Member Groups

The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

December 2001, vol. 7, no. 2

The aftermath of September 11th: recognizing women’s rights as an international issue

What role shall we play in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack? How do we struggle to not only find meaning after those events, but also work for the advancement of women's rights and an awareness of the plight of women internationally?

As the history of the women's movement has shown, women and men work in myriad ways to address women's issues, fight for women's rights and protest abuse and subjugation. The response to September 11 is no different, and yet the events and aftermath underscore that the struggle is indeed international and the United States is not immune but, to the contrary, must play a role in global women's and human rights. This article describes three international organizations that are helping to fulfill that role.

Women, Law & Development International

Women, Law & Development International (WLDI) is a women's human rights organization that was established in 1979 and became an independent organization in 1993. "Making Human Rights Work for Women" is the slogan that appears at the top of its web page, www.wld.org, followed by this explanation of its purpose: "In both industrialized and developing countries, women are more likely than men to live in poverty, endure low status within the family, be refugees, migrate in search of work, suffer from poor health and nutrition and be solely responsible for the maintenance and care of children. Even worse, women and girls are increasingly victims of state-sponsored or condoned violence and repression. Female infanticide, honor killings, acid attacks, female genital mutilation, widow abuse, sexual slavery and child marriage are still practiced in too many parts of the world. And mass rape has become a common terror tactic in ethnic cleansing campaigns."

WLDI works on a number of fronts in the global movement for women's rights, including organizing global and regional forums engaging women leaders worldwide; launching independent women's rights organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America; instigating ground-breaking participatory research projects on issues such as violence against women, legal literacy and economic rights; and disseminating practical strategy frameworks, "how-to" guides, case studies, fact sheets and other tools for advocacy.

WLDI-USA President Margaret Schuler has acted as a facilitator for the formation and growth of regional and international women's rights networks in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, for more than fifteen years. She has contributed to the theoretical and practical understanding of women's human rights as a lecturer, author and editor of WLD International publications. "Around the world, wherever human rights are violated, women and girls suffer the most," she says. Accordingly, WLDI focuses on law as a tool for women's empowerment and works toward improving the legal and political advocacy capacity of activists.

Schuler's description of WLDI's upcoming events and projects includes developing an international team of lawyers to train others in women's human rights advocacy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She also promotes a WLDI publication, Becoming an Advocate Step by Step: Women's Experiences in Central and Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States. This text, which is in its second edition, has been translated into more than a dozen languages and is now being used in law schools such as Georgetown and American Universities. WLDI is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Women in Black

Women in Black is an international peace network that uses peaceful demonstrations to protest war, rape as a tool of war, ethnic cleansing and abuses of human rights throughout the world. Supporters of the group stand silently at their demonstrations; they wear black to symbolically mourn for all victims of war and for the destruction of life.

In response to the September 11 attacks, Women in Black has been holding weekly silent vigils in front of the New York Public Library to remember those lost. In contrast to a cacophony of voices calling for war as a immediate response, Women in Black takes the controversial and unpopular position of calling on those in power to step back from war, bring those responsible to justice under international law and to resist vengeance. Not solely a women's issue, Women in Black notes that poverty and hunger, injustice and exploitation are to be addressed with strategies for an inclusive, just and equal global society.

Women in Black's statement has not gone unnoticed. Eight Danish and Norwegian parliamentarians (four women and four men) nominated the Israeli and the Serbian chapters of the group for the Nobel Peace Prize 2001. According to its Web site, www.womeninblack.net, Women in Black's vigils began in Israel in 1988 by women protesting Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. It has since expanded to the United States, England, Italy, Spain, Azerbaijan and Yugoslavia, where women in Belgrade have stood in weekly vigils since 1991 to protest war and the Serbian regimen's politics of nationalist aggression. Women in Black New York has been standing in solidarity with the women of Belgrade since 1993.

Amnesty International

The third organization, Amnesty International, is perhaps best known for its campaigns to free prisoners of conscience, gain fair trials for political prisoners, end torture, and abolish the death penalty throughout the world. Its agenda, however, also includes the promotion and defense of women's human rights.

In the United States, for example, Amnesty International seeks to persuade the government to ratify the United Nations Women's Convention, the most basic and important human rights treaty protecting women against discrimination and the forms of violence it engenders. Other ways that Amnesty International defends women's human rights include: mobilizing activists to protect women human rights defenders against imprisonment, torture, unfair trials, "disappearances," political killings and the death penalty; defending women and girls against violence resulting from gender-based discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation; holding governments accountable for preventing and punishing acts of gender-based violence perpetrated both by the state and by private actors; working to obtain political asylum for women fleeing persecution either by governments or by private individuals in cases where their government fails to protect them; and collaborating at the grassroots level with other human rights and national women's non-governmental organizations.

Do something now

As evidenced by the work of WLDI, Women in Black and Amnesty International, international women's human rights is not an esoteric or far-removed issue. These groups have worked to remind women nationally and internationally that women's rights are human rights and that the struggle for those rights occurs not only through the law but through activism and mobilization, education and protest, both written and demonstrative.

What follows is an issue you can address right now:

Sheila Dauer, the director of the women's human rights program for Amnesty International, USA, seeks immediate action on behalf of Digna Ochoa y Plácido, a leading human rights lawyer who was shot to death at her office in Mexico City, Mexico, on October 19, 2001. The killers left a death threat warning other human rights defenders that they could meet a similar fate.

A catalogue of threats and attacks preceded the killing of Digna Ochoa, who had worked for many years with the Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez" (PRODH), Human Rights Centre "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez" and had won international awards in recognition of her human rights work. In August 1999, Digna Ochoa was forced into a car in Mexico City by two unknown men and punched in the stomach. She was later released, but warned she would be killed if she reported the attack. In September 1999, PRODH received three separate letters containing death threats. Attached to one of the threats was one of Digna Ochoa's business cards, apparently stolen when she was abducted. In October 1999, three unidentified men entered Digna Ochoa's house, blindfolded her and interrogated her for several hours about members of the PRODH and members of armed opposition groups operating in Guerrero and Chiapas. The men tied Digna Ochoa to her bed and locked her in a room with an open gas canister. After they left, she managed to set herself free. The offices of the PRODH were broken into and searched that night. Another threat was left behind.

Amnesty International asserts that the investigation by the Offices of the Attorney General, which is responsible for all judicial investigations in Mexico, was unduly slow and cumbersome. Although the authorities provided police protection for Digna Ochoa and members of the PRODH, they failed in their responsibility to bring the perpetrators to justice and to send a clear message that such attacks on those who defend human rights would not be tolerated. Amnesty International believes that if the previous and current Mexican authorities had taken the appropriate action to ensure an exhaustive and independent investigation of these incidents, the killing of Digna Ochoa could have been averted.

Amnesty International is urging women lawyers in the United States to join in the protest of Digna Ochoa's death by writing to the President of Mexico and to the Offices of the Attorney General to:

* deplore the killing Digna Ochoa;

* insist that authorities initiate an exhaustive and independent investigation, taking all the necessary measures to ensure the preservation of vital evidence that could lead to the identification of those responsible for the killing of Digna Ochoa;

* express concern for the safety of members of the PRODH and human rights lawyers who worked with Digna Ochoa; and

* urge authorities to adopt measures to protect these human rights defenders; and

* inform authorities that the international community will be closely monitoring progress on the judicial investigation into the killing of Digna Ochoa to ensure that the investigation is conducted in accordance with principles stipulated in international human rights standards, to ensure those responsible are brought to justice, and that comprehensive steps are taken to end attacks and harassment of human rights defenders in Mexico.

President of the Republic Vicente Fox Quesada Presidente de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos Residencia Oficial de "Los Pinos"Col. San Miguel ChapultepecMéxico D.F., C.P. 11850, MÉXICOFax: +52 5522 4117 (confirm on tel. 5522 7600) / 5516 9537

Attorney General of the Republic General Rafael Marcial Macedo de la ConchaProcurador General de la Republica Procuraduría General de la República Reforma Norte esq.Violeta 75Col. Guerrero, Delegación Cuauhtémoc México D.F., C.P. 06300, MEXICO Fax:(+52 5) 346 0983 / 626 4419 / 346 0906 / 626 4426 / 346 2776

Attorney General of the Federal District Mtro. Bernardo Bátiz VázquezProcurador General del Distrito FederalGabriel Hernández # 56, 5º piso, col. Doctores,México D.F. 06720, MÉXICO Faxes: (+52 5) 345 5529