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Entries in impunity (5)


With reported rapes, the DSK case is the exception


The charges filed recently against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have perpetuated a myth: that the U.S. justice system moves swiftly and effectively to resolve allegations of sexual assault.

In the wake of Strauss-Kahn's arrest, the media, particularly in Europe, have highlighted the perceived equality and fairness of a justice system that allows an immigrant single mother with relatively few financial resources to challenge an internationally renowned politician who is able to post a $1-million cash bail. To be sure, this is a remarkable situation, but unfortunately it is not the experience of the vast majority of those who report rapes in this country.

Strauss-Kahn may or may not be guilty, but we do know that every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States, according to the Department of Justice's Crime Victimization Survey. We also know that an estimated 60% of these assaults go unreported.

So the question is, do the 40% who are not reluctant to contact the authorities for help actually see justice done?

The answer: It depends.

Nationally, police arrest a suspect in only half of the sexual assault complaints they receive. Most of those arrested are prosecuted, but fewer than two-thirds of those prosecuted are convicted. Moreover, not all those convicted are sentenced to incarceration. In the end, an estimated 1 out of 16 rapists spends time in jail.

Some jurisdictions have better records than others. In 2009, Human Rights Watch published a report about the appalling response to sexual violence in Los Angeles County, where arrest figures had been declining and — more to the point — the physical evidence taken from rape victims that might have helped lead to a DNA match and a prosecution was systematically filed away without being sent for testing. The situation in Los Angeles has improved since then, but there are other places where this isn't the case. In 2010, we published a report about Illinois, showing similar problems.

In fact, the prevailing failure to try to convict rapists is directly related to the way police and prosecutors treat victims, their testimony and the evidence. It is telling that the media description of the alleged victim in the Strauss-Kahn case highlights her religious devotion and life struggles — factors that in many people's eyes would make her a more credible witness. But victims without those attributes are often perceived very differently. Police officers sometimes abandon a rape case because, based on initial interviews and context alone, they don't believe the alleged victim is a credible witness.

Research suggests that 3% to 8% of rape complaints are false — similar to the proportion of other crime complaints. But researchers have found that police officers are much more likely to mistrust an alleged rape victim than they are to mistrust other victims, particularly if the woman alleging sexual assault doesn't conform to police notions of how a woman should act.

This course of action may seem logical: Few would want the police to waste valuable resources on investigations of crimes that didn't really happen. However, experience from jurisdictions such as New York — where all rape kits, as the physical evidence is called, are processed — reveals that a subjective analysis of victim credibility can be wrong. After New York decided to test every rape kit, and not just the ones from cases in which the police officer subjectively felt the allegation was likely to be true, the arrest rate rose over five years from 40% to 70% of complaints filed, and the proportion of convictions grew too. The point here is not that New York's response to sexual violence is perfect but rather that the decision to pursue rape cases — whether or not police find the victim credible by subjective measures — can result in more prosecutions.

The U.S. justice system deals unevenly with sexual violence. A state-by-state analysis of relevant legislation, policies and crime statistics would most likely show that the record is better where victim rights are a priority and where "tough on crime" rhetoric is backed by across-the-board action.

But let's go back to the broader issue of sexual violence and that fact that a woman is sexually assaulted in the United States every two minutes. Whatever the outcome of the proceedings against Strauss-Kahn, this high-profile case has brought the subject of sexual assault into the realm of public discussion, and that is a good thing. But as long as rape and sexual assault are so common in the United States, we can hardly say the system is working just fine.


Argentina's Slow Tango With Women's Lives

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

In five days I will be addressing Argentina's House of Representatives about abortion. The occasion is as deliberately momentous as it is intentionally inconsequential. On the one hand, this is the first time Argentina's national congress has debated the legalization of abortion, and the hearing has been advertised in the national media for weeks. At the same time, the opening of this landmark debate has been scheduled in the last hours of the last legislative session this year, on a day of the week usually reserved for internal meetings.

This "schizophrenic" attitude reflects the way Argentina's government and congress have dealt with sexual and reproductive rights for decades.

On the face of it, Argentina has an impressive array of relatively well-defined and balanced laws and policies on the topic. Comprehensive sex education is mandatory in all schools. Laws stipulate that a spectrum of modern contraceptive methods must be available free through the public health system. The law also says that older adolescents must be allowed access to the medical care they need without parental authorization. And in July, President Christina Fernández de Kirchner took on the Catholic church to make Argentina the first country in Latin America to recognize same-sex marriage. Notably, abortion has been legal for more than a century for women and girls whose lives or health is threatened by their pregnancy, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

But the law is one thing. Real access to information, services, and rights is quite a different matter. In 2005 and 2010, Human Rights Watch analyzed women's and girls' effective enjoyment of their human rights as they relate to sex and reproduction. Our conclusions were unfavorable. We found that multiple barriers keep Argentina's women from making independent decisions about their health and lives in the area of reproduction -- lack of information, inaccurate and incomplete information, domestic and sexual violence, and economic restraints the government has not addressed adequately.

We also found that the failure to remove these barriers comes at a real cost. Even today, an estimated 40 percent of pregnancies end in abortions, most of them illegal and unsafe. This in turn contributes to entirely preventable maternal deaths. In fact, unsafe abortion has been a leading cause of maternal mortality in the country for decades. In 2008, according to Argentina's national health ministry, over 20 percent of recorded deaths due to obstetric emergencies were caused by unsafe abortions.

Part of the problem is the politicization of issues related to motherhood, population growth, and, at the most basic level, sex. Argentina was one of the last countries in the Latin America region to abandon a top-down population policy approach that subjected individual decision-making to a nationalist interest in population growth. Until 1985 the sale and use of contraception was entirely prohibited, and even medical service providers still justify actions that curtail women's human rights by referring to a century-old maxim, "to populate is to govern." As recently as 1999, the government declared an annual national "Day of the Unborn Child," which some people still celebrate.

It is also true that any law that labels abortion a crime, even if it allows for exceptions, in practice makes it complicated -- if not impossible -- to get access to life- and health-preserving abortions. This is the situation in Argentina. Often, women are unaware of the circumstances in which they could legally get an abortion. Women who do seek them may be stonewalled by complicated procedures and hostile service providers in the health and justice systems. Many women with crisis pregnancies go directly to underground service providers, though some end up in the courts arguing for their right to health care, with varying success.

Much will be at stake when Argentina's parliament starts debating the legalization of abortion: women's lives, health and rights, as well as Argentina's reputation as a modern democracy respectful of human rights. I am honored to have been invited to take part in this debate. I hope the scheduling of the hearing is an indication of a busy congress rather than a symptom of the same erratic and selectively dismissive attitude that has plagued Argentina's engagement with this topic for years.


We Are All Guilty

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

In the many years I have worked for the promotion of women's human rights, the most frequent question I get is "why?" Why is it that, after so many years of progress in terms of women's access to education and jobs, women still earn less than men in similar position. Why is it that even now, with an all-time high of women serving in Congress, women hold only a third of the seats. Why is it that, in a country that prides itself on its high levels of gender equality, domestic violence continues to injure and kill women every single day. Surely, my interlocutors argue, if we know something is wrong, we can prohibit, punish, and eliminate whatever abhorrent practice we are talking about.

And at the most basic level this is, of course, true: we have the tools the stop the abuse, so why don't we? Reality is a bit more complicated. In my experience, there are three main reasons women and girls continue to be discriminated against.

1. Laws are poorly defined and badly implemented.

Legal protections against discrimination and violence against women are much better now than even just 10 years ago. Even so, many laws carve out massive exemptions and implementation is often inconsistent. Take sexual harassment. While U.S. law contains a solid definition of the practice, it exempts businesses with less than 15 employees, and doesn't provide protection for temporary workers. What, I wonder, is the part-time waitress to do, when her boss insists she unbutton her shirt to attract more customers. Or how about the notion that women deserve equal pay for equal work. The Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, signed into law by Obama in January this year, eliminates the statute of limitations on lawsuits for pay discrimination in the workplace, but still doesn't guarantee equality.

Clearly, there is a need to reexamine the laws we think protect us, and look closely at whether they do the job.

2. Myth and culture are used to justify discrimination.

Culture is used to justify even the most unconscionable abuse. When I did research on rape in Mexico in 2005, government officials shrugged at the mention of incest: "Of course it's wrong, but it's our culture," they would say. Needless to say, I have never met an incest survivor who dismissed their own suffering as "culturally appropriate."

But culture and myths are also used to perpetuate inequality in more subtle ways. In many countries, including the United States, women - more so than men - often tend to be pushed towards careers in care-giving such as nursing and teaching, because, as myth has it, women are naturally nurturing. Critical professions, they still generally don't pay as much as the "harder" alternatives, such as transport and construction, but, as myth continues, women won't have to support themselves, and therefore don't have to make a living wage. In reality, many women head single-parent households.

While these myths persist, equality remains an illusion.

3. Gender stereo-typing may be perpetuated in the home.

While government carries the large share of the responsibility for continued sex discrimination, the reality remains that gender stereotyping is alive and well in the home. Women are still, to a much larger extent than men, expected to cook, clean, and deal with childcare, even when they have a full-time job outside the home. While men's participation in work in the home is often seen as "helping out," women are still saddled with the main responsibility for getting this work done. A 2002 academic study from Northwestern University concluded, among other things, that women do substantively more of the housework than their male partners. In fact, even when American women earn half or more of the joint household income, they have more duties at home than men.

And this unequal burden sharing perpetuates the larger sense of women's servitude and subordination, which can lead to abuse. Bureau of Justice Crime statistics indicate that women are almost five times more likely to be attacked by their intimate partner or spouse than men are. A third of female victims of homicide were killed by their partners, as compared to 5% of male victims of homicide.

So why do women and girls continue to suffer discrimination and abuse? There is no easy answer. Legal protections are incomplete, and only go so far. Myths persist, and culture is used as an excuse. Women themselves internalize the inequality.

But at the end of the day, discrimination continues because we allow it to.


US Women Also Have Human Rights Issues

(Originally posted on the Huffington Post)

On October 10, 2003, after years of abuse at the hands of her former partner, a 35-year-old woman in Hungary decided to seek intervention in a way American women can currently only wish for. The woman, identified as A.T., filed a petition with a United Nations body on women's rights. The body promptly asked her government to prevent further harm while they considered her case. Subsequently, it directed Hungary both to take measures to guarantee her physical and mental health and to ensure protection and justice for all the nation's victims of domestic violence.

The petition, was filed with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW. It diligently analyzed Hungarian law and court proceedings, and concluded that available remedies both in A.T.'s case and in general were too weak, too slow, and too begrudgingly implemented.

Women living in the United States cannot appeal to CEDAW, though, when their rights are inadequately protected by US law. Why? Because the United States still, almost 30 years after it came into force, has not agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which created the committee.

The Convention is a global treatise on women's equality. It reflects the consensus of the international community on what specific protections and actions states must take to ensure equality between men and women. The treaty has been ratified by 185 UN Member States, placing the United States in the dubious company of Iran, Nauru, Palau, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga as the last states that have not ratified it. The convention was signed by President Carter in July 1980, but was not considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee till 1990. It was favorably voted out of the Foreign Relations Committee twice: once in 1994 and once in 2002. The convention has been awaiting comments from the Justice Department ever since. Senate rules require the treaty to be taken up in Committee again before it goes to full Senate vote.

Opponents of ratification cite a general opposition to international treaties as infringing upon national sovereignty. But they also contend that the convention includes provisions that are offensive to "American" culture. They contend that ratification would force the United States government to provide abortion on demand, to intrude in family situations and to legalize sex work.

The first argument is sometimes used to oppose the very concept of international human rights. Such arguments maintain that every nation is free to pursue whatever policies it wants, even slavery and apartheid. Such arguments are hard to defend in the context of modern international relations. Perhaps more to the point, the very act of ratifying a treaty, and thereby agreeing to uphold universally recognized standards, is a classic exercise of national sovereignty - a declaration that a nation believes in and will uphold these standards.
With regard to the clash between US culture and the specific provisions of the Convention, the opposition is also wrong:

Abortion. The CEDAW Convention protects a woman's equal right to life and health, and to decide on the number and spacing of her children. The full protection of these rights will in some cases require access to abortion services, and will also require the state to provide such services to some. The United States is already bound by international human rights commitments in this regard through its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and through its membership of the Organization of American States. The ratification of the CEDAW Convention would not substantively alter existing obligations.
Intrusion of privacy. The CEDAW Convention requires the nations to end practices based on the idea of the inferiority of either of the sexes. This provision is key, and indeed Human Rights Watch research shows that even the best policies are not effective if they are undermined by existing prejudices. Moreover, US federal law on violence against women, education, and other issues, already includes the need for government oversight of what at some point was seen as private matters.

Sex work. The CEDAW Convention contains a provision requiring states to take all measures "to suppress exploitation of prostitution of women." Human Rights Watch's research on this issue indicates that the criminalization of women involved in sex work tends to expose them to specific types of exploitation--including extortion by police. Various countries have fulfilled this particular CEDAW obligation in many ways, including decriminalizing sex work while clamping down on trafficking, providing health care options for sex workers and investigating police abuse.

Back in Hungary, since A.T.'s case was filed in 2003, the government has both held awareness-raising sessions for police officers about domestic violence and developed a more stringent mandate for police to deal with domestic violence. Moreover, the CEDAW Committee's analysis and recommendations have provided much needed fuel to domestic groups seeking to reform the law. Women in the United States should be able to benefit from this kind of support too. The Obama administration and the US Senate should make ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women a priority.


Ending Impunity for Rape

(Originally published in the Washington Post)

I have a project for Joseph Biden and Hillary Clinton to work on together: ending impunity for rape. Rape-conviction rates are appallingly low across the globe. I don't mean only in countries that many would think of as lacking good justice systems: Conviction rates hover just above 10 percent of complaints filed in the United States and are a measly 6 percent in Britain. Because the vast majority of rape victims don't file complaints, it does not take precise studies or statistics to conclude that most sexual assaults in most parts of the world end without punishment for the perpetrators. 

Over the years, in the course of my work at Human Rights Watch, I have spoken with dozens of rape victims around the world, read rape-related court files from many countries and scrutinized legislation. Although most people agree that rape is bad, legislation and government action on sexual crimes are not always that clear. Indeed, rape seems to be graded on a scale from "unconscionable" through "bad luck" to "much deserved." Exactly where a particular incident falls on that scale often seems to depend on factors that include family status, sobriety and ethnicity. In all too many cases, laws and judicial systems have determined that forced sex is not really rape.

To understand this better, consider this short list of successful defenses:

It's not rape if she is my wife. Marriage is perhaps the most commonly used cover for rape, so internalized that many women themselves seem to accept it. When I asked a woman in the Dominican Republic in 2004 if her husband ever forced her to have sex, she shrugged and said: "I guess he is a bit violent. He rapes me at times." Unfortunately, this atrocity is often sanctioned by law. Some countries, such as Ethiopia and Indonesia, define rape as something that happens only outside of marriage. In many others, rape is defined more broadly but is interpreted by courts and police as excluding marital rape. The logic can be applied after the fact, too: Several countries, including Brazil and Libya, exonerate a perpetrator of rape if he agrees to marry the victim.

It's not rape if she is my daughter. Though unconscionable to many, incest is seen in some countries as either unfortunate or not all that forced. In Mexico, for example, the rape of a teenage girl by her father is defined as voluntary until it is proved otherwise. Under most state criminal codes in Mexico, incest is considered a crime against the family, not against the physical integrity of the victim, and the underage victim is initially considered as much a criminal as the adult perpetrator.

It's not rape if she was drunk. Over the years, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented how prosecutors and courts are likely to treat testimony by rape victims with more suspicion than testimony regarding other types of crimes. Routinely, women are aggressively questioned about whether the intercourse was really involuntary, whether the victim somehow provoked or deserved the assault, and whether the assault even occurred. The mistrust is particularly pronounced when the victim admits to being anything other than completely sober before or during the attack. The frenzied media coverage in England last year of a controversial proposal to change the burden of proof in rape cases appeared to perpetuate the belief, which seemed to be widely held, that a drunk rape victim "had it coming."

It's not rape if my culture mandates intercourse. When the presumed next president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, stood trial on rape charges in 2006, he bolstered his defense with references to tradition and culture. Zuma testified that his accuser had signaled her arousal by wearing a knee-length skirt to his house and sitting with her legs crossed. He said that it is unacceptable in Zulu culture not to proceed to a sexual encounter once a woman is aroused. Zuma was acquitted, but regardless of the outcome, it is troubling that a high-level politician in any country, much less a country with epidemic levels of sexual violence, peddles the notion that women may mean yes even when they say no.

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton can change this. During his time in the Senate, Biden has championed draft legislation that would make violence against women a foreign relations priority for the United States, through, for example, supporting legislative reform abroad and a victim-centered approach to violence. As a senator, Clinton supported this legislation. As vice president and secretary of state, Biden and Clinton could make central to U.S. foreign policy the fight against perpetrators' getting away with rape and other forms of violence against women. They should start by creating a coordinating office at the State Department to build on this work. Rape is bad no matter what country it takes place in, whatever the age or marital status of the victim. There is no other way to look at it.