Challenges of Change Panel 3: Legislating Public and Private Spaces (video)

Challenges of Change Panel 3: Legislating Public and Private Spaces (video)

Resource Type
Event Recording
Publication Year
English (US)




This video presents the third panel discussion from Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights, a WLP conference. 

Regan Ralph, panel chair and founding executive director of The Fund for Global Human Rights, notes that the human rights community accepted until the idea that the public sphere was dominated by men and the private sphere (the home) by women until 1993. The UN Human Rights Conference that year pointed out that women’s rights are human rights everywhere and that the “privacy” concept had allowed gross abuse of women’s human rights. If women have second-class status in the home, violence and neglect of human rights there become accepted and spread to larger society, reaching the courts and the workplace and leading to gross abuse of women and men both in conflict situations. The Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch began a women’s rights education campaign in 2000 for officials of the customary courts in the Congo, where women had no access to the formal justice system. At that time 80 percent of their verdicts defied the country’s legal protections for women. Now, however, only 10 percent of those decisions ignore the law.

Jacqueline Pitanguy, founder and director of Cidadania, Estudo, Pesquisa, Informacao e Acao (CEPIA), says in remarks read in her absence by Rakhee Goyal of PLP that women’s struggle for democracy is redefining democracy itself in Brazil. The 1988 constitution rejected “honor” killings and 2006 legislation outlawed violence against women. “Peace” now includes safety from domestic violence; more than 400 special police stations have been set up to handle such cases. Only a secular state guarantees freedom of religion and protection for human rights.

Asma Khader, general coordinator of Sisterhood is Global Institute/Jordan and a former Minister of Culture, says basic rights in her region are challenged by Middle East security tensions despite governments’ lip service. Iraq’s quota for women legislators brings in only those who are voices for the warring parties; Jordan’s refugee camps lack support from donors and the international communities. It is not true that governments are unaware; they need only to be held to account. Each country defends its family laws as immutable based on Islam, but they differ from one country to another and so must be amendable.

Eleanor Smeal, founder and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and former president of the National Organization for Women, notes that all laws affect people at lower economic levels far more than those at the top – and more women are poor than men. The disproportionate flow of wealth to the top therefore reflects the lack of a women’s human rights context for U.S. laws. In fighting for women’s human rights we are fighting to save the planet and humanity itself.

U.S. failure to ratify the fundamental international instruments of social justice – such as CEDAW, the Children’s Treaty and so on – weakens both the UN and the treaties’ authority, because U.S. funding is 20 percent of UN support. Yet CEDAW has accomplished an amazing amount of good worldwide. Senate objections to it contradict each other: on the one hand  that CEDAW is meaningless because it is not enforced in places like Saudi Arabia, which has ratified it but does not allow women to drive cars;  and on the other hand that CEDAW will undermine U.S. sovereignty by forcing change in our laws.

Change is terribly hard in the U.S. Congress. One senator can block anything for years: only in 1994 was wife-beating outlawed, and the women’s movement is now being boxed in by abortion politics. Moneyed interests are the real opposition, she said, “because if you give full rights to half the population you have to pay them better.” Yet U.S. women are too comfortable, with homes and dinners awaiting them even after a legislative defeat. Millions of other women are not so lucky. “Every time we lose, countless people suffer, so we have to fight harder,” she said.


 A multi-tactical approach is required for success, Smeal says: writings, research, picketing, demonstrations, media work, legal work, all of it nonviolent and none of it too professionalized. No legislation passes until the grassroots grow passionate and demand it: “We can’t mimic the moneyed interests in lobbying so we have to have numbers and mobilize those numbers.” Stay small – the larger your organization gets, the harder it is to meet payroll. But we must eliminate the fear that keeps women in their place and silent. Khader calls for more global attention to UN Resolution 1325, which requires parties in conflict to respect women’s rights and involve them in peacemaking. Young people taking part in today’s conference must not take their rights for granted but involve and target men as partners in defending women’s rights, which can be and have been withdrawn.

Rakhee Goyal of WLP, speaking for herself, noted that the new social media amplify young people’s voices, so that they can achieve tremendous change by exchanging experiences and successful techniques for affirming and insisting upon women’s rights, first in their own families and then around the world. “The road is long but achievements have been many and the possibilities are endless,” she said.