A Talk with Jessica Neuwirth

From the Editor

A Talk with Jessica Neuwirth

By Bennette D. Kramer

Kramer    Recently I had lunch with Jessica Neuwirth, a friend from my days at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, to talk about her efforts to further national and international women’s rights.  Jessica has written a book — Equal Means Equal -— explaining why it is the time for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and has established the ERA Coalition to build support to put the ERA into the Constitution.  Jessica is also the director of Donor Direct Action (“DDA”), a newly established organization that generates support for activists for women’s rights around the world.  
Equality Now

    After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Jessica worked at Amnesty International for five years, then worked at Cleary until 1993, when she left shortly after co-founding Equality Now.  Equality Now was established to work to end all forms of violence and discrimination against women.  Using international, regional, and national legal advocacy, Equality Now aims for equal rights under the law.  It focuses on discrimination in law against women, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking of women and girls.  Its main purpose is to raise awareness and move the agenda for women’s equality forward through advocating legal and systemic change.  Jessica also worked for the United Nations in the Office of Legal Affairs, as director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as an expert consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on issues of sexual violence, and as special advisor on sexual violence to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Jessica taught a seminar on international women’s rights at Harvard Law School.  

    Jessica is one of the foremost experts on women’s rights in the United States and internationally.  Her interest in the ERA evolved naturally from her interest in international women’s rights.  She is distressed that the United States is one of seven countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”), known as the International Bill of Rights for Women.  President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW in 1977, but Congress has not ratified it.  The other countries that have not ratified CEDAW are Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iran, Palau, and Tonga.

Equal Means Equal

    Equal Means Equal was published on January 6, 2015, and the ERA Coalition was founded in 2014 with Jessica as president to build broad based public support for putting the ERA into the Constitution.  The ERA is a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit discrimination against girls and women on the basis of sex.  Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jackie Speier (D-CA) are sponsoring bills relating to the ERA in the House and Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) are Senate sponsors; Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) is a co-sponsor in the Senate and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) is a co-sponsor in the House.  Many celebrities are committed to passing the ERA, including Meryl Streep, President Jimmy Carter, Chelsea Handler, Rashida Jones, Jane Fonda, Tavis Smiley, Taylor Schilling, Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterston, and Gloria Steinem.  Meryl Streep sent a letter to every member of Congress urging them to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women.  

    Why now make a push for the ERA?  Polls show that 70 percent of the American people mistakenly think that equal rights for women already is embodied in the Constitution, and 90 percent of the American people support it.  Yet, women are not protected by the Constitution from pay inequity, pregnancy discrimination, or violence.  The ERA should be included in the Constitution as a core value.  The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972 and ratified by 35 states when the seven year deadline expired in 1982, three states short of the 38 states needed for passage.  Although the Fourteenth Amendment provides equal protection of the law, it only applies to state action, and does not cover discrimination through private action, which the ERA could.

    Jessica also views the ERA in light of her many years’ experience in the international human rights forum.  She has fought for equal rights for women all over the world.  She believes that the time has come for this country, which condemns other countries for their human rights records, to announce to the world that it, too, supports a robust legal framework for women’s rights.

Donor Direct Action

    When she is not working to pass the ERA, Jessica is the director of the DDA.  She left Equality Now in 2013 and on March 9, 2015 formally launched the DDA at an event at the Ford Foundation featuring Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, Lynn Nottage, and Robin Morgan.  The DDA solicits donors and then funds grants to leading women’s advocacy organizations overseas that have limited access to funding and other support.  Jessica wanted a more direct connection with organizations that were working in these countries rather than advocating as Equality Now does on behalf of women.  With the DDA she has created that connection.  The DDA provides visibility and access to funding to the groups it supports.  The DDA now is partnering with frontline groups in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, South Africa, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Latvia, Kenya, Nepal, Palestine, and Nigeria.  The activists that the DDA supports work on a range of issues, including female genital mutilation in Somalia (Galkayo Education Center for Peace and Development) and Kenya (Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative); sex trafficking in Latvia (Marta Resource Centre for Women), South Africa (Embrace Dignity), and Europe (SPACE International); violence against women in Afghanistan (Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan); women and armed conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo (Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles and Panzi Foundation) and Syria (Syrian Women’s Forum for Peace); and women’s rights under the law in Nepal (Forum for Women Law and Development), Palestine (Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counseling), and Nigeria (Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative).  

    From her initial involvement with Amnesty International to her current work with the ERA Coalition and the DDA, Jessica has shown a dedication to improving the rights and condition of women all over the world.  She is a passionate advocate and with the DDA she aims to ensure that the organizations on the ground will have the resources to carry out their work.

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