“Gender equality is a realistic pursuit. It’s a general principle that many people want to pay service to, but it’s also something that many don’t want the ugly truth pointed out to them about.”
Minky Worden is optimistic. There’s reason to be optimistic, too. Globally, the rights of women are increasingly on the agenda, and it’s no stretch to say that the intense campaigning conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has gone some way to catalyse this. We need only look to Iran, where this month women will be able to watch beach volleyball for the first time, having previously been banned from sports stadiums since 2012. These women aren’t asking for a revolution – they have a clearly-laid out, specific and achievable goal, and it has been through lobbying with the International Volleyball Federation that Iranian women will now not be excluded from a public space. This targeted approach to women’s rights is central to the work of HRW, where campaigning is constantly seeking concrete gains and mappable results.
Gender equality isn’t going to happen unless we fight for it
“Abstract principles are wonderful,” she says, “but I always ask: ‘what does this mean for women and girls on the ground?’ The fight for gender equality is not just about raising awareness, it’s about reversing a specific attitude. Our work documenting and tackling FGM in Northern Iraq, for example, has required a sophisticated, multi-layered approach that involves the law, religion and cultural traditions. It takes listening to the experiences of the women concerned in order to understand just how stark the inequalities are.”
As HRW’s Director of Global Initiatives, Worden has developed and implemented numerous international outreach and advocacy campaigns tackling women’s rights and the rights of refugees. She previously served as HRW’s Media Director, working with journalists across the globe to help them cover wars, human rights abuses and political developments in over 90 countries. Her career is rooted in the advancement of rights for the disadvantaged and the under-represented, but she acknowledges that, growing up, activism wasn’t an obvious occupation.
“When I was studying at college and deciding what I wanted to do with my life, a ‘career’ as a human rights activist wasn’t really possible. I was fortunate enough to have a mother who worked as a professional artist and who always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. For that reason, it never occurred to me that there were any obstacles in my way being a woman, but I think that’s something many people take for granted. It took being in the working world to see that there are inequalities, be it paid maternity leave or women in senior positions. I’ve been fortunate to teach at Columbia University where my students can major in women’s studies or in human rights. These fields weren’t available when I was in education, so that’s real progress in the space of 30 years.”
Much has been anticipated since our last Olympic year, when Worden wrote and edited The Unfinished Revolution while in Egypt meeting women’s rights activists and interviewing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. With Rio 2016 on the horizon, much that is discussed in her book couldn’t be more pertinent today. “It’s an Olympic year, and we’re bound to read a number of inspiring stories of women athletes. What we won’t hear of though is the stories of women who have been excluded from sports, or where men are provided with all the resources and beautifully manicured pitches while their female counterparts kick a ball around in the parking lot.”
Men are provided with all the resources and beautifully manicured pitches while their female counterparts kick a ball around in the parking lot.
The need to champion women’s sport is paramount, but this becomes increasingly challenging when the very reason women are denied this basic right is inexorably linked to notions of ‘modesty’ and ‘decency’. How can women seek to participate in sport when it is considered ‘the step of the devil’? It’s a problematic circle to square. An underlying factor to gender inequality, as Worden highlights, is the value placed on women and girls. China’s family-planning policies remain coercive and abusive. Sudan’s ongoing war has led to women and girls becoming the commodities of an increasingly militarised society. Violence in Syria remains rampant and indiscriminate. Grappling with these harsh realities is both horrifying and disconcerting, and renders the work of HRW all the more vital.
“There is a misplaced value on the honour of women and girls globally which leads to honour killings and a low value attachment. In Sudan, girls are traded like cattle to men who may have multiple wives, which sets up a detrimental domino effect. Girls that are married off as children will suffer from health complications after childbirth. One of our researchers interviewed a woman who was married in her late teens and had 15 children. As a result, her education ceased because schooling and mothering in unison was unfeasible.
Worden is a passionate and enlightening speaker, driven by the injustices faced by others and the inadequacy of our governments, to use her platform for raising awareness of the often overlooked inequalities. Conversation moves onto the refugee crisis, which has recently been catapulted from a subsidiary issue to a more dominant debate by the media. We both agree that the crisis has been appallingly confronted by governments globally: as of October 2015, the death toll of the Syrian conflict alone had reached more than 250,000 people including over 100,000 civilians, with barrel-bombing, chemical weapons abuses and ISIS all having a detrimental impact upon men, women and children.
“In China, moreover, the one child policy has resulted in two critical consequences. It has taken the reproductive rights and choices out of women’s hands and put it in the hands of the state, which is always a bad idea. Additionally, there are millions of missing girls because of the preference for boys, and this has meant that many Chinese families only have a son. This is not only a demographic crisis but also a crisis of human rights. The policy has now been revised to a two child policy, but that’s ultimately still the Chinese government dictating to women how many children they can have.”
“HRW has been working for decades now to tackle the human rights abuses conducted by the Syrian regime. It is crucial to remember that refugees don’t just happen overnight. No one wants to leave their home and their livelihood. People are driven from their homes because of catastrophic human rights abuses, and that’s what we’re seeing in Syria. This is a crisis that has human rights at its root, and human rights are going to be the only solution to ending this catastrophe. The response from Europe has at times been uneven, and in places abysmal. When a person’s life is at risk in their own nation, nothing will deter them from fleeing their home, and European governments need to urgently consider that.”
On resolutions to our global inequality crises, Worden notes that education is a solution to the inequalities faced by women, but it is not the solution. “The right to an education is essential, but if you’re a girl and also a wife or a mother, continuing to attend school will become unviable. We are seeking empowerment, advancement, opportunity and choice, and it is education as much as it is health and sports that will get us to there.”
Worden and I both share the sentiment that advancing women’s rights is indeed a laudable goal, and that looking forward, we have to consider just how this is implemented in practice each and every day. “Gender equality isn’t going to happen unless we fight for it. We also have to recognise that there are profound challenges to this principle. Over the course of my career at HRW, I’ve learnt that the most successful human rights campaigns take place with a research base. Understanding the situation, having good communication with the women on the ground, and recognising what their objectives and aspirations are is critical.
In Iran, women will be able to watch beach volleyball for the first time this month
“There is a greater, ambient understanding of the rights and gender equality demanded by women, and it’s more achievable to pursue these aspirations than ever before. We won’t succeed without men, though. It is only with men demanding that women are given a seat at the table that we will see progression. International Women’s Day is coming up on March 8th, and my birthday is March 6th. I’ve always thought of International Women’s Day as my own personal holiday, and you could say it was my destiny to work on and advance women’s rights.”
With exceptional people such as Worden working at Human Rights Watch, the potential of disadvantaged women is being tapped, and I end our conversation feeling both humbled and inspired by her visionary thirst for a world where women face fewer barriers.
Visit the Human Rights Watch website to find details of the projects, reports and campaigns currently in operation.