Gender Rights

The Dialogue’s work on gender rights aims to promote a better understanding of issues of concern to women, with a focus on women’s leadership, gender-based violence, and sexual and reproductive rights. It also raises awareness of challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities. Our work explores ways to advance more women into political power and enhance their influence over policies affecting women at all levels, in both the private and public sectors. The Dialogue provides a platform to discuss the unique challenges women face today and seek ways to address them.


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A History of the Dialogue’s Work on Gender and Democracy

The Dialogue’s pioneering work has made significant contributions to the advancement of women in leadership, the promotion of reproductive rights and health, and the reduction of violence against women. However, these issues remain extant in the region, emphasizing the need to continue conducting research and analysis in each of these key areas of concern to women and crucial to the health of the region’s democracies.

˙Joan Caivano

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In the last few months, the flow of migrants to the US-Mexican border has been labeled a “crisis” by the media, and Vice President Kamala Harris is now leading the Biden administration’s response. While preliminary data shows higher than average border crossings in the last few months, the majority of migrants are expelled in a matter of hours on account of Title 42 – the public health mandate enacted under former President Donald Trump that blocked most migrants from entering the United States to claim asylum. The focus on sheer numbers and the crisis-framing also obfuscate the human aspect of migration, the individual stories, and motivations of those who make the dangerous journey to the border, lumping them together under the generalized label “migrant.” One group that has been largely overlooked is domestic violence (DV) survivors and their claims to US asylum.

US Asylum Applications Today

To be eligible for asylum under US and international law, a person must show a well-founded fear of persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group. In 2020, there were 151,800 total asylum applications from individuals in removal proceedings or at a US border or entry point, and today there are almost 1.3 million backlogged due to the large volume of applications and limited resources.

The approval rate of asylum applications has followed a steady downward trend over time, especially in the later years of the Trump administration. The countries most affected by high asylum application denial rates in 2020 are all in Latin America, including Honduras (87.3 percent), Guatemala (85.8 percent), Mexico (85 percent), and El Salvador (81.9 percent). These countries are also some of the most dangerous places in the world for women. In 2018, there were 13.49 femicides for every 100,000 women in El Salvador, the highest rate worldwide, and in 2021 so far, a femicide was committed in Honduras every 36 hours. This gendered violence is often a contributing factor for migration from Central America. Between 2014 and 2018, approximately 10,000 people per year were granted asylum due to gang violence or DV in their home countries. Although there is no exact data to show how many women are claiming asylum because of DV, there has been an increase in female migrant apprehensions from 2012 to 2017.

Asylum applications are filed with the Department of Justice’s immigration court system, known as the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). As part of the executive branch, the EOIR reacts directly to decrees or guidelines from executive officials. In 2018, the Trump administration used this influence to narrow the purview of asylum law and the ability of DV survivors to claim asylum. Led by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the administration argued that the grounds for asylum should not include domestic abuse because it is “private violence” rather than government persecution, upholding the misguided idea that violence against women is not a public health issue that warrants government protection. Human rights organizations challenged the use of these guidelines during the credible fear screening phase for asylum seekers in a federal court case. Although a federal judge ruled in their favor, this decision does not apply to the second phase when applicants are granted a court hearing. Judges can still use Sessions’ mandate to deny claims and some continue to do so.

DV & Migration under Biden

In sharp contrast, President Joe Biden has publicly stated his commitment to prioritize gender equality and rights and explicitly acknowledged the link between domestic violence and migration. He campaigned on a pledge to reform the immigration system and reverse Trump’s policies. Three of Biden’s plans, all published ahead of the November 2020 election, reference asylum protections for domestic violence survivors. Biden’s Central America Plan outlines a massive effort to invest in the Northern Triangle to address the root causes of migration. Under the section related to the rule of law, it states that Biden will restore “full access” to asylum for DV cases. The “Biden Plan to End Violence Against Women” and “The Biden Plan for Securing our Values as a Nation of Immigrants” specify that the US Department of Justice will reinstate explicit asylum protections, rescinded by the Trump administration, for DV survivors whose home governments cannot offer protection. On International Women’s Day, his administration’s fact sheet included ensuring that women and girls who flee from domestic violence are afforded the opportunity to seek US asylum.

While several executive orders on immigration have been signed into law in the first months of Biden’s term, none fulfills the promise of reinstating asylum protections. Under Sec. 4 (b) (c) (i), EO 14010, the attorney general is ordered to conduct a comprehensive review of the rules, regulations, and internal guidelines governing asylum claims to ensure they comply with international standards. The attorney general was given a 180-day review period, which ends on August 1, 2021. While the steady undoing of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) is a welcome step towards fixing some of the damage done by the Trump administration to the US asylum system, Biden officials have signaled that other reforms will remain on hold. Accordingly, Title 42 remains in place – against the recommendations of public health experts – and the majority of migrants are turned away at the border. Statements by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas tell asylum-seekers to wait.

Next Steps

In the days between now and the end of the mandated 180-day review, thousands of asylum seekers will remain in precarious positions and be potentially exposed to many of the same risks that originally led to their migration. Rather than waiting until August, the Biden administration should immediately restore eligibility for DV survivors and reverse the harmful mandate enacted by Attorney General Sessions. In the long-term, legislation is required to reform the immigration and asylum systems to make it difficult for an anti-immigration administration to dismantle protections. Comprehensive legislation should also include explicit protections for gender-based violence victims under the definition of a “particular group,” ensuring their asylum eligibility. Although the US Citizenship Act of 2021 aims to accomplish some of this, the bill is unlikely to move forward in Congress as is and may instead be broken down in a piecemeal approach.

The intersection of domestic violence and migration in the Northern Triangle necessitates the protection of survivors seeking asylum. Biden’s stated commitments to gender-based issues and promises made on immigration reform prior to the election call on the administration to immediately restore asylum protections for domestic violence survivors. If the universal human rights of women and girls are a priority for the United States, we need to take action at the border.

 

RELATED LINKS: 

Gender Rights Program

Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program

The Toxic Intersection of Violence Against Women in the Northern Triangle and the Trump Administration's Anti-Immigration Policies

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History was made on December 30, 2020, when the Senate of Argentina voted to legalize abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. As a result, the number of women in Latin America with access to legal abortion has jumped significantly, from 3 percent to 10 percent.   

This was a victory for campaigners, but their fight is far from over. The day after the news in Argentina, President Jair Bolsonaro criticized the decision and stated that abortion would never be permitted in Brazil as long as he was president. And on January 21, Honduras changed its constitution to make it virtually impossible to legalize abortion, which is punishable for up to ten years in prison.

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) continues to be one of the most restrictive regions in the world when it comes to reproductive health laws and policies, particularly abortion. As of 2021, abortion is entirely prohibited in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Suriname. It is accepted in most LAC countries under certain conditions – such as rape, fatal fetal anomaly, or to save the mother’s life – and it is allowed on demand in Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City and Oaxaca, Guyana, French Guiana, and now Argentina.

Of course, abortions will continue to take place regardless of legal restrictions. Harsh laws and limited access force women to seek unsafe procedures, which often results in severe complications or even death. Although progress has been made in the fight to decriminalize abortion, limited access to the procedure remains a human rights issue, a public health crisis, and a problem for democracy.

HUMAN RIGHTS CHALLENGE

Sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) guarantee access to reproductive health services, comprehensive sexuality education, and safe contraception and abortion. As part of a government’s social contract with their citizens, they must protect SRR, guarantee residents’ health, and correct social inequalities. Some restrictive abortion laws infringe on a number of other human rights guarantees, including the right to privacy and the right to due process.

[caption id="attachment_106293" align="alignright" width="300"]Woman protesting for abortion rights in Argentina Constanza Niscovolos / IPPF/WHR[/caption]

Most Latin American countries have signed and ratified treaties promising to end discrimination against women and uphold their reproductive freedom, including the UN 1981 Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Santiago Commitment at the XIV regional Conference on Women in LAC. Yet many of the signatories continue to have some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. In Honduras, these treaties are regarded as on the same level as their constitution, yet abortion continues to be criminalized.

PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

Restricted access to abortion has contributed to a serious public health crisis. Between 2015 and 2019, an estimated 5.4 million women had an abortion in LAC. Three out of four abortions that occur in Africa and Latin America are unsafe. About 760,000 women in the region are treated annually for complications from an illegal abortion, and approximately 10 percent of all maternal deaths resulted from one. A significant number of maternal deaths in Latin America could have been prevented by universal access to family planning.

These alarming statistics have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. During Covid-19, as gender-based and domestic violence have increased in the region, so will unwanted pregnancies. It is estimated that the pandemic resulted in “2.2 million unwanted pregnancies, more than 1 million abortions, 3,900 maternal deaths and 51,400 child deaths” by the end of 2020. Even in countries where abortion is legal, there has been a decrease in the coverage of sexual and reproductive health services because of Covid-19, and more women have faced barriers when trying to access abortions. A greater number of unintended pregnancies will result in more unsafe abortions, hence more medical complications, maternal deaths, and imprisoned women and medical practitioners.

PERSISTENT BARRIERS

The Catholic and Evangelical churches continue to wield significant religious, political, and societal influence in LAC. Although declining, religion remains crucial to the region’s cultural identity. Additionally, there has been a growing number of more conservative, evangelical churches, especially in Central America, where abortion laws are the strictest. In Nicaragua, therapeutic abortion was eliminated in 2007 due to an alliance between the Ortega government and the evangelical-religious sector. These conservative forces have fostered the concept of “gender ideology,” which casts access to abortion, reproductive rights, and other gender equity policies as threats to traditional families and values.

Abortion stigma is prevalent in the region, even in countries with more liberal laws, as shown in 2018 study of abortion in Uruguay. Even though the procedure is allowed under certain conditions in most LAC countries, there is still a lack of access to information among citizens, and some medical providers or judges, like in Brazil, still effectively deny women abortion services, even when protected by law.

Finally, high-quality reproductive health services in the region are still more accessible to upper class women, who often have better access to contraceptives and private abortions, while other groups have to rely on public health facilities. In places where abortion is completely restricted, women who cannot afford private treatment or travel must go to public facilities in the case of a complication, where they risk being reported to the police. These restrictions almost always endanger the most vulnerable women, including the poor and rural, indigenous people, and Afro-descendants.

PROGRESS ACHIEVED, CHALLENGES REMAIN

Regarding abortion access, each country’s situation is different, but the most dangerous cases are in Central America. In El Salvador, for example, women experiencing botched abortions or miscarriages are often prosecuted on aggravated assault or homicide charges, a crime that can result in up to 40 years in prison. Health care providers can also face criminal charges for assisting in an abortion. Eighteen women are still in prison since the total ban was introduced in 1998. As is the case in most Central American countries, conservative parties have a stronghold in Congress and municipal governments and will block any measures to loosen the ban in the near future.

[caption id="attachment_106417" align="alignleft" width="300"]Aborto Legal Ya protest Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

In Argentina, abortion reform was not easily achieved. Experts note that a combination of key factors, over the course of proposing 13 bills, finally led to a change in law: long-term mobilization of activists, a progressive executive government, and a large number of female representatives in parliament. Pro-choice Catholic Church members and groups have also played an important regional role. Activists have also shifted the conversation on abortion in many countries from a moral debate to emphasizing public health, pointing to how Uruguay framed the discussion.

The Argentine momentum of the "green wave" may positively affect movements in other countries. In Colombia, the constitutional court has agreed to consider a petition to remove abortion from the penal code, and in Mexico, Congress is considering two initiatives to loosen restrictions and remove criminal punishments in specific states. The Supreme Court in Brazil will soon rule on a 2018 legal challenge that would decriminalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Congress in Chile is also debating a bill that seeks to allow elective abortion up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Public opinion appears to be changing, depending on the country. In Mexico, a poll in 2020 showed that support for access to abortion rose dramatically from 29 percent in March to 48 percent in November.

CONCLUSION

Access to abortion is a human right. States should uphold the promises made in international treaties to protect SRR, and international organizations and regional actors need to hold signatories accountable. Civil society groups should continue to pressure governments to improve their data collection and transparency related to abortion access and unsafe procedures. Transnational advocacy networks are also crucial for information sharing and legitimizing efforts across borders.

Most importantly, countries should institutionalize a comprehensive package of essential reproductive and health services, including safe abortion care and contraception, in their national health systems. They should address the need for greater, equitable investments, taking into account the specific needs of poor and marginalized groups. Furthermore, governments must focus on capacity building to enforce and uphold abortion law equally and prevent its reversal while also addressing discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes. Access to comprehensive reproductive services will result in fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer abortions, and fewer maternal deaths. For women to be full citizens of society, reproductive freedom is fundamental.

 

RELATED LINKS: 

Gender Rights Program

 

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In preparation for the inaugural Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida, the Inter-American Dialogue and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) convened the first Roundtable of Western Hemisphere Women Leaders on October 7, 1994. Frustrated by the absence of women on the agenda in the lead up to the summit, roundtable participants issued a Communiqué to the heads of state who would meet at the summit, urging them to address the need to expand investment in women’s education, health care and economic opportunities; to support the full range of human rights for women; and to promote national and regional policies to empower women. As ambassador of Costa Rica to the White House, one of the roundtable participants had a role in planning the summit with direct access to summit participant, President Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua. Chamorro shepherded the communiqué to her fellow heads of state and advocated for its inclusion on the Agenda of the First Summit of the Americas. The demands of the communiqué were reflected in Initiative 18 of the summit’s final Plan of Action.

While the heads of state were receptive to the roundtable’s communiqué and committed to enact concrete measures to strengthen the role of women in society, the implementation of these measures fell short. At the urging of participants in that first roundtable, the Dialogue and ICRW partnered to establish the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Americas (WLCA), a network of 100 women leaders from diverse sectors and ideological perspectives who shared a commitment to advancing women into leadership positions and public policies to improve the lives of women in the hemisphere. The first meeting of the WLCA was convened on July 10 and 11, 1997, right before the second Summit of the Americas was to be held in Santiago, Chile. The group issued a second communiqué that called on governments to establish mechanisms to monitor, measure, record and report on their compliance with commitments made to women at the Summits of the Americas and other international forums, like the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, convened by the United Nations in Beijing.

Monitoring Progress on Women’s Leadership

The WLCA adopted as its mission to monitor progress governments made on their promises to advance women’s status. In 2001, the WLCA published a report on women in political power in the hemisphere, citing their belief that the number of women in political leadership is a concrete indicator of a country’s progress (or lack thereof) toward fulfilling its commitment to women’s equality. The report recommended that presidents and prime ministers appoint more women to their cabinets and take action to encourage equitable representation of women on election ballots. At the time, women’s participation in political power averaged 20 percent or above in only two countries in the region. At 22 and 20 percent, however, Canada and the United States were still far from the 30 percent benchmark set at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.

Throughout the 2000s, the Dialogue continued to utilize the WLCA as a platform to commission research and advance policy recommendations on women’s leadership, including on women in global leadership and women in corporate power. Additionally, in 2007, the Dialogue partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank, the League of Women Voters, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Organization of American States to convene a group of women political leaders for the joint conference, Women in the Americas: Paths to Political Power. This discussion of background research commissioned on women’s political participation in Latin America and the Caribbean offered diverse women leaders a unique opportunity to strategize on how to increase women’s representation and effectiveness in politics.

The productive partnership between the Dialogue and League of Women Voters continued into the 2010s as the two organizations joined forces with the International Association of Women Judges to convene experts and women jurists from the region for a conference on women in judicial leadership in the Americas. In the resulting report, the authors stressed that a strong and representative judicial sector requires that women judges be present in all courts at all levels and that there be merit-based institutionalized processes in place that allow those women judges to rise through the ranks.  

Shifting Focus: Sexual & Reproductive Rights in the Region

The 2010s also introduced a new focus of the Dialogue’s work on gender, beyond women’s leadership. In partnership with the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Dialogue organized a 2014 Symposium on Reproductive Rights in Latin America. This initiative brought important attention to the troubling consequences of restrictive abortion laws for the lives and human rights of Latin American women and examined the forces promoting more progressive laws in some countries. Following this symposium, the report “Abortion and Reproductive Rights in Latin America: Implications for Democracy” was published in the hopes of improving the understanding of the crucial connections among reproductive rights, democracy, and citizenship in Latin America.

In an ongoing effort to follow up on this report, the Dialogue and the Center for Reproductive Rights hosted another forum in 2016 that compared advances and setbacks on the status of sexual and reproductive rights in several countries, “Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean: Where Are We Now?” Panelists acknowledged that progress has been made in countries like Chile, where legislation passed lifting its total ban on abortion and legalizing therapeutic abortion. They also recognized, however, that countries like El Salvador have experienced dire setbacks, imposing a total ban on abortion where once exceptions were made to save the life of the mother, and imprisoning women found guilty of abortion, even in the case of miscarriage.

Program Work on Violence through a Gender Lens

In recent years, the Dialogue’s work on gender rights has expanded its focus to include violence against women. In conjunction with the Seattle International Foundation, the Dialogue hosted a panel in 2019 entitled, “Nowhere to Turn: Gender-Based Violence and its Impact on Migration.” Panelists highlighted the triple threat faced by women: a culture of gendered victimization, an ecosystem of organized crime, and a president of the United States who is closing the doors to migrants and asylum seekers. These women have nowhere to turn.

In 2020, the Dialogue published an analysis of violence against women in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The article emphasized the need to take an intersectional approach to devising measures that address domestic violence and violence against women, given that migrant, indigenous, older, and transgender women are vulnerable groups who are often overlooked by these policies.

Then in April 2020, the Dialogue held a webinar on the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the state of human rights in Latin America featuring former Dialogue co-chair and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. The event drew attention to the impact of the crisis on women and girls who are at high risk due to pre-existing discrimination and inequality. Specifically, Bachelet emphasized that during the confinement period, many countries experienced an increase in cases of domestic violence. Bachelet stated that support services related to gender-based violence, like emergency shelters and hotlines, should be declared essential and remain open, and victims should be informed about such services.

The Future of Gender Rights at the Dialogue

As the Dialogue considers launching a new decade of programming and policy recommendations in the field of gender rights, it is mindful of approaching the issues through an intersectional lens. Gender cannot be analyzed in isolation, rather it must be approached in concert with other ascriptive identities, such as sexuality, race, ethnicity, age, ability, and socioeconomic status. Furthermore, gender-based analysis should not remain siloed in a gender rights program. All Dialogue programs will be encouraged to approach their subject matter through a gendered lens to diversify and enrich the quality of their analysis. Finally, although the Dialogue’s pioneering work has made significant contributions to the advancement of women in leadership, the promotion of reproductive rights and health, and the reduction of violence against women, these issues remain extant in the region, the Dialogue therefore remains committed to conducting research and analysis in each of these key areas of concern to women and crucial to the health of the region’s democracies.  

 

Sarah Galbenski is an undergraduate student at Notre Dame University majoring in Spanish and Global Affairs with a concentration in International Peace Studies. She was an intern with the Office of the President.

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The Road to Legal Abortion in Argentina

On February 25, 2021, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted the webinar “The Road to Legal Abortion in Argentina” in partnership with the Embassy of Argentina in Washington, DC, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region (IPPFWHR). Panelists discussed the winning strategy employed by the feminist movement to promote passage of the law to legalize abortion, the challenges they encountered, and how they leveraged resources to produce a favorable outcome.


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