Research & Action Report, Fall/Winter 2011
Interview by Susan Lowry Rardin

A lawyer armed with the law in the form of three UN Human Rights Conventions, Rangita de Silva-de Alwis, S.J.D. seeks to amplify women’s efforts on behalf of equality and justice. One of her recent leadership events, organized with Morocco’s Ministry of the Interior, was the “Rabat Roundtable: Women Leading Change in the Arab and Muslim World,” which was held late in the 2011 Arab Spring and involved women leaders from the Middle East/North Africa region. Her strategies, which focus especially on Asia and the Muslim/Arab communities, feature the building of networks of women’s organizations and the linking of interest groups—especially through the power of those international human rights Conventions, as she describes in this interview.

Why are these three UN human rights treaties or conventions—CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD—so important in all your international work?

They have great resonance in the work we do globally because of the universalizing nature of the human rights discourse and the way in which these Conventions hold the State accountable to women’s and children’s rights. Because of the obligations enshrined in these Conventions, human rights protections are no longer left to the charity or good will of governments or institutions; governments can be held accountable under these treaty obligations and women have recourse to justice if these rights are violated. That is critical to the empowerment of women. On the other hand, these Conventions are imperfect in the sense that they lack teeth to monitor implementation. That is why women’s networks at local, national, and international levels play such an important role as watchdogs to monitor these rights and to demand compliance by the State.

How do you work with these treaties?

First, the Conventions are powerful tools for mobilizing and galvanizing different constituencies and bringing them together on a universally accepted paradigm on rights. The rhetoric of rights provides an organizing tool to build alliances among disparate groups and build common cause around shared goals. In fact, we can often broaden the boundaries of these networks by “mining” the intersections of the three Conventions, showcasing how they overlap and mutually reinforce. For example, the rights of women with disabilities are almost always tied to the status of women. Bringing women’s-rights groups, children’s-rights groups, and disability-rights organizations under one umbrella, in one democratic space to discuss these issues, in itself, has enormous potential to change thinking, cross-fertilize strategies, and build common cause on these issues.

The second way is to take advantage of the Conventions’ powerful potential to inform legislation on the rights of women and children. The CEDAW, also known as the international bill of rights for women, is a standard-setting document that can be used as a blue print by our partners on the ground—governments, NGOs, academic institutions—that are involved either in revising existing laws or drafting new laws. To assist them, we supply technical resources that include the jurisprudence developed by the UN committees that oversee compliance with the treaties—that is, concrete UN recommendations for how countries should translate the guarantees into action—as well as comparative laws that have been enacted in other countries. Our partnerships and shared learning develop insights into the domestic application of international human rights norms and the need for domestic compliance with such norms.

Here’s an example of how these resources can be guiding principles. In China, acting in partnership with and under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, we have helped support networks. One organization is the Women’s Watch, a group that monitors the status of women’s rights. A second is the Gender and the Law Expert Group, a strategic roundtable that meets twice a year to share ideas, strategies, and new developments in law, policy, and practice. Our technical assistance and collaboration help share with these partners both the UN’s international human rights guarantees and a landscape of comparative laws from other countries to influence the drafting or revising of laws on behalf of women, in various areas: domestic violence, unequal retirement practices, sexual harassment, labor law, work/family reconciliation policies, and China’s Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests. Studying comparative laws gives partners the opportunity to choose which features have the most resonance and can be contextualized in their own legal systems and political and social cultures.

The third way we work to transform the human rights Conventions into action is by invoking them in litigation. Some of the partners we work with are challenging the inequalities and women’s rights violations women experience. And wherever there are gaps in the national laws, or the national law is narrowly interpreted, the human rights norms become a persuasive force to use as interpretive tools in filling in the gaps or expanding the interpretation of laws.

So we have developed a compendium of cases from around the world that have used these norms in litigation on behalf of all women, including women with disabilities. The cases become an important tool for our partners. For example, we’ve partnered with the premier women’s rights organizations in Bangladesh and Nepal when they went before the highest courts in their countries to ask for directives ensuring that the laws affecting women with disabilities comply with CEDAW and CRPD. These women lawyers argued, “The state is not fulfilling its guarantees under these Conventions in the way in which it is implementing these laws.” In Bangladesh, the Supreme Court then directed the government to implement the law on persons with disabilities in the spirit of the CEDAW and CRPD. To our knowledge, this was the first time that both the CEDAW and CRPD were invoked together in a court anywhere in the world.

These are also examples of how our work builds on the intersections of these treaties and further illustrates how the treaties are interdependent and inextricably connected. This analysis helps to bring different human rights constituencies and organizations together. In Nepal, at a forum we organized, a woman with physical disabilities said, “I cannot give birth because, when I go to a government hospital, there are no birthing rooms, or the only birthing rooms are those that require you to squat to give birth. Therefore, if I were ever to get pregnant, I would be forced to have an abortion.”

So in 2009, our partner, the Forum for Women, Law, and Development, filed a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court of Nepal asking that directives be made guaranteeing the reproductive rights of women with disabilities. The relief that was requested addressed the whole panoply of reproductive rights and reflected the overlapping and mutually reinforcing nature of rights—for example, that programs be created in schools addressing violence against women with disabilities and the reproductive rights of such women; that sensitization programs be developed directed towards doctors and nurses in hospitals who deal with women with disabilities; and that disability-friendly facilities in hospitals, such as low beds, accessible toilets, and disability-friendly labor rooms, be provided. What you can see from this case is that women with disabilities are discriminated because of their gender and their disability status.

Finally, the fourth way we use the three Conventions involves their reporting requirements. The committee overseeing compliance with each Convention requires that each nation submit periodic reports. The committee then reviews each report and responds with constructive guidelines about how the nation can further translate the Convention’s norms into action. We assist academic institutions and/or coalitions to develop shadow reports or, as in Bulgaria recently, meet with the foreign ministry to discuss the government report.

Can you give us an example in which all three human rights areas overlap?

Here’s one that poignantly illustrates the need to look through all three lenses—the women’s rights, children’s rights, and disability lenses. As part of its monitoring function, the CEDAW has an individual complaint process that allows a person who has exhausted all of the national remedies available to her to submit a complaint to the CEDAW Committee. In the case of A.T. v. the State of Hungary, which came before the CEDAW Committee, Mrs. A.T., who has a child with severe disabilities, was a victim of horrific violence by her husband, who had threatened to kill her and the children and had sexually abused the children. But she could not leave the site of violence because there were no shelters in Hungary that were accessible to a child with disabilities. Reviewing her complaint, the CEDAW Committee asked Hungary to set up shelters that were disability-friendly. This was a real break-through, not just for women in Hungary but for all women and children across the world.

So you see how these human rights treaties can amplify women’s voices. Without a guarantee that says, “you have a right to security, you have the right to self determination,” how do you assert such a claim? A right guarantee places a corresponding obligation on the State to provide remedies if the right is violated. You’re not a hostage to charity. You are making an argument based on your human right to live free from violence and discrimination.

Say more about your work with the Ford Foundation in China. Given the differences between political systems, how is WCW received there?

Our legitimacy lies in the trust we have built with partners. The partners drive the agenda, and our comparative approach to law and policy helps them find the answers that can be best adapted to context, always keeping in mind that there are some core guarantees that are non-negotiable.

Do you get any response from the government?

Women human rights defenders are under threat. That is why both internal and international networks are so important. They provide safeguards and platforms for joint action. But sometimes this can backfire. That is why it is important for international networks to take the lead from the partners on the ground. Guo Jian Mei, our partner in China, is a leading women’s rights lawyer and a close friend of Secretary Clinton. She tells me that this is pivotal moral support as well as a real protection for her.

Do the women you work with in China feel that they can work with the government?

There’s an interesting duality in the way some of the women’s rights groups operate in China. We work closely with the All-China Women’s Federation, the mass women’s umbrella organization in China, which is a quasi-governmental agency. It is not truly independent from the state. But over time it has become much more autonomous and now is the voice of grassroots women. Even from within the government, you can be the agent of change.

Let’s get back to the intersections of treaties. What about the overlap of children’s rights with women’s rights?

In very real ways women’s lives are intertwined with children’s rights. The recent World Development Report from the World Bank confirms that gender equality is smart economics. It demonstrates that in Pakistan, children whose mothers have even one year of education spend one extra hour studying at home every day and report higher test scores, and that in Bangladesh, women with greater control over health care and household purchases have better nutrition. The data is now very clear that women’s agency is a determinant of a child’s wellbeing.

And the rights of the girl-child around the globe are inextricably intertwined with the rights of women. Look at rights violations against the girl-child—sex-selective abortion, abandonment of the girl child, discriminatory feeding practices, discriminatory schooling practices, forced marriage, child marriage, kitchen accidents, stove accidents, acid throwing, and honor crimes. All of those crimes where the girl-child is sacrificed at the altar of the family, those are heinous women’s rights violations.

When you speak of kitchen and stove accidents, are you implying that these may not be real accidents?

Yes, they’re often staged accidents. But when a girl or woman dies of burns in the kitchen, it’s very difficult to prove that this was done willfully. Often, when a woman’s family has been recalcitrant in paying her dowry, a murder takes place in the guise of a kitchen accident. Women are doused in kerosene and burned, and the police are told it’s a kitchen accident, that her sari caught fire. It’s common in South Asia.

In terms of domestic violence and other rights abuses against women, are there mAjor differenCes between your main areas of focus, Asia and the Muslim/ Arab communities?

There are some differences, but lots of commonalities. In fact, the challenges that women face are universal. There are honor crimes in South Asia and in the Arab and North African regions, and also in Latin America, where a husband has a defense to murder in flagrante delicto if he finds his wife in a sexual liaison with another man. Because communities are mobile and there are lots of border crossings, immigrant communities in Europe are also resorting to the so-called family honor as a defense to murder women. In every country in the world, including in the United States, women face violence from intimate partners because of failure of law enforcement to respond. A hallmark is that 187 countries have ratified the CEDAW, and that provides a common vernacular to talk about violence and discrimination against women.

Has the U.S. ratified the CEDAW?

The U.S. is a glaring exception. The CEDAW is the progeny of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights conceived by Eleanor Roosevelt. When First Lady Hillary Clinton reclaimed women’s rights as human rights in Beijing on that historic day in 2005, the world stood still and the international women’s movement was revitalized. Yet the U.S. has failed to keep the promises of Eleanor Roosevelt and has abdicated its responsibility to the international women’s movement. I hope that lessons learned from our international partners can help to hasten the day of the United States’ ratification of the CEDAW.

Are there other positive opportunities for women’s rights?

When I think of the challenges that women face, I also think of the opportunities they can seize. One of the most exciting developments is a feminist interpretation of the Sharia law, which is seeking to reclaim it from a patriarchal perspective. These women are unearthing a more egalitarian voice that is embedded in the Sharia, a voice that is women-friendly. For a long time, Sharia laws like other laws have been interpreted in a male voice and in the image of a male. In Indonesia, our partner Dr. Siti Mushda Mulia is the architect of what is called the Counter-Legal Draft, an alternative legal draft to the family law in Indonesia. She has examined the Sharia law and reinterpreted its implications for family law in a way that is progressive and contextualized. For example, she says that marriage must once again be interpreted as a marriage between the spouses, as two equal adults—not as a partnership between the bride’s guardian and the husband. Her interpretation also allows a woman the autonomy to decide whether to marry, when to marry, and whom to marry. It also gives her equal rights to inheritance and property.

What is so powerful is that these women are not working against the religion, they’re working with it. Dr. Moushira Khattab, the former minister for family and population in Egypt and one of our close partners, helped to revise the children’s law in Egypt in compliance with the CEDAW and the CRC, outlawing child marriage and female genital mutilation. She met with the mullahs and said, “Female genital mutilation (FGM) has no Islamic underpinnings. In fact, it is antithetical to Islam, because Islam mandates, ‘Do no harm to yourself, to your body.’” Framing it in those terms helped Khattab harness the support of the mullahs, and that was critical.

Recently you were in Morocco, helping to lead the Rabat Roundtable of women leaders from Muslim/Arab countries. Say a word About that and your view of the Arab Spring.

The Rabat Roundtable was one of the first initiatives post-revolution in Egypt—a chance for Arab and Muslim women to meet and strategize on combating the challenges they were encountering, and to build common cause on how women can lead change during this exciting moment of political transformation. There was a sense of euphoria and exhilaration that women were such a pivotal part of the changes sweeping the Arab world, but also fear that women’s voices might be muffled during an era of transitional justice. And that has proved to be a real threat. Now there’s fear that some gains made before the Arab Spring, like Egypt’s outlawing of female genital mutilation, might be revoked or eroded.

How do women resist the roll-back of the gains and sustain the egalitarian spirit of the Arab Spring to ensure women’s equality under law? That was the central question that animated the conversations in Rabat. How do we mine the opportunities it has provided, to ensure that women are at the negotiating table, women are in the law- and constitution-drafting processes? In Egypt, there wasn’t a single woman on the constitutional commission when they started drafting the constitution in the spring, and now they have rescheduled that process.

But political transitions provide a unique opportunity to address issues of gender justice. Tunisia recast its election laws to promulgate the historic parity law to ensure that 50 percent of its parliament would be women. The gender equality guarantee is at the very heart of the new Moroccan Constitution. The women’s franchise in Saudi Arabia is a lightning rod for other changes to follow. These are transformative moments that will have ripple effects on all women, not just those in the Middle East/North Africa region. So, how do we seize this moment of global transformation to galvanize women’s critical leadership role in peace building, conflict resolution, and transitional justice, not just in the Middle East/North Africa region but all over? This is really the next frontier of our work.