Q&A with Minky Worden, editor of The Unfinished Revolution

Unfinished Revolution no 3

Image from The Unfinished Revolution. Photograph Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

The unfinished revolution: Voices from the global fight for women’s rights outlines the recent history of the battle to secure basic rights for women and girls, including in the Middle East where the hopes raised by the Arab Spring are yet to be fulfilled.

The book’s editor, Minky Worden, is Director of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch where she develops and implements international outreach and advocacy campaigns.

Here, she talks to us about developing the book and the future for women’s rights.

Firstly, can you tell us how the idea for the book came about?

The genesis of The Unfinished Revolution was an interview with Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer. She recounted her life story: as a young lawyer, she had been the first female judge in pre-revolution Iran, and was on the frontlines 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 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. 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. But we should remember that when new governments are taking power, when constitutions are being rewritten, this is a time when women and girls can either have rights advanced and solidified – or basic rights and freedoms can be rolled back.

And despite the undeniable progress achieved in women’s rights around the world in the past two decades, much remains to be done. 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, and traditions – from ‘honor killings’ to denial of property, labor and economic rights – block basic freedoms such as the right to work or study, and access to health care. Around the world, women and girls are trafficked into forced labor and sex slavery; rape is used as a weapon of war in conflict zones, and women still face major obstacles to education and reproductive freedom.

There are a wide range of contributors to the book. How did you manage to bring so many diverse people together?

Of the 33 contributors to this anthology, half are Human Rights Watch experts based around the world who wrote on topics ranging from rape in the Congo to maternal mortality in India, and domestic violence in Europe.

Others are key colleagues such as Georgette Gagnon, who has been the human rights director a the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and contributed a powerful chapter on how women in Afghanistan may be losing ground. We felt it is important to bring voices of women on the frontlines including Dr. Hawa Abdi of Somalia and Esraa Abdel Fattah from Egypt because they are themselves agents of change and share our vision that now is the time to tackle the “unfinished revolution” for women’s rights.

The book talks about a revolution in thinking about women’s rights as human rights. What differences do you think this would make to women’s lives?

In Dorothy Thomas’s chapter, she calls it “the power of an idea”. This concept is a key to changing mindsets, particularly in countries where so-called “harmful traditional practices” such as female genital mutilation, or ‘honor killings’ prevail. Our book seeks to make a reality of the slogan, “Women’s rights are human rights” by looking at practical and multi-dimensional solutions that work to empower and end abuses of women and girls.

A central feature of the book is a number of pieces from women who are victims of human rights abuses.  What do you think these heart-rending stories can tell us about the future battle for human rights?

 Honestly, although I asked her to write it, and have read it dozens of times, the story of a girl in Congo that opens Anneke VanWoudenberg’s chapter make me choke up every single time I read it.

These testimonies underscore the urgency of justice and change, particularly in countries where the lives of women and girls are at stake every day, such as the DRC, Afghanistan, Somalia or Iraq, but also 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 when they try to cross the border from Mexico or even once they have made it safely across the border.

There are several proposals within the book for new policies and solutions. What can people reading the book do to help?

First, thank you for reading the book! Second, it is easy to become complacent that progress for women is always forward. At times of political upheaval or transition, as with the military pull-out in Afghanistan, it is absolutely essential for leaders to engage on the subject of protections and freedoms, and to send the message that women’s rights are a top priority. When leaders don’t prioritize women’s rights, that sends a message too.

So write your leaders that it matters very much what messages are sent about women’s rights, and stay on top of what is happening through Human Rights Watch’s website. You can also consider getting involved in a global campaign such as “Girls Not Brides” efforts to end child marriage. Make your voice heard!

On the Human Rights Watch website, there are examples of success stories resulting from your campaigning. Can you tell us about any recent successes in the field of women’s rights?

One recent advance for women is the Saudi government’s announcement that it would allow “qualified” female athletes to compete in the London Olympics, following intense outside pressure from Human Rights Watch and concerned women athletes.

Can you tell us more about this current campaign regarding Saudi sports for women?

Despite this modest advance, it is at best a partial victory because we have still not succeeded in ending the effective ban for women who want to play sports inside Saudi Arabia. Gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia is institutional and entrenched. Millions of girls are banned from playing sports in schools, and women are prohibited from playing team sports and denied access to sports facilities, including gyms and swimming pools.

The fact that so few women are ‘qualified’ to compete at the Olympic level is due entirely to the country’s restrictions on women’s rights.

Human Rights Watch is seeking the end of discrimination against women and girls who want to play sports in Saudi Arabia. More broadly, we continue to push for long-term reforms in the kingdom, such as an end to the male guardianship system. For more information, please visit http://www.hrw.org/let-them-play.

Find out more about The Unfinished Revolution

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