Interview with Yasmeen Hassan of Equality Now

Legendary Women, Inc. was fortunate enough to sit down with Yasmeen Hassan, the Global Director of Equality Now about the organization's 20th anniversary, their big movements, and their hopes and plans for the future.

[img_assist|nid=306|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=174]Some of the things that amaze us the most about your organization are not only its broad support base but also its ability to look at and to recognize that violence and mistreatment of women is not just a cultural issue. That there are things that, even if we're not from the same culture, we can appreciate all work to harm and subjugate women. One of those examples would be the still ongoing child bride marriages in countries like Yemen, which has been made more prominent with cases like that of Nujood Ali. What do you wish people knew about child marriages and how to help stop them?

Child marriage is a major human rights issue. Within the next decade, 100 million girls will be married before they celebrate their 18th birthday. Both UNICEF and the UNFPA have underscored the severe negative physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual and sexual implications of child marriage on girls. Child brides are exposed to domestic violence, early and frequent sexual relations and to repeated pregnancies and childbirth before they are physically mature and psychologically ready. These marriages often curtail girls’ chances to complete their education and trap them in cycles of poverty as child wives tend to have more children and fewer independent income options.  In the absence of minimum age for marriage laws (such as in Yemen and Saudi Arabia) girls barely into their adolescence are married off, oftentimes to much older men.  Cases in point include that of 11-year-old Wafa in Yemen who was married off to a middle aged farmer who tortured and abused her, and 12-year-old Fatima in Saudi Arabia who was married to a man in his fifties with grown children who gave her a Playstation as a wedding present. 

Since these girls are legally married they are subjected to the requirement of having to pay back the money paid to them in consideration of marriage (dower system - though the money is typically not controlled by the girls) before they can obtain divorces.  In other countries, such as India, there are laws against child marriage that are not implemented vigorously.  And then there are countries, like Zambia, that recognize customary law whereby girls can be married off at puberty.  In such countries it is important to establish the supremacy of substantive law (statutory or written law that defines rights and duties, such as crimes and punishments) over customary law (traditional common rules or practices derived from custom that become legally-accepted over time).

While many groups approach the issue from a community education, awareness raising perspective, we strongly believe such initiatives must go hand in hand with firm laws and effective enforcement of the law to act as a deterrent and can prevent future violations.  As a legal advocacy organization we focus on ensuring that the law has a clear minimum age of marriage – the same for boys and girls – that is duly implemented and enforced, including where dual legal systems exist. Ideally as recommended by UN expert committees, the minimum age should be 18.  

You can view and Take Action on our current campaigns on this topic here.Some of your accomplishments so far are also fantastic. For instance, two years ago, you were able to work with the WHO and UN, among other organizations, to make sure that the American Academy of Pediatrics altered their policies back to again disapproving of female genital mutilation. Can you speak more about how you were able to work so fast with your partners to achieve this and also tell our readers more about female genital mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a harmful practice that involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is generally performed without anesthetic, and can have lifelong negative physical and mental health consequences. The World Health Organization estimates that 130-140 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM, a human rights violation whose practice is a breach of a number of international conventions. Annually, at least three million girls in Africa are at risk of FGM; it is also occurring in the Middle East and Asia, and is increasingly found among immigrant populations in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. One statistic estimated that more than 225,000 women and girls were at risk of being subjected to FGM in the U.S.  In 1996, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement which condemned all forms of FGM as a human rights violation.  However, there has been a creeping in of cultural relativism, including among pediatricians, which threatens to overturn progress on human rights.  In 2010, to our dismay, the AAP revised its policy statement on FGM to endorse a ritual nicking of girls’ genitalia to appease cultural requirements.  This statement not only violated the Hippocratic oath taken by medical professionals to do no harm, but also gave credence to sexist stereotypes and harmful practices in the name of culture.  Equality Now immediately launched a campaign calling on our members in 160 countries to put pressure on the AAP to withdraw the statement.  We issued an Urgent Alert to our members and followed up with a letter to the AAP President and CEO urging them to withdraw their statement.  In addition we reached out to the WHO and various UN agencies working with women and children, including UNICEF and UNFPA, to have them speak out as well, resulting in the issuance of a May 2010 joint statement challenging the AAP’s contentions about FGM. A week later, after intense criticism from the global community, the AAP revoked its statement and re- affirmed its commitment to oppose FGM in all its forms both in the US and around the world.

I confess I never knew that there were whole sex tourism trades where companies from the U.S. organized it so that men could travel to the Far East or Brazil or to other nations in order to have foreign prostitution arranged for them. You've been working since the mid-90s to help end this practice in the U.S. Where is the progress on that and which additional steps would help curb this activity?

U.S. nationals make up a large portion of sex tourists to destinations worldwide. By one account, Americans constitute 25% of sex tourists.  So-called sex tourists are individuals who travel to another country to buy commercial sex or exploit weak legal systems that ignore sexual abuse, especially of girls from poor and marginalized communities. There has been an increased focus on child sex tourism, and the U.S. government has stepped up its efforts to end this human rights abuse. But there has been less focus on adult sex tourism and the men who travel to take advantage of marginalized (and possibly trafficked) women in foreign countries.  

Since our early years, Equality Now has worked to shut down sex tour operators that are based in the U.S. and run sex tours to countries including Thailand and the Philippines, i.e. Big Apple Oriental Tours and Jump Off Destinations, by calling on the U.S. government to prosecute these companies. However in the age of the internet, the sex tourism industry is changing as there now dedicated websites that provide extensive information about travel, accommodation and availability of women and girls for sex for interested sex tourists as well as more companies being used as fronts for sex tourism.

We are increasingly seeing legitimate companies (fishing and safari tour companies, hotels) being used as fronts for sex tourism or being complicit in the sex tourism industry. Therefore, in addition to calling on the government to prosecute sex tour companies, we’re also raising awareness on this issue by actively pursuing a civil suit on behalf of the girls and women exploited by sex tourists to act as a deterrent to operators. In 2011, Equality Now spearheaded the case of four Brazilian girls who had been exploited by US sex tourists on fishing tours on the Amazon and helped file the first known civil action on behalf of victims of sex tourism in a US federal court. This month, we also issued an action calling for a zero tolerance policy on sex tourism and the purchase of sex by all U.S. government employees in light of the recent Cartagena/Secret Service “scandal.”

To address sex trafficking and sex tourism, the U.S. government needs to enforce existing laws (including the Mann Act, Protect Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act) that criminalize sex tourism, and to increase prosecution rates.  This will send the signal to potential exploiters that they will not get away with their crimes simply because they take place in a foreign country.[img_assist|nid=318|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=400]We at Legendary Women, Inc. believe that media has a lot of power, which is why we work so hard to promote positive images of women and of female characters whom young girls often emulate as they mature. Of all your campaigns, I think getting Japan to revamp its video game censoring laws and to stop the RapeLay simulated rape video game is a campaign that resonates most with us. How do you feel that video game and simulated violence toward women in other media can contribute to actual violence against women?

Violence and simulated violence against women occurs in a context of discrimination against women.  While we would not assert that all those who view such media would go out and commit violence against women, we do believe that Japanese hentai, video games such as RapeLay and depictions in the broader media, normalize and promotes violence against women and perpetuates stereotypes of women as sex objects. They also make it harder for women to access justice when violence is committed against them.

A recent UK survey by Mumsnet found that many women feel unable to come forward to report sexual violence for fear of being disbelieved, and that the media played a significant role in this. In referring to this and the low level of actual rape convictions, Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, has also said that the treatment of women in the media has an impact on the justice system and jurors’ attitudes.

As a partner organization testifying with us at the Leveson Inquiry this past January in London indicated: “Research has shown that gendered myths surrounding sexual violence, myths about ‘appropriate’ and ‘natural’ male and female behaviour, about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims and about what constitutes ‘real rape’, remain prevalent among people’s ‘common-sense’ assumptions (Kelly 2001).

They impact on the criminal justice process, playing a significant role in the cycle of attrition and low conviction rates that help to prevent rapists and other sexual offenders from being brought to justice (ibid.), and to create the conditions under which rape and sexual assault are perpetuated, normalised and often go unchallenged. It is therefore imperative that we understand the contribution of the media, and the press, to perpetuating rape myths.”

Following our 2009 Action against rape simulation games and our submission of the issue to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), both Amazon Japan and Illusion Software stopped selling RapeLay (although they continue to sell similar titles) and CEDAW strongly urged the Japanese government to “to ban the sale of video games or cartoons involving rape and sexual violence against women which normalize and promote sexual violence against women and girls.” 

Japan’s Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS), one of the industry’s self-regulating bodies, reportedly banned the production of games containing certain forms of violence against women.   Equality Now continues to work to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, including through the promotion of CEDAW.  We are currently exploring the harmful and pervasive issue of sexualization of girls in the media with the goal of creating an effective advocacy campaign challenging portrayals that help perpetuate violence against women and sex inequality.   I recently read that Equality Now had a presence at the Leveson Inquiry, where the discussion turned to how some media outlets in the UK fed myths about rape among other charges. What will it take, do you think, to change the behavior of the media and journalists in the UK and/or elsewhere?

Equality Now believes strongly in a free press and celebrates the many contributions made by the media in exposing human rights abuses and holding those responsible to account. However, the press also has a responsibility to be fair and professional and must not hide behind the cloak of freedom of expression in allowing discrimination against women, which in turn limits women’s freedom of expression, access to justice and life possibilities.  

As our London Office Director Jacqui Hunt stated, “Good journalism strives for balance and diversity, yet women are rarely represented as leaders, experts or decision-makers, rather they are frequently objectified, stereotyped, trivialized and demeaned.  The long-term corrosive effect of this type of reporting contributes to an environment of less freedom for women including to get justice against violence, to hold political office and to develop healthy body images.  Eliminating gender stereotypes and promoting a more comprehensive portrayal of women would be a significant contribution the media could make to address these problems.”

In the effort to change the behaviour of the media and journalists in the UK, Equality Now and our partners made recommendations to Leveson calling for:  training for journalists on violence against women, gender stereotyping and the harms associated with sexualisation and objectification; new codes of practice for the media which include the issues of gender equality and sex-based discrimination as key and distinct components;  improved and consistent media regulatory practices and bodies; and the introduction of media literacy classes in schools that address gender inequality and stereotypes.  We also believe a strong message should be issued from central government regarding a commitment to gender equality.Has EN noticed any change in any papers/media in the UK or elsewhere?

Sexually objectifying material still appears in unrestricted newspapers. However, we have noticed more press stories about the treatment of women by the media, particularly by women in public office or female commentators.  These are the women who are frequently discussed merely as body parts or items of clothing, are generally sexually objectified and sometimes assaulted verbally in terms using sexual violence. There have also been a few stories about the lack of representation of older women in the media, although very little yet about minority ethnic women, women with disabilities or other minority groups. Leveson will issue its report in the fall.

[img_assist|nid=303|title=Joss Whedon Speaking at the Equality Now 20th Anniversary Event|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=300|height=436]On the other end of that spectrum of what media might be able to influence in a positive manner, I know that the Buffy and Firefly fanbase has, in the past, raised money for Equality Now with Joss Whedon's encouragement. In 2006, you honored Whedon as a "Man on the Front Line" for his support of women's rights and his history of writing strong women. We as a group, and especially during "Buffy" month, also really appreciate him putting powerful women out in front. Do you feel fictional characters can inspire change in the treatment of women in the real world?

Indeed, strong female characters can inspire change in the way women view and treat each other and the way men view and treat women.  Fictional characters can both reflect negative stereotypes and create new positive images, particularly for girls. Just as sexualization of girls and women can contribute to sexism, sex discrimination and sexist attitudes, (APA Sexualization of Girls Study) subverting these images and characterizations opens up room for rethinking the harmful stereotypes.  They allow us to play, within the relatively safe arena of our imagination, with creating the world we wish to inhabit and inching toward it.Ms. Hassan said recently at your twentieth birthday celebration that "Gender equality benefits everyone and we look forward to celebrating the impact Equality Now has made since 1992. However we also want to take this time to acknowledge the extensive amount of work still left to do to create a better and safer world for women and girls." How does that quote and idea apply to the United States in a year where many staunch attempts to restrict birth control and abortion access at the state level have occurred, where many feminists are calling it a year of "War on Women?"

Equality Now was created at a time when mainstream human rights organizations failed to identify abuses against women as human rights violations. FGM, access to contraceptives or to safe abortion, domestic violence and sex tourism – these were not issues of global concern for the human rights movement. Equality Now, along with sister organizations, helped change that.

The recent legislative efforts to diminish reproductive rights of women in the US remind us that despite the progress of the past two decades, we cannot become complacent. Indeed this trend is being seen all over the world as we go through a period of economic downturn and social unrest.  Women’s rights are deteriorating post-revolution in the Middle East and in other places cultural relativism is being used to backtrack on women and girls’ basic human rights.  Attacks on women’s rights often represent a way to assert control over women when there is a feeling of lack of control over other matters, including economic resources.  Groups like Equality Now have to work harder at such times.   In eight years, we'll be celebrating 100 years since U.S. Women's Suffrage organizations happily disbanded, no longer necessary with their goals achieved. With twenty years of advocacy and achievement now, do you believe "Equality Now" could be looking at the same hopeful elimination in 80 years or sooner, as in "mission accomplished" with regards to ending gender discrimination and inequality?

We would love to be eliminated, but looking at the issues around the world and the backtracking I mentioned before, this seems unlikely to happen in the next 80 years though we will try our best.  In the meantime, we hope to be able to have presences all over the world so as to better work with grassroots groups on the ground to help them achieve the changes that are necessary.   Also, we want to involve more people of different backgrounds (age, race, gender, economic status) in the call for worldwide gender equality. We need to invest in a common language that resonates with diverse people and different ways of taking action that pull in more people.

This is a movement that benefits everyone and, as such, everyone should participate!