Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice


Leave a comment

Developing strategies for advancing women’s rights using international law (part 2 of 2)

By  Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

“Why are you interested in learning more about women’s rights?” This icebreaker kicked off our training on women’s rights advocacy in Myanmar, and in response, one participant turned to me and said, “I used to love listening to a Burmese pop artist’s music until he came out with a song that compared women to pigs—lyrics noted that women would eat anything and everything if they didn’t have noses.” After noting the inherent misogyny in this Burmese “Blurred Lines,” she continued, “My brothers didn’t believe me when I told them our society isn’t equal, until I reminded them that they never have to ask permission to leave our house unaccompanied, never have to wash the dishes or do laundry. They agree with me now. These are moments I realized how important women’s rights are, and this is why I am here.”

On May 21, the Leitner Center helped to facilitate a dialogue on the international human rights legal framework with women’s rights activists in Myanmar. Our presentations were aimed at providing participants with ways to compliment international advocacy with the multi-pronged domestic strategies. As my fellow Crowley Scholar, Zahava Moerdler, discussed in part one of this two-part series on the Leitner Center’s recent training, we sought to empower and collaborate with women’s rights activists in Myanmar during our time there. As Myanmar undergoes its transition towards democratization, our capacity-building dialogue took advantage of a newfound space for dialogue on the nature and potential of human rights advocacy.

Our training also coincided with build up to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination’s Against Women’s (CEDAW Committee) review of Myanmar’s implementation of its international gender equality obligations, took place on July 6 .  This UN mechanism is a crucial international legal tool for advancing women’s rights due to the obligations it places on governments to enforce the treaty mandate, which enshrines the commitment to end gender-based discrimination in all sectors of society at the hands of both public and private actors. One of the civil society NGO participants, The Women’s League of Burma (WLB),  had recently submitted its shadow report  to the CEDAW Committee detailing gender rights violations, in particular the ongoing impunity for acts of sexual violence in ethnic conflict areas. WLB was notably eager to discuss strategies that representatives would present in Geneva at the CEDAW Committee review to stop these grave international crimes from continuing.

After a brief overview of the international legal framework, the focus of the May 21 dialogue narrowed to address how this framework protects gender equality. The discussion opened by asking the participants, “Do we need women’s rights when we already have human rights?” This question set the groundwork for an extended discussion on how certain laws and patriarchal values within Burma’s society have a disproportionately negative impact on women, including when intersectional social identities, including LGTI, rural and ethnic minorities, overlap.

A participant from Akhaya,  an organization dedicated to sexual health education, spoke of the detrimental impact the withholding of reproductive health has had on women in local communities. While health education is afforded to all, women are at best not taught about changes occurring during puberty and, at worst, are told that their menstrual cycles render them impure, with the ability to steal the hpoun (more of less, a concept of “masculine power”) of men.  While rural areas overall experience a greater impact, the participant noted that these views were pervasive and common in urban areas and all socio-economic backgrounds. This anecdote, among others, reinforced CEDAW’s importance in articulating a state’s obligation to not only enforce, but also to fully implement measures that eliminate practices entrenching gender equality.

The remainder of the dialogue consisted of unpacking how international law defines and protects against sexual violence in conflict, domestic violence, sexual harassment and damaging cultural norms and traditions that violate women’s right to marriage and family planning. When discussing international legal protections against domestic violence and sexual harassment, many participants expressed frustration towards government inaction on these issues. The government’s unwillingness to “interfere” in domestic partnerships or deal with “harmless” sexual remarks led participants to believe these were issues that place no imperative on action in the domestic civic space, let alone international spheres.

The solidarity among all the women as they shared of anecdotes addressing frustrations towards rights violations was palpable and, at times, infused with plucky and insightful humor. While discussing the substantial impact sexual harassment has on women’s career prospects and work life, one participant asked whether “mansplaining” is included as a violation under the law.

Participants were empowered by the knowledge that international law obligates the government of Myanmar to end impunity for all acts of gender discrimination—including those that occur in the bedroom or the workplace, spaces often deemed outside government oversight. The international legal framework by no means provided the solution, but rather supported and strengthened the strategies devised to develop meaningful policy reform in these ill-attended areas.

The conversation subsequently shifted towards connecting interaction with UN with domestic advocacy. Participants cited the current climate of cultural norms and traditions, as the major impediment to gaining traction with local officials and society at large—women’s initiatives and activists are often de-prioritized and segregated from overall peace process, investment projects and development deals shaping the country’s future.

Change in this respect, must come from within, and by one mind at a time. However, by the end of the training, the participants discovered renewed excitement and newfound tools to engage with and apply pressure in solidarity with the international community.


Carolina van der Mensbrugghe is a 3L at Fordham Law School. She was a 2015-16 Crowley Scholar in International Human Rights.

Photo credit: Carolina van der Mensbrugghe

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Placing women’s rights issues in Burma on the UPR agenda in November

By Jennifer Li

The rules for the Spaghetti Tower Challenge are simple and, as far as ice-breakers go, an interesting way to start off a three-day workshop with women’s rights NGOs in Burma. Take 20 strands of dried pasta, a few marshmallows, some Scotch tape, and build the highest tower you can. Just don’t tape the pasta to the floor.

The array of architectural innovation was impressive – though the engineering was, admittedly, less sound. Cell phone towers and leaning towers of pasta scattered across the floor space of our hotel conference room in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar [Burma], about an hour’s car ride east of Mandalay. Bobble a marshmallow at the top, and suddenly it’s Jenga.

It is an improbable, ridiculous, but nevertheless accurate metaphor for Burma’s human rights situation. In January 2015, a team from the Asia Law and Justice Program at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – represented by Professors Elisabeth Wickeri and Joey Lee, along with 3L Fordham law students Dana Swanson and Jennifer Li – traveled with members of the New York-based Global Justice Center to Pyin Oo Lwin. The New York team met with over two-dozen members of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) – a coalition of community-based women’s rights organizations – to introduce the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as an additional tool to bring women’s rights issues to the attention of the international community. The three-day workshop, consisting of an introduction to the UPR process and the drafting of a research work plan on designated thematic issue areas, culminated in a commitment by all participants to work collectively on a stakeholder submission in advance of Burma’s next UPR in November 2015.

In the four years since Burma’s democratic transition began in 2011, the country has made notable strides forward in human rights reforms, including establishing a National Human Rights Commission and releasing scores of political prisoners. Burma’s human rights record, however, continues to be marked by political and ethnic tensions that serve as flashpoints for communal violence – not only between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, as widely reported in the international press, but also against local Christian minorities. Clashes between the national army and non-state groups have contributed to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeast Burma, in addition to the nearly half a million refugees that continue to live in temporary camps in Thailand. Calls for constitutional and electoral reforms have rung hollow.

Serious and persistent violations against the most vulnerable populations are rampant, including violence against women and girls. Burma’s protracted internal armed conflict, spurred by ethnic and political divisions, have had a disproportionate impact on women and girls. A recent WLB report documented over 100 cases of systemic, state-sponsored sexual violence in ethnic communities – a conservative estimate of the number of actual violations when considering the volume of unreported incidents. Even as evidence suggests that the use of sexual violence has been used as a strategy and tool by the military regime, impunity provisions in the constitution prevent bringing the perpetrators to justice.

It was against this backdrop that Burma participated in its first UPR in January 2011. The UPR, then a relatively new UN mechanism whereby the General Assembly reviews each country’s human rights record on a four-year cycle, was a chance for Burma to present on the international stage its commitment to human rights reforms, and to engage in an interactive dialogue with other nations on a wide range of human rights issues. Not surprisingly, the Burmese delegation failed to provide meaningful responses in many issue areas, including judicial reform and ending military impunity. As Human Rights Watch reported at the time, even as the Burmese delegation was dispatched to Geneva for the UPR, the government army was forcing hundreds of prisoners to serve as porters for army units in combat areas in Karen State – in clear violation of international humanitarian law proscribing forced labor.

As with UN treaty body reviews, NGOs have the opportunity to help shape the conversation during UPR dialogues, both through written submissions as well as in-person lobbying at the review in Geneva. The lack of commentary in 2011 on the pervasive violations against women was a reflection of not only Burma’s fledgling engagement with democratic institutions, but also the lack of participation – whether due to limited opportunities or resources – by women’s rights NGOs.

Given that Burma has yet to accede to six of the nine core international human rights treaties, NGO participation in Burma’s UPR is particularly critical. Unlike treaty-body reviews, the UPR is unique precisely because it provides members of the international community a platform to review each country’s full spectrum of human rights conditions, not just those rights that the country under review is obligated by treaty to uphold. Yet despite Burma having acceded to the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1997, of the nearly 200 human rights recommendations Burma received in 2011, only six related to women’s rights issues. This may be explained by the fact that, of the 25 joint and independent NGO reports that were submitted to the UPR Working Group prior to the review, only one submission was authored by Burmese women’s rights groups. The lack of participation by women’s rights NGOs during Burma’s first cycle UPR was a significant missed opportunity—one that should not be repeated now.

Before the end of the year, Burmese delegates will meet once again with other UN Member States in an interactive dialogue for its second cycle review before the UPR Working Group. As part of its mandate, the Working Group will examine strides the government has made in response to recommendations from the first cycle. Incidentally, in the same way that Burma’s first UPR coincided with the beginning of political reform in 2011, its second cycle UPR will occur within days of the forthcoming general elections in November. Four years after Burma’s first review, it remains to be seen whether the Burmese government will cooperate in providing a meaningful assessment of its human rights record – including an acknowledgment of its shortcomings in women’s rights – or continue to stonewall international demands for reform. Regardless, now is the moment for NGOs to pressure both the international community and the Burmese government to adopt a critical assessment of women’s rights in Burma.

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire. She also participated in the Asia Law and Justice Program’s training on the UPR process with women’s rights groups in Burma in January 2015.