Workshop on the Status of Women in the New Market Economies
co-sponsored by NEWW and the University of Connecticut School of Law

Read the Conference Program

April 13-15, 1996
Prepared by Sonia Jaffe Robbins

Sunday afternoon, April 14, 1996
PANEL III: Breaking the Silence:
Seeking redress for women in international fora

Facilitator: Panelists:

Karen Engel (University of Utah College of Law, U.S.A.)
presented an overview of the ways in which feminists, and others, have looked to international law reform for solutions to problems we have not solved locally. Generally, these attempts have fallen under 3 headings:
  1. rights, or doctrines;
  2. international institutions;
  3. creating an international civil society.
The argument for rights claim that international law can help
  • create better local law
  • create better interpretations
  • challenge local law.
In these claims are tensions between the universal and the particular, and between the group and the individual, sometimes seen as between women and culture. The argument for institutions claims that more women in institutions can reform the law, and that women's international institutions should have greater power. The idea of an international civil society has developed out of dissatisfaction with the two previous arguments.
The difficulty is the possibility that an international civil society would end up controlled by men, just as national civil societies are. The hope is that an international civil society can provide a means by which women need no longer rely on the national state.

Lydia Jankovic Gottlieb (Yugoslavia, Canada, U.S.A.)
presented a proposal for refugee and displaced women in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, in terms of the legal protections available, the risks they face, and the role an international network can play. Worldwide, there were 4.7 million refugees in 1978; last year there were 24 million. Eighty percent of these refugees are women and children.
In the region, refugees are ethnic Russians from newly independent states; from local conflicts as in Chechnya, Ukraine, and Tajikistan; and from former Yugoslavia. Among the international instruments regulating states' actions concerning refugees are:
  • the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951)
  • the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
  • the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)
  • CEDAW (1979)
  • the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
  • the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
International laws that protect women clearly exist; they require enforcement. A series of international meetings began last year to address these issues. The risks women face are forced return; lack of food, water, shelter, and medical care; sexual abuse and rape; and the possibility of further danger after repatriation.
What can we do? There are short-term and long-term solutions. In the long-term, attack the causes of what makes women refugees. In the short-term, collect accurate information to learn women's immediate needs; help women get jobs or employ themselves; and support women refugees wanting to start a network of women refugees in the U.S., so they can learn their legal rights and represent themselves.

Ruti Teitel (New York Law School, U.S.A.)
presented a new paradigm of justice centered on the role of women in response to changing conceptions of women's rights. This paradigm is based on the two images of the "bulging mounds" of mass graves in Bosnia and the "disappeared" of Latin America: both apparent cases of an underlying crime covered up by governments, with apparently no one interested in uncovering the crime. In both cases, women have been instrumental in keeping the crime in public view, refusing to allow it to remain buried. In Latin America the mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, in former Yugoslavia mothers and widows demanded to know what had happened to their husbands and children. In Argentina, the result was the unraveling of the cover-up and establishment of a commission to determine the truth. In Bosnia, the Dayton agreement requires cooperation with the war crimes tribunal. This demand for justice, rather than retribution or money, privileges reconciliation over punishment.

Krisztina Morvai (Hungary)
analyzed a case before the European Commission on Human Rights, brought by a divorced woman with children against the United Kingdom. The man she lived with for several years became abusive and she left him. He continued to harass and threaten her, in more or less severe ways. She sought an injunction against him and was refused, because harassment is not against the law. She filed another suit, for assault, which was also refused, because no assault had yet taken place. In this situation, the woman had to change her perception of what had happened because the language of the law did not encompass her story. The European Commission on Human Rights found that the woman right to liberty had been violated, not on the grounds of "private property rights," but that she was deprived of the ability to participate in society. However, her case was rejected by the European Commission because she had not exhausted remedies available to her under British law, that is, she did not claim that her mental health was threatened.

Anika Rahmen (Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, U.S.A.)
discussed reproductive rights on the international level. Such rights should be defined broadly, such as a woman's right to control her body. In the U.S., reproductive rights are incorrectly equated with abortion rights. In Africa, they are often equated with health care, and the issue of female genital mutilation is often included. In Asia, they are often concerned with women's right to have children, where reproductive health issues have been twisted by the population control debate.
Ethnic and class differences are important. Strategies vary depending on the forum. In the international human rights system, these questions arise: How do we monitor reproductive rights as an economic right, given the vast disparity in living standards among countries? How do we compare progress over time? What do we do when rights are in conflict, for example, cultural and reproductive rights?
As for remedies, there is litigation (which has limited value), monitoring, public education, and use of tribunals. In the international health system, policy institutions and major providers of services -- such as the UNDP, UNFPA, and World Bank -- have a general lack of concern for women, avoid reproductive rights as controversial, and are not accountable except to governments, which have similar lack of concern for women. Similarly, bilateral aid agencies of donor countries, such as USAID and CEDA, spend very large sums for reproductive health care and have similar limitations to policy institutions. These agencies can be lobbied in the specific sections devoted to reproductive rights or can be lobbied at the UN level at conferences.

David Kennedy (Harvard Law School, U.S.A.)
raised the question of the framework within which the current conference was taking place. This framework assumes a universality that is not homogenous, where the differences are cultural, national, and local, and the similarities are technical and communicative. He cautioned those of us doing this kind of international work that we might be blind to a cultural imbalance in the universal, for example, the difference between a hard currency economy in Russia and in the U.S. He questioned certain dreams of alliances as problematic.


Ann Snitow (NEWW, U.S.A.)
responded to David's critique of the fantasy life of NEWW by noting that this has been a central tension, which has been more or less visible from the beginning. She reported an anecdote from the founding moment, when Slavenka Drakulic asked American feminists for help, which those women at first declined, for fear of appearing imperialistic. Slavenka pointed out that men had helped male dissidents under communism for years, but feminists had not recognized the fledgling East European feminist movement. Ann noted that men are always powerfully organized internationally, while women's points of intervention are much less internationally. NEWW is a response to that, building on the Milan women's movement's strategy to make instrumental use of the inequalities among women.

Anastasia Posadskaya (Russia)
pointed out that it is very different now for women of the region to reappear in the international arena. The quality and number of women from the region at the Beijing conference, for example, was unique and the statement from those women, "Voices from the Non-Region," was a product of being at that meeting. At a CEDAW meeting recently in New York, she was the only woman from the "non-region" present. NEWW is rare in that we are really partners, and this conference permits an international dialogue that is really international.

Joan Williams (American University, Washington College of Law, U.S.A.)
pointed out that in the conflict between culture and women's rights, as a feminist, she was always "trashing" cultural norms. The difficulty was in "trashing" someone else's cultural norms; then, one must work with women in the culture and be guided by them. Concerning protective labor legislation (from Panel II), the question was whether such legislation was protective of both men and women or protective of women in a special role. Csilla's point about giving tax breaks to employers for not discriminating against women seemed to be a means of socializing a policy which it was no longer fashionable to be social.

Joanna Regulska (Rutgers University, Poland/U.S.A.)
noted the power struggles in the region that are occurring in a quickly changing situation. There has been dramatic change in the past 7 years. She works on the local level with women getting involved with politics on a larger level than party politics, for whom international organizations are like a security blanket. They show what can be done. If it hadn't been for international organizations, the 400 women from Central and Eastern Europe and FSU would never have been at Beijing.

Conference Program

Network of East-West Women Home Page