MacKinnon: Much yet to be done to achieve gender equality

At HU, leading women's rights activist says Israel should criminalize pimps and clients to combat trafficking.

June 7, 2008 23:58
MacKinnon: Much yet to be done to achieve gender equality

mackinnon 88. (photo credit: )

Women have made great strides in achieving equality and "are almost exactly half-way," but this limited progress leaves them in a precarious position, a leading international rights advocate says. Although issues have been raised, identified and are starting to appear on agendas, much remains to be done in order to fully achieve women's rights, gender equality expert Catharine MacKinnon told The Jerusalem Post last week. "The danger is that we certainly can go backwards and often do," said the University of Michigan law professor, who was among 10 people to receive honorary doctorates from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last Sunday. "The gains we have made, although institutionalized, are far from irreversible. Until you are [considered] fully human, the humanity you have, even if it is second class citizenship, can be taken away." In addition, very little is being done anywhere about pornography - along with prostitution and trafficking - and the way it promotes the abuse of women and women's second class status in society, she said. Pornography, she argues, is actually a form of prostitution in which people are sold as sex through the media. "The internationally organized sex industry is very strong here [in Israel] as it is in the United States, and nothing effective is being done about it though there is a lot of serious work being done here," she said. Both Israel and the US are destination countries for international traffickers, where desperate, impoverished and often captive women are brought to meet these countries' high demand for prostitution. Israel would do well to adopt the Swedish model, in which the pimps and the clients are criminalized rather than those who are prostituted, MacKinnon said. Since the passage of this model in Sweden in 2000, trafficking and prostitution have become virtually non-existent in the Scandinavian country, she said. The model, which helps eliminate the demand for prostitution, also offers women real options through employment and training opportunities. Among the most neglected and urgent issues today is the sexual abuse of children, MacKinnon said. Most countries, including Israel, do not know how many children are being sexually abused. In those countries where it is known, she added,"the numbers are staggering." One credible US study conducted by Diana E.H. Russell found that 38 percent of girls were sexually molested before they reached the age of 18. Studies broken down by ethnicity, such as Russell's, have also found that Jewish women in the US are among the most frequently raped. Religion - no matter which religion it is - can affect the way sexual abuse happens and its responses to it, she said. It's not uncommon, for example, for religious figures to sexually abuse women. The more the religion is respected and revered, the more difficult it is for women to report it. "Religion is one way that sexual abuse is often rationalized and effectuated by intimate access to women and girls and sometimes to men and boys as well," she said. But Israel and other countries in the world have seen aided by some significant achievements in gender equality and human rights in the last decade. Israel's sexual harassment law, which MacKinnon worked on intensively with Israeli legal scholar Orit Kamir in the mid-1990s, is "the most detailed, concrete spelling out in the world in a statute of what sexual harassment law might cover," MacKinnon said. Most jurisdictions are common law and do not spell out in detail what sexual discrimination consists of. Like other good sexual harassment laws, it supports people who are injured and connects them with other people who have suffered other injuries based on sex, she said. Important work is also being done on the issue of marriage equality in Israel, where women are required to marry in a religious setting and do not have equal access to divorce rights. "There's more activity on it now in the Knesset then there's ever been," she said "and it's being debated in connection with [Israel's] Basic La[s]" which function as an unwritten constitution. Globally, one of the greatest achievements of the last decade has been the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda's definition of rape in the Akayesu case. In 1998, defendant Akayesu was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for encouraging the rape of Tutsi women in Rwanda. It was the first international conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity based on rape and the first time that there was an international definition of rape. The case defined rape as a physical attack of a sexual nature under coercive circumstances. "By recognizing that under circumstances of coercion the idea of consent is irrelevant is a real breakthrough," she said. "It's been very influential internationally." Another significant development is the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, an authentic African charter of rights that set the world standard in equality law for women. The protocol was adopted by the African Union in 2003 as a supplement to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. "It is more detailed and forward looking and concrete than any other existing multi-lateral treaty," on women's rights, she said. "It's influencing a whole series of developments in Africa" on issues such as reproductive rights, sexual assault, pornography, female genital mutilation, nutrition and monogamy. The Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons expanded the international definition of trafficking by taking into consideration for the first time the way women and children become trafficked. The protocol was adopted by the United Nations in Palermo, Italy, in 2000 and many countries are using it today in their definitions of trafficking. "It recognizes what it calls... the abuse of power and situations of vulnerability in addition to force, fraud and coercion which are the standard recognized ways you get into trafficking but are difficult to prove, especially with traumatized people," she said. MacKinnon, who has participated in each of these international achievements, looks forward to seeing more such changes in the future. Any progress, she says, is a collective effort of women and men everywhere who care about gender equality and "full humanity" for women.

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