2017: A Year of Strength for Women

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As we look back on The Advocates’ women’s human rights work in 2017 and the movement to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, the word that comes to mind is strength In the last year, we strengthened the capacity of women’s rights defenders, made life-saving recommendations for reforms, and strategized how the UN can become even better in achieving gender equality.

We continued to identify gaps in governments’ responses to violence against women so we can tell them how to make women’s lives safer. Last year, we released reports on domestic violence in Montenegro and Serbia, where they become tools to bring sweeping changes.

Because of our reports, laws become better: domestic violence is criminalized, victims’ protections strengthened, and shelters funded.

 

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We also began building a multi-country cadre of women’s human rights defenders to use international mechanisms. By teaching 16 Russian-speaking lawyers how to leverage these remedies, we build their capacity to safeguard women’s rights against sexual harassment, trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. This work is powerful and life-saving for the women in many countries with few realistic options for safety.  One lawyer told us,

With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best.”

 

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And, of course, we have continued our advocacy before the UN, holding countries to the highest standards of women’s rights, while expanding our lens to focus on the UN itself. After all, if the UN is going to lead on women’s human rights, it must lead by example. In the face of ongoing investigations of sexual harassment by senior UN figures, such scrutiny is long overdue.

As a core member of the UN Gender Network, we are reviewing the UN’s gender equality policies and will make recommendations for reform at a UN roundtable next month.

We will continue to build on our momentum through 2018. I hope you will join us at three exciting events:

Please join us in 2018 as we celebrate women’s human rights, and thank you for your support to make the world a better, safer place for women.

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

 

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The delegation from Ukraine, led by H.E. Mr. Sergiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine for the European Integration, speaks during Ukraine’s Universal Periodic Review on November 15, 2017. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/28th-upr/watch/ukraine-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5647215634001#

For the 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Ukraine, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder report in collaboration with Center “Women’s Perspectives,” a non-governmental agency based in Lviv, Ukraine. The report focused on the prevalence of domestic violence in Ukraine.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy recorded 96,143 complaints of domestic violence, and data indicate that the number of complaints has been on the rise by 10% per year. The legal system fails to adequately protect women, a problem exacerbated by ongoing political conflict.  Ukraine has not yet created a specific crime of domestic violence, nor has it specifically defined gender-based violence in its laws. A package of laws to address violence against women passed a first hearing in Parliament in 2016, but was sent back to a working group over concerns the draft laws were harmful to traditional family values. Members of Parliament have asked the working group to remove references to “gender” and “sexual orientation” and to allow religious groups to sit on the Working Group. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Victim services remain insufficient and underfunded.

During the UPR in early November 2017, 70 countries made 190 recommendations to Ukraine, 29 of which were related to domestic violence or violence against women. This marks a significant increase from the four domestic violence-related recommendations made in 2012, a sign that more countries are taking note of conditions in Ukraine.

After the review, the country can either accept or reject the recommendations, and can choose to provide an additional response if it wishes to explain its decision. The UPR process also gives the state under review the option to delay its response to some or all of the recommendations. Ukraine has decided to defer decision on all of its recommendations and will have until March 2018 (the 37th session of the Human Rights Council) to submit an addendum with its responses to the recommendations.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the fourth in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

 

Building the Capacity of Russian-Speaking Lawyers to Protect Women’s Human Rights 

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Our Legal Training Academy fellows from Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan working together on a UN treaty body exercise.

Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.  

 

The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.  

 

In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.

For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”  

 Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.  

 

In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said, 

“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”  

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

My Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

My Domestic Violence Monitoring Mission to Montenegro

By Angela Liu, Dechert LLP

“Domestic violence is a “style of communication between the parties.”  It is the “victim’s choice . . . to be communicated to her with violence.”

My jaw dropped.

I then quickly pulled myself together from a momentary state of shock as I listened to a mediator in Montenegro matter-of-factly explain his thoughts on domestic violence. By this point in our mission, I kept thinking that I would get used to the way our interviewees spoke about domestic violence. After all, we had spent an intense week in six cities throughout the country — from the Albanian border to the Serbian border — interviewing members of Parliament, judges, prosecutors, police, social workers, doctors, and even the victims themselves. But in each interview, like in this one with the mediator, I always learned something new.

As a white collar and securities litigator at Dechert LLP, an international law firm, I joined the monitoring mission with The Advocates for Human Rights to Montenegro, having never done any domestic violence work, let alone traveled to the Balkans. But I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity when our firm committed its resources to pursue the monitoring mission in Montenegro in 2015, a country that was a part of the former Yugoslavia and gained its independence in 2006.

Having the honor of learning from Rosalyn Park and Amy Bergquist, two impressive Advocates attorneys at the forefront of the human rights movement, we paired up in teams and started each day early in the morning traveling to a new city so that we could begin interviewing around 9 a.m. Our days were packed with organized interviews that very rapidly revealed that domestic violence was not only a widespread problem in Montenegro – it was also a very private one. I was struck how I took for granted our comparably victim-centered laws, practices, and education, as I heard story after story about how keeping the family together – as opposed to keeping the victims safe – came first. I witnessed the defense and excusal of offenders as interviewees pushed back about depriving offenders their rights: “where will the offender go if evicted?” was a reoccurring theme. In interview after interview, I heard about the lack of coherent coordination and adequate resources. And for the first time, as an associate, I viscerally understood why the rule of law and even how our physical courtroom is set up is so important – something I take for granted every day here in the U.S.

What impressed me the most about Montenegro wasn’t just the rugged mountains that explained why the country is called “Black Mountain,” nor was it the coastline that looked like it was straight out of movie. What impressed me the most was undoubtedly the resiliency and strength of the victims of domestic violence. I had the opportunity to interview one such victim who showed me photographs of bruises all over her body that were submitted to the court. She so bravely explained how she came up against road block after road block with every institutional response and is currently mired in multiple court proceedings to tell her side of the story. I saw victims weaving beautiful rugs at a women’s shelter as they heroically learned a new skill to have some form of economic independence. And as we stayed in that same shelter one night, I was moved by the incredibly strong women that are fighting every day with limited resources to help these victims. Our partners Natasa Medjedovic at SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence – Niksic and Maya Raicevic at Women’s Rights Center were examples of such strength, who challenged the seemingly accepted notion that “just being a patriarchal society” is an adequate response to the problems these victims face.

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Pictured above: Angela Liu, Megan Walsh, Maja Raicevic, Rosalyn Park, Milica Milic, Natasha Medjedovic, Tamara Radusinovic, and Amy Bergquist.

This trip, however, could not have been made possible for me without the support from my firm to which I am very grateful, and I would encourage other firms to continue their support as well. What I took away from the pro bono experience was how just taking the time and honing your own fact finding and deposition skills can impact the laws and practices of an entire country in a tangible way. It’s hard not to fall in love with a profession when you get to practice and develop your skills, let alone in a context where you’re seeing prosecutors, police, and doctors begin to consider using particular laws or protocols while being interviewed; or members of Parliament, judges, and even the victims ask for advice or more training to make their country better.

After two years of work, the 200+ page report based on our mission is now finished. It shines a light on the laws and practices in Montenegro, which will be helpful in advocacy in the country and at the United Nations. I also hope that one day domestic violence will never be known as a chosen style of communication in Montenegro.