Research & Action Report Fall/Winter 2006

The Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) recently welcomed Rangita de-Silva de-Alwis, S.J.D. as senior advisor on international programs. A legal advocate with her LL.M. and S.J.D. from Harvard Law School, de Silva-de Alwis also holds an appointment as a Research Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at the Kennedy School, and brings a wealth of experience working with women’s groups in Asia on the rights of women and children.

“We hope to build upon existing relationships and create new ones with colleagues around the world through these initiatives under Rangita’s leadership,” reports Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., executive director of WCW. “Our knowledge of social science research methodology and in substantive areas of work such as women’s education, gender violence, work/family issues, and child care will not only be a resource to others, but will be strengthened in numerous ways from new international collaborations and learning.”

For six years de Silva-de Alwis served as director of international programs at the Spangenberg Group, a research and consulting firm based in Massachusetts specializing in improving justice programs. Responsible for all aspects of international programming, she conceptualized, developed, and carried out programs to strengthen the rule of law and human rights framework in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and programs with a regional focus in Asia. De Silva-de Alwis also assisted the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in reviewing and implementing the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in China and wrote a 16- country study on girl child labor for UNICEF. She has served as a consultant to other UN agencies and offices committed to children, human rights, and social advancement and as a senior advisor to the Public Health Advocacy Institute at the Northeastern University Law School.

Women’s Rights Issues in China

In collaboration with Bailey, de Silva-de Alwis leads two Ford Foundation projects at WCW. The “Technical Support to Ford Foundation Grantees Working on Women’s Rights Issues in China” project aims to strengthen the capacity of the Chinese partners and help build alliances and forge relationships between women’s rights organizations in China- and U.S.-based women’s research centers. A continuation of work de Silva-de Alwis has undertaken for more than a half decade, this project seeks to help raise the profile of the Chinese organizations’ work both nationally and internationally. The Center for Studies of Women’s Issues at Home and Abroad at Peking University has signed an Agreement of Academic Exchange with WCW to broaden the outreach of the program.

One goal of the program is to apply the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (LPWRI)—the Bill of Rights for Women in China. The technical assistance provided to Ford Foundation partners focuses specifically on the areas of gender equality in education and sexual harassment in schools and workplaces. The program further explores ways in which gender disaggregated data and social science methodologies can inform policy and legal change. Through it, similar laws in Asia will be explored and best practices on implementation of laws, especially in the areas of sexual harassment and equal protection, will be developed.

The program also provides technical assistance to the China Women’s University to strengthen the implementation of the prohibition against sexual harassment, and to broaden the law to cover sexual harassment in schools. The projected outcomes—better enforcement of the existing laws, progress made towards a future sexual harassment law, a better understanding of the implementation mechanisms in comparative laws, and an awareness of sexual harassment in schools—will be pursued via several strategies, including:

  • Sharing of laws from the Asia region on sexual harassment and model guidelines which deal with provisions and clear definitions of harassment;

  • Establishing a non-retaliation policy, including non disclosure of names;

  • Developing prevention procedures, training, education, and a policy publication;

  • Developing procedures for complaints, investigations, and remediation;

  • Providing guidelines on sexual harassment in schools.

An important aspect of this project is to equalize women’s participation in political action at the grassroots and national levels. Several stipulations in the LPWRI are guided by the CEDAW provisions on political participation and enshrine the need for temporary special measures to facilitate women’s equality in political participation. Through ongoing discussions among women’s groups and a needs assessment focusing on how to advance women’s political involvement, participants focus on barriers, cultural impediments, past failures at asserting gender concerns, campaign funding, the lack of training, and tokenism. The program is also focusing on the needs to engender political parties and other similar organizations, to promote awareness of electoral rules and regulations, and to strengthen access to health care, education, employment, ownership of property, and social welfare.

Participants will also learn how to collect gender disaggregated data on women in the political process. The CEDAW Committee and the UN Economic and Social Council have drawn attention to the need for such data collection in China as this can be utilized as an important advocacy tool and has been essential in law reform. It has also helped to uncover gaps in the area of policy reform.

Bailey and de Silva-de Alwis will continue to provide research support on issues central to their day-to-day projects. This includes research on women’s rights and human rights commissions in Asia and gender equality laws from the region. The materials on equality laws will cover both direct and indirect discrimination; access to vocational guidance and placement services; access to training and advancement; security of tenure of employment; remuneration of work of equal value; and a broad range of terms and conditions regarding work, training, and benefits.

“This program is designed in a way to respond quickly to emerging needs of women’s rights advocates and programs in China,” de Silva-de Alwis elaborates. “For example, the Honorable Judge Nancy Gertner, an adviser to the program, and I will be in Beijing for a workshop with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on gender bias in the legal profession and to work with the Women’s University in China to examine the CEDAW Committees’ recommendations to China’s 5th and 6th State Party Report to the CEDAW Committee. What is unique about this program is that we draw together an array of comparative and international perspectives to enrich lawmaking and advocacy. Our work is informed by a multiplicity of laws and best practices from different jurisdictions and not just the United States.”

Asia Regional Law Reform

The Ford Foundation is also funding the “Convene Asia Regional Law Reform Working Group and Train the Trainer Seminar” program at WCW. In 2005, de Silva-de Alwis conducted a mapping of the human rights movement in Asia for the Ford Foundation. Many human rights lawyers in the region reported that a trained pool of human rights lawyers would help advance their work. Through this new WCW program, a working group of cause lawyers and jurists from Asia will be convened this winter to examine the role that gender-based strategic litigation can play in advancing equality, non-discrimination, and the human rights agenda. This working group forms the regional focal point from which direction for the network will come. A “train the trainer” workshop will also emerge out of the group discussions. Subsequent training programs will be hosted by organizations in different parts of the region.

The well known Lawyers Collective in New Delhi, India will host the first working group meeting. There, participants will explore ways to establish a regional network of lawyers and jurists to ensure the justiciability of both civil and political rights and social, economic, and cultural rights; conduct training, as needed, on strategic litigation on women’s human rights; find common ground and determine best practices among the diverse legal systems; and build on the existing litigation efforts in the different countries in this region.

It is expected that through this project, trained lawyers and jurists will be more able and effective in helping individuals and organizations to elaborate and assess their legal options as well as to identify and mobilize litigation resources. These advocates will be encouraged to strategically pursue promising litigation while avoiding cases likely to fail; there will be more direct support and consultation to organizations that undertake litigation and the drafting of laws; and models for internationalizing litigation—including ways cases can be brought before international human rights mechanisms—will be explored.

“The Asian region faces severe constraints in achieving intra-regional exchanges of strategic lawyering skills among themselves. One reason for this is the lack of ready information about such issues,” says de Silva-de Alwis. “The Working group and training will help forge alliances and build networks to support national and local reformist projects for advocates across the region.”

Further developments on these and other international initiatives will be outlined in the 2007 Spring/Summer Research & Action Report.

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