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Do you know,” says Anika Rahman, her voice resonant, passionate, “that among the things I have learned from my job is that South Asia is one of the world’s worst places to be a woman?”

Anika Rahman is the director of the International Program at a unique New York City-based non-profit agency called the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP). For several years CRLP has been working in collaboration with indigenous organizations in countries around the world to persuade governments and legal institutions to become more responsive to women’s needs and concerns.
Rahman’s impassioned criticism of the status of women in South Asia is something she backs up with facts. In certain regions in South Asia, women’s life expectancy is lower than that of men. Social customs such as strong preference for sons, as well as family and inheritance laws skewed in favor of men, put women at a clear disadvantage, resulting in an estimated 100 million “missing” women lost to these various factors.

Rahman’s consciousness of the status of women came through her witnessing the social ostracism of her mother, a divorcee in Bangladesh. She grew up in a progressive extended family in which women’s education was encouraged. At 18, Anika Rahman came to the U.S. to study at Princeton—its first Bangladeshi female undergraduate. While obtaining her Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from Columbia University and during her practice with a firm of attorneys specializing in international corporate law in New York City, her ultimate goal, working for women’s rights, was always clear to her. In 1993 she joined CRLP.

CRLP’s mission is to promote women’s equality worldwide by guaranteeing reproductive rights as human rights. It attempts to direct government law and policy in countries around the world to be fair and just to women; its focus is in the areas of reproductive health and abortion, family planning, contraception, HIV/AIDS, and marriage and family law. “What makes CRLP different from other such U.S.-based groups,” Rahman says, “is its commitment to working in partnership with indigenous groups in various countries.” Rather than coming in with a holier-than-thou attitude, CRLP’s approach is collaborative; it begins by listening to local legal activists about the problems faced by women. It then works with these local organizations to effect these changes.

Rahman’s office is on the 14th floor of a Manhattan edifice, with glass panels allowing a panoramic view of Wall Street. Yet her vision and concerns could not be further away from her immediate environs. In the course of her work as director of the International Program, Rahman has visited sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and done field work in South Asia. With her staff of 18, she eventually expects to expand CRLP’s influence to East and South-east Asia. At 36, Rahman is confident, outspoken, and respected by her colleagues and fellow activists around the world. Interestingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest challenge to CRLP’s mission comes from the U.S. government itself, via a piece of legislation aptly known as the Global Gag Rule.

The Global Gag Rule, explains Rahman, applies to any non-U.S. organization (including medical establishments) that is receiving financial, technical or in-kind assistance from USAID (United States Agency for International Development). Such an organization is barred by this rule from involvement in any kind of abortion advocacy, including engaging in public education campaigns, direct services, referrals and attempts to make abortion legal and easily accessible to women. The rule stipulates that the group may not use even its own, non-U.S. funds for such purposes. The only exception is abortion in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.

The Global Gag Rule has an insidious effect on the community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in reproductive health issues—people in NGOs are afraid to talk about abortion, even informally. Since CRLP cannot even begin to work on reproductive rights laws without first accurately monitoring the abortion issue, it is effectively stopped in its tracks. Without access to information, there is no chance to assess and eventually affect the situation.

CRLP has taken on the U.S. government in a lawsuit, CRLP vs. President Bush. Among the five individual plaintiffs is Rahman herself. Her argument is that although CRLP itself receives no funds from the U.S. government, by muzzling their overseas partners, the Gag Rule violates CRLP attorneys’ rights under the First Amendment, including the rights to free speech and free association. It violates the attorneys’ right to equal protection of the law because of its discriminatory nature. In addition the Gag Rule also violates the freedoms guaranteed in various international treaties signed and ratified by the United States.

Although the case was dismissed by a judge in July 2001, Rahman is not giving up. CRLP is appealing the decision. How does Rahman take on the U.S. government, the tremendous task of changing anti-women legal systems around the world and keep a balance with the other aspects of her life? She laughs. “There is no balance,” she says. “For the last nine years I have put all my energy into this work.” She says she is fortunate to have a supportive husband.

Despite the tremendous roadblocks in the path to political and socio-economic equality for women, Rahman sees many reasons for hope. Even in South Asia, with its dowry deaths, honor killings, and rise in religious fundamentalism, there is cause for optimism. The women’s movements in South Asia are among the strongest in the world. Thus, she opines, there is a certain duality with regard to women’s experience in South Asia. These movements are “a voice for hope, a vision for hope.” Ultimately, Rahman believes in the innate capacity for good in human beings, and that everyone, men and women, will come to desire and work for a just, equitable society. “The injustice and suffering to which women are subjected inspires me to work harder,” she says. “Nobody was put on this earth to suffer. Nobody.”

When Melissa Upreti left law school and academia behind to go to work for a women’s organization in her country of origin, Nepal, she was not prepared for the sordid reality of violence against women. Armed with confidence and a law degree she found the situation to be more complex and horrifying than anything she had been led to expect.

“One of the things that hit me the hardest,” she says of that first year in the field, “was the case of a woman who had been severely beaten by her husband. She was badly injured, bruised, and vulnerable.” Upreti describes the victim as a well-dressed, middle-class woman. “She could have been one of us,” she says somberly.

Melissa Upreti is a staff attorney in CRLP’s international program. Her responsibility is South Asia. She sees her job as twofold: to conceptualize and develop the role that a U.S.-based non-profit should play in the empowerment of women in Asia, and, in reverse, to interpret Asia for CRLP and bring an Asian perspective to the organization. Through her work with CRLP and its partner Nepalese non-governmental organizations (NGOs), she is involved in a change of historic proportions taking place in Nepal. Because of a draconian law that criminalizes abortion—a full 20 percent of all female prison inmates in Nepal are behind bars for this alleged offense—Nepalese women in desperate circumstances often have no recourse but to go for back-alley illegal abortions with their attendant medical risks. A shocking 50 percent of maternal mortality rates in Nepal are due to illegal abortions, compared to a global figure of 13 percent. On March 14, 2002, spurred by CRLP’s partner NGOs and sympathetic elements in the government, Nepal’s parliament passed a bill that, at last, grants women access to legal abortion.

Born in England, Upreti moved to Siliguri, India when she was 12. Despite the prevailing attitudes towards women in small-town India—people felt sorry for her parents because they had no sons—Upreti had a happy childhood. She unhesitatingly gives credit to her parents for helping her become an independent, confident woman. “We talk about social change,” she says, “but ultimately it is within the family, and through the family, that real change can happen.”

After finishing her law degree from North Bengal University, Upreti married and moved to Nepal. She began as a volunteer with the Legal Aid and Consultancy Center in Kathmandu, a group dedicated to litigation and advocacy on behalf of women. Her first year was an eye-opener: she did research, helped counsel women in distress, took field trips into the rural interior, and learned about the various problems facing women in Nepal: domestic violence, family and inheritance laws that favored men, grinding poverty, trafficking of women. She was moved by the plight of women, who suffered simply “because they were women.”

In 1998 Upreti won a prestigious scholarship to Columbia University’s law school. After graduation, while most of her friends went on to make careers in international corporate law, she stunned them all by joining CRLP. She did not have any misgivings. “I followed my heart,” she says now, smiling.
Upreti can be justly proud of her role in helping to bring about legalized abortion in Nepal. The draft bill was reviewed by CRLP and one of its partner organizations in Nepal, Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD). During the review they made many critical changes, expanding abortion access to all women rather than only married women, and removing some key consent requirements. Upreti visited women in prison, government officials and activists, and completed a report co-authored by CRLP and FWLD, “Abortion in Nepal: Women Imprisoned,” that examines human rights violations resulting from Nepal’s anti-abortion law and its implementation.

During the visit to Nepal’s prisons, she met women who had been incarcerated on abortion charges. These women were doubly victimized, first by the trauma of the illegal abortion and then by their being punished for exerting the fundamental right to make decisions about themselves and their bodies. Despite the fact that Nepal’s brutal anti-abortion law is no more, it will take continued pressure from CRLP and its partner organizations to ensure the release of these women, some of whom have been incarcerated for years.

Apart from the abortion issue in Nepal, Upreti is engaged in an ambitious project: to research and monitor the status of laws and policies affecting women in five countries of South Asia: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The fields of interest include population, women’s health, abortion, sterilization issues, adolescent rights and women’s rights in the area of marriage, divorce, etc. In all these countries CRLP is working in partnership with local organizations, such as Lawyer’s Collective in India, Shirkat Gah in Pakistan, Nari Pokkho in Bangladesh, and Inform in Sri Lanka.
Here in the U.S., Melissa Upreti is, like her colleague Anika Rahman, also a plaintiff in CRLP vs. Bush, challenging the Global Gag Rule. She will complete two years with CRLP this June. Now in her early 30s and the mother of two girls, Upreti has come a long way from that first memorable year working in the field in Nepal.

Upreti knows that despite the positive changes, Asian women have a long way to go. But she is in it for the long haul. “Every woman is born with a voice,” she says, “But an adverse environment can silence that voice.” Melissa Upreti is committed to helping Asian women break that silence.

Vandana Singh writes on women’s issues, the environment, popular science, and fiction.