On the front line: Longtime advocate for women’s rights still hard at work on the global stage

SAGE MAGAZINE, May 2010

NM Original Story by Anne Pedersen

For New Mexico-raised international human rights activist and educator Charlotte Bunch, “women’s rights are human rights.”

That may sound selfevident, but it’s still a radical idea in a world where liberty and legal equality are denied many women, sexual violence and patriarchal values are commonplace, and gender discrimination persists.   

For decades a voice for gender equality at the United Nations, Bunch is a “go-to” figure in the global fight for women’s rights. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996, and in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton awarded her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights.   

She recently was honored with a tribute at a global symposium on women’s human rights at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.   

And because of her work in the field, the U.N. is on the verge of creating, in Bunch’s words, a “super agency” to coordinate all of that institution’s existing efforts on behalf of women’s rights worldwide.   

The author of numerous articles and books, she is also the founding director and senior scholar of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, which trains women from around the world in leadership and organizing techniques, sponsors international conferences on human rights, campaigns against gender violence and addresses issues of women’s health and reproductive rights.   

Bunch, 65, grew up in Artesia, which, she says in a phone interview, gives her a familiarity with community dynamics and rural life that   has helped her understand women worldwide. “I have a sense of what it means to come from a small town,” she says.   

Her now-deceased father was a family physician; her mother, a social worker, now lives in Albuquerque. Both were concerned with global issues and passed that “bigger view” on to their daughter, teaching her how to relate to people from diverse backgrounds.   

A ‘sense of possibility’   

In the 1960s at Duke University, Bunch was active in the anti-war and civil rights movements. That involvement fostered a “sense of possibility,” but she says that was temporarily quashed when, after accepting a post-graduate fellowship at a Washington, D.C., policy research institute, she discovered, “I wasn’t taken seriously as a woman.”   

That “classic feminist experience” of being marginalized and discounted helped spark her passion for working for women’s rights, she says.    Historically, a major reason for gender inequality is “women are defined in the private sphere and not the public,” Bunch says. Abuse occurs away from public view, where laws often don’t penetrate and archaic attitudes persist. “A woman’s lack of freedom may be coming from her own family.”   

That is changing, though not for all women. “We have found ways to give more women access to freedom,” she says, especially those “willing to take risks.”   

As women worldwide have increasingly gained the right to vote, they have also come to be seen, and see themselves, as citizens rather than property. More than 100 countries have statutes outlawing domestic violence, microfinance initiatives   in many countries help impoverished women achieve economic independence, and reproductive freedom increasingly gives women “access to controlling their bodies.”   

Culture changes slowly   

It will take generations for abuse of women to end, Bunch asserts. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, further entrapping poor women and making it harder for them to break free, she says.   

There are “vestiges of male control that men want to keep,” she says, citing “backlashes” even in the developed world to keep women subordinate.   

For Bunch, the three biggest threats to women’s rights worldwide are “lack of control over one’s body,” which includes reproductive rights and sexual violence, poverty and “militarism and war.”     

Culture changes more slowly than political or economic realities, she says. Protective laws may be enacted, but abuse can persist. Not until attitudes definitively change and perpetrators of abuse are no longer protected by their families and communities will a “tipping point” be reached, she says.   

“Ultimately, men benefit from more equality just as women do,” she says. “It harms men to be defined in their most intimate relationships as dominant versus submissive. It diminishes their humanity.”   

For those who want to work for change, Bunch’s advice is, first, believe in yourself. Be realistic about “what piece of it you can do, what you have   access to and what you’re passionate about.”   

Action doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. Her work with women from many nations has convinced her that change comes from “all the things that people do on the ground, everywhere.”   

Those simple words, “women’s rights are human rights,” are powerful, she notes. In a recent interview with the online news service Rutgers Today, Bunch says women view “their own abuse differently when it’s called a human rights issue … they no longer see it as inevitable.”   

“I’m optimistic over time these changes will break through,” she says. “We’re moving in a direction that is ultimately unstoppable.”

COURTESY RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

International human rights activist Charlotte Bunch says abuse occurs away from public view, where laws often don’t penetrate and archaic attitudes persist. This 2008 photo shows her participating in a march in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a campaign to end violence against women.