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Human Rights Watch In San Diego To Address Violence Against Women

Human Rights Watch In San Diego To Address Violence Against Women
Liesl Gerntholtz, director of Human Rights Watch's Women’s Rights Division will be in San Diego to talk about human rights abuses suffered by women around the world. We'll talk to her about the work Human Rights Watch is doing to put the issue of violence against women on the world's agenda and hear about abuse happening to women in the United States.

There are places around the world were violence against women, domestic abuse, sexual assault, even murder are not considered in the same realm as basic human rights. Some have said these issues are more cultural than political. Those arguments are not accepted by organizations like Human Rights Watch. The group's Women's Rights Division works to bring instances of abuse and violence to international awareness. But Human Rights Watch also does not accept the argument that violations of women's rights only occur in less-developed countries and it documents violations right here in the United States.


Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch


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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are places around the world where violence against women, domestic assault, even murder are not considered in the same realm as basic human rights. Some have said these issues are more cultural than political. Those arguments are not accepted by groups like human rights watch. The group, women's rights division, work to bring instances of abuse and violence to international awareness also does not accept the argument that violations of women's rights only occur in less developed kitchens and it documents violations right here in the United States as well. I'd like to introduce my guest, Liesl Gernholtz, and good morning, Liesl, thanks for joining us.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Good morning Maureen, thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Where does it human rights watch focus most of its work stopping violence toward women?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well we have researchers that cover all geographic regions across the world, including the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. So we really try to go where the work leads us and where there's a need to expose these violations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is this a part of the world or parit is of the world where women are most at risk?


LIESL GERNHOLTZ: I is it think that depends. I think, you know, what we would see all over the world is that violence against women, whether it occurs in the home, whether it's -- all over the world. Systems, that recognize violence against women as a crime, and hospitals and health systems that are more centered toward violence against women, and we tend to find those more often in the developed world, although I must stress not only there are places in the global south that have very good resources to fight violence against women. But sort of to draw a very crude distinction, we find that these issues are issues all over the world. What we do find in the developed world are sometimes more resources and, you know, that there's a willingness to respond to these issues.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering what does human rights watch actually do to help people who are suffering this kind of abuse around the world.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, our primary methodology is to document and expose violence, well, not just violence, but a whole range of violations of women's human rights. So we have researchers who work in the field, and if I can talk about a recent report we did looking at female genital mutilation in Iraq, this is something that has not been particularly well documented, there have been very isolated reports that it happens in Iraq, so we able to send a researcher who spent a considerable amount of time in Kurdistan, and documented the extent to which female genital mutilation was happening. After the report, we did.

A lot of advocacy a lot with the government, and also with the clerics because we find a lot of women cut because they believe it's a religious obligation which is clearly not the case. Because you have many Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Indonesia where this is not something that happens at all. So our primary -- what we do focuses to expose that these things are happening, and do advocacy at the highest level where changes can be made.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you often find some resistance even now when you bring up the rights of women with as part of the over all human rights continue of a particular country or region of the world.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: We do find resistance and also a neglect of these issues or arguments this, you know, there are many more important issues, for example, in Afghanistan we really need to sort out the political situation, and they will deal with the other issues like women and children's rights. But I have to say if we go back 20 years in 19 yeah, the slogan that came out of that conference was women's rights are human rights. And that at that time was an incredibly radical statement. And I think now we have seen radical progress, I think there's a broad acceptance that women's rights are part of human rights and they need the same kind of protection and attention as the so called traditional human rights like torture and disappearances. So I think we still have a long way to go, but I also think we've made a human amount of progress.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Liesl Gernholtz, and she is going to be giving a talk here, putting violence against women and girls on the international agenda, that's coming up at the San Diego world affairs council. Liesl, I know that a lot of effort from the women's division of human right it is watch, has gone into raising awareness about rape during war time as a war crime, tell us a little bit more about that.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, I think that work really started during the Bosnian war in Europe. And there, what our researchers were seeing was -- you know, they went into document signation against civilians, and they began to note that issued around sexual violence kept coming up. They documented at that stage sexual violence and rape as part of a whole range of violations that are happening to the civilian population. Then that would -- during the Rwandan conflict in the democratic republic. First you have the Rome statute that recognizes rape and sexual violence as a crime against humanity, which means perpetrators of these crimes can be tried if the countries of origin have signed up to the convention, and then you have resolution 1880 which was passed by the security counsel, which was really, one of the highest bodies of the united nations, and it recognizes that sexual violence is a threat to international peace and security which allows the -- which allows the security council to consider issues and to take action. Most recently then as a result of that, there's been the appointment of a representative on sexual violence who is mandated by a security council to really look at how sexual violence is happening, how it's being monitored, how data is collected and obviously submit recommendations about how the international community should respond to it. So I think we've seen a lot of progress made in how sex yell violence is seen by the international community and as part of the international human rights law.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you feel satisfied that you've been able to stop or decrease abuse against women, and do you look at any particular area where you see your organization playing I vital role?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: I think it's a really difficult question to answer. Because I think that we are part -- I know we feel that whatever work we have done and however successful that work has been issue we've done that in partnership and collaboration with a whole range of organizations, on an international level, but also at a role level. But I think work that we've been proud of is work we've done around exposing violations of the rights of migrant domestic workers, and these can have been women in countries who move from countries like in southeast Asia and what we have been able to document over I period of 5 and 6 years, have been the egregious violations of these women's rights. Everything from labor rights abuses, women, who are forced to work all day with no breaks, to sexual violations, and I think that, you know, having been able to build up this body of evidence about how women are treated and the failures in the legal system, we've seen quite significant progress both at an international level, currently the international level is considering -- and also at a national level, we've seen both at the level of kitchens and receiving countries, laws passed that regulate how these women are treated, that regulate their working conditions in the receiving countries and so on. And I think for me, what has been particularly important about this work, this is an extremely vulnerable group of women, once they leave their home country and they go into the receiving countries to work, they almost become invisible. They're not like the other groups of workers, they move outside of the home, they are going to construction sites, they are able to meet other workers, they are able to get in contact with their embassy if they need help. But the domestic workers really become invisible. They can't leave their homes they can't access information, they can't phone their embassies. So I think, you know, this was a group of women that largely had no access to help and that very few people knew what was happening to them. And we have been able to work amongst that organization to expose these violations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I am speaking request Liesl Gernholtz. And Liesl, speaking of women at migrant workers, we can bring the conversation a little closer to home here. I know that human rights watch has been working to prevent abuses happening here in the United States. And some happening allegedly in immigration detainment facilities.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, we just recently released a report at the end of August where we do you wanted sexual abuse against women in immigration detentions, and the report, which is a relatively short report documents about 15 or 16 separate -- and this in Texas, in Florida, in Washington state, in New York, so the pattern of abuses and the fact they happen all over the country, makes it very clear that they are systemic problems in immigration and how women are being treated. And you can't argue that these are isolated cases and you have a few bad apples. But this really makes the point to look at systemic change --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How has the U.S. government responded to dollar human rights watch report?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: It's fairly early days because the report was launched on the 23rd of August. Some of our recommendations have been around the need to collect better data, because while they are collecting data about what is happening in the facilities that have been largely managed by ice where there are gaps is that very often the immigration authorities rent out space in other facilities or control a few beds, and there are a significant number of women who go into those kinds of facilities, and this are extremely big gaps of our knowledge and information of women so there's certainly been a recognition that they need better data, the need to be collecting information not only in their own facilities but in other facilities, and I think there's a recognition that this is an important issue and they need to take it up.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is this the first time that the human rights issue has addressed itself to what's going on with women who are detained in the United States, migrant women who are detained in the United States or just the overall treatment of women who come in and work in a migrant jobs or as you say, in domestically, in illegal immigration?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: No, in fact, this report really came out of another report that we did last year, which looked at what happened to the health needs of women in immigration. And while we were investigating that group, while we were doing that research, women told us about issues of sexual abuse. But that report first looked at the age of women who are detained in immigration follows to access upper healthcare. And that included a whole spectrum of issues. So accessing medication for chronic metal needs like diabetes, accessing reproductive health care like pap smears, contraception, and then also for acute issues, you know, women who came in who were injured. So I think we have countries about what's happening for women in immigration detention. But I do have did say that we have been very pleased that many of the recommendations made as a result of that report, have been taken up, and we have had a very constructive relationship and discussion about improving access to health care for women in immigration detention. So that's been something that we have been very pleased about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, last week, the associated pressie reported that LA County will be testified 5000 rape kits that have been in the crime lab backlog. I know the human rites watch was instrumental in bringing attention to the backlog in the United States. How significant is the issue of untested rape kits in the US?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: You know, it's difficult to say, but we have certainly -- we've done and I know that there have been press reports and other investigations that have indicated there are problems in Detroit, there might well on problems in San Diego. So I think it's difficult to document the extent of the problem. But I think it's clear that it's a very significant problem.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do police departments say? They have this backlog of rape kits that they're not testing all rape kits.

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, I think, part of the argument is it's expensive. So they say they have many completing demands on budgets. Of so they make priorities. Part of it is also I think a lack of capacity within crime labs to do the progressing. So I think there are a range of issues that they put forward, and impacting on their ability to test all CRIME kits.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But what do you contend is the issue when they rape kits go untested?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, I think certainly for us, what we documented was we're in many cases where these kits were not tested, there was part of the process is to select physical ailments from the body of the rape survivor, usually, and that will include DNA samples, so there might be saliva, there might be semen, there might be hair. That will give us a profile of the perpetrator. Where this is not the first defense, there is the real possibility that the identity of the perpetrator can be picked up through DNA, because it will be on a computer, centralized computer database of perpetrators. So there's a real opportunity that if -- where the identity of the perpetrator is not known, and it's important to stress that many, many, many women and girls are raped by people that they know. By acquaintances, by fathers, by boyfriends by husbands, so in the case of stranger rape -- indicate that these perpetrators were not first time offenders and that they went on to rape other women, and so those crimes could possibly have been prevented. Had the kits been tested.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Liesl Gernholtz, director of the women's rights division at human rights watch. And Liesl, you're giving a speech here in San Diego tomorrow that focuses of putting the rights of women on the world agenda. Why do you think we are still talking about putting the rights of women on the agenda? Why aren't they already on the agenda?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: I think to a syrup except, Maureen, they are, the fact that we're having this conversation is an indication that there is an understanding and a willings to discuss women's rights. But just the fact that in the United States, you can have such a significant break down in the criminal justice system around rape that a place like Los Angeles can have a backlog of almost 13000 kits is an indication really of how women's rites are prioritized. So I think what we need to continue to do is be vigilant, we need to make sure that there's an ongoing discussion about women's rights, and we need to make sure that it's backed up with action, with money, and resources and whatever is needed to protect women's rights.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you're asking for each locality, each nation to set aside money and resources to that end?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: Well, I mean, we ask for a range of thing, as you probably know, the United States has recently established an agency to deal with women called UN women. And before this, women's rights in the UN was very fragmented, was under taken by a number of agencies, but there was no E85 rent for women's right as, for example, there are for children's rights. So it's taken a long time. But the -- UN woman was created about two or thee months ago, and they recently appointed Michelle barbo lay who was a high profile women's rights activist. And of course the question we are now asking is to what extent to institution is going to be resourced. And that's taking about women's rights at an international level. I had a meeting, I was in Paris last week, and I was talking with the members of the human rights department in Paris, and they say they don't have the money to fund this, and they won't be putting money in. And that's just one example. So already there are huge concerns that the -- this agency has been created, and it's headed up pie a well known women's rights activist, that the agency won't be able to reform. You have commissions on gender equality, you have different ways of promoting women's rights within governments and very often these are under resourced, they have the least money, they have the least power, they have less ability than other ministries to promote the issues. So in most of our reports we will make recommendations about issuing that institutions that have been set up to protect women's rights are adequately resourced. And that's not just about money, you know, one of the conditions you will often find is where you have a women's right ministry, it often doesn't have the same status as another ministry. So the ability of that ministry to make sure these issues are prioritized can be very limited.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My last question to you, this is such difficult work, and as you have been describing, what inspires you to keep at it?

LIESL GERNHOLTZ: I suppose what inspire it is me is that I really really do believe change is possible. I grew up in South Africa during one of the most oppressive periods of attar pied, and I remember black south African students being arrested on campus, and there was the exposure of the police death squad. But I also looked through Nelson Mandela's release, I voted in the first democratic republic, so I really do believe that change is possible. So I think that we can do this for women as well.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Liesl, thank you so much for your time.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Liesl Gernholtz, is director of the women's rights division at human rights watch. It's hosted by the San Diego world affairs council, it's tomorrow night at 6:00 PM at the admiral baker club house in mission valley. If you would like more information you can go to our website at KPBS dot org slash these days.