The Global Fight for Women's Rights
The Global Fight For Women's Rights

Leni Marin reports on the campaign to put women's rights on the
international human rights agenda, and Maria Olea testifies about
violations of immigrant women's rights.

     For the first time since the founding of the United Nations,
the issue of women's rights has been placed squarely on the
global human rights agenda. An international campaign to demand
recognition of the rights of women began in 1991 and culminated
at the first World Conference on Human Rights held in 25 years in
June 1993, in Vienna. A petition drive, sponsored by more than
800 women's groups worldwide, collected nearly 500,000 signatures
which were presented over a two-year period to the U.N. Secretary
     Prior to this massive effort, violence against women and
gender-based violation of rights were not seen as part of the
struggle for human rights. Such violations were instead explained
away as representing cultural differences or were private matters
within a man's home. Rape by the military was not classified as a
form of torture. Domestic violence was treated as a private
matter between couples and not seen as a form of torture. Now we
have defined crimes such as these as human rights violations.
It's a big step to have injected this framework onto the global
agenda of rights.
     At the same time as the U.N. Conference was taking place, a
Global Tribunal on Violations of Women's Human Rights was also
held. Women from around the world testified on crimes in the
following areas: human rights abuse in the family, war crimes
against women during times of war and conflict, violations of
women's bodily integrity and health, sexuality and reproduction,
socioeconomic human rights of women, and political participation.
     The Human Rights Conference represented a significant
expansion of the work of the U.N. in redefining and investigating
violations of women's rights. Now there are active
recommendations to hold nations accountable to, concerning
violence against women. In this regard, the U.S. government has
yet to recognize gender-based persecution claims and has not
ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination
against Women, which has been ratified by over 115 countries. You
can write to Secretary of State Warren Christopher demanding that
the U.S. become a signatory to this document.
     In addition to the Conference and the Tribunal, Non-
Governmental Organizations (NGOs) held a parallel conference on
human rights. I co-organized a workshop titled Women on the Move,
focusing on the specific violations of the rights of immigrant
and refugee women around the world. The workshop helped to
educate grassroots organizers and to develop common strategies to
address the abuse women face as a result of their immigrant
status. Women and children comprise 75-80 percent of the world's
refugee population, which is estimated at 15-20 million, with an
additional 20 million who are displaced in their own countries.
Pamela Goldberg stated at the workshop, "In uniting with women


around the world in the call for the expansion of human rights to
encompass the rights of all women, let us not forget our most
disenfranchised sisters -- refugee and migrant women."
     The following testimony by Maria Olea, a Chilean immigrant
in the U.S., was presented at the Tribunal on Women's Rights in

     I am coordinator of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Women United
and Active), a community-based organization of 180 immigrant and
refugee women who come from Latin American countries and who now
live in the U.S. Mujeres is part of the Coalition for Immigrant
and Refugee Rights and Services in San Francisco, California. The
primary goals of Mujeres are to inform, educate, support and
organize Latina immigrant women so that we exercise our rights
and understand the system in the U.S., so that we recover our
self-esteem and reclaim our strength to continue the struggle for
our rights and those of our families, so that we become leaders
in our communities in order to use our own voices to advocate for
change and for social justice.
     As a Chilean woman, as a mother, as an immigrant and as a
community worker, every day since I arrived in the U.S. five
years ago, I have witnessed the abuse and discrimination
experienced by millions of immigrant women.
     In the U.S. or whatever other country in the world, the
right to live with dignity, the right to health care, education
and an environment free of discrimination, be it political,
religious or sexual, must be closely monitored to ensure that
they truly exist rather than simply appear on a piece of paper.
     It is unacceptable that in the U.S. and other developed
countries which, in large part, depend economically on
immigrants, at the same time refuse to treat us like human
beings. I want you to know how anti-immigrant and racist
sentiments affect us and that the rights of all persons,
regardless of the color of their skin or of their gender, must be
universally protected; and I want to tell you how it feels when
the government makes scapegoats of immigrants and says that we
are the cause of all the problems that the country is suffering.
These serious accusations increase racist attitudes and behavior
toward us which can sometimes lead to physical violence.


     As an immigrant woman, I also want to tell you how we are
affected by the inhumane and racist laws that have been proposed,
such as the proposal that children born in the U.S. to
undocumented parents no longer be recognized as citizens of the
country; that undocumented children not have the right to attend
school; that pregnant women and their children not have access to
health care and should they seek assistance the hospital must
report them to immigration authorities.
     As a woman, I want to share with you and the world how
difficult life is for immigrant women, and how our problems are
further worsened because we are women. Many of us faced abuses
and hardships in our home countries, but upon becoming


immigrants, for some our situation didn't improve, especially for
undocumented women. Many of us, each year, are raped or attacked
in our attempt to come here, while crossing the border, staying
in refugee camps, or in boats on the high seas. Arriving here, we
are separated from our home, culture and families; we live in a
country where we do not understand the customs or the language,
where we face daily harassment and discrimination because of the
color of our skin, for the accent in our voice; where we worry
daily that immigration will arrest us or deport our children;
where we are even more dependent upon our husbands because we are
not permitted to work and are afraid to report domestic violence
to the authorities; where we fear seeking out basic services,
because we may be turned in to immigration; where the only work
many of us can find is usually in miserable conditions, with long
hours and low pay, and worse, where women are regularly subjected
to sexual abuse by their employers who take advantage of their
precarious legal status and their desperate economic situation.
For all these reasons, compounded by day-to-day sexism, we face
an even harder existence than that of our male counterparts.
     The immigration laws also put women at a disadvantage.
People immigrate for various reasons: some flee political
violence and war, others flee economic misery, others to reunite
with families, and, in some cases, as in my own, we run from
domestic violence. I escaped my country, Chile, in 1988, to save
the lives of myself and my two children. I escaped a dictatorial
political system that offered me absolutely no support as a
battered woman; rather, the system supports men who can legally
abuse their women. Because of this, I was forced to leave Chile,
believing that the U.S., a supposedly democratic country and a
leader in the defense of human rights, would give me the
protection I needed by granting me refugee status. But, when I
arrived in the country, I merely became another undocumented
woman because the legal system of the United States doesn't
consider domestic violence against women as a grounds for refugee
protection. So, in this way, my family and I became people
without a country; we could neither return to our home without
facing a risk to our lives and, in the United States, as
"illegals", we are invisible. Many immigrant women are in the
same painful situation. That is why, as a woman, as a mother, I
ask the U.N. to support the recommendation that domestic violence
be considered for refugee status and, in that way, we will save
the lives of women and children.
     I also want to say that there seems to be two different
categories of human beings: those with rights and those, the
immigrants, without rights.
     Today, at this tribunal, we are speaking with a sense of
urgency that you address the rights of women of all categories.
We immigrant and refugee women ask that we be respected as full
human beings and not be divided up and afforded different
standards merely based on our legal status.
     Today, you have heard the testimonies of the horrors faced
by the brave women here. To that testimony I want to add the
voice of immigrant women, women without a country.  My country,
Chile, does not feel they owe me any rights or protections -- nor


can I return there. My new country, the United States, barely
recognizes my existence and does not respond to my requests for
help. We immigrants have no country or government to advocate on
our behalf. For that reason, we come to the U.N., asking that
this international body listen to our testimony and advocate for
protections of our human rights.