Blog: Gender Equality
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November 16, 2020
Posted by Dana Walters
Since joining Harvard Law School, Salma Waheedi, a clinical instructor and lecturer on law in the International Human Rights Clinic, has devoted a major part of her teaching and clinical legal practice to training students to become effective international women’s rights advocates. A native of Bahrain and a U.S.-trained attorney with a background in constitutional and Islamic Law, Waheedi has led advocacy and social justice-oriented legal projects in partnership with women’s rights activists in Muslim communities. To change the lived experiences of women most acutely, Waheedi and her partners have focused on family law reform.
“Despite its huge impact on women’s lives, it’s an area that receives relatively little attention in human rights circles,” Waheedi said. “We are talking about a system of laws that govern all aspects of women’s private lives, including marriage, divorce, child custody, matrimonial property, inheritance, as well as freedom of movement and work and protection from violence.”
Advocating for family law reform in Muslim legal contexts presents a unique set of challenges and sensitivities. In the majority of Muslim legal systems, Shari’a—Islamic Law—is a part of the constitutional order and often forms the foundation of Muslim family laws. Many of these laws are based on interpretations that entrench gender-based discrimination and fail to protect women’s rights in the family sphere.
Waheedi’s practice focuses on lending legal support to women’s rights advocates working with their local communities, as well as international coalitions working to foster cross-regional collaborations. One key example is Musawah, a global movement advocating for justice and equality in the Muslim family. Musawah takes strong positions against child marriage, forced marriage, and polygamy and calls for equality in spousal rights, custody rights, access to divorce, and inheritance rights. It advocates for these changes through a holistic framework that integrates progressive Islamic legal interpretations, human rights principles, local constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination, and the lived experiences of Muslim women.
“Many current legal provisions are no longer tenable given the lived realities of Muslim women today,” Waheedi said. “Muslim feminist scholarship aims to create a paradigm shift by emphasizing the need to return to the core principles of the Quran, such as justice, equality, and dignity for all, as a basis for an alternative rights-based reading of Islamic legal sources that responds to the contemporary needs of the Muslim family.”
To help conceptualize current reforms and outdated laws, Musawah and Waheedi’s student teams have put together a comprehensive Muslim family law mapping project. The project is a resource for researchers and academics to look comparatively across 31 countries with Muslim majorities or minorities. Importantly, the initiative also outlines positive developments for women’s rights in the Muslim world, celebrating successes, as well as marking lessons for how to continue to advocate for change.Continue Reading…
November 4, 2020
The UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (IE SOGI) will convene an open consultation with State and non-State stakeholders to consolidate the mandate’s approaches and priorities for the remainder of the IE SOGI’s tenure. This consultation will serve as the main channel through which the IE SOGI will collect views and inputs to inform the preparation of his work plan for 2021-2023.
The consultation will start with a general segment during which the IE SOGI will introduce his draft work plan. Thereafter, participants will be invited to present their views and provide inputs to the discussion.
The online consultation will take place through the Zoom platform, on Friday, November 20 at 15:00 – 18:00 (CET) / 09:00 – 12:00 (EST). Registration is required to attend the meeting.
Guiding Questions for the Consultation:
The following questions may guide contributions from participants at the consultation:
Are the narratives of impact depicted in the document an adequate portrayal of the mandate’s added value?
Does the document include all necessary dimensions, principles and approaches necessary to ensure an intersectional, balanced and inclusive programme for the mandate?
Are the thematic priorities identified in the document duly reflective of the best added value by the mandate to all stakeholders in their work of addressing violence and discrimination based on SOGI?
As currently planned, are the activities and products an adequate response to the needs of stakeholders? Should different activities and products be considered?
The document includes certain commitments of interacting with global processes (v.g., Beijing + 20). Are there any other global, regional, or local processes the interaction with which should be included in the document as well?
The consultation will be open to States, UN agencies, programmes and funds, regional human rights mechanisms, National Human Rights Institutions, members of civil society organizations, academic institutions, corporate entities, and all other interested stakeholders. The consultation will be held in English.
October 29, 2020
UN Independent Expert Victor Madrigal-Borloz to provide public highlights from report to UN General Assembly
Please scroll down for translation into French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE SOGI), presented his report on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBT persons to the UN General Assembly on Oct. 29, 2020.
On November 10 in a public webinar, he will present key findings of his report and engage in further conversation with all interested stakeholders on how to respond and recover from the pandemic. The event will take place on Zoom and be livestreamed to the IE SOGI’s Facebook page.
Check the starting time in your region and register now to attend one of the sessions:
The events will also feature UN representatives as guest speakers. After the presentations, there will be a Q&A (questions and answers) session with the audience for which participants will be able to submit questions through the moderator during the event.
This year, humankind faces an unprecedented global challenge, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities prevalent in all regions of the world. Since March, the IE SOGI has conducted extensive research and consultations with over 1,000 individuals from more than 100 countries, which led to the conclusion that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on LGBT persons. During the event, he will present his key findings and discuss his recommendations to ensure that response and recovery from the pandemic adequately address the needs of LGBT persons, as we all aspire to build a better world.
You can download a summary of the report and the full report at the linked text below:
The mandate of the Independent Expert supports freedom of expression and opinion of the widest variety within a frame of mutual respect during its events. The mandate of the Independent Expert has a policy of zero tolerance for hate speech: a dedicated team will monitor comments and questions raised during the event. Hate speech will be filtered and participants responsible for it will be removed from the session.Continue Reading…
October 13, 2020
Building Momentum: IHRC and ASP Launch Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings
Posted by Zac Smith JD'21
Sexual violence is all too common in conflict and post-conflict settings, causing horrific physical and psychological damage and preventing peace building efforts. As recognized in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019), all individuals are at risk of sexual violence in conflict, and detention settings are a particular context of risk, especially for men and boys.
Taking up Resolution 2467’s call to increase international attention and coordination on the issue, the All Survivors Project and the International Human Rights Clinic partnered to author the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings. Drawing from existing sources of international law and authoritative guidance, the document’s ten principles and accompanying commentary outline the international community’s responsibility to prevent and respond to CRSV.
On Wednesday October 7, academic experts, policy makers, and diplomats came together at a virtual side event to the UN Human Rights Council to officially launch the Principles and highlight their significance. (Watch a recording of the event here.) Moderator Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs and Director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA School of Law, prefaced the conversation by underlining the driving motivation for the All Survivors Project’s work — including these principles — that “human rights protections must be afforded to all people, regardless of their individual characteristics.” Panelists included Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, who supervised the Clinic’s work on the project; HE Premila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict; Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and leader of a recently completed global study of children in detention; and Sophie Sutrich, Head of Addressing Sexual Violence for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The event began with opening remarks from representatives of three states that have championed CRSV prevention. Situating the place of the Principles in wider efforts to cultivate international peace and prosperity,Ambassador Jürg Lauber of Switzerland and Ambassador Peter C. Matt of Liechtenstein underlined their importance and timeliness. As Ambassador Lauber observed, “the Principles are clearly intended to be of practical use, as they contain specific recommendations for implementation.”Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith of Norway explained that “the physical hurt suffered from conflict related sexual violence does not discriminate between male and female victims.”She committed that CRSV prevention, including a focus on men and boys, would be a priority when Norway takes its seat as a non-permanent Security Council member in 2021.Continue Reading…
May 20, 2020
Posted by Jessica Sawadogo JD ’21
As researchers learn more about coronavirus and the way it impacts us all, they’ve revealed a few key differences along gendered lines. Slightly more women than men may be getting COVID-19, but more men are dying from the virus. Women, on the other hand, are more economically vulnerable from the financial fallout of the novel coronavirus. This difference takes on a new meaning as the world braces itself for an impending recession.
The New York Times’ bi-weekly newsletter on gender and society recently reported a sobering fact: that the economic fallout from the coronavirus will have a “disproportionate negative effect on women.” The newsletter examines the results of a study from researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, which found that the economic downturn will result in worse economic outcomes for women than for men and that the disparity from this crisis will be even worse than in previous recessions. The differences are attributed to women’s disproportionate representation in jobs that have been most affected by the global shutdown, like those in the restaurant and travel sector, for example. In addition, because women are often responsible for childcare, those who are able to work from home will see an increase in their overall workload with reduced availability for remunerated work.Continue Reading…
December 4, 2019
In the classroom, Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein JD ’04 encourages students to develop personal leadership styles
By Dana Walters
Susan Farbstein JD ’04, clinical professor of law and co-director of the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), stands with chalk in hand under a blackboard bearing the word “inspirational.” For the third session of “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” Farbstein has kicked off the discussion by asking students to identify qualities of effective leaders. Adjectives like “empathetic” and “selfless” are enthusiastically shouted across the room.
Throughout the conversation, students are outspoken about considering words like “nurturing”—often traditionally associated with women—along with words like “assertive” and “decisive”—characteristics traditionally coded as masculine, according to “What Makes a Leader?”, an article assigned for class that day. With Farbstein at the helm, the seminar aims to accomplish two goals: to explore the strategic considerations critical to protecting and promoting human rights across the globe, and to investigate the barriers that women face in professional settings, especially in the human rights field.
“The further along I’ve advanced in my profession, the more I’ve become aware of the ways that one’s identity can be both a huge benefit and a huge obstacle,” Farbstein said. Over a 15-year career, she has practiced and taught in the areas of transitional justice, accountability litigation, community lawyering, and economic, social, and cultural rights. Now after working her way into a leadership position at Harvard Law School, she is “trying to make a small intervention for a necessary discussion,” she says. “I want to create space for a conversation that I wish had been taking place more often when I was in law school.”
Alongside Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18 and current S.J.D. student Regina Larrea Maccise, Farbstein curated materials on women’s leadership and considered how this topic might be integrated into existing elements of an International Human Rights Clinic seminar, “Advanced Skills Training for Human Rights Advocacy.” Farbstein previously co-taught the class with Tyler Giannini, Human Rights Program and clinic co-director and clinical professor of law. Scenarios and readings in the seminar enable students to target entrenched, structural challenges—inequality, corporate power, climate change—as they prepare to enter the workplace after graduation. The seminar has changed frequently over the years, with students’ interests informing the direction of the class. Throughout, Farbstein and Giannini have always asked students to consider leadership and its interaction with identity.
Over the last year, however, Farbstein realized that she wanted to focus more deeply on the issue of women’s leadership. “It’s so clear from a variety of recent events and public conversations—around unconscious bias, the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings, the electability of a woman as president—that we’re struggling with how to achieve true gender parity in our society, including in the workplace,” said Farbstein. “I wanted to do something to respond to this particular moment by bringing those conversations very thoughtfully and intentionally into the classroom and into a field—human rights—where my students aspire to build their careers.”
For the third session of “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” Farbstein kicked off the discussion by asking students to identify qualities of effective leaders.
Farbstein worked with Gómez Upegui and Larrea Maccise to develop four new sessions for the advanced seminar. An introductory session frames the idea of women’s leadership using an intersectional lens, while later classes dissect themes like workplace culture, bias and stereotypes, harassment, and microaggressions within institutional and human rights contexts.
In the first of these four new sessions, Farbstein assigned readings that address the grim statistics around harassment, diversity, and bias. McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace review, for instance, describes how microaggressions impact a woman’s ability to function in the workplace, with 40 percent of black women surveyed indicating that colleagues routinely question their judgment in their areas of expertise. A Forbes piece on the widespread gender bias faced by female lawyers notes that male law firm partners earn 44 percent more than female partners and that women are more likely to be interrupted when speaking, including at the Supreme Court, where nearly 66 percent of all interruptions are directed at the three female justices.
“To be a working woman is always an act of rebellion,” said Fabiola Alvelais JD ’20 in response, reflecting on the ways the system simply fails to support professional women.
Beyond exposing the sheer scale of the problem, the statistics serve an additional purpose: They allow Farbstein to engage with her class’s needs and approach the material flexibly, depending on students’ comfort levels. “If they need to stay at a general and abstract level, the numbers are there for them to discuss and reflect on. And if they are comfortable going deeper, which they have been, it gives students who have experienced or encountered gender discrimination in some form the feeling that they’re not the only one out there,” Farbstein said. The statistics hold personal stories within them.
Farbstein’s classroom has a casual intimacy. In part, this is a result of the relaxed tone that she sets and the deep bonds that she develops with her students. The International Human Rights Clinic itself has a community-oriented spirit, and students in the advanced seminar have all spent at least one, and often several, prior semesters together, working on clinical teams or in introductory advocacy seminars.
Student Monica Sharma JD ’20 echoed many of the same words her classmates used to define good leadership when asked to describe Farbstein, in particular noting the way she actively listens to students and lets discussions evolve naturally. Sharma described the advanced seminar as unique, a place where one can formally “consider your power as a Harvard student or as a lawyer.” The discussion, while academic, is inclusive and comfortable, allowing students to draw on their own experiences as well as the readings.
“When you’re talking about ethics or morality, personal narrative comes into play,” Sharma said. “We like to dissociate the law from human experience in a lot of ways, but this class helps you to confront both as they exist in reality and in your work.”
Early in the semester, student Daniel Moubayed JD ’20 had already found it personally enriching to be brought into the conversation on women’s leadership. “Too often those conversations happen in informal environments. It’s critical that we’re doing this inside the classroom and in a professional setting with a cross section of students,” he said.
In her own teaching, Farbstein seamlessly integrates legal expertise with lived experience. She recognizes that students are not blank slates: they have histories and subjective perspectives that contribute to the debate.
“Part of being a good human rights practitioner is sometimes being vulnerable, drawing on your own life experiences without prejudging the experiences of others, and engaging with the emotions that people carry with them,” Farbstein said. She added, “It’s good practice for students to consider: what is your comfort level when you start to enter this kind of territory?”
For Gómez Upegui, the work she did with Farbstein demonstrated how endemic and culturally rooted the difficulties are, creating situations in which women are dispersed across organizations, lack support networks, and are isolated as they attempt to confront significant challenges.
Still, the breadth of research did not adequately address the marginalization Gómez Upegui, who is Colombian, has witnessed in the legal and human rights fields. “There’s a tremendous lack of intersectional content out there,” she said. “We found endless amounts of work in the business sector and much in the corporate law sector within a white feminist context. Once we narrowed to look at the human rights and social justice fields, the literature winnowed. And we had to fight to find research addressing the lives of women of color or women of low socioeconomic status.”
In addition to the seminar, Farbstein is leading a project in the clinic that investigates gender equity in the human rights field. The team aims to unpack the barriers women human rights advocates face in their professional advancement. Over the course of the year, they will interview a variety of practitioners to provide qualitative evidence to support their findings.
Sharma, who is also a member of Farbstein’s project team, said that engaging with the movement on a self-referential level was vital. She noted that the way lawyers jump to find remedies can often lead to institutional and systemic problems.
Reflecting on the larger importance of the clinical project, Sharma said, “Sometimes in human rights, there is an idea that you sacrifice yourself to the work. Things get lost in the drive to fulfill the mission. It’s important to take a good look and ask, ‘Do organizations practice as they preach?’ I really believe that if you make an atmosphere supportive and encourage diversity of thought, then the work itself will be better.”
The clinical team has already identified factors that may impede gender equity in the human rights field—from the tightly-knit network of practitioners and organizations, to the notion that this is already a progressive space, to a mission-driven “martyr” culture that fosters a sense of selfless dedication to the cause. These initial ideas have, in turn, found their way into the classroom as students consider such obstacles as well as potential strategies to overcome them.
Farbstein hopes that her seminar will help students imagine the kinds of leaders they want to become. “Human rights practitioners talk a lot about how to make the movement more effective and inclusive, but this class is a very concrete step in the right direction,” she said. “These students are each going to be leaders in their own way, and I can already see our conversations informing their decisions and actions. Hopefully they will be inspired, and also better equipped, to create more opportunities for women leaders in human rights, and in the legal profession more broadly.”
You can also read this piece on Harvard Law Today, published December 3rd, 2019.
March 29, 2019
Posted by Thomas Becker JD'08, Julia Wenck JD'20, and Fabiola Alvelais JD'20
For women, Bolivia is a land of paradoxes. The Bolivian government has enacted some of the world’s most progressive legislation to advance women’s rights. It was one of the first countries to criminalize femicide − the killing of women because they are women – and maintains strict protocols to combat gender violence. Yet despite these efforts, violence against women remains a pervasive problem. Bolivia’s femicide rate is the second highest in South America and one of the highest in the world.
In April 2018, Mujeres Creando, a Bolivian feminist collective, asked the International Human Rights Clinic to examine femicide in Bolivia. Throughout this academic year, clinical students Fabiola Alvelais JD ’20, Isabel Pitaro JD ’20, and Julia Wenck JD ’20 have worked on this issue under the supervision of Clinical Instructor Thomas Becker JD ’08, conducting extensive desk research and traveling to Bolivia to interview families of femicide victims, activists, and government officials involved in the investigation and adjudication of femicide cases.
Last Friday, the Clinic released its report, “ ‘No Justice for Me’: Femicide and Impunity in Bolivia.” Becker and Alvelais presented the report at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz. Family members of femicide victims, academics, and the former Human Rights Ombudsman of Bolivia (and current Chancellor of the University) participated in the presentation before an overflow crowd of roughly one thousand people.
“No Justice for Me” identifies three key areas that have hindered the government’s efforts to prevent femicide and hold perpetrators accountable: (1) investigative barriers, (2) judicial barriers, and (3) institutional discrimination. The report calls on actors in the Bolivian government and civil society to address these obstacles, adhere to the country’s own progressive legislation on femicide, and work together to address the pervasiveness of femicide and impunity in the country.
Helen Alvarez, whose daughter Andrea Aramayo was killed by her boyfriend in 2015, was interviewed for the report and remains concerned about the prevalence of femicide. “All women can be victims of femicide in Bolivia,” she noted. “Unfortunately, impunity sends a signal to men that they can get away with killing women.”
Though Alvarez recognizes that preventing femicide and holding perpetrators accountable will continue to be difficult, she is hopeful that the Clinic’s report can be a powerful tool in this struggle and ultimately bring her daughter’s case one step closer to justice.
The clinical team shared its report with the public, conducting dozens of radio, print, and television interviews. “I was genuinely moved by the widespread interest in battling femicide in Bolivia,” Alvelais reflected.
Becker and Alvelais also met with high level members of the Bolivian government, including the President of the Senate, the Vice-President of Congress, the President of the Justice Commission of Congress, and the Director General of the Plurinational Service for Women and Depatriarchalization, to discuss the report.
To Becker, these meetings signaled a sincere effort to confront the problem of femicide. “We had a unique opportunity to sit down with members of the government, who showed a genuine interest in collaborating to eradicate femicide in the country,” he explained. “We are optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful change.”
March 19, 2019
The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School seeks an experienced practitioner for a consultancy to support an exciting new women’s leadership initiative. The purpose of this new initiative is to innovate and experiment with programming and training that: (1) better prepares women graduates of our Clinic to become successful leaders in human rights, thereby increasing the share of leadership positions in human rights that are occupied by women, and (2) better prepares all graduates of our Clinic to engage with tough questions and conversations around gender, equity, and leadership in the workplace.
Although the Clinic has historically worked on numerous women’s rights issues, we have not grappled with how to best develop our own students into leaders who can advance workplace equity and improve workplace culture. This initiative will examine the role of women as leaders in the human rights movement to date—both their successes and challenges—and will also seek to build students’ leadership skills, support the Clinic as an environment that nurtures women’s achievement, and engage human rights organizations and institutions to better enable women to fulfill their potential. Continue Reading…
October 29, 2018
This month, the Musawah Movement for Equality in the Muslim Family submitted a thematic report to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee advocating for codification of family law provisions to protect the rights of Muslim women in Mauritius. International Human Rights Clinic students Samantha Lint JD’20 and Natalie McCauley JD’19 contributed to drafting the report and developing its legal recommendations, working in close collaboration with Mauritian attorney and family law expert, Narghis Bundhun.
As the report notes, a major cause of the lack of rights protection and inequality for Muslim women in Mauritius is the absence of a clear legal framework that protects rights in the context of religious marriages. The report highlights this legal ambiguity and key resulting inequalities that harm Muslim Mauritian women and in turn damage families, communities, and society as a whole. The report encourages the State of Mauritius to leverage its robust framework of diversity and inclusion to promote equality for Muslim women and take concrete steps to ensure all women in Mauritius enjoy full legal protection.
The report will be considered by the CEDAW Committee in its Constructive Dialogue with the Government of Mauritius. Today, Monday, October 29, the IHRC team has joined Musawah in Geneva, Switzerland, where the session and associated Committee briefings are now taking place. Tune in to the #CEDAW71 Constructive Dialogue starting tomorrow (10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. CET) and follow Musawah on Twitter for updates. Watch live at http://webtv.un.org/…/71st-session-committee-…/5723840293001.
February 21, 2018
Thursday, February 22, 2018
Russia’s “Gay Propaganda Law” and LGBTQ Rights
11:45 a.m.- 12:45 p.m.
Lunch will be served.
Please join us for a talk with Melissa Hooper, Director of Human Rights and Civil Society at Human Rights First, on Russia’s global efforts to promote “traditional values” that curtail the rights of LGBTQ people. This agenda is demonstrated in the “gay propaganda law” which penalizes those who share ideas about the equal value of same-sex relationships to children. In addition, Russia has advocated for U.N. resolutions, and supported legislatures in other countries to pass laws that favor “family values” over the human rights of LGBTQ, women, and others. This talk will also consider how U.S. actors are supporting Russia to advance these policies.
This event is co-sponsored by HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, and HLS Lambda.
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