Human Rights Policy and Nonprofit Organizational Development

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Critiques of the Merida Initiative

In Policy Blog on April 30, 2009 at 7:11 pm

The Merida Initiative is a well-funded initiative, subtitled “Guns, Drugs and Friends,” ostensibly designed to address growing drug-related violence in Mexico and the U.S.’ responsibility for the problem.  Here’s a fairly favorable overview of the policy from the Woodrow Wilson Center.  

The policy has been heavily criticized by human rights activists and many others on both sides of the border.  One columnist points out that the bill will bring a wave of U.S. contractors to Mexico, calling the initiative a “Bureaucratic Invasion” (English translation of his article).

“Real security cannot be achieved without human rights. Both the US and Mexican authorities have the duty and power to ensure that international human rights standards such as the right not to be subject to torture, to a fair trial and to justice are protected and promoted. The safeguards under discussion in the US Congress advance these goals,” said Amnesty International.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)’s take on the Merida Initiative brings up several problems with the policy:

It is not clear whether there are well-defined objectives and indicators for success… [The policy] lacks built-in accountability measures.


WOLA feels that the initative’s success should be judged by whether it helps to address the structural weaknesses in the civilian security system that have allowed violence in Mexico to get so out of hand and which have served to justify the increased invovlement of the Mexican military in combatting drug trafficking and organized crime.

This gets to my primary concerns with the policy.  It is problematic to put the miliatry in a civilian law enforcement role, and runs contrary to the spirit of international humanitarian law.  It certainly doesn’t help assuage my fears that Mexico is vulnerable to being made into a police state with total executive control maintained through repression of dissent, torture, and extrajudicial execution and imprisonment.  These things already go on– but are often hidden from international (or even national) attention or censure, and such impunity is a dangerous trend.  And the virtually unchecked U.S. financial backing of the military in a civilian police role means that we are helping pay for human rights abuses and implicitly helping undermine the rule of law.


Climate change and poverty

In Policy Blog on April 25, 2009 at 10:43 pm

I just returned from a four-day training on volunteer organizing with Oxfam America, which was held in Washington DC.  Oxfam’s strategic action plan this year is around climate change and poverty.  As usual Oxfam really has it together–it’s a critical political moment.  There is climate legislation in draft form in the House, and around the corner in the Senate.  In December, the international community will come together in Copenhagen to renew some version of the Kyoto protocol.  It’s critical that any agreement include what is being called adaptation funding to help poor communities cope with climate change and its effects.

I’ll be organizing for the New York City Action Corps, so be on the lookout for notices about events and political action oportunities.

Global warming wasn’t too terribly important to me until I realized that its effects are being felt primarily by poor communities around the world.   Desertification, deforestation and severe weather are already creating disastrous effects.

This is a classic case of externalities being borne unequally– with the developed world largely responsible for the emissions causing the problem and those in marginalized communities disproportionately bearing the brunt. 

Speaking of unequal impact, women in the developing world are far more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and have less voice in community disaster response planning or resource allocation.   In the developing world, women are responsible for between 60% and 80% of food production, and are generally also responsible for collecting water and fuel like firewood.  When the weather is unpredictable, agriculture becomes more difficult.  Women often have to travel further for water and firewood, taking valuable time away from activities like education.  More on this from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

Two-year anniversary of legal abortion in Mexico City

In Policy Blog on April 24, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Today colleagues and friends in Mexico are celebrating the 2-year anniversary of the passage of legislation that decriminalizes abortion in Mexico’s capital city.  Below is a note to supporters from GIRE‘s executive diretor.  The new law has meant the end of women seeking emergency obstetric care for injuries resulting from unsafe clandestine abortions.

The statement:

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City. This historic reform means that any woman can safely terminate a pregnancy during the first 12 weeks of gestation in 14 of the city’s public hospitals.

The legal termination of pregnancy is a great symbolic victory in the long struggle for women’s right to choose, in addition to being a resounding public health success, as recognized yesterday in the forum: “Two Years of Exercising Our Rights: Legal Termination of Pregnancy” organized by the Mexico City government and non-profit organizations; GIRE included.

According to data presented by Minister of Health, Armando Ahued Ortega, over 23,000 women have accessed safe and legal abortion since April 2007; women who otherwise would have placed their health and lives at risk in clandestine abortions. Proof of this is that in two years not one woman has sought emergency care for complications of an abortion. In other words, the law that today has been in effect for two years has positively influenced women’s lives, health and autonomy.

Today, we celebrate!

María Luisa Sánchez Fuentes
Executive Director

Global Feminist Profiles: Marta Lamas of Mexico

In Policy Blog on April 18, 2009 at 5:14 am


Global Feminist Profiles is a column I write for Gender Across Borders that highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality.  This is the inaugural edition, so I’m profiling  a famous feminist I know myself!


The history of Mexico’s feminist movement over the last thirty-eight years is inexorably linked to Marta Lamas.  Marta, called Mexico’s leading feminist, was instrumental in the birth of the movement and in the construction of brilliant discourse on issues critical to women’s rights, including gender construction and abortion.  Since the foundational years of the movement, Marta Lamas has been a theoretician and an organizer, an inspiration and an agent for change. 

She has criticized modern feminism, however.  She’s written that the modern movement is divided by identity politics, that conservative forces hold back new critical theoretical analysis, and that there aren’t enough young feminists.  She does have faith in us, though– she said to one interviewer that

I have a lot of hope for the young generation of feminists.  There is a generation of young girls who are seeing things in a new way; and I hope that they will bring a new discourse and new answers.

The Leader of a Movement

An anthropologist by training, Ms. Lamas currently serves as a Political Science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM) and editorialist for several important Mexican newspapers (El Processo and Diario Monitor).  Ms. Lamas describes herself as “a feminist activist and an intellectual, a mix of theory and practice.”  She was there as the feminist movement grew and refined its tactics and messages.  When she saw a hole in the movement, she founded a committee or a journal or an organization to fill it. 

Marta Lamas is now one of the leading feminist intellectuals not just in Mexico, but in the entire region.  In 2005, Ms. Lamas was recognized by the international community when she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize as part of the  project “1,000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2005.”  She has written a host of books and articles on feminism, gender and abortion, and since 1990 has edited the regions’ most important feminist journal, debate feminista. Her most recent book is entitled Feminism: Transmissions and Retransmissions (Feminismo: transmisiones y retransmisiones).


In 1992, after informal participation in various committees and feminist action groups, Marta Lamas and several colleagues co-founded the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, by its initials in Spanish).  GIRE was founded because Lamas and her colleagues saw that the debate around abortion had been dominated by extreme positions and misinformation.  They set out to systematize and disseminate information on abortion and reproductive and sexual health and rights from the bioethical, social and legal perspectives to lawmakers and the press.  Over time, GIRE’s legal function has grown, and it is now the leading legal and legislative organization on these issues in Mexico, and a vanguard in the region.

Marta also founded the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute, and describes Ms. De Beauvoir as an idol. Marta is president of the board of a women’s fund in Mexico called Semillas (Spanish for “Seeds,” and a rough acronym for their full name, Mexican Society for Women’s Rights) that raises money from women to support women’s initiatives.  Semillas explicitly recognizes that “women are the central motor for the majority of families in Mexico, but women are left out of the human rights discussion in social, economic, political and cultural discussions.” Their model is one of empowerment and of social investment: “Women Investing in Women.”  There is great power in that model in Mexico, where women for so long had little control over financial resources—both the investors and the women who receive funding are empowered through the exchange.  Speaking of empowerment, Marta also serves as coordinator of the Independent Sex Workers’ Support Group.


Years of effort by Marta Lamas and her feminist sisters bore fruit in 2007 when abortion was decriminalized up to 12 weeks gestation in Mexico City (more complete discussion of the legislation here and here).  The legislation was undoubtedly the result of the 38 years of work by the movement, driven by Ms. Lamas’ ingenious positioning of the issue of abortion.  GIRE lawyers helped draft the legislation, and later helped coordinate its defense against unconstitutionality lawsuits at the Mexican Supreme Court. Marta Lamas testified.


Marta Lamas is known in Mexican intellectual and political society for her cutting analysis, and for her off-color sense of humor.  She’s performed with two political cabarets, one called Las Leonas.  These days for the release of new issues of debate feminista Marta performs with an act called Las Moscas Muertas that presents spectacles characterized by original political folk songs, physical humor, and wild props. 

Mosca Marta

Mosca Marta

I worked for more than a year at GIRE and met Marta a number of times—I was even her secret Santa! But I’m still in total awe of her.  She has been called, tongue-in-cheek, the Gloria Steinem of Mexico.  But this title doesn’t do justice to the influence her thought has had on both feminist and gender theory and the vibrant activism that theory has driven in Mexico.  The progress brought by feminism in Mexico, however stilted and stalled by machismo and the political machine, is inarguably in part a result of Ms. Lamas’ brilliance, passion, and commitment. 

Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at


Speaking out about abortion

In Policy Blog on April 13, 2009 at 3:18 pm

An article entitled We Already Have An Abortion Pride Movement, by friend and colleague Marcy Bloom, was published today on Marcy writes powerfully about “the movement for the normalization of abortion.” She also points out that abortion is “an honorable and loving choice” that should be supported and respected.

In the article Marcy mentions Our Truths/Neustras Verdades, a publication edited by another friend and colleague, Emily Barcklow. I met Emily in Mexico City, where she works for Equidad de Genero, a grassroots organizing NGO that partners with my former employer on abortion rights issues. The magazine empowers women to publicly express their feelings about their abortions, creating a respectful space for discussion, and honoring women’s choices.

The article makes me think of an event I recently worked on with the Women’s Liberation Birth Control Project to commemorate the 1969 Redstockings Abortion Speak-Out. That historic event sparked speak-outs all over the country, and eventually led to Roe v. Wade.  For the commemoration I read an excerpt from a powerful testimonial given at the original event by a woman who had been forced to carry her unwanted pregnancy to term because she didn’t have the resources to seek out an illegal abortion.

The event was a powerful reminder of how integral women’s voices are to political action. The women who spoke out in 1969 were galvanized because a panel on abortion had been convened- and was made up of all men except for one female; a nun. Those brave women recognized that only they could tell their own stories, and their stories sparked a movement. Now it falls on the shoulders of our generation of activists to destigmatize abortion as a human right and a responsible choice, and as a basic health service that must be safe and easily accessible for all women.

As Marcy writes, “Society needs to know that safe abortion is a moral good for women, understand more fully why women make this choice, and provide support and respect for women’s moral and ethical decision-making.”

SRHR Situation Report: SPAIN

In Policy Blog on April 6, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Gentle Reader: This is a column I wrote for the newly-launghed glog on international feminist topics, Gender Across Borders.  This is a monthly contribution I’m calling the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report.

Welcome to the first installment of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report! This monthly column will highlight advances or setbacks in SRHR policy internationally.

In this month’s SRHS Sit Report we’re highlighting Spain.The Spanish Parliament is currently considering legislation that would decriminalize abortion.  The law under consideration is a pretty good one, too.  It’s still being drafted, but public statements by the left-leaning administration have been emphasizing women’s rights and autonomy.  In a lot of countries with restrictive abortion laws arguments are focused around the public health consequences of unsafe clandestine abortion.  Although often that’s necessary because of the social climate, instrumental arguments are always more vulnerable to future challenge than are arguments based on intrinsic value.  And women’s autonomy is a pretty intrinsic value.

The proposed legislation would bring Spain up to date and into line with the vast majority of European countries and would answer the call of the Council of Europe to “decriminalize abortion within reasonable gestational limits” in its recent Resolution on Access to Safe and Legal Abortion passed in April 2008.  The Resolution was an important recognition of abortion rights as human rights at the regional level in Europe, and explicitly recognized the link between the criminalization of abortion and maternal mortality.

Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero‘s socialist administration introduced draft legislation in early 2007 (full text in Spanish Available here).   Since 1985, abortion has been legal in Spain under limited circumstances: to preserve the life, health or mental health of the pregnant woman, for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and in cases of fetal impairment.  Under those indications, has was mostly been pretty available—depending on where you live in Spain. In fact, until 2007 when abortion was decriminalized up to 10 weeks gestation in Portugal, a lot of Portuguese women traveled to neighboring Spain to obtain safe abortion services.

Part of the reason the reform was necessary is that although abortion services are fairly widely available in some areas, the legislation has been unevenly applied in Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions. In some areas providers and even women have been prosecuted for the crime of abortion.  In 2007, police raided clinics in Barcelona and Madrid, and in some areas have even gone to women’s homes.  In one case, police got an anonymous tip of a “murder” in progress and burst into a hospital where a woman was in the middle of a procedure and interrogated her.

Since it was instituted in 1985, Spain’s abortion law has been challenged several times.  In 1991, the Spanish Supreme Court dismissed charges against a woman who had undergone an abortion, saying that forcing her to give birth would have constituted a violation of her right to the free development of her person.  Since that decision, there have been several attempts to liberalize abortion law, but none have made it through the Parliament.

Over the last year, the Parliament has been considering the current proposed legislation and hearing evidence on the issue. It requested testimony from a panel of experts which included bioethicists, academics, and medical and legal experts. They also convened a parliamentary sub-commission on the legislation with a mandate to research the implications of the law including international human rights standards and European best practices.

Equality Minister Bibiana Aído Almagro

Minister of Equality Bibiana Aído Almagro

According to Minister of Equality Bibiana Aído Almagro (who’s a vocal advocate for women’s rights), the Ministry is currently in the process of amending draft legislation.  Word has it the legislation will likely decriminalize abortion upon request up to the 14th week of gestation and abortion of pregnancies that present grave risk to the health of the pregnant woman, or in cases of fetal malformation, up to 22 weeks.  Outside these indications, abortion would remain penalized, although Aído Almagro has made it clear that the government has no intention of imprisoning women for the crime of abortion.

Of course, the Catholic church is fighting back.  Right-wing voices have emphasized that the law may allow young women over the age of 16 to seek abortion services without notifying their parents, and have said that the law would make abortion into “just another form of contraception.” Bishops are calling for a “massive mobilization” against Zapatero’s administration.  The church’s arguments are familiar; and include the same old misinformation (actually abortion is not contraception, and numerous studies have shown that legality does not affect the number of abortions that take place—just how safe they are) and attacks on women’s ability to define their own lives and make their own decisions.


Lawmaker Carmen Montón Giménez

Socialist Parliamentarian Carmen Montón Giménez (who is also the spokesperson for the Socialist Group within the Parliamentary Equality Commission) is another fabulous feminist (with a blog).  She recently said to the plenary of the Parliament that the decriminalization of abortion for three indications (the current law) “was an advance and a social success, but did not recognize the capacity and will of women to decide about their own life and their own maternity.” (Full transcript in Spanish available here.) The new law would put the decision in the hands of the pregnant woman. Hopefully by the summer, Spain will join the growing list of nations that recognize women’s human rights and autonomy by passing holistic legislation decriminalizing abortion on demand.

Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at

Sexual and Reproductive Health Organization in Mexico

In Policy Blog on April 2, 2009 at 4:55 am

I just started  a consulting project with a Mexican NGO based in Yucatan that does sexual and reproductive health care based on an empowerment and human rights model.  Servicios Humanitarios en Salud Sexual y Reproductiva (SHSSR, or Humanitarian Sexual and Reproductive Health Services) was founded by visionary physician Sandra Peniche, who is dedicated to promoting women’s human rights and the eradication of preventible death among women in the Yucatan region.


From the SHSSR blog:

En Servicios Humanitarios en Salud Sexual y Reproductiva (SHSSR) ofrecemos servicios médicos, psicológicos y legales de alta calidad y bajo costo. Puede acudir con nosotras para recibir orientación y atención para la interrupción legal del embarazo. Nuestros servicios son de alta especialidad médica y primera en su tipo en el sureste mexicano.

Their great work is highlighted in these YouTube videos, and articles by Dr. Peniche (in Spanish) are available here.