Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2009

Rangita de Silva-de Alwis, LL.M., S.J.D., director of International Human Rights Policy Programs at the Wellesley Centers for Women, reflects on ways the Universal Declaration of Human Rights informs the Centers’ newest international work.

What does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide for citizens of the world?
RD: We are marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and all that has grown from it—most especially the nine human rights treaties. The Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) are two of the most important progeny of the UDHR. They are also the two conventions that shape and define most of the human rights work that we are engaged in here at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW).

When I examine each of the human rights treaties in a holistic framework, I see the core values that interrelate and form the overarching themes of all of the human rights norms. These cornerstones are as follows: 1.) equality of all persons; 2.) participation—the participation of all persons including women, children, and persons with disabilities; 3.) indivisibility, which means all of these rights are equal, there is no hierarchy among rights; and lastly, accountability. These treaties can be used to hold accountable all duty bearers and stakeholders so that rights holders have a remedial cause of action. These values shape and transform our work here at WCW.

Not every country or community has the infrastructure or the resources they need to implement changes that reflect the treaties. How do you use these frameworks when you work with grassroots advocates to promote women’s human rights?

RD: We look at the treaties in a very strategic and operational way in order to actualize the rights at a concrete level. We first do a needs assessment in consultation with our partners on the ground—what are the most urgent pressing needs, what are the most vulnerable communities, what are the emerging new developments in law and policy, what are the opportunities and entry points for reform, what is the most compelling issue, and what, to some extent, is the issue that will have the most transformative impact?

As an example, the Asia Cause Lawyer Network (ACLN) was born out of the need for women human rights lawyers to come together and share strategies in order to strengthen not only their independent, individual work but also their collaborative action. What I found from the needs assessment is that we need a strong network of women’s human rights lawyers who can address women’s human rights in and outside of the court. This network augments their voices, scales up their work to a regional level, provides a clearinghouse of information and builds a platform for very cutting-edge work that they do individually and collaboratively on the domestic and regional level.

Can you tell us more about the Centers’ newest work on the rights of women, and children, with disabilities?

RD: Yes, the unique work of the ACLN; the Women and Children: the Human Rights Relationship in Asia program; and the China Gender and Law projects provided us with valuable incubators for some of our newest initiatives. For example, we have chosen two members of the ACLN network, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, the Forum for Women, Law, and Development in Nepal, and Mekea Strey in Cambodia, with whom we are exploring the intersections and the multiple grounds of discrimination against women with disabilities.

Together with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), we developed a resource tool, Disability Rights and Gender and Development. Portions of it have been translated into Nepalese, Cambodian, and Bangla, and the UNFPA and DESA have distributed the manual widely among different UN agencies and UN country offices.

This manual also served as an important resource for our recent, very exciting programs. In partnership with the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, WCW developed the first conference on implementing the CRPD in Bangladesh held in January. For the first time, this initiative rallies women, children, and disability rights groups together to focus on revising the current disability welfare law, to challenge discrimination based on multiple grounds of gender and disability, and to build common cause on reporting to human rights treaties on the status of women and children with disabilities. The conference was a tremendous success. High ranking government members including the Attorney General of Bangladesh and the Ministry of Social Welfare participated. The program and recommendations that grew from the conference created the impetus for the government to initiate the law revision process in compliance with the new treaty. Our partners are working with the government in leading the law revision process.

Immediately after the Bangladesh conference, WCW collaborated with the Forum for Women, Law, and Development—the premier women’s rights organization in Nepal—to mobilize the women’s, children’s, and disability rights movements at a conference there. The symposium brought together various representatives of Nepal’s new Constituent Assembly, including the Speaker of the Constituent Assembly, parliamentarians from different minority ethnic communities, and two parliamentarians with disabilities. A major result now is that the new Constitution includes disability as a prohibited ground of discrimination. And provisions in the Civil Code that discriminate against omen with disabilities, both on the grounds of gender and disability, will be challenged in court.

In May, we worked with Mekea Strey, an NGO fighting for women’s rights in Cambodia, and its titular head, Mu Sochua, the former head Minister of Women’s Affairs, to build a coalition similar to the ones in Bangladesh and Nepal. Here we aim to build momentum for both the passage of the disability law that was recently forwarded to parliament and the implementation of this law on behalf of women and children with disabilities. We are also developing guidelines and recommendations for the decrees and sub decrees that will flow from this law. We are also working on important recommendations that look at violence against women as both a cause and consequence of disability and disability as a determinant of poverty. In most of these countries the face of poverty is often that of a woman with disabilities.

What are the next steps to moving this newest human rights work forward?

RD: Our work at WCW aims to advance the local to the global. The goal is to scale up the domestic pilot projects to a regional program in India and then to inform the CEDAW, CRC, and CRPD treaty bodies to examine the recommendations made at the domestic and regional levels, and to analyze the interconnectedness and cross-cutting nature of the treaties, so that the treaty body recommendations can be animated by a bottom-up process. Next February we will publish a report on this new model and will work with our partners to distribute it in different regions of the world. Our goal is to adopt and replicate this model as a best practice.

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