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Volume 10, No. 2
December 1996



An American joke goes: "the possible we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." Editing Women's Watch is always a journey through the difficult to the possible, and on to what seemed, not too long ago, impossible. This issue includes a significant number of items that can be characterized as having moved from the difficult to the possible-because they are about the interplay of culture and law, which is always difficult but full of possibility. Generations of women and men have worked to change laws to improve women's lives, usually challenging culture and the expectations of both sexes. They consistently find that, at the end of the day, law is not enough, but it makes everything possible.

It is easy to discount the power of the law and to become discouraged at the slow pace of change. Countless cases of violence against women are documented despite comprehensive laws in many countries. Sex discrimination in employment-from wage inequity to brutal harassment-continues despite laws against it. Constitutions guarantee equality before the law but inequality persists.

But the laws against domestic violence provide a vehicle for at least some women to confront their partners and change or escape the situation, and the issues are being stated with a clarity that was unknown twenty years ago, before domestic violence laws existed anywhere in the world. Laws against female genital mutilation, where enforced, give pause to those who would claim that FGM is culturally inescapable, and can result in fewer girls being mutilated.

An employment discrimination case recently decided in Japan-the first it its history-could not have been brought if there were no law to support it. While the victory seemingly took forever (the case was brought in 1987), it establishes an acknowledgment of discrimination from which there is no going back. In fact, the government has recognized that the current discrimination law is inadequate and suggested improvements that could not have been proposed ten years ago when the law was enacted.

The constitutional right to equal protection of the law is the foundation of countless successful cases, including Unity Dow's nationality case in Botswana and Sara Longwe's case on women's access to public spaces in Zambia. In both places the culture remains conservative and every bit of progress must be fought for-even to the point of suing again, as may happen in Zambia-but without the legally stated right, no case could be made at all, and women would remain trapped by culture.

Law sometimes is ahead of culture and can be extremely difficult to enforce when that is so. But culture can be dragged into the present when people use the law. The International Women's Rights Action Watch is currently undertaking a study of affirmative action to eliminate the effects of sex discrimination. Affirmative action-referred to in CEDAW Convention Article 4 as "temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between women and men"-can only be established in a context in which law and policy provide for elimination of discrimination. It is the logical, practical next step after enactment of law. It is a legally sanctioned method of dragging culture into the present. And it was impossible until the law, in the hands of a few creative judges and legislators, made it possible.

Affirmative action programs have been developed in a number of countries in the areas of employment, education, and political participation. In many places they are so new that no reasonable attempt can be made to measure results. Where affirmative action has been in place for many years, as in the US, useful measures of results are rare but reactions and opinions are all too easy to come by. Indeed, the vehemence of the reaction may be the best measure of affirmative action's success in making possible what seemed impossible less than a generation ago.

HUMAN RIGHTS AND DISCRIMINATION - Convention Articles 2 and 3

Thirteen women employed at the US Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas have brought a class-action sex discrimination suit against the Army, claiming they were passed over for promotions, fondled and subjected to crude sexual remarks. The women-all of them current or former civilian employees-complained of years of sexual harassment and discrimination by military and civilian officials. They had complained individually in the past to supervisors, military officials and the Army's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. The complaints precede recent charges of sexual harassment and rape at the Aberdeen, Maryland, Army training base. The US Army is currently undergoing massive scrutiny, with charges of sexual harassment and rape surfacing at a number of bases throughout the US.

The UN and its specialized agencies offer mixed response to blatant abuses of women's human rights in Afghanistan. After Taliban turned Kabul into the world's largest prison for women, UN Secretary General Boutros-Ghali issued a statement in October, 1996, threatening withdrawal of UN aid unless the government abides by the guarantees of equality stated in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The statement was underscored in a UN document issued October 31. This is the first time the UN had so unequivocally conditioned aid on observance of human rights, and particularly the human rights of women. A Monitoring Committee consisting of UN, NGO and donor representatives was established, empowered to review international assistance negotiations to ensure the rights of female staff and aid beneficiaries. However, in the annual consolidated appeal for international aid to Afghanistan issued by UNOCHA and UNDP in late 1996, no reference is made to the monitoring of women's rights in the aid process. It is essential that all donors insist that aid distribution and program implementation in Afghanistan include reference to the UN's own gender equality mandate. Citizens of donor countries may contact their own international aid agency to inquire about this. For information and notes of concern directly to the UN: Secretary General Kofi Annan, fax (212) 963-4879; Assistant Secretary General Rosario Green, fax (212) 963-5964; Elizabeth Langdon, UNOCHA, fax (212) 963-9489.

In direct contravention of a court ruling, a major hotel in Lusaka, Zambia, prevents unaccompanied women from entering the hotel's public spaces. In November 1996 Elizabeth Mwanza was told by a security guard at the Holiday Inn that she could not enter the hotel because she was unaccompanied by a man. In 1992 Sara Longwe won a suit against the Lusaka Inter-Continental Hotel, invalidating the same policy at that hotel on grounds of sex discrimination as prohibited by the Constitution and the CEDAW Convention. Mwanza plans to sue the Holiday Inn. Meanwhile, since Zambia became a multiparty state, the Constitution has been amended to narrow protection against sex discrimination and, although more women than in the past ran for election to Parliament, only eleven won (out of 150 seats) in the November 18 elections.

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN - Convention Articles 3, 5, 6, 12, 15 and 16

A new US immigration law criminalizes female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced in the United States. The 1996 amendment to the US Immigration and Naturalization Act outlaws the performance of FGM on girls under 18. The law notes that "such mutilation infringes upon the guarantees of rights secured by Federal and State law, both statutory and constitutional." Penalties are fines and/or imprisonment of up to five years. Exceptions are made for cases in which genital surgery, performed by a physician, is necessary to protect a young woman's health and for surgical procedures related to childbirth. The measure also orders the Immigration and Naturalization Service to provide information to any visa-holder arriving from a country where FGM is widely practiced detailing both the harmful physical and psychological effects of FGM and the penalties for performing FGM or allowing a child under one's care to undergo mutilation. The new policies take effect in April 1997.

According to news reports, immigrant and refugee families from countries in which FGM is practiced are struggling with the new law. Some parents interviewed by journalists have indicated that they will take their daughters out of the country to have them mutilated according to custom. Others indicate that it is time the practice ends so their daughters do not suffer as they have. Caseworkers, doctors, and government lawyers are still coming to grips with FGM as a violation of federal law, reluctant to take action that may have a harsh impact on families already under stress. But the law does not provide any exception for persons who did not know of it or for a defense based on cultural practice. The only way the tradition of mutilating girls will be altered is by consistent efforts at education and, when necessary, legal intervention.

Scholars and social workers say wife-beating remains an integral part of life in many Korean homes. In one recent survey, forty-two percent of South Korean women said they had been beaten by their husbands at least once. "Women should be beaten at least once every three days," declares an old saying in loose translation. Eleven shelters for battered wives have been set up around South Korea, and reports of wife-beating are on the increase. Though wife-beating is clearly a crime in law, it is still regarded as purely a family matter and the police are reluctant to get involved.

Winnie Wan-ru Pong, a leading feminist activist in Taiwan, died as a result of a sexual assault on November 30, 1996. A taxi driver is sought as the alleged killer. Ms. Pong was the director of Department for Women Development in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The attack occurred on her way back to her hotel after her meeting with leaders of the DPP local machine in Gaoxiong City to discuss a bill for promotion of women's political empowerment.

The child sex trade is becoming rampant in Cambodia. Cambodia is fast becoming Asia's favorite destination for sex tourists and pedophiles, many of whom arrive on organized tours from Europe and other Asian countries. According to WIN News (No. 3, 1996), tour operators appeal to Chinese clients from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China with promises of female virgins, which are highly prized in Chinese culture because they are reputed to have a rejuvenating effect on men who sleep with them. Some tour operators offer "AIDS-free" sex with children. Two decades of civil war have left children in Cambodia especially vulnerable. Few children have birth certificates so they are harder to trace when they vanish. The trade in young boys is less overt but also on the increase.

POLITICAL AND PUBLIC LIFE - Convention Articles 7 & 8

Women in Namibia have an opportunity to make traditional authority more woman-oriented, but it has not happened yet. The Traditional Authorities Act, dealing with the role of traditional authorities in independent Namibia, was passed in September 1995. Under the Act, traditional leaders have a duty to promote affirmative action, in particular by appointing women to leadership positions (two women currently are traditional leaders). However, the law has no enforcement mechanisms. Sister Namibia (July-Aug 1996) reports that events at the first national conference of traditional authorities, held in 1996 in Windhoek, indicated that it is not enough to demand more power for women without offering them support in taking new challenges. Although 27 women were part of the official delegations and therefore had the right to participate in the discussions, only a few did so. A planned session on affirmative action which would have dealt with promoting women as leaders was effectively removed from the conference agenda.

The city of Khartoum, Sudan, has ordered the separation of sexes in public to conform with strict Muslim law. According to the New York Times, the "public order law," issued by the Khartoum Council, dictates that the barriers be used at weddings, parties and picnics and prohibits certain other practices perceived as inappropriate in an Islamic society. It also requires buses to display a verse from the Qu'ran asking Muslims to avoid looking at members of the opposite sex, and women are not permitted to sit near the driver. The new law does not require wearing of the veil, but it orders women working in restaurants not to wear jewelry or perfume. Women who do late-night shopping must be accompanied by a male relative. Women's sporting events must be held in private, and the athletes will not be permitted to wear tight-fitting clothes. Men were ordered to cover their bodies well. Male students will be separated from females in private schools, as they already are in public schools. The Government has exempted the Sudan's southern Christians from Islamic laws.

A network of women in decision-making positions in the Eastern African Sub-region has been formed. The Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE), a Women's NGO based in Uganda, has been chosen to coordinate the network activities in its initial stage. For more information contact: Ms. Winnie Byanyima MP, FOWODE, 8th Floor, Embassy House, Parliament Avenue, PO Box 7176, Kampala, Uganda. Tel.: (256) 41 242130; Fax: (256) 41 242123, (256) 41 257824; e-mail: fowode@starcom.co.ug.

HEALTH AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS - Convention Articles 10, 12, 14 and 16

South Africa has replaced one of the world's most stringent abortion laws with one of the most liberal. The Choice On Termination of Pregnancy Bill was passed by the Senate on November 5, 1996. The bill will eliminate an existing law allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or immediate danger to the mother's mental or physical health. Under the new law, women and girls will be entitled to a state-financed abortion on request during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy if they have no private medical insurance, and, subject to widely defined conditions, for a further eight weeks. Despite strong protest by opposition parties and interest groups, the law does not require parental notification or consent for minors to have an abortion. Doctors and midwives must advise a minor to consult her parents, but the law specifically states that the abortion will not be denied if the minor refuses to inform her parents. Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma said that it could take several months before the Health Department would be able to put the new law into effect.

The Polish Parliament has passed a liberalized abortion law. On October 24, 1996, the lower house overturned a Senate veto to establish a legal right to abortion before the twelfth week of pregnancy if a woman faces financial or personal problems, but only after counseling and a three-day waiting period. The existing law, passed in 1993 by a pro-Catholic government, permits abortion only if a pregnancy threatens a woman's life or health or results from incest or rape, or when the fetus is hopelessly damaged. The bill also provides for sex education in schools and less expensive birth control. The Catholic church had organized a huge campaign against the bill. Polls suggest that Poles are almost equally divided on the question.

Brazil's women's health movement successfully undermined a constitutional amendment that would criminalize abortion under any circumstances. The National Feminist Health and Reproductive Rights Network began the struggle in 1995 when the amendment was presented to Brazil's national Congress. It attempted to overrule Article 129 of the country's Penal Code, which permits abortion in the case of rape and when the mother's life is in danger. After a prolonged campaign mobilized by Brazilian women that included public actions, denunciations, leafletting, and raising the consciousness of the legislature and the mass media, the proposal was rejected by the Special Commission and permanently shelved in a following plenary session of the Congress. Information: Secretaria Executiva da Rede Saude, Rua Bartolomeu Zunega 44, CEP 05426-020, Sao Paulo/SP, Brazil. Tel.: (55-81) 813-9767; Fax: (55-81) 813-8578; e-mail: redesaude@ax.ibase.org.br.

Bavaria, Germany's most Catholic state, has passed a restrictive abortion law in conflict with federal guarantees of abortion rights. The new state law requires women to give a reason for seeking to terminate pregnancy (the federal law contains no such restriction), and it sets a limit of 25 percent on the proportion of their income doctors may earn from abortions. The law was approved after a long fierce debate in Munich in which legislator Thomas Zimmermann called a gynecologist in the public galleries a "mass murder of unborn life." "The debate is certainly not over," said Renate Schmidt, the Social Democratic leader in Bavaria, as quoted in the New York Times. "This pressure on women to give reasons for abortion is against the spirit of Constitutional Court ruling and the federal law."

EMPLOYMENT - Convention Article 11

Twelve women have won a landmark sex discrimination suit in Japan. The women, employees of the Shiba Credit Association, sued in 1987, claiming that the company promoted men according to seniority while excluding women from promotion. In the first-ever decision to address wage discrimination, the court held that the company's policy of selecting only men for promotion is contrary to Japanese law. The women won 100 million Yen (approx. US$1,000,000) in back wages. In another encouraging development, a Labor Ministry panel has recommended that the enforcement provisions of the ten-year-old equal opportunity law be enhanced by requiring that sexual harassment be specifically stated to constitute sex discrimination, that women-only job advertisements be eliminated, and that names of companies that violate the law be publicized.

On June 20, 1996, the 83rd Conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted a Convention and accompanying Recommendation on home work. The Convention is important for home workers-the majority of whom are women-because it brings them recognition at an international level. It sets minimum standards for pay and conditions which can be translated into national policies and laws. Together with the Recommendation, it has many provisions which go beyond legal protection and act as a starting point for the organization of millions of previously unorganized home workers.

The European Commission has proposed a new directive to make it easier to prove discrimination cases. Currently in many European Union countries, women or men claiming employment discrimination must carry the burden of proof of discrimination. This, the Commission said, may deprive workers of any effective means of enforcing their equality claims in the courts. Based on European Court of Justice decisions, the proposed Directive is expected to become binding legislation providing for the burden of proof. As a compromise between the positions on the issue held by employers and trade unions, the proposed Directive states that member states must provide for a system in which a plaintiff must establish only a prima facie case of discrimination (establishing facts from which a finding of discrimination could be made), and the defendant employer must then prove that there is adequate, objective justification for the apparent discrimination. Member states may go further and place a greater burden of proof on the defendant employer.

MARRIAGE AND FAMILY LAW - Convention Articles 10, 12, 14 and 16

A decision by Egypt's Court of Urgent Cases has prevented the forced dissolution of a marriage between two Muslims whose views displeased Egyptian Islamicists. The husband, Professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, specializes in Quranic studies, applying modern tools of linguistics and discourse analysis to the Quran and early Islamic texts, and particularly to the subsequent interpretations (ijtihad) of these texts. His wife, Dr. Ibtihal Yunis, is a professor of French at Cairo university. Prof. Abu Zeid was sued by Islamic fundamentalists who succeeded in obtaining a ruling that his scholarly writing and teaching make him an apostate who "refused to acquiesce to God's legislation" and that, as an apostate, he is prohibited from being married to a Muslim woman. In August 1996 the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court, found in favor of the Islamicists and stated that the couple could not legally be married. The ruling essentially violated the fundamental right to marry and to remain married as long as both parties wish. By disregarding Dr. Yunis's desire to uphold her marriage contract and her confidence in the compatibility of her religious beliefs with those of her husband, this ruling also placed Egypt in violation of its obligations as a State party to CEDAW.

As a result of considerable international and national pressure after the case was begun, the Egyptian Parliament, which is effectively controlled by President Mubarak, passed a law in May 1996 denying third parties such as the Islamicists the standing to initiate cases against defendants whom they view as violators of religious law. The Court of Cassation in its August decision did not apply the new law to the Abu Zeid case. The Court of Urgent Appeals issued a temporary stay of the order nullifying the marriage and in December 1996 made the stay permanent. However, the original finding of apostasy based on scholarly writing and teaching remains in place-and the Abu Zeid family remains in exile in the Netherlands, to which they fled after the Egyptian branch of Islamic Jihad issued a call to kill Prof. Abu Zeid. The Abu Zeids have appealed the apostasy ruling again. And Egypt's commitment to fundamental freedoms of both women and men remains in question.

Zambia has drafted a new Intestate Succession Bill to replace the 1989 Intestate Succession Act for which the women's movement worked for so long. The bill increases the percentage of the estate inherited by the surviving spouse from 20 percent to 25 percent, which is an improvement, though many women feel the percentage should be higher. Under the Bill, any party may go to court and challenge the paternity of the unborn child if a woman is pregnant at the time of the husband's death. Thus the onus will really be on the woman to prove that the deceased is the father of the child she is carrying. While the 1989 Act provided that the house should be inherited by the surviving spouse and children, the new bill contains clauses that threaten the surviving spouse's possession of the family house if it was registered in the name of the deceased and if the deceased had children with other partners.

An arranged marriage has resulted in rape charges in the US. An Iraqi refugee father in Lincoln, Nebraska, was charged under state law with two counts of child abuse and faces up to one year in jail because he married his 13- and 14-year-old daughters to two countrymen more than twice their age. The charges were brought after the older girl ran away with a boyfriend a few days after the arranged marriage and the father and the girl's "husband" went to the police and said they wanted the girl back. In the US, state law prohibits any sexual contact with children, declaring it a crime regardless of any presumed "consent." Parents who place young girls in a position in which such sexual contact takes place can be-as was this father-charged with child abuse. The grooms have been charged with rape. The boyfriend of the eldest daughter, a 20-year-old Hispanic man, has also been charged with statutory rape. As of early December, all were free on bail and a hearing was set for December 30. According to both prosecutors and legal scholars, cultural practice and ignorance of the law cannot be defenses to crimes under federal and state law, although they may have some effect on sentencing.

Divorce law survives court challenge in Ireland. Ireland's Supreme Court has unanimously rejected a legal challenge the November 1995 referendum in which Irish voters narrowly approved a constitutional amendment legalizing divorce. Anti-divorce activist and former Irish senator Des Hanafin had challenged the legality of using government funds-the equivalent of US$800,000-to secure a Yes vote on the referendum. Legislation to implement the referendum will now be introduced in parliament and is expected to become law by the end of 1997. Once the new divorce law is enacted, a couple that has lived apart for four of the preceding five years will be able to obtain a divorce. An estimated 15,000 Irish couples are expected to seek divorce within the first year after the new law becomes effective.


CLAIMING OUR RIGHTS: A Manual for Women's Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies, is now available in Bengali, Arabic, and Persian, Uzbek and Malay from the Sisterhood Is Global Institute. Using a "human rights model" specifically intended for Muslim societies, this 154-page manual seeks to facilitate dialogue among women about the various themes which derive from the Platform for Action adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Appendices include Suras from the Quran on women, Hadith related to women, Arabic proverbs, a list of human rights organizations, and an annotated bibliography of women's rights. Contact: Sisterhood is Global Institute, 4343 Montgomery Avenue, Suite 201, Bethesda, MD 20814 USA. Tel.: 301-657-4355; Fax: 301-657-4381; e-mail: sigi@igc.apc.org.

Women for Women in Afghanistan is a newly formed solidarity group based in Toronto, Canada. It is seeking cooperation with other organizations working for the relief of women and children inside Afghanistan. For more information contact: Deb Ellis, Women for Women in Afghanistan, PO Box 204, Dunnville, Ontario, Canada, N1A 2X5. Tel: (905) 774-8091.

SHATTERED LIVES: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and its Aftermath, a report by Human Rights Watch/Africa and Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, documents and confirms the widespread rape of women during the genocide, using materials from interviews and research. The report also addresses ongoing problems facing Rwandan women, the national and international responses to the genocide, and recommendations of action on this issue. Contact Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017-6104; e-mail: hrwnyc@hrw.org.

CONTRACEPTIVE UPDATE: A Handbook for Health Workers is prepared by Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and International Planned Parenthood Federation, African Region (IPPFAR). It is intended to help health workers give their clients up-to-date information about the various contraceptive methods and products available to them. For more information contact: IPPFAR, PO Box 30234, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel: 254-2-720280/1/2/3; Fax: 254-2-726596.

WOMEN IN RUSSIA AND UKRAINE, a book by leading Russian and Ukrainian feminists and western specialists, contains the latest research in the field of Russian women's studies. It traces the role of gender in Russian and Ukrainian society from the 12th century to the present day as well as analyzes the current backlash against women's emancipation. Price: hardcover $69.95, paperback $24.95. Contact: Cambridge University Press, 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211.


WOMEN'S WATCH subscriptions policy. Women's Watch is sent free to groups and individuals in developing countries and on an exchange basis with libraries and documentation centers. Subscriptions are US$25 per year payable in US dollars only or an international money order. Subscriptions are renewable as of January 1 of each year. Checks in US dollars on a US bank should be made payable to: IWRAW, Humphrey Institute. Other subscription points: In Great Britain and continental Europe, send subscriptions in pounds or Eurodollars to: Marianne Haslegrave, Commonwealth Medical Assn., BMA House, Trafalgar Square, London WC1H 9JP United Kingdom. In Australia, send to: Hilary Charlesworth, Centre for International and Public Law, ANU, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia. In Canada, Susan Bazilli, METRAC, 158 Spadina Road, Toronto, Ontario M5R 2T8. In Japan, Japanese Ass'n of International Women's Rights, Bunkyo Women's College, 1196 Kamekubo, Ohi-machi, Iruma, Saitama 354 Japan.

WOMEN'S WATCH is published by the IWRAW project, Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, USA. Editors: Marsha Freeman and Sharon Ladin. This issue was written with the help of Liu Dongxiao, IWRAW Cram-Dalton Fellow. IWRAW is a global network of individuals and organizations that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international treaty ratified by over 150 countries.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. The Humphrey Institute is hospitable to a diversity of opinions and aspirations. The Institute does not itself take positions on public policy issues. The contents of this report are the responsibility of the editors. IWRAW is grateful to the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Shaler Adams Foundation, SIDA and numerous other individuals and foundations for financial support. Contributions to the project are welcome and are tax deductible for US taxpayers.



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