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International Women’s Human Rights: Writing about COVID-19 during the pandemic

April 02, 2020

Shuying Wen LLM’20 and Cassandra Dula L’21, two students in Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis’ International Women’s Human Rights (Law 900) class, share their experiences with virtual learning as well as insights from Wen’s paper on China’s COVID-19 response from a feminist lens.

For the international women’s human rights movement, 2020 is nothing short of a watershed year. Celebrating at once the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in the United States, the 75th anniversary of the formation of the United Nations, and the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, this year has afforded students a chance to gain a poignant perspective on the international women’s rights movement – both how far it has come and how far it has yet to go. The International Women’s Human Rights course at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, taught by Associate Dean Rangita de Silva de Alwis, has provided students with the unique opportunity to reflect on these anniversaries and the current state of women’s rights across the globe.

And unique feels like a particularly appropriate word for every aspect of this course. The class is comprised of students from around the world and across the broader University of Pennsylvania campus, including JD and international LLM candidates and students working toward degrees in social work. The format of the class also stands in stark contrast to the typical law school course, featuring one, if not more, speakers every week and using a mixed-media approach to tell the stories that serve as the foundation of the laws that we analyze. The classroom feels more like a community, and the goal of each session is, in equal parts, to discuss international feminist legal theory, to learn directly from international practitioners, and to share our stories with one another in order to remember what a critical juncture we are at in women’s history.

The final work product of the course is a research paper on a topic of the student’s choosing, the collection of which are typically presented to UN Women and the Office of the Legal Counsel in New York at the end of the semester. This year, we will present our research virtually to Dr. Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Summary or Arbitrary Executions and Special Adviser to the President of Columbia University, President Bollinger.

These papers serve as a chance for students not only to better understand the importance of the movements, legal theories, and legal history that they spent the semester discussing, but also to quite literally inform international policymakers. Students in this year’s class are pushing the boundaries of international women’s human rights research, looking at contemporary issues through unique lenses.

In her research paper, Wen focused on a particularly critical and timely issue: the COVID-19 outbreak in China through a feminist lens. Here, she talks about how the class shapes her work and helps with her research:

I wrote my seminar paper on addressing gender-based stereotypes in China during the COVID-19 crisis. I consider this paper not only a fruit of my study from this class, but also a witness of my personal development into a feminist.

Associate Dean Rangita’s class has given me a feminist perspective to see the world and has equipped me with the toolbox to do so. Just several months ago, I would not have defined myself as a feminist, probably because I didn’t know much about feminism or women’s human rights. Since the first class with Associate Dean Rangita, I started to feel the urge to advocate for women’s human rights. I started to follow news and social media accounts run by feminist individuals or organizations, and that is how I discovered the feminist perspectives during the COVID-19 crisis. I observed that on the Chinese internet, news about female medical workers often focus on their appearance or their role as wife, girlfriend, or mother, focusing on their great contribution through the lens of the woman’s family role, or how women sacrifice their appearance (for example, shaved their hair) to fight the virus. However, on the other hand, female medical workers’ biological needs, such as the need for menstruation products, were often ignored.

Associate Dean Rangita helped me shape my topic, and the class has focused on pertinent topics that inspire my research constantly. Having so much material on hand, I had difficulty organizing them into a cohesive topic. I talked with Dean Rangita and she greatly recognized the importance of the topic and encouraged me to write about gender stereotypes. Our class was focusing on gender-based stereotypes during that week and the class materials helped me set foot in the topic. During my writing, I was constantly inspired by new ideas coming through each week’s class. For example, our class on intersectionalities inspired me to investigate disability rights and children’s rights during the COVID-19 crisis. The class session on constitution-making allowed me to study constitutions of different countries and explore how to translate constitutional principles into law enforcement in China.

To me, one of the most important features of this class is that it is not only a class on feminism and women’s human rights, but also a class on the law. We are both passionate feminists and legal participants who know how to employ a legal perspective towards feminist issues. Associate Dean Rangita has always encouraged us to see ourselves as future policy makers, and to equip ourselves with the ability to do so. The tools and perspectives from the class that help me analyze the law are very beneficial to my paper as well as to my legal career.

Discussions with the Leadership of Microsoft

Fittingly, despite the challenges that COVID-19 has presented for university students (and everyone around the globe), students in the International Women’s Human Rights course have continued these important dialogues. Recently, the class had a discussion with Microsoft’s Steve Crown about the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool for data collection. This discussion fell on the same day that Microsoft published their official response to the first ever regulation of facial recognition technology — proving once more how pressing and contemporary issues in the course are.

During these weeks of virtual learning, Shalini Ganendra, Visiting Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford University and Honorable Moushira Khattab, Minister for Family and Population in Egypt joined the class remotely from across the world. These and the remaining guest speakers who will continue to virtually visit the class throughout the remainder of the semester, speak of the law students’ work as a testament to the perseverance of academic rigor and research at a time of global crisis.