Could 'Time' Cover Spark Women's Rights Changes?

The issue of international women's rights has been raised again after Time magazine featured a photo on its cover of an Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off by her abusive husband after she ran away. NPR's Jacki Lyden talks with Janet Walsh, deputy director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, about whether anything will come of the renewed focus on women's rights.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The mutilated face of an Afghan woman on the cover of Time magazine recently put the issue of international women's rights back in the spotlight. Another flashpoint of activism is the case of Sakineh Ashtiani. The 43-year-old Iranian woman was sentenced in 2006 to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery. The sentencing followed an initial punishment of 99 lashes.

Bill Shipsey is an Irish lawyer with Amnesty International working to reverse Sakineh's sentencing via an online petition. FreeSakineh.org has gathered over 150,000 signatures in just a few weeks, many of them from celebrities.

Mr. BILL SHIPSEY (Attorney): Its not clear yet whether Sakinehs life will be saved. Theres still talk of imposing a sentence of hanging upon her sometime within the next week, but there has been quite extraordinary pressure being brought to bear. I mean I have not, in my 30 years, witnessed quite such a global outpouring in the case of one single individual.

LYDEN: Janet Walsh joins us now. She's the deputy director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. And she's at member station KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Janet Walsh, welcome.

Ms. JANET WALSH (Human Rights Watch): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Are these types of campaigns, with a single victim as the focus, do they work? Are they helpful?

Ms. WALSH: There are definitely pros and cons to single victim or single survivor campaigns. In some instances its helpful to actually identify a real individual and to have a campaign around that. You know, there are risks to that person, to their family. There are risks that the activists speaking out internationally about them may get the facts wrong and that there may be a backlash by the country in question. But there are real benefits sometimes too. Its worked out and its also prompted law reforms in many cases.

LYDEN: Could you tell me about a case in Nigeria involving the local group BAOBAB?

Ms. WALSH: Sure. Back in about 2002, there was the case of Amina Lawal. She was a woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for having conceived a child out of wedlock. And the father of the child was not prosecuted but Amina was. And in her case the international pressure was furious and intense and global. But it was complicated because she was convicted by a local court, a Sharia court, and many of the activists were directing their letters toward the Supreme Court of Nigeria, not the real court in question.

BAOBAB, the group that worked with Amina Lawal and her lawyers, felt that the international pressure was potentially destructive of her case. They felt it was going to bring about a backlash. And in her case, in the end, an appeals court did overturn her conviction, so she was not stoned to death. So in the end she is fine, but there were cautions that the international outcry should be stopped.

LYDEN: Now, in the U.S. there are both House and Senate versions of International Violence Against Women legislation. Now, this hasn't been voted on yet but it seems to have bipartisan support. What kind of impact would something like this have?

Ms. WALSH: I think this is one of the most exciting developments from, you know, the U.S. foreign affairs perspective that I've seen in my time as an activist. With this, if it were in place, if we had assistance that was aimed at treating HIV and AIDS, the people who are doing that work - the health workers - there would be more support from them to be trained on identifying women in treatment who may be subject to violence and may even be struggling with complying with their treatment because of that violence.

LYDEN: What about the violence against women? Whether its the Taliban in Afghanistan or honor killings in India or what we're seeing going on in Iran (unintelligible) your sense that the problem of using women in this way has grown worse or are we just more aware of it?

Ms. WALSH: Well, thats one of the problems. Youre asking is it increasing. We dont know in the world where we're starting from and where we're going to because we do have such poor data collection at this point. There are some studies in individual countries, and there was a very large study by the World Health Organization, the 24,000 women in 10 countries, and there are estimates by the U.N. that about one and three women will be subject to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. So it is a huge problem. We know that. But we dont know precisely how much and we dont know by how much it might be increasing.

LYDEN: I'd like to return to the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, who is on death row in Iran. Brazil's president, Lula di Silva, offered her asylum, but Iran appears to have rejected that.

It would seem that although this international petition campaign is so high profile that it could conceivably fail. And I'm wondering, if it does, if her life is not spared, what that does to the fight for women's rights internationally.

Ms. WALSH: Her case could fail. And that would be a tragedy for her and for her family. I dont know that I would say that one instance of failure would so demoralize the movement to promote womens rights and freedom from violence. In a way I hope it would galvanize it even more.

LYDEN: Janet Walsh is the deputy director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. And she joined us from member station KNOW in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Janet Walsh, thank you very much.

Ms. WALSH: Thank you.

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