LBT Women’s Economic Empowerment: Reflections on the Successes and Struggles from the CSW

As week one of the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) draws to a close here in New York, a wide range of LBT activists, researchers and governments have reflected on how or whether this annual UN conference can address the struggles facing LBT individuals, especially in relation to this year’s priority theme,  “women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work.”

By Erin Aylward

This year’s CSW appears to reflect a particularly hostile atmosphere to LGBTI rights: the United States has included representatives of two organizations known to oppose the UN human rights system, LGBTI rights, and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in its official delegation; human rights defenders from the six countries targeted in the travel ban have been denied visas and thus the opportunity to be heard during this year’s CSW; and US State Department staffers have been instructed to seek cuts of over 50% in funding for UN programs. Undeniably, we have entered troubling and uncertain times in international relations and human rights advocacy.

Yet, alongside these alarming developments in the international arena, substantive achievements in advancing the rights of LBT individuals around the world have been gained since last year’s CSW. In recognition of the need to celebrate the victories that have forged while also reflecting on the outstanding challenges, ARC International, in partnership with the Canadian government and the Permanent Mission of the Argentine Republic to the United Nations, hosted a side event on March 13 that sought to shed light on the successes and barriers to LBT women’s economic empowerment.

For decades, LGBTI activists from around the world have emphasized that advancing the civil/political rights of their communities only matters as much as access to economic rights and opportunities. As Raphael Crowe (event moderator and ILO senior gender specialist) noted, these comments are borne out by what preliminary data exists: the ILO’s PRIDE Project found that, in each of the nine countries that were studied2, LGBT workers face discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity throughout their schooling, in accessing employment, and throughout the employment cycle.

Yet, notwithstanding the numerous challenges facing LBT women’s ability to access economic empowerment, this panel also highlighted some encouraging successes and best practices that civil society and government alike have helped to forge. Argentine Ambassador Martín García Moritán noted that states have a responsibility to address LBT employment discrimination. For Argentina, this has ranged from reforms in the education system to developing workshops with the Ministry of Labour and Employment and the private sector to help bridge the employment gap for trans individuals.

This year’s Commission on the Status of Women does not reflect a particularly favourable environment for LBT and women’s human rights defenders. It is clear that, at the international level, previous gains will have to be defended and the shrinking of space for civil society has to be actively resisted against. Yet, for those of us who were fortunate to attend this side-event on LBT economic empowerment, it was impossible to not be struck with a sense of hope, conviction, and renewed inspiration to continue with the struggles ahead.

Read the full article from ARC International.

The time has already come for #LBTI persons at #CSW61

States, institutions, UN agencies, and everybody involved in and with responsibilities towards the world of work must commit themselves to act right now and address the need to guarantee the right to work for Iesbians, bisexual women, trans and intersex persons.

By Mariana Winocur

As ARC’s Communications Officer, I have been investigating data for “talking points” and social media messaging around the theme for this year’s CSW. In compiling some of this research, some of the questions that I began thinking about included the following:

  • To what extent is CSW considering the word “women”?
  • How does this word include the enormous and rich variety of lesbians, bisexual women, trans and intersex persons (LBTI)?
  • How do we ensure that no one will be left behind, as promised in the Sustainable Development Goals?

Trying to find out some answers, I started looking for specific information regarding LBTI persons in the world of work, and information more broadly related to economic empowerment. It would be an understatement to point out that there is very little data, and the data that has been published depicts a worrying situation and leaves out entire regions where we know there are huge barriers for the economic empowerment of our communities. What exists clearly shows alarming trends about discrimination linked to sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. Here are just a few examples of what I found:

  • In most countries trans persons are completely excluded from formal employment. This leaves few survival strategies, which inevitably increases their vulnerability.[1]
  • Social and familial violence hinder trans women’s possibilities in the formal labor market. About  90 percent of trans women in the Americas engage in sex work.[2]
  • Some lesbians face discrimination at work because they don’t look “enough feminine”. [3]
  • A US study on queer female shows that those  who apply for administrative jobs in the United States, are about 30 percent less likely to receive a callback compared with the straight female applicants of equal qualifications. [4]
  • Within paid work spaces in Europe, an average of 26 percent of lesbians felt discriminated against or harassed based on their sexual orientation.[5]
  • An average of 23 percent of unemployed European bisexual people feel discriminated against or harassed for being perceived as bisexual. [6]
  • A survey report of Australians born with atypical sex characteristics found that there are high rates of poverty: the majority earn an income 41 percent less than the average.[7]

This panorama shows that there is a lot to be done to economically empower LBTI persons and leave no one behind.

Read the full article from ARC International.

Saudi Arabia: Male Guardianship Boxes Women In

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

Adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel abroad, marry, or be released from prison, and may be required to provide guardian consent to work or get health care. These restrictions last from birth until death, as women are, in the view of the Saudi state, permanent legal minors.The 79-page report, “Boxed In: Women and Saudi Arabia’s Male Guardianship System,” examines in detail the panoply of formal and informal barriers women in Saudi Arabia face when attempting to make decisions or take action without the presence or consent of a male relative. As one 25-year-old Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch, “We all have to live in the borders of the boxes our dads or husbands draw for us.” In some cases, men use the permission requirements to extort large sums of money from female dependents.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

“The fact that Saudi women are still forced to get a male guardian’s permission to travel, work, or do anything else is a long-standing rights violation and a barrier to the government’s plans to improve the economy,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “The government should do itself a favor and finally listen to the demands of half its population to be freed from the shackles of the guardianship system.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 61 Saudi women and men for the report and analyzed Saudi laws, policies, and official documents. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf.

“My son is my guardian, believe it or not, and this is really humiliating… My own son, the one I delivered, the one I raised, he is my guardian,” a 62-year old Saudi woman told Human Rights Watch. A woman’s other male relatives also have authority over her, although to a lesser extent.

Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system. In 2009, and again in 2013, Saudi Arabia agreed after its universal periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Since making these promises, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to lessen guardians’ control over women, including no longer requiring permission for women to work and passing a law criminalizing domestic abuse. In 2013, then-King Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura Council, his highest advisory body, and, in 2015, women voted and ran as candidates in municipal council elections for the first time.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

Despite these limited steps, the male guardianship system remains largely in place, hindering and in some cases nullifying the reforms, Human Rights Watch found.

Women may not apply for a passport without male guardian approval and require permission to travel outside the country. They regularly face difficulty conducting a range of transactions without a male relative, from renting an apartment to filing legal claims. The government does not require guardian permission for women to work, but does not penalize employers who do require this permission. Women cannot study abroad on a government scholarship without guardian approval, and a male relative must accompany her abroad while she studies, though this requirement is not always enforced. Women are barred from driving.

Women face tremendous obstacles when trying to seek help or flee abuse by violent guardians, Human Rights Watch found. For example, a husband retains guardianship control even during divorce proceedings. There is deeply entrenched discrimination within the legal system, and courts recognize legal claims brought by guardians against female dependents to enforce their authority.

Women who have escaped abuse in shelters may, and in prisons do, require a male relative to agree to their release. “The [authorities] keep a woman in jail… until her legal guardian comes and gets her, even if he is the one who put her in jail,” said a women’s rights activist. If a guardian refuses to release a woman from prison, authorities may transfer her to a state shelter or arrange a marriage for her. Her new husband becomes her new guardian.

Human Rights Watch spoke with women who felt their only safe option was to leave the country after male family members abused and threatened them, but who were unable to convince their guardians, in some cases the abusers, to allow them to travel.

Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country despite limited reforms over the last decade.

The guardianship system is grounded in the most restrictive interpretation of an ambiguous Quranic verse – an interpretation challenged by dozens of Saudi women, including academics and Islamic feminists, who spoke to Human Rights Watch. A former Saudi judge told Human Rights Watch the country’s imposition of guardianship is not required by Sharia, or Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia, which acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000, is legally obligated to end discrimination against women without delay, including by abolishing the male guardianship system.

Rights of rural women finally addressed in CEDAW General Recommendation No.34

Welcoming the adoption of the first international instrument to address the rights of rural women holistically, FIAN International examines the core elements related to the human right to food and nutrition contained in the General Recommendation No. 34.

In March 2016, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted its General Recommendation No. 34 on the Rights of Rural Women. Its adoption is nothing less than the outcome of over three years of work by the Committee with support from civil society and social movements.

The General Recommendation is particularly significant because it is the first international instrument that specifically addresses the rights of rural women. Furthermore, it is the first that explicitly recognizes the human right to adequate food and nutrition of rural women within the framework of food sovereignty.

The adoption of this General Recommendation will continue helping raise the visibility of rural women’s human rights on the checklist of issues that the State parties must pay attention to when reporting to the Committee. In turn, it will enable civil society to hold their respective governments accountable for the human rights violations of rural women. This General Recommendation can also play a key role in informing and serving as a basis for upcoming and developing processes at the national, regional and global level.

On this note, FIAN International issues an analytical note that examines the elements related to the human right to food and nutrition that are contained in the General Recommendation. More specifically, the note focuses on: (1) the explicit recognition of the right to food and nutrition within the food sovereignty framework; (2) the recognition of the right to access, control, manage and own all natural and productive resources on which rural women depend; (3) the guarantee of decent work for all rural women workers, including access to social protection; (4) the recognition of the “intertwined subjectivities” of woman and child during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding and their framing through the lens of women’s rights throughout their lifespan; and (5) the protection of rural women’s roles in the production, processing, distribution, market access, trade, and investment related to the food systems from private actors.

You can find the analytical note here.

Year after landmark case, widows still waiting for equal inheritance rights.

E.S. had been married for 10 years when her husband died. Almost overnight, her life—and her three young children’s—collapsed. E.S.’s in-laws kicked her out of her modest home in Tanzania. She and her children took refuge with her parents.  Another widow in Tanzania, S.C., and her infant were also ordered out of their home, in that case too by in-laws.

Under the customary inheritance laws of many communities in Tanzania, a widow with children inherits nothing from her husband.  These laws also deny women the right to inherit clan land or to be administrators of their relatives’ estates.  Sons inherit clan land and the largest share of personal property, while daughters get no clan land and the smallest share of personal property.

E.S. and S.C. went to court, asserting that their community’s inheritance laws violated Tanzania’s constitution and human rights obligations. One court recognized the discrimination, but rejected their claims. The appeals court took four years to hear the case, and then dismissed it on a technicality. With no hope of justice in these courts, the widows turned to the United Nations.

Last April, in its landmark decision, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW Committee) found that Tanzania’s codified customary law violated the women’s rights by denying them equality in respect of inheritance.  It also found that Tanzania’s courts had violated their rights of access to justice and to an effective remedy. It recommended that the Tanzanian government compensate both widows, and called for constitutional and customary law reforms and practical measures to eliminate this discrimination.

However, a year later, the widows are still waiting.

Read the full article from Human Rights Watch now.

Barred from hundreds of occupations in Russia, a few women fight back

Svetlana Medvedeva cannot rise to the top of her chosen profession for a very simple reason – she is a woman.

The ambition of the 30-year-old mother of two is to earn a much better wage as the captain of a boat on the Volga River, which runs through her hometown of Samara. And with the degree she earned in 2005 from Samara River College, she should be well on her way — or already there.

But with the system in place on the Volga, the occupation of captain requires her to have prior experience as a ship mechanic. And that job is one of hundreds that are open to men only in Russia, according to the law.

A Russian government resolution passed in 2000 prohibits women from 38 industries and over 450 jobs it deems to be “dangerous” or “arduous.”

Adopted during President Vladimir Putin’s first year in office, it was the latest incarnation of Soviet-era regulations that sought to keep women in what the Communist Party once called their “traditional” role of bearing children for the greater good of society.

Read the full article from Radio Free Europe now. 

Zika, disease of the poor, may not change abortion in Brazil

Six months pregnant with her first child, Eritania Maria has a rash and a mild fever, symptoms of the Zika virus linked to brain deformities in newborn children in Brazil. But the 17-year-old is too scared to take a test to confirm if she has Zika.

Like other women in the slums of Recife, which squat on stilts over mosquito-ridden marshland in northeast Brazil, Maria has few options if her child develops microcephaly, the condition marked by an abnormally small head and underdeveloped brain that has been linked to Zika.

Brazil has amongst the toughest abortion laws in the world and is culturally conservative. Even if she wanted an illegal abortion and could afford one, Maria is too heavily pregnant for a doctor to risk it. So she prefers not to know.

“I’m too scared of finding out my baby will be sick,” she told Reuters, her belly poking out from beneath a yellow top.

The Zika outbreak has revived the debate about easing abortion laws but Maria’s case highlights a gap between campaigners and U.N. officials calling for change and Brazil’s poor, who are worst affected by the mosquito-borne virus yet tend to be anti-abortion.

Add a conservative Congress packed with Evangelical Christians staunchly opposed to easing restrictions, plus the difficulty of identifying microcephaly early enough to safely abort, and hopes for change seem likely to be frustrated.

As with many countries in mostly Roman Catholic Latin America, Brazil has outlawed abortion except in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is at risk or the child is too sick to survive.

An estimated 850,000 women in Brazil have illegal abortions every year, many under dangerous conditions. They can face up to 3 years in prison although in practice, jail terms are extremely rare.

With two-thirds of the population Catholic and support for Evangelicals growing fast, polls show Brazilians oppose changing the law. A survey by pollster VoxPopuli in 2010 showed that 82 percent reject decriminalization, while a Datafolha poll the same year put the figure at 72 percent.

Vandson Holanda, head of health for the Catholic Church in Brazil’s northeast, said there was no chance the Church would shift its position on abortion because of Zika.

Read the full article from Reuters