Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Monday, March 20, 2006

Law experts examine women's rights around the world

George Washington University Law School--

Human rights law experts came to GWU Law School Thursday to discuss advancing women’s rights through countries’ legal systems, using Ethiopia, Taiwan, Pakistan and Kosovo as case studies.

The distinguished panel included Sarah Craven, Chief of the Washington office of the United Nations Population Fund; Hon. Hui-Fang Huang, a judge on the Taiwan High Court; Mazna Hussain, a Pakistani women’s rights activist; and Martina Vandenberg, a lawyer with Jenner and Block LLP and a former Human Rights Watch staff member. Susan Karamanian, the Associate Dean for International and Comparative Legal Studies at GWU, moderated.

Craven talked about the challenges of fulfilling the “visionary blueprint” of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, both of which she attended. During a recent trip to Ethiopia, Craven visited a region where half of all girls are forcibly married off by the age of 15, the vast majority of them to men they have never met. Although Ethiopia has declared 18 the minimum marriage age, there is no civil registration to keep track of births and marriages, making it impossible to enforce the law. In addition, there are three types of marriage in Ethiopia – civil, traditional, and religious – the latter two types do not enforce the minimum age requirement to marry. Craven says that “traditions are often stronger than the law.” In response, the UN Population fund has started girls’ clubs to empower adolescent girls in Ethiopia and to teach them their rights.

Judge Huang, a former sex crimes prosecutor, talked about the protections Taiwanese courts have set up for victims, and also the importance of having evidence in sexual assault cases in order to get a conviction. Huang herself experienced gender discrimination at work when she couldn’t get a promotion due to a one-month maternity leave she had taken. Her ongoing mission is to make sure that women get equal treatment under the law by demanding it.

Hussain told the story of Muhktar Mai, the Pakistani woman who was sentenced to be gang-raped by the local tribal council over false allegations against her brother. Mai gained international media attention after taking her case to court and becoming an activist for women’s rights within the legal system. Hussain says that Mai and women like her must deal with huge obstacles to justice, including a corrupt police force that is known to assault women, a biased court system and prosecutors who “don’t believe in rape,” and the possibility of being imprisoned themselves if they cannot prove the rape. Hussain said that increased media attention has raised public awareness of this atrocious legal system, which is important to fixing these fundamental flaws in how women are treated under the law.

Vandenberg talked about her work on Milosevic’s indictment and the great significance of establishing rape as a war crime. She was part of the Human Rights Watch team that interviewed rape victims, including one woman who was pregnant when she and many others were locked in a barn, gang-raped, and tortured one by one. Many of the other women were killed and thrown in a well by Serbian soldiers, but she was spared, and went on to give her testimony. Vandenberg said that witness protection remains a major problem in getting victims to testify against perpetrators. She added that the same things that happened in Kosovo are now taking place in Darfur, and that most women who experience such atrocities will never have access to justice or a court room.


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