Dedicated to Stopping Violence Against Women and Advocating for Reproductive Rights
Melissa Upreti, senior director of program and global advocacy at the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership, behind precedent-setting rulings around the world
Before the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements made headlines and brought issues of women's rights back to the forefront, Rutgers scholars had been working for decades as ardent advocates through their research, teaching and outreach. Rutgers Today is highlighting many of the women whose work is making a noticeable impact. This article is the latest in in our series.
The status of a woman’s place in the world is Melissa Upreti’s bailiwick. A human rights lawyer and women’s rights advocate, she spent close to two decades drawing on her knowledge of national and international law to advocate for women who might otherwise have no advocate. She was, for example, copetitioner in the landmark case Lakshmi Dhikta v. Nepal, which recognized access to abortion as a woman’s constitutional right. And she was responsible for precedent-setting cases in South Asia regarding contraception access and the rights of women to quality obstetric care that would prevent or repair obstetric fistulas. Today, she wields her considerable knowledge of both women’s issues and international law as senior director of program and global advocacy at the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership.
While her vision is indeed global, she’s well aware that women’s conditions—and vulnerabilities—vary from country to country and region to region. “Women,” she says, “are not a monolithic group.” Nevertheless, there’s a common thread stitching together the experiences of women worldwide. “Sexism is the main cause of inequality and violence against women across the world. And violence against women is a threat to women’s rights and advancement everywhere.”
Globally, violence against women takes many forms: the flogging of women for adultery, the use of rape as a weapon of war, an acid attack by a spurned suitor. And in much of the world, Upreti says, “societal tolerance for violence against woman and girls is still very high.” That means that many acts of violence go unpunished and, as a consequence, women—particularly survivors of attacks—live in a state of constant fear. Women who do come forward are often made to feel ashamed or even blamed for what happened to them—which, Upreti says, “makes them prone to even more violence.”
“Sexism is the main cause of inequality and violence against women across the world. And violence against women is a threat to women’s rights and advancement everywhere.”
Simply being female exposes women to an increased risk of violence, and that’s compounded by poverty, which Upreti characterizes as “both a cause and consequence of women’s inequality.” She notes that the voices of poor women are those least likely to be heard in the public discourse on violence, citing as an example the case of Native American women in the United States, who are more than twice as likely as any other group to be the victims of violence, and in some areas, 10 times more likely. And yet, says Upreti, “accurate data on the number of [Native American] women missing as a result of extreme violence and murder is lacking, because no one, including the government, is really counting.” That may be even more true of undocumented women living in poverty, whose fear of deportation is likely to keep them from reporting an attack.
Although women in developed countries still suffer a gender-based gap in wages, in many parts of the world, Upreti notes, the larger problem is their lack of protection under national labor laws and their exclusion from labor unions through which they could demand higher pay and better working conditions. Instead, she says, “they mostly work in the informal and low-paying sectors, where their labor is likely to be exploited and they are exposed to unsafe working conditions.”
Potential remedies for inequality—and the poverty and vulnerability to violence it engenders—include direct efforts to address poverty like microloans—loans of small amounts of money, generally made to women, to help launch small businesses. There are also efforts like Upreti’s own to legally recognize women’s sexual and reproductive rights, including, she says, “access to contraceptive information and services, safe abortion, maternal health care, and sexuality education, which have been crucial in enabling women to advance and realize their potential.”
Legal remedies aimed at mitigating violence against women need to be pursued. In many countries around the world, legislation is already being passed to do just that, Upreti says, bolstered by media exposure and antiviolence campaigns. “Legally and politically,” she says, “we have made significant strides in combating violence against women, but culturally we still have a long way to go.”
To get there, a continuous examination of the manifestations and causes of gender inequality around the world will be needed. “It’s crucial,” Upreti says, “to examine disparities not just among countries but within countries and to make sure that no woman is denied the opportunity and conditions required to live with dignity and realize her full potential.”