Rights Wire

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

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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.


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Protecting abortion as a human right in the U.S.

By Elizabeth Gyori

Just days after the Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Texas abortion clinics law, the state is now seeking to force all fetal tissue to be cremated or buried after abortions. In June, Louisiana passed a law banning the most common and safest form of abortion during the second trimester, effectively forcing women to undergo less safe abortion procedures or to not get abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Alabama’s state legislature passed a bill in May restricting abortion clinics from operating within 2,000 feet of public elementary and middle schools. A new law in Indiana bars women from getting abortions if a fetus’ race, gender or genetic disability is the motivating factor. Bans on abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy—when the fetus is still not viable outside the mother’s womb—are in effect in many states across the U.S. These are only some of the most recent draconian laws passed by U.S. states to restrict women’s access to abortion and to curtail women’s human and reproductive rights. As attacks on a woman’s right to control her own body increase in frequency and fervor, it is more urgent than ever to protect a woman’s right to abortion as a fundamental human right.

Abortion clinics are closing down at an alarming rate across the U.S., in both blue states and red states. While statistics on abortion clinics closures are scarce, one report by Bloomberg estimated that at least 162 abortion clinics in the U.S. stopped providing services or shut down entirely since 2011. Only 21 abortion providers have opened up to take their place. In many states, just a few (or sometimes, just one) abortion clinics service the entire area. Many women are being forced to travel hours and across state lines to obtain legal, timely and safe abortions. The drastic decrease in abortion clinics is largely due to various laws passed around the country placing medically unnecessary restrictions on doctors and abortion providers. These include requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at or an affiliation with a nearby hospital, imposing burdensome licensing requirements for abortion clinics (i.e. being licensed as ambulatory surgical centers), excessively regulating the facilities where an abortion will be performed and criminalizing the most common forms of abortion. (These first two practices were ruled unconstitutional in the 2016 landmark case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, by the Supreme Court, and will likely see legal challenges in many states across the U.S. Despite this, history tells us that more creative and restrictive abortion laws will only replace them.)

Beyond these attacks on the clinics themselves, states have passed laws imposing medically unnecessary wait times and counseling on women seeking abortions, as well as restrictions on insurance coverage and minors’ access to abortions. Coupled with the sharp decline in abortion clinics, women all over the U.S. are being denied the health care that they need, deserve and to which they have a right. They are faced with the devastating reality that they no longer have full control over their bodies, their labor, their choice of motherhood. And they are seeing that if they want to take back control—sometimes through purchasing abortion-inducing medication on the internet, as Purvi Patel did in Indiana—they will be arrested, jailed, criminalized and even demonized.

In recent years, abortion access and reproductive rights have been the most threatened since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S. in 1973. The debate over abortion has often centered on morality and religion, rather than the rights of women. As states pass more and more laws restricting abortion in one way or another (with, perhaps, the ultimate goal of banning abortion altogether), we must understand that not only are these laws unconstitutional, but they are in violation of the U.S.’ human rights obligations under international law.

Abortion is a critical component of comprehensive reproductive health care for women. Denying women access to this procedure violates women’s right to life and health care. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the U.S. is a party, guarantees the right to life, and governments are required to take the necessary steps (“positive measures”) to preserve life. Since reproductive health care is necessary for women’s survival, access to safe and legal abortion is protected under the ICCPR. Not only must governments respect this right, but states are also required to ensure that women do not risk their lives by seeking unsafe and illegal abortions due to restrictive abortion laws.

On several occasions, the Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about laws that restrict abortion, make abortion inaccessible or discourage safe and legal abortion services, and the Committee has consistently recommended loosening abortion laws. Earlier this year, the Committee affirmed that abortion is a human right under the ICCPR in a landmark case in Peru, in which a woman who was denied a medically necessary abortion received reparations from the government. In June, the Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s abortion ban and the criminalization of access to abortion amounted to human rights violations. After the U.N. Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice conducted a 10-day fact-finding mission in the U.S., they noted in their 2015 preliminarily findings that women in the U.S. are facing increasing barriers to safe and legal reproductive care, which does not meet international human rights standards. They group also stressed that freedom of religion cannot justify the denial of reproductive health care.

Furthermore, laws that restrict access to abortion are discriminatory towards women, as they deny only women’s right to life and necessary health care. They also discriminate against female racial minorities and poor women, who are disproportionately affected by abortion bans and restrictions in the U.S. Since Articles 3 and 26 of the ICCPR protect the equal enjoyment of the rights stipulated in the covenant, anti-abortion laws violate women’s right to be free from gender-, race- and class-based discrimination under the ICCPR.

Beyond this, forcing women to carry pregnancies to term or to seek out unsafe, clandestine abortions is cruel, inhuman and even torturous. Article 2 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), to which the U.S. is also a party, guarantees individuals the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The U.N. Committee against Torture has recognized that forcing women to carry pregnancies to term or to seek out illegal and unsafe abortions (in which their lives may be placed in danger) qualifies as cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Juan Mendez, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, classified lack of access to abortion as torture in his 2013 report. Furthermore, complete bans on abortion violate the rights guaranteed under CAT, according to the Committee, especially since these bans force women to carry pregnancies that result from rape or incest to term. Forced pregnancy, especially as a result of rape and incest, can be incredibly traumatizing, both physically and emotionally.

Recent attacks on abortion are fundamentally about controlling—and arguably, torturing—women. These restrictive laws not only violate women’s basic human rights, but they also contribute to an increasingly polarized, vicious and violent political and social climate. In March 2015, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, said that women should be “punished” for getting abortions illegally. On Nov. 27, 2015, three people were shot dead and nine people were injured during a shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado. Robert L. Dear Jr., the accused shooter, yelled that he was “a warrior for the babies” during his court hearing, making it clear that his acts of violence were motivated by anti-abortion views. Incidents of violence against and harassment of abortion providers, including arson, vandalism and attempted murder, have increased over the past few years. And groups of anti-abortion activists regularly gather near abortion clinics to terrorize women seeking to exercise their reproductive rights and control over their own lives.

Pro-choice advocates have long worked to establish and portray abortion as a constitutional right, recognized and protected by Roe v. Wade and derived from the constitutional right to privacy. While the latest Supreme Court case was a distinct victory for women and reproductive rights, restrictive laws on abortion like the ones mentioned before have slowly and will likely continue to erode women’s right to abortion. As women face sustained and relentless attacks on their reproductive rights, we must work to protect abortion not just as a constitutional right, but also as a fundamental human right.

Elizabeth Gyori is the Editor of Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual authors 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.

Photo Credit: Steve Rainwater/Creative Commons

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Tom, Jerry and the Beijing Five

By Jennifer Li

Sometimes, lawyers are most effective when using cartoon analogies. “The Chinese government is a like cat,” explained Liu Wei, a lawyer from China, on a recent afternoon in New York. “And NGOs in China are like a small mouse. The cat will humor the mouse and sit quietly while watching the mouse play. The cat is not worried about losing control of the mouse. But if that mouse grows too large, the cat will no longer just sit by.”

In the two days preceding International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, five prominent women’s rights defenders were detained by Chinese authorities in the cities of Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. These activists – Li Tingting (also known as “Li Maizi”), Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan (nicknamed “Datu,” or “Big Rabbit”), Wang Man and Wei Tingting – are young, prominent women’s rights activists who, at the time of their detention, were preparing to launch a nationwide campaign on raising awareness about sexual harassment aboard public transportation. According to reports, the activists were initially detained under suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” – an oft-cited basis for detaining political dissenters. After failing to secure approval for formal arrest from the prosecutor’s office before the legal limit of 30 days, the police attempted to even further prolong the detention of the women under the charge of “gathering crowds to disrupt order in public places.” On April 13, after 37 days in detention, all five women were granted a “release on guarantee pending further investigation,” a bail-like procedural measure that places constraints upon their freedom of movement and communications, and subjects them to future summons for additional interrogation. All criminal charges against the activists remain.

The unlawful detention of the five women activists garnered widespread attention outside China, drawing calls for their release from foreign governments and officials, including Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State. Indeed, the circumstances and conditions of their detention were plainly inconsistent with not only international legal norms and standards, but also Chinese domestic law. At the time of their detention, several women were not shown proper warrants; none had access to counsel until nearly a week after they were all transported from their respective cities to Beijing; and at least one of the activists, Wu Rongrong, was not provided immediate access to critical medical care and treatment. These and other actions by the Chinese authorities were in violation of China’s constitution and other domestic laws, including the Criminal Procedure Law and Law on Lawyers. The conditions of the activists’ detention were also inconsistent with international treaty and customary laws on the freedoms of opinion and expression and the treatment of persons in detention, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN General Assembly resolution on women’s human rights defenders, among other instruments.

The recent detentions reflect an energized effort by the Chinese government to crack down on perceived political dissent. Liu, who has worked for years on women’s rights and children’s issues in China, describes the activists’ detention as a bellwether of the government’s renewed suppression of civil society in the country. “There will be a before [the Beijing Five],” she predicted, “and an after.” Liu described the three short years between 2010 and 2013 as a period of relative relaxation for NGOs inside China – when the Chinese government was merely mouse-sitting, so to speak. Whether organizations worked on issues relating to labor rights or women’s rights, they operated in a culture of relative stability – or, as the Chinese like to say, crossed the river by feeling the stones (摸着石头过河).

Starting in late 2013, however, the government under President Xi Jingping began to demonstrate an increased vigilance to realizing a “socialism with Chinese characteristics” system of governance, which, according to an August 2013 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) directive, includes a rejection of certain “universal values.” Among the seven-fold perils of universal – but, specifically, “western” – values that the CCP pledged to purge are the promotion of civil society, press independence and “universal values” that take the form of freedom, democracy and human rights.

As Liu explained, the end of 2013 signaled the beginning of some mafan (麻烦) for Chinese NGOs. Mafan is a Chinese term that can be broadly used in several ways, for example as an innocuous noun (“inconvenience”) or as slightly more serious adjective (“troublesome”). It can also be used as a verb (for example, “Would it mafan the Chinese authorities if I asked for my lawyer?”). In the case of NGOs and human rights defenders, that mafan has taken the form of increased censorship, intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detentions, all simultaneous to the diminishing of space to engage in advocacy work. As a further reflection of official hostility toward civil society in China, last December the government introduced a draft law that would greatly restrict the funding and operations of foreign NGOs, as well as domestic NGOs that work with foreign organizations, within China. The draft law claims to be intended to bolster “national security and social stability,” but activists fear it will be used as a tool to further the harassment of NGO workers and place restrictions on their activities, as well as to further the expulsion of foreign NGO workers.

Indeed, the detention of the women activists seem arbitrary and the activities for which they were detained – to put up posters and join a march to raise awareness about sexual harassment – innocuous. All five activists were affiliated with Yirenping Center, a non-profit that promotes gender equality and provides services to individuals with H.I.V., hepatitis, and physical disabilities. On March 26, security agents raided the Beijing offices of Yirenping, the second time it has raided a Yirenping office in less than a year. Liu speculates that the detention of the activists for their activities – combatting sexual harassment and disease – have been merely a means to an end, the government’s way of going to extreme and disproportionate lengths to silence alleged political agitators.

The increased government measures forcing Chinese civil society underground also coincided with two politically sensitive periods last year – the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests (known inside China as the June Fourth Incident) and the Hong Kong student protests. When asked whether the government’s tightened restrictions on NGOs might have been a response to the Hong Kong protests, Liu expressed skepticism, observing that the protests actually drew little attention from people inside China. By the same token, few in China today are aware of the detention of the women activists. But if more people become aware of their detention, she warned, the government would face significant backlash. “These are educated, Chinese girls in their 20s and 30s who were fighting sexual harassment,” she said. “Can anyone actually say they are not in support of fighting sexual harassment? The Chinese community would no doubt be very sympathetic to theses girls.”

Foreign lawyers and organizations seeking to help alleviate the pressure on Chinese NGOs and human rights defenders may face internal resistance. “The Chinese have always been of the mindset that one must solve one’s own problems,” Liu explained. Regardless, the critical problem remains that Chinese people are not aware of the ways their freedoms have been suppressed, and the concept of human rights can be difficult to understand and internalize when there is little basis for comparison.

But that seed of recognition can take root quickly. Liu offered her mother as an example, “This is my mother’s first time outside of China. She does not speak English and does not socialize with Americans. But after only a year, she has gained enough exposure from day-to-day life here to understand that the Chinese government is oppressive. She was surprised at the way the American authorities were open to criticism after the Ferguson case. The way people protested on the street without any interference from the police officers, who just stood by and let them!”

Jennifer Li is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit:  Z4nclr4/Creative Commons

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Domestic violence: ensuring protection and accountability

By Shruti Banerjee Domestic violence

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled in the 2014 landmark case Jessica Gonzales v. The United States that the United States is in violation of international human rights law by failing to protect women and children from the threat of domestic violence. The drastic need to address these issues was also recently discussed at Fordham University’s 19th annual Forum on Domestic Violence in March 2015, where I spoke with Yi-Jen Chang, Deputy Director of The Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project at Sanctuary for Families, who organized a panel on ‘Risk Assessment and Lethality Factors’ in domestic violence cases. She explained that the most important factors that must be determined in a domestic violence case are safety planning and risk assessment. This needs to be done on multiple levels in cooperation with law enforcement, legal counsel, psychologists and educators, who may discover a violent threat, Chang said. Unfortunately, many victims of domestic violence face major roadblocks when trying to access assistance and aid. By examining the lack of uniform collection of data on domestic violence incidents, the cultural and social factors preventing victims from seeking help and the way our legal system and law enforcement have dealt with threats of domestic violence, it becomes evident that significant improvements are necessary on all levels.


Domestic violence encompasses physical, emotional, sexual, psychological and financial forms of abuse. Gathering concrete numbers to fully gauge the prevalence of domestic violence cases is difficult due to numerous socioeconomic, cultural and legal factors. But by looking at multiple reporting sources in New York, and by using New York as a case study, it can be seen that instances of domestic violence are common and need to be addressed adequately and immediately. According to the Annual Reports of the NYC Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee (FRC), the New York Police Department (NYPD) responded to 284,660 domestic violence incidents in New York City in 2013. In that same year, there were 62 family-related homicides, which only accounted for a tiny portion of domestic violence cases that year. Since less than one third of domestic violence homicide victims had prior contact with the NYPD, according to the report, this indicates that the number of domestic violence incidents responded to by the NYPD is lower than the actual number of cases in the city.

Since over half of family-related homicide victims had contacted at least one City agency prior to the homicide, looking at other resources can help gauge the prevalence of domestic violence in New York. For example, city-run domestic violence hotlines received 87,374 calls in 2014 and domestic violence shelters received 11,108 requests for housing in the same year, according to official statistics. In 2014, there were 54,667 client visits to all family justice centers in NYC, official statistics reported. And since 2005, family justice centers and legal resource providers have aided over 97,000 clients in domestic violence cases, according to a Mayor’s Office report on domestic violence in New York.

The discrepancies in these numbers indicate that domestic violence is underreported in New York, perhaps largely due to the many barriers faced by victims of domestic violence when it comes to reporting these incidents and finding sources of aid. These barriers are reinforced by many socioeconomic and cultural factors that prevent women and children from finding legal assistance or reaching out to law enforcement for help. Chang explained that many victims financially rely on their abusers, worry about familial instability from reporting the crime and fear retaliation from their abuser if the police are unable or unwilling to help. She also identified many layers of unique barriers for immigrant women including cultural norms of victim-shaming and blaming, dependence on their abuser for immigration documents, language barriers, misinformation from the abuser about available resources, unsuccessful interactions with law enforcement and fear of being expelled from their community for exposing the violence.

Recognizing the difficulties faced when reporting and collecting data on instances of domestic violence, The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services implemented changes to its crime reporting system for domestic violence incidents by enforcing more uniform reporting policies and by expanding the definitions of domestic violence relationships in 2008. While this was a step in the right direction to help the City fully gauge the physical threat domestic violence poses, there is still much to be done in order to combat domestic violence and its detrimental societal consequences in communities.


United States courts, from the state level to the Supreme Court, have consistently ruled against victims of domestic violence who have filed lawsuits against law enforcement agencies for failing to protect them against threats of domestic violence. A tragic example of this in New York is the 1968 case, Riss v. City of New York, in which then 21-year-old Linda Riss contacted the police numerous times complaining about violent threats from her ex-lover. The New York Police Department (NYPD) ignored her complaints until her fears culminated in an attack by a thug hired by her ex. This attack caused permanent facial injuries and blinded her in one eye. Riss filed a suit against the NYPD, arguing that they had a duty to protect her against a known threat. But the courts rejected this argument and ruled that police do not have a duty to protect individual members of the public. This ruling leaves women and children who have reported a domestic violence threat unable to file lawsuits against law enforcement when they fail to protect them. Women and children are thus placed in an even more vulnerable position, unable to push for accountability or justice.

The Supreme Court ruled in a similar way in Castle Rock v. Gonzales. In this case, Jessica Gonzales called the Colorado police over four times in one evening, reporting that her three daughters (ages 7, 8 and 10) were missing and that their father had taken them. Jessica had filed a restraining order against her ex-husband after he began acting abusively towards her and her daughters. He was court-ordered to stay away unless it was a scheduled visit. Since no visit was scheduled and her young daughters were missing for hours, Jessica began to panic. Law enforcement officials kept telling her to wait to see if her daughters return. Early the next morning, the father began shooting outside the police station and was gunned down. After the shoot-out, law enforcement found the three dead bodies of her children in the back seat of their father’s car. Despite the gruesome outcome, the Supreme Court held that the presence of a restraining order did not create a mandatory requirement for police to act. The majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, argued that, regardless of the mandatory language of the Colorado statute and restraining order, the need for police discretion makes this type of mandatory enforcement impossible. However, the dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, intelligently points out that the Colorado statute purposely chose this ‘mandatory arrest’ language precisely to take away police discretion in analyzing the threat since the presence of a domestic restraining order is indication enough that a threat was present and a law was being broken.

Furthermore, Scalia chose to completely disregard the legislative history of the statute, which pointed out that in specific instances of domestic restraining orders, police are not meant to stop and discern a threat which a court has already discerned. In other words, law enforcement officials are meant to follow the language printed on the restraining order, clearly stating that they are to arrest anyone in violation of it. Ultimately, if law enforcement is not held liable for stopping physical threats, there is no real mechanism to enforce restraining orders. Readings of the law in this manner renders the 300,236 orders of protection issued by New York State Courts in 2013, as documented by official statistics, useless pieces of paper.

In recognition of this, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the United States government accountable for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased daughters in October 2014. They found that the U.S. violated its obligation to not discriminate and to provide equal protection under Article II of the American Declaration by ‘failing to act with due diligence’ to protect Jessica and her children from violence. The IACHR also concluded that the US is in violation of Article I, VII, and XVIII of the American Declaration for failing to take reasonable measures to protect the life of Jessica’s three daughters.


Since U.S. courts have ruled that victims of domestic violence—even those with restraining orders or orders of protection—rely on the discretion to police officers, in the immediate future, we must have greater training programs for law enforcement, such as the program implemented in Maryland that uses a two-pronged approach to protect and reach out to domestic violence victims. Other solutions include improving social programs in low-income neighborhoods to combat domestic violence, since 42 percent of domestic violence incidents occur in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods (i.e. those with high rates of unemployment, low high school graduation rates, low median household income and high rates of poverty), according to official statistics.

Ignoring the threat of domestic violence has had detrimental consequences on society as a whole, including a direct negative impact on economic productivity, higher crime rates, cyclical abusive behavior and weaker communities. Long-term advocacy should work towards guaranteeing that victims of domestic violence are ensured protection by law enforcement when they report it, as is required under international human rights law.

Shruti Banerjee is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: Hibr/Creative Commons

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Women and ISIS: debunking the myth of gender and violence

By Zahava Moerdler

Men are squarely at the center of the popular image of wartime violence. They are cast as the instigators and inciters, while the women are relegated to the relatively two-dimensional role of passive bystander or victim. This is a gross misconception. In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower tells the stories of women who perpetrated violence under the Nazi regime. She writes, “these women displayed a capacity to kill while also acting out a combination of roles: plantation mistress; prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over her slave laborers, infant-carrying gun-wielding hausfrau.” These women were not sparse outliers working in concentration camps. More often than not mothers, they were involved in violent attacks against women and children. While Lower’s work is focused on the atrocities committed during the Nazi regime, the portrait of female violence she paints is not limited to that time or place. She notes, “Terror regimes feed on the idealism and energy of young people.” While disturbing, it is not surprising that Western women are flocking to ISIS controlled territory.

There are a variety of narratives on what becomes of the women who join ISIS. According to Malaysian sources, women are joining ISIS to serve “sexual jihad” or “jihad al-nikah.” These women become comfort women when they enter ISIS territory. This may seem obviously anathema to Muslim teachings, but it is in fact a model that has been in use since the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in the 1990s. Such women had to be careful to maintain their services despite the specter of Taliban raids and execution. The militiaman would come to the brothel, “marry” the woman, bed her and in the morning he would say “I divorce you” three times, pay a small alimony and then leave, according to news outlets. In this way, operations in the brothel maintained a semblance of religious normalcy. Although it is unclear how many women have traveled to ISIS territory, some have estimated approximately 600 Malaysian women and 100 British and Australian women. There are concurrent reports of forced sexual jihad, rape and sexual slavery.

Yet, there is another narrative that portrays the women who travel to ISIS territory as women excited and prepared for a domestic role in a state they wholeheartedly believe in. These women, known as the muhajirat (“migrants”), are drawn to the role of women in the caliphate, as outlined in a recent manifesto released by ISIS on the role of women in the caliphate. In the article “Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS,” Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford and Ross Frenett present the findings of a study that examined the social media postings from a cohort of women who had migrated to join ISIS from Western countries. The study found that many of the women who are traveling alone to ISIS (rather than with a husband and children) do so because of “grievances, solutions or personal motivations.” They are motivated by three primary beliefs: (1) the world is overwhelmingly against Islam, leading to the rigid binary characterization of the world as consisting of those who are either with or against them and their Muslim faith; (2) a desire to construct an “ideologically pure state,” and, accordingly, the imperative to build a community based on strict Shariah law; and (3) that it is incumbent on all individuals to help realize such a new world order. Once they reach ISIS territory, they partake in domestic roles, uphold Sharia law through all-women patrol brigades and engage actively in online recruitment. While they may not participate directly in violence, the muhajirat certainly glorify and justify it through religious texts and teachings.

Despite these feelings of duty, one of the most difficult challenges the muhajirat face when preparing to migrate is the decision to leave their families, according to the study. Many posts talk about homesickness, love for the women’s mothers and the difficulty of the final goodbye and phone call home before entering ISIS territory. While there is clearly emotional difficulty in leaving family, families can also act as obstacles to women leaving in practical ways, such as holding onto their passports and withholding money. The authors suggest that policymakers should help families prevent migration through intervention, and support.

Though familial intervention may be helpful, deeper solutions to combat alienation, marginalization and inequality are necessary. After all, women flocking to ISIS territories are an indication of dissatisfaction and lack of integration at home. The muhajirat frequently write about a sense of camaraderie and friendship that permeates the community, in contrast to the fake western relationships they had before. The authors of “Becoming Mulan” write, “This search for meaning, sisterhood and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.”

While the muhajirat idealize ISIS as a community of sisterhood and righteousness based on Shariah law, there are many disturbing reports that ISIS has “released a guide to the capture, punishment and rape of female non-believers.” The guide also outlines using the captured women as sex slaves and justifies child rape. About 2,500 women have been kidnapped and around 4,600 are still missing, according to reports. These are staggering numbers. Although there is no indication that the muhajirat interact with these women, it seems implausible that they do not know about the rape and kidnapping. Additionally, although the muhajirat claim that life is normal and peaceful in ISIS territory, ISIS pamphlets describe a very different treatment of women. Some reports indicate that the muhajirat know about the horrors ISIS commits and live in this horror but instead choose to pretend that life is peaceful and idyllic.

Whether migrants to ISIS do so for purposes of jihad al-nikah or to become a muhajirat and join the community, one clear fact remains: there is a disconnect between perception and reality. Migrants to ISIS see the creation of a fundamentalist state as returning to the principles and precepts of tradition. In truth, however, it is the creation of an extremist state comfortable with the use of murder and rape to realize its goals, neither of which are endorsed by the fundamental teachings of Islam. Will these women become “Furies” involved in the violence, and even perpetrating it themselves? During World War II many women were sent to the Eastern front to support their husbands, run plantations or work in secretarial work. Some of these women perpetrated acts of violence and murder. Embedded within a culture of extreme violence and destruction, will it be possible for the migrants to ISIS to maintain a distance from this influence? Do they even want to?

Zahava Moerdler is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann/Creative Commons

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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.