The global repeal of women’s rights sounds the alert to a wider shift towards right-wing politics: regional circumstances differ but familiar patterns repeat. Reactionary politicians succeed as gender equality suffers and austerity, climate change and conflict continue to affect women disproportionately.
With a surge in anti- abortion politics across Europe and Latin America, emboldened by similar advances in the US, undemocratic and patriarchal systems undermine women’s rights and threaten to undo what progress has been made.
Fighting to hold on to this progress, while mapping the evolving landscape of new threats, is Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of the women’s rights division at New York- based NGO, Human Rights Watch. While her role encompasses sexual and domestic violence, reproductive rights and women’s health issues at international level, the 2016 US election forced her attention closer to home.
Finn Blythe: I thought we could start by discussing the Ohio anti-abortion bill. I gather this is the second time state legislators have been told the procedure to re-implant ectopic pregnancies is medically impossible. Are you surprised they’re attempting to pass it again?
Amanda Klasing: I’m not surprised, given how virulently anti-woman the anti-choice movement has become. Ectopic pregnancies are not only dangerous for the woman but they can also prevent future fertility. That there are legislators who don’t care about that is not surprising but continues to shock me.
FB: Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia… it seems this Ohio ruling is part of a more widespread change to pressure the Supreme Court into overturning Roe vs Wade.
AK: For a long time the anti- choice line has been that this isn’t about punishing women, this is about ending abortion. What you see over the past year is that’s just not the case. Alabama’s a great example. Shortly after the law was passed to essentially make all abortions illegal, there was a county in Alabama where the prosecutor indicted a women who’d been pregnant. She had got into an altercation with another woman and in the course of that had been shot in the stomach. She was about five months pregnant and miscarried. The woman that shot her was not indicted but the woman who was shot was indicted for manslaughter.
FB: Wasn’t it on the basis they considered her to have instigated the argument?
AK: Exactly, and so what they deemed to be her negligence was considered a form of manslaughter. That was eventually dropped, but it gives a really good indication that this is about punishing women.
FB: We’ve seen a widespread move to overturn Roe vs Wade across many states. Do you think this can only be understood within the context of Trump’s administration, through which these movements have become emboldened, or does this go beyond Trump?
AK: It’s a great question because I think the world has paid more attention to what’s happening in the US – states within the US are certainly paying more attention to other states – because of Trump’s administration. But a lot of this anti-choice movement started prior to it. When you look at Trump’s administration you should look at the president but also the vice-president. Pence was governor of a state [Indiana] that had both anti- reproductive rights and anti-LGBTQ laws passed under his administration. So this has been brewing in the US for a while.
FB: With the 2020 election moving into view, do you think it’s no coincidence that there are so many calls to repeal anti-abortion laws?
AK: There’s such a focus on abortion and it’s an important focus because obviously it’s where the Supreme Court weighs in. It’s the ultimate expression of a woman being able to have control over what happens to her body. But a lot of policies under this administration have targeted contraception and access to information, so it’s not just about abortion.
It’s about all the things women need in order to have control over their reproductive life. I mean, we have a huge percentage of the population that are not serviced by gynaecologists, abortion clinics, quality prenatal care. It’s not just access to abortion. There are women living in the United States that just don’t have access to women’s healthcare.
FB: Could you tell me a little bit more about access to contraception and access to data in the US?
AK: There was a Supreme Court case last summer about a California law. Everyone’s familiar with crisis pregnancy centres – but there are these clinics that open around the country to look like abortion clinics. So women seeking information regarding abortion go to them and make an appointment, thinking they’re going to access services or information on abortion, but in fact they’re fake clinics. They don’t provide abortions and often don’t have a doctor. What they do is provide counselling to keep your pregnancy. They perform an ultrasound so you see an image of your child and often council you that you would be murdering your child if you did get an abortion. So they lure women in.
“They perform an ultrasound so you see an image of your child and often council you that you would be murdering your child if you did get an abortion. So they lure women in.”
California decided that it would require those pregnancy centres to signpost that they were in fact not medical providers – it would have to be displayed prominently in the waiting room. One of the chains of pop-up centres sued and it went to the Supreme Court, who decided that it was a violation of their First Amendment right to be required to signpost that, and the California law was overturned. Which is a shocking Supreme Court case that has got such little attention because the broader problem of access to information hasn’t really hit the news as much.
FB: I wondered if we could just speak about your role at Human Rights Watch. Could you tell me a little about your main priorities in countries other than the US?
AK: After the 2016 US election my job changed overnight. We knew there would be an emboldening of anti-choice laws and policies in the US that would have a global impact. We saw it in waves during the Colombia peace plebiscite [a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia successfully ratified in 2016] when people were really advocating against gender ideology. So I’ve spent a lot more time recently on how the US is impacting global commitment towards reproductive rights and gender-based violence. But more and more we are preoccupied by two things: emerging threats and the rollback on rights we have gained. Then we’re looking at how the impacts of climate change are driving new threats to women’s rights.
FB: That’s interesting, what can you tell me about that?
AK: We had a colleague doing work on child marriage a few years ago in Bangladesh. The changing weather patterns and increasing floods were making it more difficult for families to keep their adolescent girls at home. Some families interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they had made decisions about marriage for reasons directly related to natural disasters – some, for example, rushed to marry off a daughter in anticipation of losing their home to river erosion. Other families described natural disasters as a recurring stress factor, taking food from the family’s mouth and making child marriage seem like the best option for a girl and the family.
“Other families described natural disasters as a recurring stress factor, taking food from the family’s mouth and making child marriage seem like the best option for a girl and the family.”
We looked at the Zika epidemic from a human rights lens and all the different contributing factors as to why poorer women and women of Afro-Brazilian descent were more impacted. We also looked at how the climate will continue to drive more and more of these vector-borne diseases [illnesses transmitted by vectors, including mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas] and we’re now looking at extreme heat and how women are disproportionately affected by it.
FB: Is that climate-driven gender disparity something you’re seeing exclusively in countries like Bangladesh which is, in itself, disproportionately affected by climate change, or is that something you’re seeing globally?
AK: We’ve looked at responses to humanitarian emergencies all over the world and seen that women are just disproportionately impacted. So in disaster risk reduction models, there’s been movement to address the needs of women, who previously haven’t been at the forefront of planning. We saw that in Haiti after the earthquake in refugee displacement camps, where very often women are not taken into consideration or there aren’t enough protection efforts.
FB: Under emerging threats Human Rights Watch mention online harassment. In the last few weeks there’s been a lot of stories about a growing trend in South Korea known as Molka – unconsented footage of people having sex that is circulated online. Do you feel legislation is struggling to keep up?
AK: I’ll answer in two ways. We actually have new research in South Korea, but the platforms on which these images are shared are global. So it’s not just whether domestic legislation is keeping up, it’s whether countries can ensure cross-global platforms that keep women protected. As far as whether legislation is keeping up with tech, I think it’s been interesting.
I was doing research back in 2012 in Colombia around domestic violence protective orders. It was clear to me then that police and judicial authorities issuing protective orders were just not prepared to respond to what women were facing online. A lot of domestic violence legislation, domestic violence training and judicial responses are usually based on an older model. There’s lots of ways that people are trying to catch up, but this is an area of emerging threats that the broader women’s rights movement is having to tread water to keep up with. Certainly government and policy responses are just not there yet either.
“A lot of domestic violence legislation, domestic violence training and judicial responses are usually based on an older model”
FB: You mentioned earlier the impact of Trump’s administration, not just domestically, but abroad and in terms of foreign policy. With the UN Population Fund, particularly ICPD25 [International Conference on Population and Development] which took place last November  in Nairobi, why has the US pulled its funding?
AK: So UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] plays a really important role in humanitarian responses to ensure that there is a gender sensitive response. So pre-natal care, hygiene care, but they also offer really important technical expertise in guiding a lot of countries around the world to address voluntary family planning. In the United States it’s taken on a political significance. So there is this really- difficult-to-understand amendment to the US Funding Bill that says no US funding can go towards forced abortion or coerced sterilisation.
An administration can make the determination that money is used that way and block funding. So the Trump administration has blocked funding to UNFPA, which has previously happened under other Republican administrations, but there’s been no attempt to actually prove that forced abortion or coerced sterilisation is happening. The mere fact UNFPA operates in China has been taken as proof that aid should be blocked. That’s just a broader example of the Trump administration’s aggression towards family planning.
In 2019, the UN Security Council was considering a resolution on Women, Peace and Security. Within the context of the German- proposed resolution, the US made the extraordinary threat to use its veto because that resolution mentioned sexual, reproductive health and rights. The package that somebody needs after they’ve been a victim of rape includes emergency contraception, prophylactics to prevent HIV and sometimes an abortion, but sexual reproductive health and rights is a broad construct of services and the US was not willing to entertain the word ‘abortion’.
FB: What progress has been made since Cairo, the last time ICPD met?
AK: Cairo was such an important moment 25 years ago because for so long it was difficult to get government to recognise the importance of women’s health and women’s rights. For so long, when we thought about human rights we thought about political dissidents being able to speak out, but not about making sure women don’t die unnecessarily in childbirth.
With ICPD, all of a sudden there was recognition that countries can be doing more to ensure women have safe and healthy reproductive lives. That they can space children out in a way that keeps themselves and their children healthy. That they can make choices that ultimately allows them to fulfill other rights. I’m sad it’s become this space of deep politicisation. It’s not just the US, but the fact that the US is emboldening other countries to fight conservative or extremist battles over women’s bodies. You’d hope 25 years later we’d be really working towards solutions and that’s not where we’re at.
“For so long, when we thought about human rights we thought about political dissidents being able to speak out, but not about making sure women don’t die unnecessarily in childbirth.”
FB: That brings us back to the idea of progress that hasn’t been made, the progress we took for granted and assumed would continue on the same trajectory. It’s obviously an incredibly difficult time for someone in your position, but I wondered in terms of your short and long term aims, what you are targeting?
AK: One thing we’re really targeting is making sure that we’re working closely with local activists. Earlier you asked me if I was surprised by the Ohio law or if the election of Trump has led to the anti-choice action. Really, all of this has been brewing for years, it’s just been brewing in local elections, local policies. Abortion is not a comfortable issue for everybody to fight for and to really advocate at local level, but what’s increasingly clear is that it’s a proxy for other women’s rights and health issues.
We’ve been looking in Alabama for example, how a hostile environment towards women’s reproductive health has actually meant that all reproductive health services become difficult for women to access, not just abortion services. That means cancer prevention tools like HPV vaccines, or screenings, or just basic information that can be life-saving. So working with partners to give them both the evidence base and the human rights arguments to do the hard work at local level is something we really try to focus on.
Then the broader fight is really to bring attention to the fact that some of these hot political issues like access to abortion are really proxies for policies aimed at trying to re-establish gender norms that existed before. We have this anti-gender ideology. If you look at global trends in Brazil for example or Poland, certainly in the United States, at the heart is a political movement that’s focussing on anti-trans, anti-LGBT and anti-abortion policies.
If you get to the heart, it’s really about going back to the way things were before, which is to say, when women didn’t have a voice, gender-based violence wasn’t seen as a human rights issue and women weren’t given access to information to make choices about their bodies. Right now the focus is on these really polarising issues but if you dig deeper, the ultimate goal is to regress back to a different distribution of power. Our goal is to keep on moving toward gender equality and we can’t be distracted from that.
Originally published in HEROINE 12. Read Amanda Klasing’s reports for Human Rights Watch here.