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Students in “New Debates in International Women’s Rights” seminar present policy proposals to United Nations leadership

May 09, 2019

By Katherine Schroeder L’20

Few law school classes involve convenings at the UN. Even fewer give students a forum to discuss their policy proposals with UN leadership. Yet Penn Law students in Associate Dean for International Programs Rangita de Silva de Alwis’s seminar on “New Debates in International Women’s Rights” did just that when they convened at the United Nations on April 29 to present their research to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), UN Women, Office of Legal Affairs, and the newly appointed Office of the Secretary-General’s Victims’ Rights Advocate. The students had the opportunity to present to Under-Secretary-General and Legal Counsel Miguel de Serpa Soares and Assistant Secretary-General Jane Connors and other experts. For students eager to share a semester or more of research, this audience of key policy leaders was an inspiration.

The seminar brought in diverse students across multiple disciplines who all shared a central passion for women’s rights.

“It meant the world to me to be able to share my ideas with talented women who are at the forefront of the work that we’ve been talking about,” said Hannah Watson Fels MPA’19. “It also meant a lot to many of my close female relatives, who never went to university because higher education wasn’t seen as a thing that women should be doing. I was proud to represent them today.”

Watson was not alone in her deeply personal ties to women’s rights, which was a theme throughout many of the presentations. Farah Chalisa L’20 shared research on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which stemmed from the stories of women in her family who were victims of the practice. Sophia Gaulkin L’20 argued for sexual harassment policies that comply with international legal instruments to protect women in the maritime industry. Her work as one of the few women in the marine industry influenced her thesis. Doctoral candidate Christiana Kallon-Kelly GrEd’22, focused on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda’s Akayesu case, which for the first time defined sexual abuse as a crime against humanity to develop a stronger social movement theory based on legal doctrine. Makenzie Way L’20 discussed discrimination and violence faced by Native women in Canada, a project motivated by her experience growing up as a Native woman herself. 

Other presentations incorporated research from projects that extended beyond the seminar. Fumnanya Ekhator L’20’s arguments grew out of her research on Nigeria for the Identification for Development (“ID4D”) report to the World Bank, a project also supervised by de Silva de Alwis. The thesis of her research was that international law makers must partner with community stakeholders and gatekeepers in order to change minds and attitudes with the ultimate goal of reshaping culture. Fumnanya proposed that partnering with thought leaders to reshape thought and culture, using an itinerant education model, could be the solution that would lead to the eradication of FGM by increasing individual accountability.

Students also explored the power of international treaties and organizations. Brendan Holman L’20 studied how technological factors can aggravate gender-based violence against women and suggested ways the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women can serve as a valuable starting point given its stance that states employ regulatory authority to reign in corporations perpetrating human rights violations abroad. He argued that the apparent advantages of new technologies in the advancement of women’s rights should not blind policy makers to their potential consequences, as tools of change can just as easily be exploited as tools of violence. Katherine Schroeder L’20 presented on the ways that Russia and China have each embraced and fallen short of the goals outlined in the Beijing Platform of Action at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women. Her analysis revealed that while both countries struggle with action on the ground, Russia faced further barriers to adopting necessary legislation in areas including domestic violence protection. The theme of both progress and setbacks over the past 25 years encompassed many students’ projects.

By the end of their day at the UN, students returned to Penn with more than just new research avenues. The opportunity to present their ideas gave them motivation and drive to continue serving as champions of women’s rights, whether at large law firms or in the public sector.

“The seminar was transformative,” said Gaulkin. “It gave us all an enhanced critical lens through which to analyze the most pressing and complex issues of our time, which will be an integral part of our careers as leaders and policymakers.” 

Watson agreed. “I know that I will continue to engage with the ideas of the seminar throughout my career,” she said.

The students in de Silva de Alwis’s class do not want a world where women are paid less than men, FGM is prevalent, or sexual assault goes unaddressed. They left the seminar determined to continue to engage as global leaders to create a more equal world.