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Sexual Violence, Human Rights and the Media

By Maria Hengeveld, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Sexual violence is usually not covered as a human rights issue.  As the archetypical normalized, invisible, overlooked and structural human right violation, it is more often treated as an everyday, normal problem rather than a violation of women’s rights to health, life, bodily integrity, education, and more. The culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, and the fact that rape is notoriously underreported, can hardly be detached from the media’s failure to communicate to people that they actually can report these as crimes.

It is a missed opportunity, and a troubling one, because the way the media chooses to frame sexual violence influences how people think about rape. They can shape, challenge and perpetuate dominant perceptions or illuminate harmful misconceptions and shed

Photograph by Zubair Sayed

a light on the contestations and anxieties that surround the topic. Moreover, they can channel the outrage and disgust towards, for example, child-rapists into anger and calls for accountability towards our governments.  Making sexual violence newsworthy as a human rights violation, rather than something that happens to happen as long as bad men are around, matters.

Making rape newsworthy is not where the media’s responsibility ends. Exposing power-relations that underlie human rights violations also counts. As feminists have long demonstrated, rape is about power. Coverage of sexual violence shouldn’t end with a narrow description of what has happened to whom and how, but should also contextualize the events with an explanation of gendered power relations. Sexual violence should be seen as a violent performance of patriarchy and an enactment of masculinity; both pervasive and structural forces, but also fluid and therefore changeable. Focusing on the violent masculinities doesn’t mean identifying it as the sole cause; the blame must still be placed on the perpetrator. But not without mentioning the power structures that enabled or encouraged him to commit this crime; and the responsibility of the government to take action and show political will to fix these pervasive social ills. If the media would educate us all a bit better around patriarchy and masculinity, we might actually tell our governments to put political will behind their human rights talk.

The media’s ability to either encourage or discourage rape survivors to report their crimes to the police matters as well. Reading about arrests, trials and convictions and the laws that are violated with an act of nonconsensual sex is more likely to incline women to report rape to the police than grim media narratives that simply describe place, time and brutality.

The media have a responsibility to make sexual violence a human rights issue. Human rights education, then, should also include an education of the educators. Both editors and reporters need to know and understand what human rights are if a ‘rights culture’ is to be built.

This article previously appeared in Women in and Beyond the Global on February 14, 2014. 


Putin’s Calculus in Ukraine

By David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights


Crimea is more than a flash-point for conflict between Ukraine and Russia. War between Ukraine and Russia has potential regional and global implications. While supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, the Obama administration must be careful not to escalate tensions. It may be possible, however, to change President Vladimir Putin’s calculus through a combination of carrots and sticks.

Events are fast-moving and volatile. On Friday, Russian Special Forces and helicopter gunships invaded Crimea. They closed the main airport and set-up check-points, seizing key buildings. On Saturday, the Russian Duma authorized the deployment of armed forces to Crimea, which has a majority ethnic Russian population. By Sunday, 6,000 Russian forces established complete control of Crimea.

Russia may escalate the conflict by deploying forces in the ethnic Russian belt between Donetsk and Khirkiv. Will Putin take steps to “liberate” other ethnic Russian territories in the so-called near abroad? Pro-Western countries in Baltic States, Georgia, and Moldova should beware.

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Map of Ukraine from NBC News

Russia’s invasion of Crimea was no surprise. Moscow telegraphed its intentions, the same way it did before invading Georgia in 2008. When Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown, Russia launched military exercises on the Russia-Ukraine border, scrambled war planes, and put tens of thousands of troops on alert. Dmitry Medvedev warned that the turmoil in Ukraine “posed a real threat to our interests and to our citizens’ lives and health.”

Obama waited until after Russia’s invasion to warn of “costs.” Secretary John Kerry declared that Russia’s actions were “unacceptable.” U.S. protests were too non-descript, and too late. The time to warn Putin was before he deployed Special Forces.

Putin is in complete control of the situation. He delights in making a mockery of Obama’s righteous indignation, exposing the hypocrisy and weakness of the West. After Obama’s wobbly warning to Syria, Putin knows that Obama will never go to war over Ukraine.

At this stage, Obama must avoid overheated rhetoric. Idle threats serve no purpose. The United States should focus on keeping the conflict from escalating. Immediate measures are also needed to stabilize Ukraine.

When Kerry goes to Kiev on Tuesday, he should offer specific types of economic, security and political assistance. Even a token loan guarantee will demonstrate support for the interim government.

Huge sums will be needed to pull Ukraine’s economy from the brink. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should intensify efforts to assemble a $20 billion rescue package. Details can be finalized after Ukraine’s new government is elected. Meanwhile, the IMF should work with the interim government to finalize loan terms, including structural adjustments, austerity spending, and reduced energy subsidies. Transparency and anti-corruption measures will be needed.

Ukraine also suffers a democracy deficit. Kerry can announce U.S. support for consolidating Ukraine’s democratic transition, which focuses on civil society not just state-building. Support for judicial and electoral reform is also a priority.

Assistance should not only target western Ukraine. Ethnic Russian regions in the east should also benefit.

The NATO-Ukraine Commission languished during Yanukovych’s administration. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) should accelerate Ukraine’s NATO membership by revitalizing its Membership Action Plan. Meanwhile, NATO can show solidarity by conducting joint military training exercises with Ukrainian armed forces; NATO can also extend its combat air patrol to Ukraine. NATO monitors could be sent to the Russia-Ukraine border. The U.S. can strengthen bilateral security cooperation by dispatching the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Kiev to review Ukraine’s military capacity in the context of U.S.-Ukraine National Defense Talks.

Trans-Atlantic cooperation is critical. The EU has given vague assurances. Brussels should be more specific about ways its European Neighborhood Policy can support Ukraine’s economic and political stabilization. It should affirm its commitment to an Association Agreement and establish visa liberalization for Ukrainians traveling to EU member states.

The West must establish clear red lines with Russia. A U.S. envoy should visit Moscow to:

  • Demand that Russian forces return to their bases in Crimea, abiding by current lease terms for the Naval Air Station in Sevastapol.
  • Emphasize that sending additional forces to Crimea or other parts of Ukraine would represent a serious escalation.
  • Warn against deploying new weapons systems in Crimea, including surface to air missiles.

The envoy should also warn Russia not to make the mistake of establishing diplomatic relations with Crimea. Russia signed “Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance Agreements” with Abkhazia and South Ossetia on September 17, 2008. The agreements violated cease-fire terms ending the Russia-Georgia war, perpetuating hostilities.

The Obama administration has suspended preparatory discussions for the G-8’s upcoming meeting in Russia. If Russia’s expands its aggression, can G-8 members attend the Sochi summit in June? Sending a signal is important, but so is maintaining channels of communication.

Obama has threatened economic isolation. The Magnitsky Act can be applied to hold individual Russian officials accountable through travel bans and freezing their assets. In addition, the Congress could pass legislation requiring an annual review of Russia’s Most Favored Nation trade status. Obama could suspend U.S.-Russia bilateral trade talks.

The EU can do its part by suspending negotiations with Russia on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. It could revoke the visa facilitation regime for Russia. The EU can also impose sanctions on Russian businesses investing in Crimea.

A carrots and sticks strategy must include positive incentives.

Kiev should pledge not to use force against Crimea. It should avoid actions that Russia might use to justify its aggression.

The NAC should issue a statement that it will not take military action over Crimea.

The Ukrainian government should reiterate its commitment to the current lease allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastapol until 2042.

The Ukrainian parliament can strengthen the protection and promotion of minority rights. It can recommit to Crimea’s autonomy, identifying new ways to enhance local control over governance, economic affairs, natural resources, and cultural rights.

Under UN auspices, a Peace Implementation Council (PIC) could be established to build confidence between Russia and Ukraine, including Crimea. The PIC could include working groups on security and humanitarian issues, as well as an Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism to prevent disputes along the administrative boundary lines from escalating. A hot line connecting Russia and Ukrainian defense officials should be established.

The international community could broker a declaration on the non-use of force between Russia and Ukraine, with Crimean representatives as signatories. The declaration is not a treaty between sovereigns; therefore, it would not represent any recognition of Crimea.

Russia needs a face-saving way out of the current crisis. It is unlikely that Russia wants to annex Crimea. It has enough problems within its current borders. Besides, 12 percent of Crimeans are Muslim Tatars. They could radicalized and join forces with Muslims extremists in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Rather than push for elections on May 25, a slower timetable could take some stress out of Ukraine’s transition. Yanukovych, opposition leaders, and a Russian envoy signed an EU-mediated accord on February 21 calling for presidential elections by the end of 2014.

The Obama administration also needs a way out. It needs to defuse the conflict with Russia, and discourage Putin from aggressing elsewhere. America’s prestige is at stake. Recent events in Ukraine highlight America’s downward trajectory from the unipolar moment of the early 1990s.

It may appear that the West has few options, but it has many diplomatic tools at its disposal. If Russia is the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

David L. Phillips

David L. Phillips


Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He is a former senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the administrations of President Clinton, Bush and Obama.

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post on March 3, 2014


UNEARTH -United Nations Exhibit Opens Door to the Past and Gives Hope to the Future

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 1.16.50 PM

By, Amy Sall, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


The UNEARTH exhibit, hosted by the Gabarron Foundation, is a multimedia exhibit based on four main themes: human rights, development, humanitarian assistance, and peace and security.  The exhibit creates a dialogue centered on the humanity of people through the use of archival footage and posters that evoke the spirit of the United Nations (U.N.) reflected in the organization’s principles of promoting peace, security and the protection of human rights.  Not only does the exhibit celebrate the efforts of the U.N., but its closing in 2015 will also commemorate the 70th anniversary of the organization’s existence.

Speaking on the ethos behind the exhibit, CEO and Vice President of the Gabarron Foundation, Juan Gabarron says the exhibit is about “creating awareness through the arts.” A task that was spearheaded by Chaim Litewski, Chief of the U.N. Television Section, and Antonio da Silva, Chief of the U.N. Multimedia Unit.  Litewski and da Silva, along with a team of curators, set out on a daunting mission to “unearth” barely touched, archival footage and images from throughout the U.N.’s history.

One of the main challenges Litewski and da Silva came across was narrowing the massive amount of historical documentation down to a cohesive display of ideas.  “It was really hard for us to figure out where the focus was going to be,” says da Silva, “because the U.N. archive is 68 years of archived material.” Sorting through the archive, which holds about 800,000 photos alone, was not the only challenge.  “From the film and video aspect, there is a significant amount of films that have not been digitized, which is a huge undertaking,” says Litewski.  Despite these challenges, Litewski, da Silva and the team behind, which also included Mark Garten, the head of the U.N. Photo Unit, materialized UNEARTH in a focused and interesting manner.

On describing the nature and structure of the exhibit, Litewski says, “The photos in one way or another relate to the four themes.”  To which da Silva added, “we want people to experience each of these four themes on their own, and let people discover aspects of each through the images.” This desire was encapsulated by the title of the exhibit itself. “That’s why it’s called ‘UNEARTH’. The word ‘art’ is in there, along with ‘U.N.’,” Litewski added.

The UNEARTH exhibit is a prime example of the burgeoning role art and media play in change-making, protecting human rights and fostering global peace and development. Sharing his views on this phenomenon, da Silva says, “We think that art brings people to think about what’s happening in the world today, in relation to the past. Since we are working with an archive, it allows the opportunity to look at specific topics of development, human rights and so on, and see what has changed and what hasn’t. These images, visuals, and audio create reflection towards what is going on in the world today.” He also adds, “Using social media, and crowd-sourcing, gathering people to participate in the creative process, is in fact part of the political process.”

Litewski agreed and added, “Art reflects three things. One being the way in which an artists, in this case the United Nations, looks at a particular subject. In this exhibit, in a way you are able to see what the U.N. was thinking when it produced certain images. It’s an interesting thing to understand what was behind something created at a particular time. Secondly, art reflects society at a particular time. Thirdly, it reflects the aesthetic perception and artistic mold a time period.”

The various elements involved in UNEARTH, from multimedia, the history of the United Nations, and the spirit and resiliency of humanity, have culminated into something much larger than an art exhibit. What was produced was something that allows us to draw from the past to improve the present and the future. By bringing the U.N. archive to life Litewski, da Silva, and their team created a narrative that will continue for years to come. In order to further engage in the international discourse the exhibit represents, Litewski and da Silva left some sound advice for future agents of change: “Listen. Listen to communities. Listen to people.”


*The UNEARTH exhibit at the The Gabarron Foundation in New York is now closed, but it will be travelling around the world until 2015, and will be hosted at different galleries globally.

Please visit or contact the Gabarron Foundation for more information:(

The Gabarron Foundation

149 East 38th Street, New York, NY 10016



Amy Sall is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s M.A. in Human Rights Program.  Her interest is in human rights in Africa, with a special focus on children’s rights and youth development on the continent.


“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.


Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.


M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.


M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.


M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.


M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.


M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.


M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.


M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.


Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

UN Negotiations Fail to Disarm Human Rights Abusers

By Amanda Barrow, M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

Which is more heavily regulated: the global trade of bananas or AK-47s?

In late June, activists led by Amnesty International (AI) highlighted a striking reality: there are more international regulations governing the export and import of bananas than there are on the trade of arms and ammunition. This is particularly problematic when considering the fact that the easy availability of weaponry—rather than, say, bananas—is what facilitates innumerable human rights abuses throughout the world. The indiscriminate transfer of arms undermines economic development, jeopardizes stability and security, and results in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

You need not look further than Syria, where repressive ruler President Assad has had his will enacted through the use of heavily armed, violent force. Describing Russia’s continued arms sales to Syria in the midst of this crisis, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Susan Rice argued,“It is not technically a violation of international law since there’s not an arms embargo, but it’s reprehensible that arms would continue to flow to a regime that is using such horrific and disproportionate force against its own people.”

Source: Amnesty International

Of course, Ambassador Rice failed to address the fact that the United States is far from innocent when it comes to arming human rights abusers. Quite to the contrary, the United States is the world’s largest conventional arms exporter, guilty of continuously supplying weapons to brutal governments. Tracing the various violent crowd control methods used against the peaceful protesters of the Arab revolutions, a recent AI report demonstrated that the U.S., Russia, and a handful of European countries supplied the majority of the weapons—ranging from sniper rifles to armored vehicles—that were used to terrorize citizens.

This should all resonate as quite duplicitous. After all, the U.S. was ardently vocal in its support for the protesters promoting democracy. Yet, it was simultaneously supplying governments with the tools to suppress these voices. Like the United States, the United Kingdom also engages in arms sales rife with hypocrisy. In 2010, the government issued its annual human rights report identifying 26 “Countries of Concern.” However, in that same year, the UK approved arms exports to 16 of these countries, including Libya, Pakistan and Israel.

This is what the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was intended to remedy. The AI-led campaign in June aimed to affect the outcome of the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, held throughout the month of July.  Since 2003, civil society activists have called for a legally binding ATT to regulate transfers of conventional weapons and put an end to those deemed irresponsible. They imagined a treaty that would require governments to assess whether or not the weapons they were selling would be used to violate international humanitarian law or to commit human rights abuses. Under this framework, Russia’s arm sales to Syria would be heavily scrutinized, if not forbidden.

The United States would also be forced to justify its decision to sell arms to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where its weapons are continuously used to perpetrate gross violations of human rights, including mass scale rapes. According to a UN investigation of an early January 2011 incident, at least 47 women were subjected to sexual violence in the North Kivu province; several reported that the military fired their weapons to intimidate them before raping them. Devastatingly, this is not an isolated, extraordinary incident. As is increasingly recognized in the international community, sexual violence is often employed against civilians during armed conflict, with conventional arms often facilitating these acts.

“Nonviolence,” sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd, UN Plaza

Friday, July 27th marked the end of the United Nations’ unprecedented—and ultimately unfulfilled—opportunity to create an international Arms Trade Treaty. The 11-page treaty text, under which governments would agree not to export weapons that would be used to facilitate the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other crimes of international law, had to be unanimously approved. As a result of powerful opposition from countries like the United States, the conference ended in failure. The strength of the arms industry, the gun lobby, and the political calculations made by individuals who had the power to reduce human suffering are to blame for a truly disappointing outcome.

Yet, the UN has pledged to resume efforts to pass an arms trade treaty, and civil society organizations continue to work tirelessly to hold the body to its charter’s arms regulation promise. With the help of Amnesty International, individual citizens can take action by showing their governments that the outcome of July’s treaty negotiation conference was unacceptable. Until a new treaty is negotiated, bananas will be subject to more international regulation than the trade of military helicopters, battleships and conventional arms.


Amanda Barrow is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She studies the intersection of gender and transitional justice.

Time to Rethink: The ‘Women’s Dilemma’ and Public Policy

By Yasmine Ergas, Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights

The ‘women’s dilemma’ is center stage – again. I call it that even though the impossible balancing of family life and professional life that Anne-Marie Slaughter recently dissected in a widely debated article in The Atlantic affects many men too. It still is primarily a women’s issue, and it will take some time before it can be characterized in gender-neutral terms. A recent workshop promoted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, with the financial support of ISERP, and the co-sponsorship of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, analyzed many of the new terms of the ‘motherhood’ issue. The following remarks are informed by that debate but do not seek to summarize it. Instead, I focus on some of the issues that Slaughter’s article raises.


Slaughter has been much criticized for lamenting that “women still can’t have it all.” In truth, the “having it all” that Slaughter wants is pretty modest – a chance to be both a woman with a profession and a woman with a family life. Years ago, I was part of a group of Italian feminist social scientists. Together, we wrote a book about “time for oneself:” the idea was that beyond the “double work” of employment and family that we had endlessly analyzed, there ought to be a time to care for oneself, to reflect, recharge, and perhaps even just enjoy. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” the Jewish sage Hillel famously asked. I’m not given to Talmudic quotations, but that seems like a pretty radical thought to me – and the thirty years that have passed since the Gruppo di Ricerca sulla Famiglia e Condizione Femminile wrote about time for oneself have only made it appear the more so. Everyone may have a right to the pursuit of happiness but too often women must make their arguments in terms of the benefits they produce for others rather than the quality of life they can procure for themselves.

Slaughter’s discussion slips between the twin registers of duty and desire. As she acknowledges, it’s not necessary for your son to be going through a troubled adolescence—as hers was when she decided to leave her post in the State Department to return to full-time academia and life as a public intellectual—to want to care for him. The pleasure of motherhood is not just in the satisfaction of an obligation; one of the reasons we have fought so hard for reproductive rights is to ensure that women can have children because they want to. That desire doesn’t generally exhaust itself on the birthing table; there’s an incredible pleasure in holding your baby, and in picking up your child from school, and in being there for a first love crisis or one of those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days” (to crib from Judith Viorst’s wonderful book). Similarly, you don’t have to be shepherding the country through the financial crisis, or more simply trying to impart some sense of how human rights law works and why it’s important, to feel that your work is necessary – not only for what you may be contributing to others but for yourself. The paycheck is fundamental, perhaps never more than today. But that’s not all. When I collaborated with the women’s coordinating committee of the Italian metalworkers’ union on a project on women and work, the workers we interviewed – all women employed in factories – said they valued working for many reasons, including the sociability of being with each other. It’s not only for professionals with options that working is three parts desire.

Slaughter asks: can we put it all together? Not if it’s virtually impossible to do both at the same time. As Slaughter acknowledges, in today’s United States at least, there’s no good way to place either having children or developing your career on hold without paying an exorbitant price. “Freeze your eggs,” she advises young women. It’s a mantra that is heard throughout the country today as eager younger women seek counsel from older mentors. Is that really the solution? Wendy Chavkin pointed out at the Motherhood Workshop the frightening dearth of information regarding the risks associated with being shot full of hormones and subjected to complex—and costly—surgical procedures associated with assisted reproductive technologies. But that’s not all: I wonder how many of today’s young professionals will have a chance to use their eggs at all. As I finished a talk on reproductive surrogacy a few years ago, a young woman spoke up. She was about to graduate from Columbia Business School, she said, but several of her friends had finished earlier and found corporate jobs. “But once they became pregnant,” she went on, “they were fired.” Although that’s illegal, her solution was not an anti-discrimination suit. “Could you tell me,” she concluded, “in what states of the US surrogacy is legal? Because I was thinking that that would be a way to solve the problem of pregnancy on the job….”

Source: Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Compulsory substitutive maternity may still be the stuff of science fiction, but having been a law associate with a young child, I know about the status of family life in corporate culture. My firm had a gym and defended religious partners’ Sabbaths, not a day-care service and a “celebrate your child’s birthday” policy. What is there now to stop law firms or major corporations from offering – and not so subtly incentivizing – paid-for surrogacy for valued associates and junior partners? $80k is a good deal when your employee bills several multiples of that figure every year. Not having children is – as Syliva Hewlett has noted responding to Slaughter – a choice that should be fully legitimated and supported. But it should be a choice.

For all the drumbeat on work-family balance, American law firms have not had to think too much about how to deal with the ‘women’s dilemma:’ analyzing the data, sociologists Daniela Grunow and Silke Aisenbrey have demonstrated that American women practically give birth on the job or else (and sometimes, also) give up their jobs altogether. That’s because American women have to solve the “career or family” issue individually. True, the Family and Medical Leave Act protects about half the women in the work force from being fired – if they ask for maternity leave and have the means to support themselves without income, in other words, if they’re financially secure and employed by a large organization. But if they’re financially secure because they’ve earned well – i.e., because they’re professionals – and they don’t want to backslide, often they will hardly take the leave. The job pressures are such that, as Slaughter says, you can never compensate enough for your time off. Instead, you do what in the U.S. we do best: you turn to the market – traditionally, for child care services, and now, increasingly, for procreative ones.

That’s not because there are no public policies; it’s because the public policies we have promote privatized solutions. As political scientists learned long ago, when governments opt not to do something, they’re actually, positively, doing something, making a decision. When the Family and Medical Leave Act passed with no assurances of income support, let alone guarantees of job continuity, Congress made a choice: to support only those who could pay for themselves and risk the consequences. That choice does not simply affect individual women and their families; it tells the country and the world what our public values are. If you want confirmation, play ‘follow the tax code.’ Which is fully deductible: child care for working parents or chauffeured limousines for corporate executives? Unsurprisingly, this is not (or not just) about what have euphemistically been called ‘family values.” There’s a powerful economic rationale for Congress’ decision. Social scientists have long argued that mothers function as a reserve work force. When the economy needs them, they get pulled in; when it contracts, they get pushed out. Luckily for the Treasury, when mothers are pushed out they disappear from the unemployment numbers: they’re not not working, they’re not looking. S&P ratings don’t move; our demand for ‘unskilled’ – often but not always, foreign – labor does. Call it the international political economy of reproduction – as participants in the Motherhood Workshop repeatedly noted, you can’t talk about the social organization of motherhood these days without seeing it as an international as well as domestic policy issue.

We now have fully internationalized and stratified ‘procreative chains’ and ‘care chains.’ Complex industries promoted by brokers and lawyers (and, in the case of surrogacy, clinics and medical personnel) as well as traffickers and more or less corrupt public officials have sprung up that organize them. We should understand how they operate.

‘Procreative chains’ are made up of providers of the ova, sperm and uteri that allow those who cannot or will not reproduce biologically to do so by acquiring the relevant goods and services. I don’t know of any ‘hard’ data, but anecdotal evidence abounds about ‘older’ women’s recourse to procreative chains. If the young woman who asked me about surrogacy is any indication, employment pressures may also bolster a younger demand for reproductive surrogacy. The key to this expanding market is that you can do a lot of comparison shopping, paying significant sums to match (or improve on) yourself genetically, for example, while economizing on the ‘gestational carrier.’ If you have substantial resources, you may choose a carrier in California. But if you’re making do with less, you may turn to India. Concerns about abusive treatment of gestational carriers abound. Personally, I have many doubts about the enforceability of contracts that compel women to give up children to whom they have given birth, even though I understand that those children would not have been born but for the contractual agreements that framed their conception and gestation and that they have often been conceived using the sperm of their prospective fathers (Carol Sanger at Columbia Law School has written extensively on these issues). But leaving such concerns aside, where’s the movement to protect overseas surrogates from exploitation? Apart from some law review articles, the silence has been deafening.

Anthropologists and other social scientists have documented the emergence of “care chains,” made up of domestic laborers who migrate in order to provide the care work – importantly, as nannies and helpers for the elderly – that enable the families buying their labor to function. These workers are often women, and they leave behind children and parents for whom they have to make care-giving arrangements. Frequently, this means mobilizing kinship networks: “labor-importing” nuclear families rely on “labor-exporting” extended ones. Moreover, the flexibility of the local US female labor force is reflected in that of the immigrant laborers. When the former leave the workforce, they latter leave their employ. The conditions of this exodus are presumably tied to the workers’ status in the labour force. That’s why immigration reform is (also) a women’s issue: many of the workers are women, and many of the employers are women. But it’s not only immigrant women who work as care-givers. Many US born women do too – and their all-too frequent economic precariousness is also linked to the oscillations of professional women’s demand. Slaughter rightly acknowledges that she is speaking from a position of privilege to women of privilege – the women who can make choices about whether and how intensely or in what settings they will work. There are many women, as she notes, who cannot make those choices, and are inevitably left coping with impossible demands. It’s important to remember, that at least sometimes, those demands entail reconciling the need to care for their own children or elderly relatives with jobs caring for other people’s children and elderly relatives.

I am fortunate to be among the professionals to whom Slaughter is speaking. But this is not simply about personal privilege; it’s about the subversion of a social need into an individualistic scramble. Today, that scramble rests on an often implicit, but no less powerful, set of public policies that maintain the flexibility of the female labor force by pitting employment against family, allow us to access overseas gestators without inquiring into the conditions under which their labor is offered, and enable us to hire and import helpers when we need them and to dispense with them when we don’t.

The ‘women’s dilemma’ is not merely a personal, or even national, problem – what women who do have leadership positions can do; how corporations thinking about their bottom lines should treat workers – female and male – with families; and what younger women planning careers should consider. Slaughter has many recommendations on these issues with which I largely agree – including that finding a ‘supportive’ (i.e. co-responsible) partner helps. Ask yourself “will s/he share child care?” before recognizing his or her parenting claims. But then ask yourself: will that allow me to reconcile a 15 hour workday with a bedtime hug? Surprise answer: No. So my response is different: I hope that Slaughter’s article and the debate it has provoked will reawaken discussion of the ‘women’s dilemma’ as a public policy matter with significant international ramifications.

I can already hear the sighs – she must be dreaming, readers will be saying. At a recent seminar at Columbia University, a colleague commented on French attitudes towards marital life: “I don’t live in that country.” The United States is not Norway or France. But it’s a rich country that daily expends vast sums that shape its social organization and impact the whole world. Some of the ways in which it chooses to allocate its resources have brought us to where we are now. Isn’t it time to rethink?


Yasmine Ergas is the Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and Adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University. She is currently engaged in a study of the transnationalization of everyday life and its implications for human rights and international law. In April 2012, she chaired a Workshop on “Deconstructing and Reconstructing ‘Mother’ : Regulating Motherhood in International and Comparative Perspective.”  Her recent work includes an essay on Babies without Borders: Human Rights, Human Dignity and the Regulation of International Commercial Surrogacy.


Summer Update

Hello RightsViews readers!

While things have slowed down on campus for the summer semester, we’ve been busy working behind the scenes at RightsViews and have many updates to share with you.

First of all, we bid a big farewell to our founding co-editor, Tanya O’Carroll. It was Tanya’s vision for an interactive, digital forum for human rights students and scholars that got this blog up and running. Since graduating from Columbia’s Human Rights Studies MA program, Tanya has moved back to London where she is working at the Amnesty International Secretariat on a project that collaborates with the technology community
to help build solutions to human rights challenges. She will remain a member of our editorial board, but is handing the reigns over to Eve and two new members of our team. Good luck Tanya, and don’t forget to tweet about us!!

This summer, Laura Reed will join RightsViews as an Editor, and Jessica Eaton will be joining us as an Assistant Editor. Bringing together a range of editorial experience and human rights knowledge, our new team hopes to build upon what we started last year by bringing you more topical and thought-provoking work from Columbia’s human rights community.  You can read more about their backgrounds and interests on our editors page.

Coming up in the next few weeks, we will have another “Notes from field” post from a graduate student recently returned from Costa-Rica’s coffee plantations; coverage of Human Rights Watch’s 2012 film festival; and a piece on international campaigns against “water grabbing.”