Monday, September 20, 2010

From Vahida Nainar

Remarks at Rhonda's Life Celebration

I am happy to have the opportunity to be amidst friends and turn the virtual hugs into literal ones. Like for many of us, Rhonda has been a mentor to me. Today, I am known and invited as speaker, panelist and jury members of people’s tribunals as an expert on international law, gender and conflict. I came to be one because of Rhonda. No, I was never her student, but I learnt a great deal from her on the job and I was privileged to have worked with her. Well, what did I learn from her? Despite being qualified as a lawyer, it was from her that I learnt to read the law from a human rights/gender perspective, to push the boundaries of law and to create new boundaries in the quest for gender justice. Push the boundaries of law is what we did in our advocacy in the negotiation process of creating the International Criminal Court. And the result is there for all to see – an unprecedented gender integration in the statutory documents of the ICC. We were all tiny cogs in this giant wheel that made it possible. But Rhonda was a significant and instrumental cog in shaping the language of all the gender related provisions of what we achieved.

Her work against fundamentalisms was not limited to fighting Islamic fundamentalism with the Algerian case. A coalition of feminists groups in India invited her to be part of a panel to document and analyze the violations in Gujarat 2002, which was against Hindu fundamentalists. Like she always believed if you don’t find justice within the national systems look for it in international law and that was the case in Gujarat– exploring application of international law where the national system failed to do justice. And I remember that we were all in awe of her knowledge and brilliance. Again, during the process I learnt to listen to victims and survivors and to ask the appropriate questions. I learnt to listen to their testimonies and not be debilitated by it. It is what helps me when I go around the world documenting horror stories of violations against women and producing reports that could contribute to achieve the end of gender justice. And at the end of the visit to Gujarat, she was keen to ensure that what we said in our interim report was well within the framework of the law.

And yet, despite her knowledge of different situations of violations of women’s rights around the world and an overall human rights approach, I was surprised on how on some issues she was firmly rooted in the US perspective. One such issue was that of reproductive rights. I had a friend, a very known and respective feminist from India, who was visiting the US for some advocacy work at the UN and she was raising the issue of female feoticide. As you know, in India the preference for a male child is to the extent that families get the pregnant woman to do sex determination tests and often force her to abort female feotuses. I was part of this conversation where my friend was explaining how it violated the right of the woman to choose and the long term impact it had on the society. She explained that the female to male ratio was seriously skewed in many states in India, that there was trafficking of women from the south to marry the men from north and the horde of new issues of violation and abuse it was causing. Rhonda for some reason could not see why this should be a problem or a concern for women’s group or feminists. Perhaps she was concerned that raising the issue at the UN for women’s right to keep the female feotus would somehow impact women’s struggle in the US for the right to abortion although the point was about choice – the choice of abortion in the US and the choice of keeping the female feotus in India. She turns around and asks my friend ‘but why are you so concerned that men cannot find women to marry. Let them all become gay !!! Well, that was Rhonda and her ingenious solution to the problem.

There are other issues that she worked on that remain incomplete such as torture. After working on the landmark Filartiga case that got the US court to recognize and acknowledge the seriousness of torture, she often raised the issue of torture by private actors, for which there is very little support. I am working on a paper on the issue and she was supposed to look at it, which is now… well…, not possible.

I will always miss you Rhonda.