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Research and Teaching Interests

It is a very limited and narrow piece of the human rights vision. As women have claimed the right to be part of the definition of the conditions of what is basic to humanity in the world. We have claimed what Boutros Bourtros Ghali, at the Vienna world conference on human rights, called "the common language of humanity". Secondly we have also claimed access to some very specific international, regional, and national standards, treaties, and mechanisms that have been developed since World War II and by which human rights are defined and promoted. These mechanisms provide us with more effective tools for defending human rights of women.

They also teach us some effective ways of reaching the goals that women have been working for over the last few decades. Finally, the concept of human rights has been an important one for women in our process of self- empowerment - in our process of really claiming for ourselves that our rights and our needs as humans are really, fully, and totally a part of the human community, that they are not something on the margin, that they are not something you add on to an already defined agenda. I have seen many women who took the petition that we did for Vienna to women in battered women's shelters or to women who do legal defence.

When these women saw it, they said, "Yes. Not only do I have the right not to be battered, but that right is something that the international human rights community has addressed and has declared to be mine. Basic to what I am saying is the understanding that human rights is not static, it is not something that somebody gives from on high, whether that be the UN or any other body.

It is something that people claim and fight for and struggle for and keep redefining in every era as we all grow in our understanding of human dignity. Other groups have fought to expand the concept of human rights throughout this century: national independence groups, groups working against racial discrimination, groups working for indigenous rights, lesbian and gay groups, groups working for labour rights. All of these groups are bringing this concept in line with the experiences of people everywhere.

So, what is a gender perspective on women's human rights? Well, that's what you will be discussing all day tomorrow. It is a question that you will bring to bear on the various issues you work on. Let me just give a couple of quick categories, though. First of all, in applying the principles of women's rights to women's lives and looking at human rights through women's eyes, we see that there are indeed some areas of violation of human rights where women's experience is much the same as men, but where women are less visible simply because we still somehow have the concept of the human rights activist as a male actor.

One example of this would be a report on conditions of political activists in a particular country in which only the male political activists are asked to give their thoughts. In this instance, the issue is about making the women activists visible. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in most areas of human rights violation - even those where the violation is not specifically based on gender, such as where people are violated for their political views or because of their race or ethnicity - you find that the actual violations are very gendered.

That is, the violations that take different forms depending on the activist's gender. Women and men who are tortured as political prisoners are tortured in ways very specific to their genders. So if we want to fight torture we need to know about the ways in which gender affects the experience of torture. This is not to say that women's experience. Almost every woman refugee - well over 90 per cent - are actually abused. For example, women refugees are often sexually harassed in exchange for food or safe passage across borders.

Unless we take these kinds of situations into consideration, the refugee experience will be defined according to male norms alone. Finally, there are many areas of human rights abuse which are specifically based on gender. These are the ones that have traditionally been ignored by the human rights community and are the ones that have been left outside when human rights policy is made. These abuses involve a number of areas, but they particularly involve sexual discrimination - the ways in which women are discriminated against in education, or in access to jobs, food, or health care - and the understanding that this discrimination does not simply mean that a woman makes a little less money.

Indeed, it often means that women have fewer opportunities to ensure the security of life. The human rights area that we have talked about the most in this campaign is violence against women. The women's human rights movement has sought to show that violence against women is simply another expression of common human rights violations. For example, much of the battery, incest, and abuse that women experience at home are forms of torture and often involve the imprisonment of women in their homes.

Much of the sexual harassment that women are subjected to on the streets - such as gang rapes that happen to women who go where women are not supposed to go - are forms of terrorism aimed at keeping women from exercising their right to be in public spaces, whether those spaces are bars or legislatures. Trafficking in women is another form of slavery - slavery often for sexual work as well as for domestic work - and leads to situations of bonded policies that respect the human rights of all people.

Global solidarity will result in a new kind of human rights movement that crosses those national lines not by ignoring them, but by working at both the national and the international level. Its this global solidarity - something that we experienced in Vienna and Beijing - that leads all of us who are speaking tonight to see the women's human rights movement as both a local and a global movement that can play an important role in the building of human rights as a concept, a movement, and a reality that works for all humanity in the twenty-first century.

I think that just to know that in one country alone you have so many women, so many men, who are determined to make women's human rights a strategy for progress in their own country is exciting. I would like to present my contribution as a regional case study and deal with some of the issues that Charlotte has raised, but from the point of view of African women. Talking about women's human rights is something that has made a lot of people - globally and regionally and at national level - question whether we are actually saying that "women are not human.

But these arguments are raised by both men and women because of a lack of understanding about what it is to talk about women's human rights. Within the African context, for example, we found that the laws that have been passed by African countries actually have a lot of the principles that you find within the human rights instruments. Also our constitutions contain bills of rights that guarantee many of the rights that you will find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the other conventions.

However, the manner in which these laws are applied in practise excludes women. So talking about women's human rights has made women say, "wait a minute, all these laws and human rights principles apply to women.

Education and Social Change

So what are the major issues in this context which have concerned women? The first issue I want to highlight is the question of violence against women in its different forms. This includes violence in the family, particularly battery and incest, and violence of a sexual nature, such as rape and the defilement of girls who are below the age of maturity.

Added to that, although somewhat different because of the context, is the violence against women that is occur- ring in situations of conflict. Over twenty African countries are undergoing internal armed conflict and increasingly it is clear that sexual violence, and physical violence which is gender-specific, is prevalent either as a instrument of war or as an offshoot to the conflict situations. The second issue which has been a priority for African women is the area of economic and social rights. The social and economic aspects of human rights are important to women because we are starting from a situation where women are disadvantaged by cultural practices and customary laws which are still applicable, and, at the same time, we have yet to define very clearly how we work on these issues within the human rights framework.

While we have been very concerned that the issues are real and urgent, we are still grappling with how to proceed. For example, how do we define the inadequacy of a health care system and the lack of access to health care as denials of human rights? Another related critical issue for African women is the whole question of property rights. Property rights are important, not only in the context of social and economic rights, but because they determine the options for women in many other areas. For example, when a woman is trying to flee from a violent situation, whether she has her own economic means or is economically dependant on another person will dictate the options open to her.

Ownership of property is also definitive in political participation another area we have been working on to a significant degree because running for election is something that requires money and resources, and access to property and credit would assist women who want to stand. In sum, the issues of violence against women, social and economic rights - including property rights - and political participation have been major areas of concern for the women's human rights movement in Africa.

Now I'd like to address why the human rights framework per se has been valuable to women in Africa as a tool in tackling these and other concerns. For several years, women have been working around legal rights in the domestic law context. But as we have gained experience in that area there has been a feeling that we are calling upon the benevolence of the state and the men who are in powerful positions - in the parliament and in the cabinet and therefore able to pass laws - to allow women to enjoy such rights. The fundamental difference with working within a human rights framework is the fact that you are starting from a position of entitlement - that you are not begging or calling upon someone's benevolence, that you are demanding something that you are entitled to by virtue being a human being.

That recognition is extremely empowering for the women who are activists and facilitating the process, but it is also transformative for the women they are talking to and working with on a daily basis. When a woman starts to reflect on what it might be like to have freedom from violence in the home and in the community, the idea that we are entitled to that freedom can provide great motivation and energy to get through a difficult situation.

Accès rapides

Secondly, by using the human rights framework women have been able to transcend national boundaries. It is possible to access the strategies of the women's rights movement in other regions and in other countries, and to adapt them to the human rights concerns in our own context. This can happen because the underlying human rights principles are the same.

The way they have been translated to the national level may differ, but the basic principles remain the same. So this common human rights framework has facilitated networking, mutual support, and so on. Another reason why working within this framework has been important is that it has offered real opportunities for women to influence policy. In particular, the UN World Conference on Human Rights Vienna, saw the presence of a very strong movement for women's inclusion in human rights agendas.

For the first time governments were forced to pause and listen and to see what is wrong with the current system from a the perspective of women. Since then, women have worked to convert the momentum created around Vienna into opportunities for more gains, whether at the Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing, or the commission on Human Rights in Geneva. And that momentum at the international level has been played out at the national level too.

Organisations and women's rights activists have seized the opportunity to take advantage of the international momentum to make demands for changes in national policy and legislation in areas such as domestic violence and property rights. As women in Africa have been utilising the human rights framework, they have also been redefining it and challenging traditional approaches to human rights.

Firstly, the actors have been different. Traditionally, the actors have been states and then mainstream human rights NG0s non-governmental organisations who have tended to move on civil and political rights - but even in that context, very narrowly, ignoring ways in which gender specificity is a factor in civil and political rights abused or enjoyed. The first step has been to show how women can be actors and how in fact they are actors - that when they organise as women's rights groups they are also human rights groups and should be recognised as such both by officials and by the traditional human rights organisations.

The other challenge to traditional human rights has been in trying to develop new methodologies for investigating, documenting and reporting abuses of women's human rights. Many of the instruments and methods used by organisations like Amnesty International and some of the other traditional groups don't work when you are investigating gender-specific abuses, so the challenge has been to those organisations to develop new tools for investigating and monitoring abuses of women's human rights.

The challenge has also been on us - women's human rights advocates - to develop those tools so that we can use them as well. The third challenge has been in developing new interpretations of what certain human rights principles mean in the context of women. This is a challenge for academics, feminists and practitioners in the field. While we don't have final answers in each of these areas, these challenges to traditional human rights thinking and practice are being taken on in Africa and some of the other regions.

Finally, I'd like to look at the ways that African women have participated in and shaped the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights and how this has it been useful to the region. The participation of African women dates back to before the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights was launched in preparation for the Vienna conference. Secondly, there were women like myself and others who were involved in designing the campaign itself and working on the petition, which was the first activity in the Global Campaign, and in strategizing on how we are going to build on the petition and how we are going to use it, not only to collect the signatures, but also how we were going to use it as an organising tool in our own local situations.

The issues were the same, but the way they looked at them and the kinds of solutions they were demanding from the international community had a lot to do with the circumstances in Africa. The Global Campaign has been useful in many ways. One example already mentioned is the case of the petition, which we used for advocacy at the national as well as the international level.

Many of the organisations that participated used it in education sessions at the community level, explaining what human rights were all about, what the main human rights instruments are and how they apply to local situations, and what demands women were making on the UN system. These sessions ended with the participants signing the petition if they agreed with its goals. Secondly, other activities like the annual "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence" campaign has been key to the Global Campaign and has also become a national tool for mobilising around the issues of violence against women.

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Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Tanzania, and Uganda, for example, have all commemorated the "16 Days of Activism" since It is amazing to see how people have been able to adapt and develop other tools like training videos and education materials as part of the "16 Days" campaign. Thirdly, the Global Campaign has strengthened networking not only within regions but also internationally.

The relationship among the key players in the Global Campaign in the different regions has strengthened its advocacy and lobbying role. Advocacy, particularly at the international level, requires mutuality - the fact that you can support each others issues, you can listen to each other, and maybe come to a consensus way of articulating the demands. But it hasn't stopped there. It has also strengthened the work at local level because when there are instances or threats of abuses of women's human rights, it is possible to call upon the network in the different regions to gain support even though the issue may be very local and confined to the national level.

There are a number of important reasons why African women have been able to link with women in other regions. Perhaps it is obvious, but it is important to emphasise the act of physically being there. One of the things I made a priority as co-ordinator of WILDAF was mobilising resources so that African women can be present at international and regional meetings so they can create personal linkages and articulate their own issues - that I think will remain very crucial.

Another dimension has been, of course, using modern communication technologies - the fax, the telephone and email, for those who have them - to access information. One of the biggest problems for African NG0s is the lack of information about what is going on at the UN, what resources are avail- able, and so on.

So having some of these communications technologies has enabled, at least some of the key organisations, to access the information needed and to then disseminate it within Africa. All of the local, regional, global links I have mentioned are very important for the women's movement. Furthermore it is a two-way process. Those working at the global level need the links at the regional and the local level so that there is an element of legitimacy to what they are talking about and what they are advocating for.

By well over one million gathered signatures in countries. Acting Locally: Bangladeshi Women Organising as part of the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights Shireen Huq Naripokkho and International Women's Rights Action Watch - Asia Pacific This is a very exciting opportunity for me, not only because this is my first visit to Ireland, but because of what this gathering represents - perhaps the beginning of the process in Ireland of bringing women together to work on a common human rights agenda.

So there is a lot that I want to take back with me from here. The slogan aimed to achieve, first of all, the recognition that crimes against women are also crimes against humanity; secondly, that violence against women constitutes a violation of fundamental human rights; and thirdly, that this understanding must be made integral to the overall concept of human rights and to the practices of international human rights bodies and mainstream human rights organisations. At the same time that this slogan demanded a new awareness on the part of mainstream human rights organisations and activists, it drew the world's attention to the extent of violation and violence that women suffer in every culture, in every class, and in every situation they are placed in.

Furthermore, it represented the demand for an end to the neglect this issue customarily received from state bodies, political parties, and civil society. Women's rights ARE human rights. The assertion was made in Vienna and it reverberated across the globe in women's marches on International Women's Day in various capitals around the world; in village meetings; in discussions in small towns all over the globe, and finally in the hall rooms of the Beijing International Conference Centre.

In fact, this slogan was echoed throughout the entire preparatory process for Beijing, from the local level, to the regional level, and then to the international level. The document that was finally adopted and endorsed the Beijing Platform for Action - is testimony to that awareness and to an understanding of the interconnectedness of rights and disparity, of rights and disadvantage, of rights and discrimination and of rights and the possibility of achieving justice.

Getting it into the document was one part of the struggle. Now to get it translated into practice requires our continued presence in the streets. The issues before us are neither simple nor small and certainly not without severe consequences. What are the issues before us in Bangladesh, or for that matter in South Asia, a region that is generally characterised by widespread poverty and underdevelopment, high population density, and lower rates of literacy and education? It is very easy to say, "But everyone has problems. Why talk about women separately, why talk about women's human rights?

There is however, enough evidence to suggest why. Four of the seven countries in the world that have a male population that is larger that its female population are located in South Asia. Male longevity is greater in South Asia. Women are at the short end of every imaginable social, economic, and political opportunity.

Women have lesser access to services and public goods than men, but at the same time they continue to carry a greater burden of poverty. Women almost always have fewer rights and freedoms. This is possibly true of other parts of the world as well, not just South Asia. One important and emerging human rights issue for us in South Asia is the lack of protection and enforcement of rights for people in economically vulnerable situations. The two most obvious categories are refugees and migrant workers.

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Both are categories that affect a large number of people in South Asia, and a very large number of women. South Asian countries are some of the largest "sending" countries, that is, countries that send out people as migrant workers to other parts of the world. At the same time that the developing world is made to open its borders to the free flow of goods, the movement of people - particularly people in search of livelihoods continues to face severe restriction. In some cases the restrictions are getting worse.

The plight of migrant workers, both men and women, and the families they leave behind defies minimum standards of protection. One aspect of this problem that particularly affects women and children in South Asia is trafficking. This involves situations where women and children in search of livelihoods fall into the traps of employment agents and then end up in exploitative job situations or in brothels in other parts of South Asia.

Currently, a large section of Bangladesh's ethnic minorities in the south-east are refugees in eastern India, while at the same time we have a few hundred thousand people from Burma Myanmar as refugees in Bangladesh. This is just one example. India has a lot of internal, inter-state refugees. Indeed, the issue of refugees and migrant workers is one that we in the human rights movement and particularly in the women's human rights movement have to take on. A second key area of human rights concern is religious oppression and conflict. This includes the persecution of members of minority communities, not only religious minorities, but also ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, and so on.

At the same time that our constitutions enshrine equality between sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, our personal laws - that is, the laws that govern marriage, dissolution of marriage, guardianship of children, and inheritance of property - continue to be governed by religion-based courts. The result is an unequal distribution of rights, not only between men and women, but also between different women citizens of the same country, depending on which religious group she belongs to. In this situation, the rhetoric of equal citizenship is completely under-mined.

A third key area of human rights concern is the issue of violence against women. This includes increasing police and custodial violence. In the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics - the official govern- merit statistical office - revealed that three times as many women were dying from what is categorised as unnatural causes," than of maternal mortality.

These official figures tell us that three times this number of women are dying from homicide, suicide, poisoning, snakebite, and drowning. You can deduce for yourselves, which of those five categories are accidental and which are perhaps not accidental. Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in reply to a question in parliament, informed the parliament that one rape is reported every 24 hours, and in every 48 hours the victim is a minor girl.

This is in a context where actual reporting is very low because reporting of rape carries so much shame and social stigma. It is usually reported only when the victim has to go to a hospital or a health centre. Very rarely will women or their families directly report rape. A particularly insidious form of violence prevalent in Bangladesh is acid attacks. This is when young men throw acid at young girls who have the "audacity" to reject their propositions.

The face is targeted.


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The result varies from partial burns to complete disfigurement and loss of eyesight, and death in the case of severe burns. As we have succeeded internationally to make gains in our campaign for the recognition of women's rights as human rights, the concrete realities of women who are survivors of acid attacks or rape, women who have ended up in forced prostitution in brothels in India and Pakistan, or women who continue to be deprived of guardianship of children in the name of religion, remind us that these are but small gains.

The challenge of translating these gains at the local level continues to be much greater than we had actually mobilised for. The challenge demands conscious political action not only on the part of women, but on the part of civil society at large. The women's movement has not in that sense gained the kind of support of civil society as a whole that is needed to actually make a difference.

Our activism has ranged from the struggle to make these issues visible in the media and on the streets, to lobbying governments to adopt proactive measures. I will now give some examples of the kinds of activism that we are now engaged in. One is the kind of activism at the local level carried out in response to international mobilisations. What we did in Bangladesh was to translate the petition, publicise it widely, and collect thousands of signatures in duplicate, so one set was sent to the Global Center in New Jersey and the other set we actually took to the prime minister's office.

This action gave us the opportunity to bring the international campaign to the attention of people in the streets and to the government. Sometimes it can be helpful to say "this is not happening only in Bangladesh, this campaign is worldwide because it involves issues affecting people worldwide. We used this opportunity to attract publicity and to hand out badges that said "Resist Violence Against Women" and a leaflet that was based on the Global Campaign with specific additions on the Bangladesh context.

This is one kind of activism which is trying to link up with and use an international entry point to mobilise locally. A second example is trying to mobilise nationally. In we formed what was called the International Women's Day Committee, which brought together about twenty-six organisations. Not all of the organisations were women's organisations; some were development agencies working with women, some were social organisations. The aim of the committee was to celebrate international women's day and to organise a big march which would go through the city and create a lot of noise.

We used this opportunity to highlight a different theme each year.

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So over the years it provided an opportunity to build an agenda for the women's human rights movement. It was also an opportunity to include different kinds of women under a broader banner. In , for the first time, women engaged in prostitution walked with other women through the streets of Dhaka. This year our focus was young girls.

The theme was "Safety and Freedom for Girls" and so we managed to get younger girls involved. In the theme was "My Body, My Right.


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It was interpreted by many as advocating free sex, and as stating a woman's right to sleep with anybody she likes. At a training workshop for journalists, one of the organisers was asked if the slogan was advocating free sex. She responded, "No, actually what we are saying is that we will decide who we want to sleep with. It was very difficult until that point to actually have any discussion around sexuality or reproductive rights in public.

In this way we have used the international women's day mobilisation to open up certain spaces, to take issues to the streets which otherwise are very difficult. Similarly, when a constitutional amendment was proposed to introduce state religion, the women were the first ones to take the issue of secularism to the streets, to say NO to the issue of religion and state. As far as the political parties are concerned, it was too sensitive an issue. We, of course, had nothing to loose, so we could take the issue to the streets.

And once we did, for the first time secularism and what it means to have an official relationship between a religion and a state, what it means for people from other religious denominations, was widely discussed in the print media and in student groups and other fora. In addition to choosing a theme each year, we also do a write up on the theme, in the form of a two- page leaflet. So although the main event may take place in Dhaka, smaller events are organised in other parts of the country on the same theme.

This year, various events were organised in nineteen different places in the country.

Connecting Local and Global Perspectives

These events mark the beginnings of discussions. The diverse participation in these discussions and events by many different types of women helps to avoid the marginalisation of the issues by the media. We responded to the issue of violence in several ways. One was to try to use the government statistics on female mortality to get the government to actually do something about it, because in order to make an impact you need a national programme. We tried to make the point that violence is the state's responsibility, that it is not up to women to give their voluntary time and labour year after year to do the work that needs to be done on this issue.

The statistics did not tell us much about the nature of violence against women and girls, the consequences, the implications. However, what they said about the possible magnitude of violence spurred us into taking action on a research project on violence against women. The findings will enable us to go to the government with concrete information on where violence against women comes from and what measures are needed for victims and for survivors. In other words, to begin to tackle the issue of power relations between men and women.

Another response to the issue of violence against women on our part has been to lobby the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs to adopt a multi-sectoral response to violence against women and girls and to work with an inter- ministerial group to formulate a programme. Last August, the Ministry convened a working group composed of representatives of the ministries of health, home affairs, law, justice, and parliamentary affairs, and social welfare. The organisation I work with, Naripokkho, was included in the working group which was composed of representatives from the health ministry, the ministry of home affairs, and the ministry of law, justice, and parliamentary affairs.

The working group recently completed a preliminary report which was endorsed by the government. And finally there is the work to be done directly with violence survivors. Survivors of acid attacks are far more isolated than survivors of other form of violence. These are women who do not have a nose anymore, who do not have a mouth anymore, whose injuries force them into a kind of isolation where families hide them and do not want them to come out.

As we have been working, visiting the hospitals, getting to know these young girls - and they are young: fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen year old - we realised that they have had no opportunity to meet among themselves. So on April , , we are organising a workshop which will bring eleven girls and their mothers together. Often acid attacks take place in the house of the girls, the acid frequently being thrown in through bedroom windows, and quite often a sibling or the mother is also injured.

We are organising this workshop with the hope that will be the beginning of a forum for these girls and women to have a voice and some visibility. In finishing, I would like to say that in all the work we have done locally or internationally to assert the slogan "Women's Rights as Human Rights," we have expanded the definition of violation and we have demanded this expansion for the last ten to fifteen years. To set a reading intention, click through to any list item, and look for the panel on the left hand side:.

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