Summer of Sisterhood: a Q&A with Minky Worden, editor of "The Unfinished Revolution"
“The Unfinished Revolution” is an anthology edited by Minky Worden. Over 30 contributors, including writers, activists, human rights experts, policy makers, and Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams contributed to this work. This collection of essays proposes conceivable solutions to confronting the continuous violations of women’s rights worldwide, including human trafficking, traditional customs such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, and unequal societal standings. We asked Minky to share some insight into the global fight for women's rights.
1. The Unfinished Revolution is a timely collection of writings about the global fight for women's rights. Did you realize this when you began or did events over the past year or so develop and prove that there is a new urgency to these stories?
One of the reasons for doing the book is that our women’s rights division had its 20th birthday, so we’ve been focusing on women’s rights for a long time and want to take this moment both to reflect on Human Rights Watch’s accomplishments and to look to the future. But I was reminded of the urgency of defending rights in political transitions when I interviewed Shirin Ebadi, the tenacious Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer. She told me her life story: as a young lawyer, she had been the first female judge in pre-revolution Iran, and was on the front lines of that revolution. But after the political revolution in 1979, Iran's legal system was changed to give women half the value of men in the eyes of the law, and Dr. Ebadi was made a secretary in the court she had once presided over. The Iranian government has since persecuted her for human rights and women's rights work, forcing her into exile.
So Shirin Ebadi's story, which she tells in the book, is a cautionary tale for today. We have seen political revolutions sweep decades-long dictators from office in the Middle East and North Africa. And that is a good thing. But we should remember that when new governments are taking power, when constitutions are being rewritten—as they are now in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya—this is a time of possible vulnerability for women and girls. Do women have a place at the table when new laws are written up? Will there be guarantees against discrimination in new constitutions? Will new governments finally get serious about harassment, violence and discrimination? Rights can be advanced and solidified—or basic rights and freedoms can be rolled back.
2. All of the issues raised in this book are serious and need more attention. Do you see them all as intrinsically linked or are there some, or one, that you find more pressing? Is there any one key solution?
The "Unfinished Revolution" refers to the global struggle for gender equality in education, work, health, and political participation. In many countries, women are legally considered second-class citizens, and in others, religion, custom, or simply discriminatory attitudes block basic rights to work or study, to be free from violence and to access health care, to name just a few. Around the world, women and girls are trafficked into forced labor; rape is used as a weapon of war in conflict zones, and women still face major obstacles to education and reproductive freedom. All these abuses are linked in some way as they ultimately stem from the same root: the low status of women and girls in some societies.
We know that the horrendous sexual violence in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other countries is linked to how women were treated before the conflict started. Domestic violence everywhere in the world is linked to economic participation of women, to police attitudes, to whether women have access to health care or other services. When a woman has to care for her children and herself in a refugee camp, and finds herself pregnant without access to health care, as we have seen in Haiti, for example, she risks losing her life. When girls are married at a very young age, and become pregnant before their bodies mature, they run the risk of injuries like fistula or even death, as the book describes in Kenya and India.
None of these links are simple, and many factors play a role, but we know that we need to look at the a woman’s situation in its entirety—the whole package, not just single out one form of abuse she faces. That’s why the best way to find out what problems women go through is to sit down with one of them and ask her: what do you go through on a day to day basis and why? The book is full of these complex, beautiful and important individual life stories. There is no single solution, but each chapter in our book makes specific, concrete and achievable recommendations that can change women’s lives for the better.
3. After reading this book it struck me that we still have so far to go. Do you struggle to find a balance between recognizing that serious progress has been made since it was declared that women's rights are human rights and how?
Despite the undeniable progress achieved in women’s rights around the world in the past two decades, much remains to be done. And that’s why we have done the book! If readers take one thing away, I hope it is the voices of those who are literally on the front lines of this struggle. Activists who take on this fight at risk of their own lives defend women and girls, often one by one. Some chapters are written by these impressive women, others include stories about them, but none of the work we do would be possible without the individuals in villages and cities around the world who challenge the status quo every day. The progress that has been made is through these individuals and we try to support them as much as we can.
Part of the reason I wanted this book to be written was to recognize their success. There is much to cheer in the book: how technology is opening horizons and economic opportunity for women; how victims of abuse are building institutions to help others; how advances in health and law can help make a reality of the slogan, “Women’s rights are human rights.”
However, the urgency is overwhelming, especially the need for justice and to end violence against women, in countries where women are losing ground, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. But there is an equally urgent need in countries where the abuses are more insidious—in Europe, where domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, or the United States, where many immigrant women face threats and abuse.
4. I think the cover photo and quote by Leymah Gbowee, one of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates of 2011, which says, "Women are not free anywhere in this world until all women in the world are free," pretty much sums it up. Is it really possible for those who enjoy their full human rights without the fight to understand this fight or take it up for those who don't?
Yes! I hope that readers feel compelled to act. In her chapter, the founder of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, Dorothy Thomas, calls it, “the power of an idea.” That means changing mind-sets, changing policies, changing customs, and changing laws. It is not easy, and it will not happen overnight, but it is needed everywhere, not just in the epicenters of suffering. Human Rights Watch is lucky to have a large network of supporters who do feel compelled to help.
People understand that countries all over the world are economically and politically linked, so a woman in the US telling her member of Congress that the US should fund programs against violence worldwide can impact a woman in Kenya. And what an activist does in Kenya can give women in other countries hope. Our book tells, for example, about a new global campaign called Girls Not Brides to end child marriage. Set up by the Elders, and run through a global network of groups, this campaign could affect the lives of as many as 100 million girls over the next decade.
5. You are the mother of three and were pregnant while working on this book. What do you wish most for your own young children's futures as you advocate for others?
I have to say that being pregnant and working on the book during my maternity leave gave me even greater conviction that we have to do more to end maternal mortality. When women and girls are dying needlessly in childbirth, and governments don’t even bother to count the deaths or investigate what went wrong, we really have to step up our work.
I have three sons, and you can bet they will be schooled to respect women’s rights! I think we all want future generations not to have to fight the same battles, and above all, I hope that we will see a shift in the value of women and girls, with gender equality as a central resolve for all governments worldwide.
About Minky Worden:
As director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch, Minky Worden develops international advocacy campaigns, edits books, and monitors crises, wars, human rights abuses and political developments around the world. She previously served as Human Rights Watch's Media Director, as an adviser to Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee in Hong Kong, and as a speechwriter at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. She is the editor of The Unfinished Revolution (Policy Press 2012), on the global fight for women's rights; the editor of a book on reform in China, China's Great Leap (Seven Stories Press, 2008), and co-editor of Torture (The New Press, 2005). Ms. Worden is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks Cantonese and German, and has three sons under 10. Follow her on Twitter @MinkysHighjinks .
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