the UK is cited as playing a negative role – specifically in the recent initiative to tackle issues of forced labour that includes such categories as domestic workers as well as trafficked sex workers, said Gauri van Gulik, global advocate in the Women’s Rights Division at HRW.

“We hear a lot on one hand from Theresa May and others about how they want to end modern-day slavery. But in these negotiations and at this important moment the United Kingdom is saying we don’t want binding standards we just want a recommendation, or guidelines, which is extremely negative,” she said. “There is actually a lot of work to do in the United Kingdom when it comes to foreign policy.”

The audience was invited to ask questions and issues were raised around gaps in services for elderly women, women living with disabilities, or even highly privileged women bound by strictly patriarchal societies. Also, the audience heard how HRW tries to manage compatibility between the complicated relationships inherent to traditional laws where they may be in conflict with human rights laws.

Ultimately, people questioned how they could get involved apart from sending money to a charity and being directly involved to make a difference.

Gerntholtz replied: “Change is local. The most important thing anyone can do is work in their own communities . . . it creates a community of activists that you are a part of.”

Watch and listen to the full event here: