This article was written by Blanche Helbling L’21, an alum of “International Women’s Human Rights,” taught by Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
Beginning on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 and lasting until Human Rights Day on December 10, the international community observes the 30th annual “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.”
In Part I, a panel of students in the class hailing from five different countries shared their insights on activism against gender-based violence.
In Part II, de Silva de Alwis, who advised on the drafting to the Afghan Elimination of Violence Against Women Law in 2009, engaged in conversation with devoted women’s rights leader and Member of the Parliament in Afghanistan Naheed Farid. On December 1, the UN voted against the recognition of a seat for the Taliban. This is a win for women’s rights.
The next generation of global leaders
In addition to sharing their insights on the most pressing gender- based violence issues in their home countries, each of the student leaders also highlighted opportunities for sustained activism.
Rith Tshimanga LLM’22, a Bengalese student of Congolese decent, shined a light on the violence women face in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Tshimanga explained that the profitability of natural resources in Congo functions as a driver of a violent war, which to date has cost the lives of over six million people. Moreover, the raping of women functions as a primary weapon in the war.
“What can I do? What can you do? What can we do?” Tshimanga asked. “As consumers of these smartphones, electric cars, and jewelry, we can at least start by collectively demanding that these products are manufactured with respect for human rights. Today, social media is a powerful tool … the next time you use your smartphone, which has a high human cost for manufacturing, go on social media and spread awareness.”
Noor Irshaidat L’23 explained that Jordan has historically seen the highest percentage of honor killings in the Middle East region, and though the practice still occurs, data show a significant drop in recent years. A recent revision of the criminal code heralds a new era of moving away from historic patriarchal norms in that men are no longer able to escape punishment by marrying a woman they have sexually assaulted.
“What the community is trying to do now is to appoint women as rights activists, as ministers, as criminal prosecutors, as ambassadors, and as judges, but also to raise awareness and influence policy through involving the youth through competitions that aim to increase visibility on these topics and also to come up with ways and data to develop an economic argument,” Irshaidat said.
Shuxin Fang LLM’22 spoke about the complicated implications of China’s one-child policy, which deprived women of their reproductive rights and, due to the patriarchal pressures to have a son, brought about a rise in sex-selective abortions and infanticides; however, the policy also had some positive impacts on women’s leadership in China.
“It liberated women from continuous childbearing under traditional fertility culture, and thus it promoted the work participation, and provides women like me, a single child, with unprecedented resources, support from their family, and high aspirations,” Fang said. “However, we have to still remind ourselves of the atrocities and gender violence perpetrated in the course of this policy, and we have to take caution of the potential abuse of state power over women’s bodily autonomy.”
Juni Solbraekke LLM’22’s home country of Norway is ranked #2 globally for gender equality, but Solbraekke noted that, in a national survey, about 10% of Norwegian women — including about 50% of Indigenous Sami women — reported experiencing domestic violence. For Solbraekke, one of the most frustrating parts of fighting domestic violence in Norway is the lack of holistic solutions for women who face a complicated mix of financial, medical, and social abuses; fortunately, new legislation appears to be working in a promising direction.
“What should we do as Norwegian feminists?” Solbraekke asked. “We still need to be there and to raise awareness of these problems. Norway still needs to clear up its own internal mess, but … Norway, as a part of the Security Council now, is doing a lot to push the role of women, peace, and security. Norway is doing a lot of work, so we’re proud of that, but we still have a long way to go before we’re satisfied.”
Lastly, Carolina Brandão LLM’22 paid homage to the efforts of Maria de Penha, whose bravery and tireless activism resulted in Brazil’s Maria de Penha law — a monumental piece of legislation that seeks to both prevent and prosecute domestic violence throughout the country. On the law’s 15th anniversary, Brandão noted that work is far from finished, especially as data show that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in dramatically elevated levels of domestic violence in Brazil.
“We should be aware that education is the best way to tackle this issue. This is why we have to start talking about this problem at universities and in our work environments, because this is a problem for everyone,” Brandão said. “Everyone should be responsible for helping those women, especially we, as lawyers.”
Naheed Farid on the urgency of women’s rights in Afghanistan
In the second half of the event, Member of the Afghan Parliament and Chairperson of its Standing Commission for Human Rights, Civil Society, and Women’s Affairs Naheed Farid engaged in conversation with de Silva de Alwis via Zoom about the volatile status of women’s rights and protections in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country’s government in August.
Farid has spent her career advocating for the rights of Afghan women and girls and has worked on several legislative reforms for gender equality. During the event, she spoke with strength and conviction, modeling courageous leadership at an exceedingly difficult time.
“We see you in the forefront of building Afghanistan’s future, one woman at a time,” de Silva de Alwis said, introducing Farid.
Though the Taliban has made several promises assuring the continued safety and freedom of women and girls, these promises have not been reflected in the Taliban’s actions. Many women leaders, including Farid, have fled Afghanistan due to a fear that they would face violence if they remained in the country; moreover, many women and girls have been barred from obtaining educations.
“Last year, we celebrated these 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, but this year, I see a complete erosion of what we built all together as women in Afghanistan,” Farid said.
Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, the Afghan government had made the bold move of recognizing education bans as a form of economic and psychological violence against women. Farid reflected that she was proud of the past successes of Afghan women’s rights activists.
“I’m so proud of the outcome of all of the struggles that we’ve had. To have the law, the Elimination of Violence against Women, as a very rich law that can protect women’s public appearance, public activities, social activities, education, access to their basic rights and women’s rights to choose your life partner, to have the ability to vote and nominate herself — all these rights have been here as a directory of the rights of human beings, and I’m so proud of that,” Farid said.
Under Taliban rule, the laws protecting and empowering Afghan women have dissolved and what we see is what Farid called “gender apartheid.”
“These laws are not in place right now. They have been replaced or vanished,” Farid said. “There is no court. There is no representative body. There is not any sort of institution. There is not any sort of parliament, so the Taliban regime set their own rules in accordance with the personal and ideological beliefs and their own interpretation and perception and their own leadership, and that’s a big problem.”
Recognizing the harrowing situation that women and girls in Afghanistan face, de Silva de Alwis underscored the importance of unity in the movement for international women’s rights.
“We are still very hopeful that the women of Afghanistan are going to lead Afghanistan back to where it was, and taking back their freedom,” de Silva de Alwis told Farid. “My students, who are the next generation of leaders, in their different capacities, whether they join the government, the State Department, the Department of Justice, or international multilaterals, will never forget the women of Afghanistan. Their struggles are our struggles, and you have taught women what it means to be a leader in politics at the forefront of change.”