Stetson legal panel examines the international status of women

03/07/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Tomorrow marks the hundredth observance of International Women’s Day. Today a panel of experts in women’s issues met at Stetson University College of Law to talk about the current status of women worldwide. The panel reflected on gains made in women’s rights, but also confronted the work that still needs to be done.

Imagine being forced to marry against your will. Or being targeted for sexual assault during war time. Or getting acid tossed in your face as punishment for seeking an education. Such scenarios may seem like a medieval nightmare for most Westerners, but they’re still a reality for women in countries across the globe. Pakistan-born lawyer Neelofer Syed came to the states after defending a woman’s right to marry without parental consent.

"I was representing this couple that eloped and got married. The interesting point that made this case more, I would say it was in the limelight more because of the fact that the girl belonged to a very, very, orthodox family, it was like religious extremists and they had a lot of say among the like, so it was a very prominent religious family."

The case was eventually ruled in favor of her clients.

"Islam, as a religion, allows a girl to get married and choose a husband of her choice so you cannot basically say that it is an invalid marriage and all of those cases gradually won."

After the ruling, Syed said she was the target for death threats and intimidation. She said it got so bad that she eventually had to leave the country.

A lot has happened in the century since the first International Women’s Day celebration. Women in the US have the right to vote, and don’t have to change their last names if they get married. Still, women statistically don’t get equal pay for work of equal value. Misogyny is pervasive throughout popular culture. Women in some countries are subject to human trafficking or sexual assault as a weapon of war, with little or no legal protection. Stetson Law professor and human rights advocate Luz Nagle said the level of equality within a society determines its quality as a whole.

"When we consider others equal we are improving the society as a whole."

Still, some societies apply a nearly unfathomable degree of brutality to women, especially in wartime. University of South Florida professor Meena Chary said rape has been used as weapon of war in places like Darfur and Bosnia. She said evidence suggests that this is done systemically, and isn’t just a side effect of armed conflict.

"We tend to have this acceptance that rape is part of war, we kind of think, 'yeah, rape, pillage, war, it all goes together and that's just how it goes'. Even when I start hearing about rape as a weapon of war, things like that there's a certain almost acceptance to that which ignores the fact that these are not isolated incidents. This is not a soldier who's accused of raping a civilian. This is not what that is. This is a level of organization. It's impossible, utterly impossible to rape 30,000 women over 3 years without a great deal of organization."

Chary said academic exploration of the sexual violence is often not taken seriously.

"I think part of the problem is, and we see this all over, we characterize this as a victim's issue, as a survivor's issue, as a women's issue. All of which, which may be true, at the same time delegitimizes it as an issue. I mean it's a social issue, it's a human rights issue, it's a human issue."

University of South Florida Dean of International Affairs Maria Crummet said the reason so many girls and women fall behind is that there is little access to education. She said education is the most direct way to self-determination.

"The answer is, again, education. It's the single most cost effective kind of aid. It's cheap, it opens minds, it gives girls new career opportunities, ways to generate cash, and leads them to having fewer children and investing in those children that they do have and do keep. It tends to bring women from the shadows of the informal economy into the formal economy in society."

International Women’s Day takes place tomorrow. It is an official holiday in countries ranging from Bulgaria to China. Tomorrow WMNF will celebrate Women’s Day with special programming throughout the day, including on the WMNF Drive-time News.

Stetson news release on women's rights panel

Previous WMNF news coverage of International Women's Day

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