The international conference of National Human Rights Institutes in Amman, Jordan, focusing on protecting and promoting the rights of women and girls, was an extraordinary opportunity for human rights commissions around the world to publicly declare and commit to advancing the rights of, not some, but all women and girls. Sadly it was a missed opportunity.
Representatives from nearly 70 National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from Africa, Asia Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas gathered in Amman, Jordan, November 5 to 7, for a conference to discuss the role of these institutions to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. Civil society activists from about 100 non-governmental organizations around the world also gathered for a "parallel" forum, organized by the Amman Center for Human Rights, to discuss best practices for women's rights NGOs to engage with National Human Rights Institutions. I participated in both.
Champions of NRHIs call them "gatekeepers for the advancement of human rights in their countries" and "cornerstones of human rights protections systems." But many activists, including those representing lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) people have been dissatisfied and are critical of their NHRIs.
When asked about best practices for engaging the institutions on the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, Siniora Randa Siniora, member of the International Coordinating Committee (ICC), which is the accrediting body of NHRIs said, "This is too sensitive an issue for many countries" and she did not think the NHRIs could tackle such sensitive issues. Siniora's refusal to acknowledge that the rights of LBT women are worthy of attention perpetuates an ongoing negative message.
Some others concurred. The chair of the Malaysian NHRI, for example, on the issue of including sexual orientation and gender identity said: "Some issues we can't take up, not at this time. We have to move slowly. Not all countries are ready to take up certain sensitive issues. Some governments just won't agree to it." In fact, the Asia Pacific Forum (APF), a consortium of 18 NHRIs in the region, dithered about including sexual orientation and gender identity in its regional Program of Action for NHRIs. To minimize contention, the APF dropped sexual orientation and couched gender identity as the conventionally defined "gender equality."
Lesbians, bisexual women and transgender women often experience double and triple the jeopardy that heterosexual women face. They experience violence and discrimination as women and as people with nonconforming sexual orientation and gender identity -- from their families, religious groups, employers, police, and general public.
Lesbians are also at risk for "corrective rape" -- violence " justified" by perpetrators who claim to be correcting their sexual orientation via rape. They often face forced marriage, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination in all sectors, including as migrant workers, poor women, rural women, displaced women, homeless women, and elderly women. Youth defying the stereotypes of femininity and masculinity experience bullying and violent discipline in school and at home, leading to depression and even suicide in many instances. Some are forced out of school and lose an education. Older lesbians who have taken care of aging parents face isolation in old age when parents die and they become homeless without the right to inherit property as unmarried daughters, without legal protections for same-sex partnerships, and often become more marginalized and vulnerable as they age.
LBT women's concerns may not always be visible to National Human Rights Institutions; they may not always be visible to women's rights organizations -- or those who work for equality in health care or education. But this invisibility does not indicate absence of human rights violations. What it does indicate is that the National Human Rights Institutions need to understand how LBT women are silenced, and that the State is complicit in this silencing. Ignoring or diminishing concerns for LBT women is not a solution but an added burden to an already insufferable situation.
On March 4 to 15, 2013, the Commission on the Status of Women will convene for its 57th Session at United Nations Headquarters in NYC. They, like any gathering which seeks to champion the status, condition and rights of women and girls, must give focus to lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and give full welcome to the diversity of women. Will they do better than the NHRI convening? Hopefully they will.
For a fuller discussion of the conference and its outcomes, see The Rights of Women and Girls Must Include Lesbian Bisexual and Trans, also by Grace Poore at www.IGLHRC.org
Download the Amman Declaration and the NGO Forum Statement adopted at the National Human Rights Institutes Conference from the IGLHRC website.
Grace Poore, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org