equal rights amendment, gender, gender gaps, women in politics, Women's rights

equal means equal – right?

It’s been a good month for equality in the United States. The country celebrated transgender rights and threw Caitlyn Jenner the nicest coming out party ever. SCOTUS handed down a landmark decision to make gay marriage legal in all 50 states. And there’s a woman running for president.

Granted, transgender rights still have a long way to go – check out John Oliver’s segment on the issue. He really exposes the ways in which we currently view transgender people – most of us seem confused, and the rest want to ask them about their privates. Legally, they still have an uphill battle with many States viewing transgender identity as a lifestyle choice. and they still face higher rates of poverty, suicide and violence than the general public.

The gay movement is celebrating marriage equality and everyone is changing their Facebook profile photo. however, a moving piece by Darnell Moore exposes the ways in which the LGBTQ+ movement has failed to include him ‘under the rainbow’. he writes: ‘the “movement” might care about my queerness, but it certainly does not value my blackness’. this sentiment is one that the gay movement will have to address very soon if it wishes to stay true to its cause.

Historically, the feminist and gay movement have not always gotten on well. Feminists see the inclusion of gay women’s issues as a distraction from issues faced by all women regardless of their sexual orientation, and gay women see the feminist majority as trying to erase their experiences and unique challenges. The PBS documentary ‘Makers: Women Who Made America‘ takes a good look at the cost of this struggle. The schism has been so great that to this day you’ll find countries like Ireland, where gays can get married but women can’t get a legal abortion.

But here’s the thing –

Equality is for everybody. discrimination on the basis of sex or sexual orientation is unjust and it should be illegal. How those two have managed to be separated in the eyes of the public and of legislators is a question for another day. But for now I think the time is right for the feminist movement to reclaim this space and leverage the current public support for equal rights to fight for what we deserve.

rosie era

and thankfully – I’m not alone in my convictions.

On June 23rd, Meryl Streep sent five hundred and thirty-five letters to each and every Member of Congress urging them to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment stalled in 1982 as it was ratified by only 35 states, three states short of the 38 required to put it into the Constitution. The ERA has been introduced in Congress every year since, with little result. the ERA, together with much of the feminist movement, seemed stuck.

But the tide is turning. a new generation of feminists have taken up the call. a slew of girl’s empowerment campaigns have emerged, some led by civil society and some by large brands (#likeagirl, this girl can, Dove real beauty to name a few). they have both capitalized on the renewed feminist energy and also been instrumental in creating an added momentum. and with the wind of civil rights victories at our back, and a female presidential candidate with an outstanding record on advancing women’s rights at our lead, we might just make the ERA happen before I’m gray and old.

era

Jessica Neuwirth is the Founder and President of the ERA Coalition which is working to create a broad base of support for the ERA across America. ‘Equal Means Equal’ is a documentary produced by Patricia Arquette which takes a long hard look at the reality of women’s lives without the ERA and the personal cost to their freedom and civil liberties. Issues that have been getting more attention lately, from the pay gap and paid family leave, to domestic violence and trafficking, are all linked to the unequal treatment of women under the law and the continued discrimination they face in the United States in 2015.

I can only hope we have the courage to come together with the support of our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ+ community, and demand an end to discrimination against women with a constitutional guarantee.

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development, gender, girls rights, human rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Women aren’t human

According to Wikipedia, human rights are amongst other things ‘the common moral language of public discourse’. Yet, the idea that there’s a universally agreed code of morality is still hugely contested. anyone working in this field has inevitably been confronted with a situation where ‘local cultural norms’ conflict with a human right tenet. I recently gave a webinar on adolescent girls and ICT4D to students at Tulane University in New Orleans. One of the first questions was about reconciling cultural practices with human rights and I suppose they expected to hear something that run along the lines of ‘human rights cannot be negotiated & anyone who disagrees can take a hike’. If you’ve ever wandered the halls of the Human Rights Council in Geneva you might come across firm believers in this approach, which relies heavily on legislative frameworks. By that I mean that any country that has ratified a human rights convention must abide by the commitments included in that framework and also translate them into national laws and policies. and it’s true that legislation does play an important role in protecting women from harm.

If we take an historical view of the feminist movement in the US, it becomes clear that many of the domestic legislative reforms they advanced were absolutely crucial in supporting gender equality. Last week I watched the ‘Makers: Women Who Make America‘ a TV series on PBS which is narrated by the fabulous Geena Davis. It tells the story of the successes and failures of the women’s movement in the US and really explains how legislative landmarks like ‘Title 9’ and ‘Roe vs. Wade’ changed American women’s lives. One of the most shocking moments on the show is a photo that was published in Ms. magazine in which a woman (named Gerri Santoro) lies dead on the floor after trying to self-abort her unwanted child. This was the horrifying reality for many women who were left with little choice regarding their own reproductive health. Legalizing abortions through a Supreme Court decision was an undeniable game changer which to date has probably saved millions of women’s lives.

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

Now let’s add a gender perspective to human rights and complicate this even further. Prominent feminists have argued that human rights are based on the masculine experience as the generic human norm. For instance, take the preamble of the UDHR: ‘Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled…to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’. It’s not just the use of the term ‘man’ to denote all human forms, it’s also the masculine understanding of ‘protection’ that is solely the responsibility of ‘the law’ and therefore falls in the domain of ‘the state’.

This means that it is violations against men, such as torture and wrongful imprisonment, rather than violations against women, which are more often experienced in the private sphere, that remain the standard to which all rights are held. This also means that the protection of people from individuals and non-state actors is limited, since human rights are basically set up to protect folks from the government. Which means that ‘when abuse is sexual or intimate, especially when it’s sexual and inflicted by an intimate, it is gendered, hence not considered a human rights violation’ says Catherine Mackinnon. This androcentric premise of human rights inevitably casts the female body in the category of ‘other’ and implicitly define women as not human. This ensures that violations against women most often perpetrated by individuals, intimate partners and family members, in the private sphere (at home) cannot be effectively addressed through human rights frameworks. Even CEDAW does not collapse this classic dichotomy, and some would even argue, portrays women as victims and exceptions to the norm, which further eradicates their agency.

From a development perspective, all this means human rights don’t have the political sting needed to really advance gender justice. So our work becomes piecemeal. we spend a lot of time focusing on the means and there is a danger that we will forget the role of women and girl’s agency in translating our good intentions into real outcomes.

Keeping in mind that equality between the sexes is a political process helps put the role of human rights frameworks in perspective. It’s about power – who has it, who doesn’t – and the redistribution of power, which will make a lot of people unhappy. This means that where tradition, culture, norms and practices suddenly meet resistance by women, for women, on behalf of women, in the protection of women, there will be push back from those who have power and are really averse to giving any of it up. Where it looks like it’s human rights vs. culture, i suggest looking a little bit closer. More often than not, it will be patriarchal institutions and their representatives, resisting the more equal divide of resources, assets and choices.

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