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Memo to the United Nations Women

March 11th, 2011

TO: The United Nations Women

FROM: Amelia Herrera

RE: Women’s Access to Contraception in the Middle East

My name is Amelia Herrera, and I am writing to you concerning an issue that has a significant impact on the safety and well-being of women today in the Middle East. Many countries in the Middle East are struggling to either reduce or maintain their current population growth rate. Outside of Africa, countries in the Middle East have some of the highest fertility rates in the world: Afghanistan has a rate of 5.39, the Gaza strip has a rate of 4.74, in Yemen the rate is 4.63, and the rate in Iraq is 3.67.[1] According to the United Nations Population Fund, The ability for women to plan how many children they have and when they have them is a recognized basic human right, and access to contraceptives save millions of infant lives every year, reduce poverty, slow population growth, and stabilize the environment as well as economy.[2]

The Middle East is a diverse region that encompasses many different cultures, traditions, economies, political structures, and religions. However, many countries in the Middle East consist of populations predominantly practicing Islam. This presents a distinct challenge in that under Sharia law, the sacred law of the Islamic faith, women are not given the same rights and roles as men, although it is made clear in the Qur’an that they are deemed to be equal. The way that these laws are realized differ from country to country, but in many cases they present significant challenges to women, especially in accessing contraception. In  the UAE, physicians are required to have consent of the spouse in order to prescribe women contraception.[3] In Saudi Arabia, women are often required the escort of a male guardian to even enter a hospital, depending on the belief system of the hospital administrator.[4]

There are Middle Eastern countries that have had successful reductions in fertility rate in the past decade or so. This includes Iran, which has implemented a large scale media campaign by the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance that raised awareness of population issues in Iran and promoted family planning services. This in turn effectively reduced the fertility rate from 3.2% in 1986 to 1.2% in 2001, one of the fastest drops ever recorded in history.[5] While many governments have expressed that they are taking efforts to reduce birth rates, few are contributing significant financial resources to make sure that this is indeed the case. Not until countries commit financially will there be any real change for women, who are putting their health and the health of their children in danger through ineffective family planning access.

[1] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html?countryName=Iran&countryCode=ir&regionCode=me&rank=146#ir

[2] http://www.unfpa.org/rh/planning/mediakit/docs/new_docs/sheet1-english.pdf

[3] http://secretdubai.blogspot.com/2009/03/lie-back-and-think-of-abu-dhabi.html

[4] http://www.hrw.org/en/node/62251/section/6

[5] http://www.earth-policy.org/index.php?/plan_b_updates/2001/update4ss

Al-TAAWUN: Building A Savings Reserve On The Basis Of Justice And Cooperation

March 9th, 2011

To: The Islamic Development Bank

From: Neha Tahir, Class of 2012, Stanford University

Subject: A New Group-based Microfinance Model Catering to Women

Executive Summary:

The Islamic Microfinance industry, a consequence of the union between the Islamic Finance and the Microfinance industries, might be the answer to the recent failures that the Microfinance industry has been facing. Islamic Microfinance has been modeled upon the strength of the conventional Microfinance industry, with the scope to correct some of the inherent problems and inefficiencies that exist within the conventional system, while still adhering to the common goals of an Islamic Economic System, such as justice and equality, and a proper distribution of income and wealth.

However, the Islamic Finance system does not offer any significant form of finance that caters to individual financial needs (particularly cash needs), and the Retail/Consumer Banking sector in the industry has a lot of scope for the research and development of new products and services. The relatively new industry also suffers from a very limited outreach; the findings of a global survey on Islamic Microfinance carried out by CGAP in 2007 show that “Islamic Microfinance has a total estimated global outreach of only 380,000 customers”, this meager figure being representative of an estimated one-half of one-percent of total Microfinance outreach (Karim, Nimrah).  This is owing to the narrow range of products and services that the industry currently has to offer; While the Islamic Financial Services Industry has made great strides in recent years, it has not adequately addressed poverty alleviation. This must be remedied, as diverse approaches are needed to provide poor Muslims with access to financial services (Islamic Research Training Institute). The lack of sufficient and diverse products and services in the industry leaves the common man who is in need of an immediate interest-free loan, but is unqualified to receive this money from banks, to resort to pawnshops, despite their high rates of interest.


I would like to propose the model of a new Islamic Microfinance service that will be offered by Banks and/or Microfinance Institutions worldwide. It is particularly suited to the needs of women entrepreneurs looking for an interest-free way to finance their enterprise. There are various discrepancies between Microfinance products that are targeted towards men and women; the characteristics of this model, as will be discussed below, make it more functional for aspiring female entrepreneurs.

The product, “Al Taawun” (which translates: “helping one another”), will be practically experimented in Dubai, UAE, with the city’s expansive Islamic Finance background and expertise. Having been researching the theory and mechanism of this product since June 2010 in Dubai, I have been successful in building a supervisory board of patrons in the city, inclusive of technocrats, senior government officials, ministers, CEOs, and Heads of Islamic Finance in Banks and other Financial Institutions.

The model is built on the foundation of a ‘cooperating with and helping one another’ motto. Al Taawun is basically a cluster of networks that generate money for its members. Every individual member of the group contributes a sum of money to the group, the collective amount of which, every member gets to benefit from at different time periods during the year. Due to the fact that this model works on the basis of group cooperation, with every member of the group being a motivating factor for the other members to not default, and because the model is a savings model that is contingent on its members repaying on time, it is more likely to receive better results if it was specifically targeted towards women. Women entrepreneurs essentially reflect feminine values and the characteristic developmental qualities of women such as relationship, interdependence and cooperation; this is contrary to the management styles of men, which include autonomy, independence, and competition (Mahmood, Ahmed).


Al Taawun is a step in the direction of diversifying the current spectrum of products offered by the industry, without paying very high rates of interest; it is an attempt to contribute towards a fair and just economic system that caters to every individual’s needs, and helps alleviate poverty by providing the poor population, in desperate need of an access to basic finance, with a refuge to relieve its financial problems.


Tarazi, Michael. Reille Xavier. Karim, Nimrah. Islamic Microfinance: An Emerging Market Niche. CGAP Focus Note. August 2008.

Islamic Financial Services Board and Islamic Research Training Institute. Islamic Microfinance Development: Challenges and Initiatives. Working Paper for Islamic Financial Services Board Forum Framework and Strategies for Development of Islamic Microfinance Services, Dakar, Senegal, May 27, 2007, 81p.

Ahmed, Mahmood. “The role of RDS in the development of women entrepreneurship under Islamic Microfinance: A case study of Bangladesh.” In: Islamic Finance for Micro and Medium Enterprises by Mohammed Obaidullah and Hajah Salma Haji Abdul Latiff. Islamic Research Training Institute, Islamic Development Bank and Centre for Islamic Banking, Finance and Management, University of Brunei Darussalam, Jeddah/Brunei, 2008

Memo: Echoing Colombian Sexual Healthy Policy in the Rest of Latin America

March 8th, 2011


To: Hilary Clinton, Secretary of State

From: Director of the WHA/PPC (Western Hemisphere Affairs Office of Policy Planning and Coordination)

Subject: Birth control dissemination/Family Planning in Latin America—Colombia’s New Policies as Example

Background: Contraception Policy in Latin America

Family Planning is essential to women’s health, and it has been shown to lead to reduction of poverty and more desirable family situations for women. Thus, both children and women  have more control over their future and livelihoods. Family an rights and economic factors, it is within U.S. interest to further these rights.

Women with pre-child-bearing opportunities and ultimately fewer children sizes can contribute to the Latin American economies and thus assist stability. This is most apparent in their control over timing of childbirths: with access to contraception, they can better decide time in their life they are willing to rear children, how many they can afford, and how far apart between ages they can logically handle. Studies also show that smaller families allow people to attend school longer (see figure 1) and both mothers and children can eventually achieve better economic stability.

But as part of the goal to increase funding for preventative contraceptive needs of Latin American women, it will be necessary to exclude important messages on other related topics—such as address abortion debate, competing needs such as maternal care and HIV treatment, and goals of gender equality/women empowerment (Wilson).

Why Latin America?

The Millennium Development goals and UNFPA are both doing great work in family planning right now; however, they are focusing on selected countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (USAID, International). The world is turning away from Latin America for family planning because it has a smaller population and thus a less total need than Asia and Africa (see figure 2). Also, many assume that as our neighbors and our backyard, Latin America will receive the U.S. government’s focus when we pass our individual appropriation bills for Family Planning.  It is time to take on that expectation and help the women of Latin America, spread prosperity across the Americas—furthering human rights and improving Western Hemisphere economic stability.

Current Funding Situation:

Most U.S. funding for family planning is procured through two main sources: Congress’s annual appropriations bills, and money funneled through USAID (Kaiser). U.S. funding for international family planning has fluctuated and decreased as a share of the U.S. global health budget. After reaching approximately $575 million in 1995, it dropped or remained relatively flat for more than a decade, until this year when it reached $648.5 million, including $525 million in the USAID account. The request next year, the 2011 fiscal year budget, is $715.7 million for family planning (see figure 3).

Two years ago, on January 23, 2009, just after President Obama had repealed the Mexico City Policy—which had gagged vital birth control organizations from receiving government funding, you, Madam Secretary, said that you were looking forward “to promote programs and policies that ensure women and girls have full access to health information and services” (CRS). I wholeheartedly support your commitment, and I hope that over the next few years this can include our Latin American neighbors. Now that the President has proposed to increase the funding to $715 million for 2011—which is the highest funding for this issue in US history (USAID, Obama)—it needs to be followed through on with a newfound focus on our nearest neighbors. The budget cuts have been necessarily harsh across the board, but this is one are worth investment: never before has birth control been so affordable and effective.

There so much to be gained without a relatively small actual monetary investment. The costs include the contraceptive commodities themselves (condoms, IUDs, pills), personnel, and management/shipping. And given the proximity of Latin America, the shipping costs are minimal. But these costs are not to be borne by the U.S. alone; the most efficient and culturally sensitive distribution would be through lobbying the NGOs and governments of the nations themselves to follow the Colombian method.

The Colombian Method:

Historical Background: Sexuality and Contraception in Colombia

From the introduction of contraceptives in Colombia during the 1960s up until present, the nation’s population growth rate has “decreased steadily.” And during an especially key period between 1980 and 1995, the population growth rate decreased by an estimated 23% (IES). For example, the average children born per family moved from seven during the 1960s to just under three in 2001. Yet, there are wide variances between regions; for example, the average in 4.3 in the mountainous regions. Similarly, education levels play an important role–such as the average of five children per woman among those lacking any formal education, compared to 1.8 for women with higher education (IES).

Another important factor is culture. Colombia has an interesting mix of cultures which contribute to its sense of sexuality in society: “The Spanish cultural influence, which is a mix between the Arab-Andaluzian influences, mixes the glorification of sensuality and eroticism in its most beautiful form with the Spanish Catholic Inquisition’s very strong repressive ideas.” To confuse matters worse, the African culture adds a view of “sexuality, eroticism, and sexual vigor as natural phenomena” (IES).

Then, one other incredibly important aspect of cultural norms is religion. Studies in Colombia have shown “the presence of important religious beliefs related to sexuality”: the ingrained Catholic ideas around birth control and pleasure, including “religious concepts that emphasize feminine resignation” contribute significantly to sexuality in Colombia (IES). Luckily, despite the fact that a majority of Colombians are Catholic, social and economic issues as well as marital instability “have led to the acknowledgment of the civil rights of all couples and their children.” According to studies and censuses, more than half of Columbians continue to practice Catholicism, but also engage in birth control without experiencing guilt: 72.2 percent of women in a relationship use birth control of some form. Yet, the issue is still not equitable among the genders: for every six women using contraception in the late 1990s, only one man did so (IES).

On the other hand, Colombia has for over a decade had several laws which seek to protect the rights of women: “Family Planning is viewed as an individual’s right and an obligation of the state.” In the 1991 Constitution, all discrimination against women in condemned in Articles 17 through 30. The Constitution states: “Women have civil rights as they pertain to reproduction and the judicial system equal to men in education, nationality, employment, health, matrimony and family.” While such legislation was a good step forward, however, implementation has often occurred rarely if at all (IES).

As with much of the world, premarital sex is common throughout Colombia. Studies have shown 90.4 percent of males and 62.8 percent of females have engaged in premarital sex before college life (IES). And in the realm of adolescents, ten percent of 13-14 year olds has had sexual relations, and in increases to forty percent for 15-17 year olds (IES).

Colombia’s 2010 Policy:

The nation’s policy is such a fundamental success that even this early on, I think it is clear already that we should encourage other Latin American countries to emulate.”Since a law was passed guaranteeing all citizens access to free birth control drugs and procedures, clinics have opened, especially in impoverished areas where teen pregnancy rates are high” (Kraul).

Free contraceptive implants were given out in December 2010 as part of “one of Latin America’s most liberal reproductive rights laws,” passed by Colombia’s Congress which guarantees citizens access to free contraception in the form of medicinal or surgical methods. Psychologist Maribel Murillo of the Diamante health clinic in Colombia notes that “it will advance the sexual rights of women of little means, many of whom already have several children” (Kraul).

One factor that applies to the rest of Latin America is the concept of Colombia as a mostly- Catholic nation (estimates are around 90%). And yet, legislation as progressive as this was able to advance reproductive rights “in this largely Roman Catholic nation.” Colombia has been slowly liberalizing, evidenced by the constitutional court rulings just before this policy on removing abortion penalties for medical providers (Kraul).

Enabling women to access reproductive health care for free, the Colombian policies are making women’s control over their futures and bodies a priority. Beyond social justice, this legislation also certainly presents economic benefits for the nation: “because maternity and neonatal care are among the healthcare system’s fastest-growing costs, free contraceptive medicine and surgeries could end up saving the government money” (Kraul).

As observed in various studies, teen pregnancies cause a vicious poverty cycle. And given Colombia’s worsening situation in this area (2010 figures show that 21% of teen Colombian girls bear children—compared to 13% in 1990).  In the rest of Latin America, this 2010 teen pregnancy rate in Colombia was surpassed only by Nicaragua (which was up to 25%), and Venezuela, El Salvador, and Honduras (all at around  21.5%). If we compare them to ourselves, the U.S. is estimated by Guttmacher to have around  a 7% of teen pregnancy rate. As a response to the Colombia’s teen pregnancy issues, another result of the policy was the creation of over 600 offices have been opened across Colombia to increased access to contraception and advice for adolescents, called Friendly Health Services for Youths (Kraul).

Applying the Lessons to the Rest of Latin America:

If these liberal social service policies can radiate across the region, the issues of teen/unplanned pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STI infections could be easily controlled. Of course, the exact plan cannot apply universally. As we know from even the variance among U.S. states and reproductive health policy, small demographic and social/political changes can have a large impact on the logistics of family planning policies. Each country had its own background, political climate, and specific needs.


Works Cited:

CRS. <http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PCAAB323.pdf>

IES. José Manuel González, M.A.; Rubén Ardila, Ph.D.; Pedro Guerrero, M.D.; Gloria Penagos, M.D.; and Bernardo Useche, Ph.D. “Colombia,” from International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Volume I-IV 1997-2001, Edited by Robert T. Francoeur. <http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/colombia.html#2>

Kaiser Family Foundation. “US Government and International Family Planning & Reproductive Health.” US Global Health Policy Fact Sheet.

Kraul, Chris. “Colombia launches large-scale birth control effort,” 12 December 2010, Los Angeles Times. <http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/12/world/la-fg-colombia-birth-control-20101212>

USAID, “International Alliance For Reproductive, Maternal, and Newborn Health.” <http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/global_health/pop/alliance.html>

USAID, “Obama Administration Statements on Family Planning.”  <http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/global_health/pop/news/obama_fp.html >

Wilson Center < http://www.wilsoncenter.org/events/docs/Gillespie.pdf>

The “Women-Only” Approach Versus the “Family Empowerment Approach”: Egypt as a Case-Study

March 7th, 2011

The access to basic financial services that Islamic Microfinance offers empowers Muslim women in giving them a new dimension in life and feeling of self-worth. However, while this ability of Microfinance to provide rural women with micro-loans in gender-segregated societies is laudable, working with Muslim women in particular raises the issue of interfering with social, cultural and religious codes. The Qur’an encourages men and women to play their respective roles in society, by ensuring the economic and social wellbeing of the family: “Men shall have a share of that which they have earned, and women a share of which they have earned” (Qur’an, VI, 32).

Hence, the “women-only” approach typical of conventional microfinance is not always followed by Islamic Microfinance Institutions (IMFIs) that try to adhere to Islamic principles and values while providing customers with loans. IMFIs overcome this problem by shifting their focus from “women empowerment” to “family empowerment”, which is also promoted by the Qur’an. While this kind of an approach might be met by criticism, it must be understood that it is a very culture-specific approach that mostly caters to male-dominated societies.

The “women-only” approach does weaken the institution of the family by sending both the male and the female out to work, giving them both the feeling of being the breadwinner for their family. But besides this, this approach is also prone to many risks posed by traditional male-dominated societies. In these societies, the funds provided to women for investment in their enterprises are often usurped by the male members of the family, while the women consequently end up carrying the burden of repayment and of their business independently.

In a Muslim country like Egypt, which was the first MENA country to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Microfinance has had a great impact on women’s empowerment in the country. In 2008, a national survey carried out by Planet Finance (NGO) evaluated the impact of microcredit as well as the perception of this impact: “During the focus group discussions, women unanimously stated that the loan had had a positive effect in terms of their image in their communities; they are also more self-confident and their children appreciate what they do. Their projects have allowed them to have a better life in general (“National Impact Survey” 86)”. Despite being a male-dominated Muslim society, Islamic Microfinance accentuates women empowerment.

47 percent of Egypt’s microentrepreneurs are women; 88 percent of these women operate home-based businesses and only 28 percent operate non home-based businesses. Despite these circumstances wherein women are allowed to realize their entrepreneurial skills and abilities out of their home, 45 percent of women have noticed a positive change in their life, in terms of education and economic possibilities, whereas 86 percent of women have experienced a positive impact in terms of personal autonomy (V. COSTA – H. MAKHLOUF – P. MAZAUD).


Costa, Valentina. Makhlouf, Hala. Mazaud, Perrine. “Women’s Empowerment through Islamic Microfinance in Egypt”. MESCI 2009-2010.

The Role of the Rural Development Scheme (RDS) in the Development of Women Entrepreneurship Under Islamic Microfinance

March 7th, 2011

Looking at the RDS as a case study in the development of women entrepreneurship in Bangladesh by means of Islamic Microfinance, we can analyze the role of the burgeoning industry in poverty alleviation, and women empowerment in particular. The RDS is a provider of Microfinance services in Bangladesh, following the rules set by the Islamic Shari’ah. The RDS caters to the investment needs of the agriculture and rural sector; its target market segment include destitute women and distressed people. The RDS is an investment project that conforms to social responsibility fort he downtrodden in the rural areas as its prime priority. It uses depositors’ funds in interest-free ways in rural areas where downtrodden people are susceptible to interest-based groups.

90 per cent of the RDS’ customers are women; the project is currently being operated in about 2200 villages in 45 districts through 21 branches, with a recovery rate of approximately 99.7 per cent.

The cardinal principle of the Scheme is the ‘Group Approach’, Allah loves those ‘who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation’ (Al-Quran 42:38). For all decision-making activities, this mutual consultation is given high priority. The scheme works with each member of the group guaranteeing other members’ investments, and once the investment is approved, the investment (along with a percentage of the profit earned by the business) needs to be paid back by the client in 45 equal weekly installments.

This model has worked really well in terms of the scheme serving as a great source of empowerment for its women customers (who are also the majority of its borrowers). Since the establishment of the RDS, there has been a positive impact on women’s income, decision-making skills, and in reducing overall gender disparity in Bangladesh. Moreover, the group approach adopted by the RDS works really well with women because women in general find it easier to identify with organizations that essentially reflect feminine qualities such as relationships, interdependence and cooperation. An article written by Mahmood Ahmed on the RDS also points out that that scheme has seen a really high repayment rate because women are more likely to repay loans than men, owing to their “mother-hood” skills that they have developed while looking after their husbands, children, and families at home. This hypothesis particularly applies to the women and culture of Bangladesh.

RDS is therefore one out of the many Islamic Microfinance models that has proven successful in alleviating poverty and empowering women by means of granting them interest-free loans.

Legitimacy of Islamic Microfinance as a Viable and Feasible Alternative to Conventional Microfinance

March 7th, 2011

Why is there a need for Islamic Microfinance?

We know that the prime motive of every government and every country’s Finance Minister is to account for a sound and stable financial system in the economy, and try to alleviate poverty. However, factually speaking, there is no evidence of a system that has succeeded in the above-mentioned attempts. With the emergence, instant success, and exponential growth of the Microfinance industry, Microfinance has been claimed to be the mechanism that has the potential to eradicate global poverty. This claim obviously comes with its share of criticism and debate; how does Microfinance aim to defeat poverty, if it charges its high-risk, poor customers, excessive rates of interest that in some cases soar as high as 60%? The industry is getting carried away by its potential to generate profits; there is an increasing number of MFIs that have started operating under the business objectives of the commercial world, with profits and expansion being their main aim. MFIs have started to go public, when the only beneficiaries of this industry, as stated by Mohamed Yunus, should be the poor population it was initially created for. Of course, other social benefits such as justice and equality, and a proper distribution of income and wealth, remain just as unattainable and untouched with the industry moving farther away from its actual goals.

Looking at Different Countries as Case-Studies of a Global Need for Islamic Microfinance

In such a global situation, Islamic Microfinance could be the savior that the Microfinance industry needs to remind it of its original motivations. Like Muhammad Yunus pointed out, the Microfinance industry was created to protect the poor from loan sharks, not create more loan sharks. Looking at the global Microfinance industry, and the cost of borrowing money, the countries that are most shocking are Nigeria and Mexico (NYTimes). The demand in these countries for micro loans is very expansive. In this classic case of an excess demand being met by a high price, these countries charge their poor excessive rates of interest.

In Mexico, the average rate of interest for a micro loan is 70 percent, compared to a global average of about 37 percent (NYTimes). Uzbekistan also boasts a whopping 80 percent average in interest rates per annum, with Uganda, Kenya and Ghana following at approximately 55 percent, 55 percent and 50 percent (respectively) (CGAP).

In such a situation, where the global average itself is at 35 percent, would it help to have an industry serving the same purpose of providing the poor with basic financial access, WITHOUT charging interest? Islamic Microfinance is definitely an alternative to the problem of high rates of interest; although Islamic Microfinance does not mean that money is lent absolutely free cost (since the industry needs to make its profits in accordance with the Islamic Shar’iah), its compliance with Islamic rules and the Islamic goal of an Economic System with values such as justice and equality, the industry is obviously bounded by moral values that hinder it from getting carried away or trying to make profits at the expense of the poor.


Rosenberg, Richard. Kneiding, Christoph. 2008. “Variations in Microcredit Interest Rates” Brief Note. Washington, D.C.: CGAP, June.


MacFarquhar, Neil. “Banks Making Big Profits From Tiny Loans”. NYTimes. April 13 2010.


Short-term Realities and Long-term Goals: Achieving Lasting Global Commitment to Women's Rights

March 5th, 2011

To: The United Nations General Assembly,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
From: Araceli Y. Flores, Stanford University Class of 2011


Within the last century, the international community has made significant strides in defining fundamental freedoms that should be guaranteed to every human being, regardless of their country of origin. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that all members of the human family possess inherent dignity and inalienable rights, such as life and liberty, health and wellbeing, and education and self-expression. The UDHR exhorts all governments to observe and protect these rights.

The tenets agreed upon in the UDHR express views that United Nations, the representative body of the international community, held in 1948 and wished to establish as universal norms for years to come: As former Secretary-General U Thant articulated, “The world has come to a clear realization of the fact that freedom, justice, and world peace can only be assured through the international promotion and protection of these rights and freedoms.”

As history progressed and women demanded their right to equality of opportunity and protection, the United Nations convened once again to expand the ideas enshrined within the UDHR with specific recognition of gender-based denials of basic human rights. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was convened by the United Nations. CEDAW reiterated the “truths” upheld in the UDHR, but took a step further: it underscored the urgent need to conceptualize the vision of fundamental human rights in the context of women: “[CEDAW] affirms the principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex.” Years later, in a famous speech delivered to the UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, Hillary Rodham Clinton captured this sentiment perfectly: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Clinton’s comments highlight the feminization of human rights issues and humanitarian crises. Everywhere around the world, women—in comparison to their male counterparts—face compounded conditions of human suffering based solely on their status as women: where there are already limited opportunities to access food, water, education, and social services, women face even more circumscribed access based on their gender. Moreover, women in the developing world confront a host of impediments to their health and wellbeing that men will never face: among them, reproductive rights and complications from pregnancy.

Current Situation

The United Nations has made significant progress in galvanizing the international community and holding governments to an international standard of human and women’a rights law. The signing and ratification of the UNDR and CEDAW demonstrate the good will of hundreds of member nations to recognize these “fundamental freedoms” and work to incorporate them into their respective domestic laws. However, despite the continued efforts of the UN Office of the High Commissioner and UN Women, a tangible gap exists in the implementation and enforcement of these rights on the ground.

The current realities fall into two camps, with member nations exhibiting the following qualities to varying degrees: In the first camp, there are countries – such as Bangladesh – which have created legal frameworks that uphold women’s rights, in principle. These countries possess all the rhetoric of gender equity and equal protections/opportunities under the law, but yet, their governments are either unwilling or incapable of fully committing to proper enforcement.  In the second camp, countries – such as Iran— have built gender-based discrimination into their very legal code. Lacking even the pretense of solidarity with international conventions or efforts in creating protective internal laws, these countries blatantly defy their international obligations to respect and guarantee human and women’s rights. While the severity of the situation of women’s rights varies a great deal within each camp, the prevalence of traditions that perpetuate violence against women and deny basic human services is troubling. This memo hopes to offer tenable policies that the United Nations can pursue, in addition to its existing efforts, to bolster the rule of law and access to human dignity that all women deserve.


This memo recognizes the need for both immediate and lasting solutions to effect meaningful and enforceable women’s rights laws. In order to address both the symptoms and the sources of violations of women’s rights, this memo proposes short and a long-term mechanisms, along with the theory of action that guides them:


The creation of a monitoring committee to create an international forum for women’s rights accountability that could incentivize government behavior.

Guiding assumption: Often times, governments do not feel compelled to observe their international obligations or respect human rights, especially when no supranational organization exists to “police” or punish deviant behavior. While sanctions have been an effective tool used by UN member nations to influence government behavior in the past, this memo recognizes that part of the crisis women face is humanitarian: cutting trade ties or economic aid to these countries as an attempt to “pressure” change would only further compound the plight of women within their borders. Instead, if anything, these countries need more resources to enact the types of positive change the United Nations seeks. In this vein, this policy recommends the commissioning of a monitoring committee which would produce a yearly “women’s rights report” for every country. This committee should create meaningful indicators of progress– such as increased women’s participation in political processes or decreased government crackdowns or violence against women— that would be used to evaluate and reward progress in securing tangible advancements in women’s rights.

Theory of action: These accountability measures need to be tied to meaningful incentives in order to effect behavior change. The United Nations should publish its report and urge nations to consider country scores when distributing foreign aid, outscoring factories, or creating trade agreements. Increased awareness of the human rights realities on the ground will create opportunities for other nations to target their interactions accordingly and use economic incentives to encourage development and the rule of law in other countries. Most importantly, as previously stated, these scores should not be used to cut off aid or economic opportunities to mal-performing nations. Instead, the score reports should be used as basis of “rewarding” growth in these nations and sustaining that growth (in the short-term) through continued incentivization.


Foster endogenous belief and capacity in the protection of women’s rights as a fundamental responsibility of governments, not as an intermediary means to other government ends.

Guiding assumption: Creating palpable, material incentives to elicit government cooperation on women’s rights issues offers a short-term solution to encourage behavior change. A reporting committee would shine international attention on the actions of these governments and tie these actions to “deliverables” or concrete “carrots” that reward good behavior. This mechanism presents a realistic understanding of the crisis at hand and offers a solution to evoke the type of immediate change that is necessary to implement change in a time-sensitive manner. That being said, observance and protection of women’s rights must be valued as ends in and of themselves, not as just compliance measures or routes to boosting GDP. Only when governments and societies internalize the moral obligation and human rights aspect of women’s rights– not just development or economic benefit-based arguments– can the international community be assured of a meaningful commitment to lasting and sustainable change.

Theory of action: The United Nations should create an investment fund that works to mobilize regional actors and grassroots organization in creating system-changing reform, both top-down and bottom-up. Many times, even if governments wish to enforce gender-equity laws, a fundamental lack of resources causes conditions in which sex-selective behavior (in distributing food, sending children to school, or even aborting fetuses) becomes an unavoidable reality of life.  The investment fund should not only provide financial support to committed governments and non-governmental organizations, but it should also provide the political/human capital and technological materials to grow internal capacities.

It is this memo’s hope that these two proposed mechanisms can be jointly employed– using international influence to engage governments in the short-term, as well as creating the foundations for a self-sustained commitment to women’s rights issues in the long-term.



United Nations General Assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

United Nations in Ukraine, UN Quotable, http://www.un.org.ua/en/information-centre/un-quotable

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (1979), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/

Gifts of Speech, Hilary Rodham Clinton, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” (1995), http://gos.sbc.edu/c/clinton.html

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (1979), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx

Sex Trafficking In Vietnam: The Sustainable Solution

March 4th, 2011

Date: March 3, 2011

To: The Vietnam Women’s Union

From: Tania Tran, Stanford University

Dear The Vietnam Women’s Union,

My name is Tania Tran and I am a student at Stanford University.  In my studies in women’s health during the past quarter, I have become very interested in the issue of sex trafficking in Vietnam.  Prior to the class, my knowledge on the issue of sex trafficking and prostitution came from the discussions within my family and the Vietnamese-American community around us.  I learned that sex trafficking is a largely prevalent and growing problem in Vietnam, with hundreds of thousands of women and girls victim to trafficking for prostitution and forced-marriage only within the past few decades.  The stories that I’ve heard gave me the impression that this practice is fundamentally the buying and selling of women into slavery.

My research within the past quarter has informed me that the Vietnamese government, especially through The Vietnam Women’s Union, has taken many steps to reduce sex trafficking.  There is no doubt that sex trafficking is an increasing problem in Vietnam.  From the United States perspective through the Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, Vietnam’s standing has dropped from Tier 2 in 2009 to Tier 2 Watch List in 2010 [1], suggesting many problems that the Vietnamese government has insufficiently addressed.  Some of these issues include lack of funding for victim protection resources, education of law enforcement officials, legal framework for addressing trafficking crimes, and prevention methods.  In light of these problems, I am writing to you with regards to solutions to ending sex-trafficking.  I would like to address key problems I see in existing solutions to end sex-trafficking and propose new ways to combat this issue that could be more effective and sustainable.

Key Issue #1: Community Involvement

According to the National Plan of Action To Combat Crimes of Trafficking in Women and Children in 2004-2010, it was reported that only 12 of 63 Vietnamese provinces had strategies to prevent trafficking linked to the national plan [2].  This suggests an enormous gap in communication and knowledge that could be vital to stopping sex trafficking.  I believe that if the government does not have enough resources to reach out to the provinces, change could also start from the local level.  As evident in the work of ActionAid International Vietnam, providing information and education to poor communities is a very effective way to effect change on a larger scale, especially because women and children who are poor and less educated are most likely to be trafficked [3].  By providing education through monthly meetings in these communities, we can not only provide these women the awareness of the dangers of sex trafficking, but also a sense of community and empowerment.

Key Issue #2: Respecting Women

I have observed that The Vietnam Women’s Union has focused a large portion of its money and efforts on education services designed for women and girls.  I would like to propose that awareness campaigns should address male members of the community as well.  Sex-trafficking, prostitution, and sex-tourism are all activities that flourish due to increasing demand.  In order to combat these issues, we must recognize that the root of the problem lies within the hands of men and leaders in our communities.  If there wasn’t a demand, sex-trafficking would not occur.  Education on sex-trafficking must happen at all levels of society and must target all age-groups.  It must be known that sex-trafficking is prevalent because it is a practice that operates on the belief that women are commodities.  To address sex-trafficking appropriately, we must also address the way society objectifies women and come up with a way to stop it.

Key Issue #3: Government Responsibility

Through public education and awareness campaigns, The Vietnam Women’s Union must pressure the government to be more accountable and diligent in the prosecution of sex-trafficking crimes.  Education programs should specifically target state officials and those in positions of power.  At the most basic level, criminals of sex-trafficking must be punished in order to set a precedent for the respect of human rights at both the national and international level.  The government must be persuaded to focus on the bigger picture – it must seek to improve the status of women in society and protect them from the dangers of trafficking.  The government should not worry itself about the formation of a State Run Bridal Agency [4] or Red Light Districts to limit “illegal” exploitation of women, for these solutions will only temporarily address sex-trafficking and fail to address the human rights of women and the freedom from slavery.  Even when regulated, these practices fundamentally treat women as objects, easily sold and exploited for a profit.  The public must become informed about the Criminal Code in Vietnam and demand for a more uniform legal code for punishment of sex-trafficking crimes.  Currently, article 119 states that perpetrators could be imprisoned for 20 years for this crime, yet does not indicate any punishment for perpetrators who are government officials [5].  Education must seek to educate citizens not only of their rights, but also for insisting that state officials must be educated and responsible in the fight for human rights for trafficked victims.

I hope that The Vietnam Women’s Union will take these suggestions into consideration. I believe that approaching the issue of sex-trafficking systematically by educating all levels of society will contribute greatly to both the prevention and treatment of this injustice.


Tania Tran

[1] Trafficking in Persons Report 2010: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/

[2] “Trafficking Fight Lacks Political Will” http://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/trafficking-12062010172500.html

[3] ActionAid International Vietnam: www.actionaid.org.uk/100192/Vietnam.html

[4] BBC News: Vietnam State to Run Bride Agency: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7817818.stm

[5] General Assembly WOM/1593, Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women: www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/wom1593.doc.htm

What Does It Mean For Women To Be “Empowered” And Does Empowerment Compromise The Viability of Microfinance Institutions Worldwide?

March 3rd, 2011

Microfinance has had a positive impact on the status of women globally. What does it mean for women to be “empowered”?

According to the State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign 2001 Report, 14.2 million of the world’s poorest women how have access to financial services through bank, Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), NGOs, and other such institutions. These women belong to the 74 percent of the approximately 20 million of the world’s poorest people that are now being catered to by MFIs. This means that most of these women have access to the ‘loan’ they need to start or invest in their own enterprise; also, most of these women have great repayment records despite the financial problems they run into on a regular basis. So then, is it a good idea to lend money to the poor, and more specifically to poor women? What does this money do for them in terms of their ‘empowerment’?

The word empowerment is difficult to define precisely; yet, it is easy to pin-point an example of empowerment when we see one:

Snapshots of Empowerment:

  • Nury, an illiterate Trust Bank client at AGAPE in Colombia, formerly too shy to speak to strangers, became the treasurer for her Trust Bank.
  • A group of widows in Bali received loans from WKP to start simple projects raising pigs. Over time, they grew in confidence and solidarity and expanded to form a pig-feed cooperative that became the major supplier for their village.
  • Hanufa, a member of CODEC in Bangladesh, defends her rights against an illegal divorce but ultimately decides that she is better off on her own. “I can walk on my own shoes now.”

A lot of different terms have been associated with empowerment: self-reliance, self-respect, self-enabling to reach potential, development of self-worth, and so forth. Empowerment is definitely the goal of many MFIs worldwide; these institutions help women that have previously experienced little or no power, make choices that impact their lives forever. By providing these women with basic financial services, and a loan to become an entrepreneur, they have a tremendous impact on this empowerment process.

Even though MFIs with a strong focus on empowerment have been criticized to have lose their operational viability and sustainability in the process, this has been proved wrong by many MFIs with the same women-empowerment focus. Working Women’s Forum (WWF) in India, for example, is fully financially sustainable and offers a range of nonfinancial services, including organizing women in the informal sector to achieve better wages and working conditions. WWF also empowers poor women through its institutional structure by training them to act as health promoters and credit officers in their neighborhoods. Therefore, MFIs with a strong focus on empowerment maintain very high levels of operational and financial sustainability, suggesting that a great deal can be done to enhance women’s empowerment even within the constraints of financial sustainability.

Be courageous. Recognize and take action.

March 3rd, 2011

Dear Botswana Ministry of Health and distinguished officials,

Executive Summary

Currently Botswana’s National Strategic Framework for HIV/AIDS is not crafted to include the specific needs of sex workers. Botswana’s goal for an HIV-free generation is jeopardized by failure to assist commercial sex workers, the leading driver of the HIV/AIDS crisis. We recommend that the Ministry begin to 1) open a dialogue between the policymakers in the highest level of government about assisting commercial sex workers, 2) increase funding for organizations that develop innovative income generating projects that provide a way for commercial sex workers to escape their dangerous line of work.


According to the latest statistics Botswana’s adult (15-49) HIV prevalence rate is 24.8%. In comparing different demographics, the prevalence rate is highest for young women (15-24) with a rate of 11.8% (1).

Botswana’s high-risk populations include migrant workers, diamond workers, and sex workers (2). At present Botswana’s laws and regulations present obstacles for effective HIV prevention and care for commercial sex workers. The commercial sex worker industry is highly concentrated in Francistown, Mochudi, Palape, Selebe-Phikwe, and Tlokweng (3).

Independent researchers studying commercial sex worker populations in Francistown and Selebe-Phikwe argue that the majority of commercial sex workers are forced into this line of work because of poverty (3).

Commercial sex workers are vulnerable to being raped and/or beaten by their clients. This population also faces discrimination at clinics. An investigation into the Botselo Clinic in Francistown revealed that nurses taunted commercial sex workers and wrongfully disclosed the sex workers’ HIV-statuses to other patients (3).

Although prostitution is illegal in Botswana, there are many grassroots organizations like Matshelo Community Development and Men, Sex, and AIDS that have in the past been involved with training peer educators to educate other commercial sex workers on correct condom use and disposal and HIV/AIDS resources/testing facilities/counseling services. Matshelo Community Development in particular is involved with income generating projects. However both of these organizations have stopped operating due to lack of funding (5).

Existing Policies

The National Strategic Framework on HIV/AIDS has initiatives (education programs and condom distribution facilities) that address the needs of migrant workers and diamond workers. However, the National Strategic Framework of HIV/AIDS fails to acknowledge and address the care for commercial sex workers (6).


In order for an HIV-free generation to exist, the Ministry of Health needs to intervene and take actions to deal with one of the leading causes of HIV transmission. We recommend that the Botswana Ministry of Health:

1) Open a dialogue between the policymakers in the highest level of government about assisting commercial sex workers

 2) Increase funding for organizations that provide education and prevention schemes and develop innovative income generating projects that offer an alternative way for commercial sex workers to escape their dangerous line of work.

In addition we recommend that the Ministry of Health strongly consider sensitivity training for nurses and doctors at all testing, hospital, and clinic facilities so that commercial sex workers will not be discriminated against. In addition, failure to respect the rights of patients must have tough legal consequences.


The discussion of addressing commercial sex workers in Botswana was first started by Deputy Minister Botlogile Tshireletso. Mr. Tshireletso’s call for the government to consider legalizing prostitution to fight HIV/AIDS was met by strong opposition. Due to strong cultural and traditional beliefs, Batswana are against legislation making illegal sex work a legal economic activity. The debate was quieted and no action was taken.   

However action is required. If Botswana is serious and dedicated to pursing an HIV-free generation, this goal will not be achieved without reform of the National Strategic Framework on AIDS to include assistance to commercial sex workers. Although legalizing prostitution will not be possible in the immediate future, the Ministry of Health can and must take steps to provide funding to organizations that are working directly with commercial sex workers. These organizations work to develop and disseminate education/prevention programs and income generation schemes and supporting their efforts will make a tremendous impact and more us close to a HIV-free generation.   


(1)   http://www.unaids.org/en/media/unaids/contentassets/documents/unaidspublication/2010/20101123_globalreport_en.pdf

(2)   http://www.avert.org/aids-botswana.htm

(3)   http://www.mmegi.bw/index.php?sid=1&aid=34&dir=2008/February/Friday22

(4)   http://www.bonela.org/doc/brela_vol3_2009.pdf (page 26)

(5)   http://www.bonela.org/doc/brela_vol3_2009.pdf (page 37)

(6)   http://allafrica.com/stories/200610130316.html