Celebrating 100 Years of Women's Empowerment

Wow! International Women’s Day is celebrating 100 years of women’s empowerment and progress towards complete gender equality! To celebrate this momentous benchmark, Amnesty International USA plans to kick off the first full week of March with a series of blog posts highlighting the work we continue to do address women’s human rights issues.

International Women’s Day represents two sides of the push for women’s rights: one is a celebration of how far we’ve come, and the other is a reinvigoration of the push for total gender equality.

For years, Amnesty has been striving to ensure universal rights for all women – focusing specifically on ending violence against women, including the violence and sexual assault perpetrated against Indigenous women in the U.S. As we expanded our work to include the broad spectrum of economic, social, and cultural rights, we have taken on the daunting task of fighting for those human rights violations that are both a cause and consequence of poverty.

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Slow Road to Beijing

United Nations

United Nations

I always find today, International Women’s Day, incredibly inspiring but this year my source of motivation was the 54th UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) which began on March 1st and runs until March 12th. I had the chance to attend this year and find out what it is all about.

This year, the CSW focused on progress towards achievement of the commitments made in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which was adopted by 189 governments 15 years ago.  Over the 12 days, in addition to the official meetings of member states, there are parrellel events hostedby NGOs covering a diverse range of issues from women and climate change to women’s political participation from female condoms to women and the economic crisis.  CSW is a chance to meet and hear participants from around the world speak about their work and their view of progress made to achieving the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action’s objective to achieve women’s empowerment, the full realization of women’s rights and substantive gender equality.

It was evident that whilst some progress has been made in the 15 years that have passed since Beijing - there is certainly much more to be done.

For instance, the prevention and elimination of violence against women – a Beijing commitment – is far from fulfilled.  Amnesty highlighted the challenges to preventing violence globally during an interesting parallelevent on Obstacles to Justice for Violence Against Women at which the findings of our research on violence against women in Uganda, Cambodia and Nordic countries were presented.  What was evident about these research findings was that regardless of the wealth of the country, the status of women in public life, the religion or the ethnicity of the people, violence against women is a global phenomenonthat rears its ugly head in homes, in schools and on the streets in every country in the world.  The obstacles to justice include stigma associated with reporting crimes and speaking out against what is considered a “private” or “family”  matter.  All of the panelists gave accounts of women who had been laughed out of the police station or shamed into silence.  Too often, police or judicial officials are not aware of the appropriate response to complaints or even the national laws that exist to prevent and protect survivors of violence.  The practice of violence against women is often tolerated  or, worse still, condoned by society which reflects the gender inequality and discrimination against women which is pervasive in many societies.  Gender discrimination in itself creates an obstacle to justice which must be overcome.

Today, Amnesty launches a Six point Checklist on Justice for Violence Against Women which is a valuable resource for activists and advocates seeking to improve the judicial response to violence against women and identify laws policies and practices which need to be reformed.  Whilst the events at CSW demonstrated that more needs to be done to eliminate violence against women, it is also evident that the world over, there are activists working tirelessly to put an end to the violence and dismantle these obstacles.  A young woman activist from Nigeria in the audience at the Amnesty event said that her community creates obstacles “..they point at me for speaking out…” she said.  In the face of such hostility from her friends and neighbors she continues to demand an end to violence against women and she inspired me to do the same.

Spare Me Your Weight

On the outset, it seemed like March was going to be a great time for women.  This month, we celebrated International Women’s Day recognizing women’s social achievements and ongoing struggles in pursuit of economic, social, and political justice.  Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton came together to recognize women’s human rights activists.  And President Obama signed an executive order establishing a White House Council for Women and Girls.  Yes, ma’am!  This is our month!  And just days later, the nation has come to focus on … Meghan McCain’s dress size.  Oh.

By now, most people know about the fight that conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham and wannabe-political-pundit Meghan (daughter of none other) McCain are having in the public sphere.  For those of you who had the pleasure of missing it, I’ll spare you the discomfort of reliving it through Google.  The synopsis:  Laura, in the process of addressing Meghan’s lack of credentials, infers that Meghan is overweight.  A rightly offended Meghan addresses the attack with the 2-prong-Jennifer-Love-Hewitt approach:  You shouldn’t attack me, and all women, by focusing on my weight.  Besides, I’m a size 8.  That’s not fat.

Oh Meghan.  You had me until the dress size.  So what if you weren’t a size 8?  What if you were a size 12, 16 or 22?  Is there a number at which it is acceptable to publicly attack someone for her weight?  There is no threshold where it is fair game to diminish a person because of her size.  I don’t want to know what size you are, wish you were, or are pretending to be.  It doesn’t matter and your protest is weakened by divulging what should be personal, and more importantly, inconsequential, information.

For years, women have been judged, at least in part, sometimes in whole, by how we look to the eye, instead of how we sound to the ear.  When females defend ourselves against these kinds of disparaging remarks by revealing the numbers on our scales, a disservice is done to every person judged by her weight. Women across the career spectrum from Oprah Winfrey to Jessica Simpson should never have to answer for their sizes.  Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop engaging in this self-destructive dialogue.

Save the dress size for your tailor.

Iranian Women Fight for their Rights

Shirin Ebadi

Shirin Ebadi

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8th, it’s time to recognize the struggles and achievements of women’s rights activists around the world.  One of the most vibrant women’s rights movements is in Iran, where every day courageous women risk their freedom and safety to fight for their rights.  While most use peaceful means to end discriminatory treatment of women in Iranian family law, they face increasing persecution from the Iranian government: Women are routinely arrested, imprisoned, threatened and banned from traveling abroad.

Even the most prominent women’s rights activist in Iran, lawyer and 2003 Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, is not immune to this mistreatment.  She has been repeatedly threatened in government-controlled media in recent months and the Defenders of Human Rights Center, that she operates to provide legal assistance to victims of human rights violations, was forcibly shut down by the government last December and her papers and computers seized.

Why is the Iranian government so afraid of its own women citizens calling for equal rights? The government trots out preposterous charges against them such as “acting against national security through propaganda against the state.” How can women walking around a mountainous area north of Tehran to collect petition signatures possibly undermine the state?  How could Alieh Eghdamdoust, recently taken into custody and forced to start serving a three-year prison sentence for participating in a peaceful demonstration in June 2006, possibly be a threat to the security of Iran?

As the Iran country specialist for Amnesty International USA I am constantly challenged on how to craft actions and mobilize activist to combat this disproportionate and seemingly irrational repression of non-violent human rights defenders. And like many human rights activists, I am often frustrated and confounded.  But I am also always inspired by the unrelenting courage and pluckiness of women activists in Iran.  When asked by the judge at her trial why she participated in the demonstration, Alieh Eghdamdoust replied to the judge, “You should participate as well.  Why didn’t you defend your daughters and wife’s rights by attending the legal peaceful gathering?”

I think of Ms. Eghdamdoust’s spirited response as International Women’s Day approaches and I ask you to take action to support our sister activists in Iran.  Please write to the Iranian government and call for an end to the harassment of peaceful women’s rights activists in Iran.  Thank you all and please let us know what actions you have taken and any suggestions you have.