November 17, 2020
This year’s Perdita Huston awardee, Professor Susan Deller Ross, has an exceptional record in advancing the rights of women and girls domestically and internationally. In a uniquely fascinating and exciting conversation with her, I was able to learn more about the evolution of women’s rights and how much of a significant role Professor Ross played in creating real change for so many women worldwide.

Prof. Susan Ross' interest in human rights and women’s rights law started early. As a young woman, she traveled extensively and quickly learned that women in different cultures and societies deal with similar issues that result from the lack of equal rights. During her time in the Peace Corps, serving in Ivory Coast, she focused on providing pregnant women and their children with better nutritional options, as protein sources such as eggs and chicken were often reserved for older men. This striking inequality painted a very clear picture of women needing to fight for equal rights.

When she came back to the US and began her studies at law school, she became deeply involved in issues that women were dealing with in the US. She focused on assisting women domestically by advocating for legislation or litigating to give women equal rights at work, protect victims of domestic violence, and achieve family and medical leave. This work led her to become more interested in international human rights law and how it could be used to help women win equal rights in all countries.

In the early 90s, the conversation about human rights started focusing more on women's rights, and Professor Ross felt that developing and teaching courses on international human rights law was timely and important. These classes touched on the specific issues that women deal with around the world, and she hoped that discussing these issues with her students would add to their knowledge about international and regional human rights treaties and would spark their interest in a topic that was not commonly focused on in most law schools.

In 1998, Professor Ross established the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown Law. Through the Clinic, she and the Clinic’s Supervising Attorney and Teaching Fellow and their students have advocated for women's rights to equality and non-discrimination in the areas of marriage, divorce, and family; fought for equal rights to property and inheritance for marginalized rural women; defended women's and girls' rights to be free from gender-based violence and sexual abuse; and many other rights.

The Clinic and its human rights partners in other countries have been behind major strategic litigation. They have won cases in domestic courts and before the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Some abolished the marital power of husbands over their wives. Others struck down laws that deny women equal rights to divorce and inheritance. Another found a violation in laws that made unwed mothers solely responsible for their children, while giving their unwed partner “optional paternity” rights. That is, unwed fathers were free to completely ignore their children, including any obligation to provide for them. Still another freed married women from the adultery crime that applied only to them and not to the married men who committed the same act.

The Clinic and its partners also won legislative victories. The new statutes gave women equal rights in employment and protection against human trafficking, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation. In all its work, the Clinic always uses ratified international and regional human rights treaties as one basis for its arguments. It works closely with domestic human rights partners which are equally committed to the goal of domestic change in the constitutions or statutes of their countries, in order to comply with the country’s treaty obligations and protect human rights for everyone, but especially women. Women need special attention because they are so frequently negatively affected by laws that blatantly discriminate against them or fail to protect them from egregious forms of violence and discrimination.

Professor Ross and her colleagues and students, working in the Clinic, quickly realized that international treaties provide a powerful weapon for women in many societies, teaching them their rights and encouraging domestic and international pressure that eventually leads to substantial changes in outdated and oppressive laws. For example, one of the cases the clinic took on involved a court challenge to the customary inheritance law in Tanzania that excluded women from being able to inherit land and own property. It also prevented them from serving as administrators of an estate. When the courts ruled that the law was discriminatory but refused to issue a remedy, the Clinic and its partner, the Women’s Legal Aid Centre in Tanzania, took the case to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Committee ruled that the law violated Tanzanian women’s CEDAW rights to equal treatment under the law with their husbands, and that the courts also violated their CEDAW rights by refusing to grant a remedy, as the treaty required. Today, the Clinic is working with partners in Malawi on a proposal to grant women the right to legal and safe abortion in the first trimester. That will save the lives of the hundreds of women who die each year in Malawi, because the criminal abortion law drives desperate women to seek unsafe and illegal abortions as the only way to get health care service they need. While 59 percent of the world’s women have access to legal and safe abortions, thousands of women in countries that deny the right die each year as a result.

Professor Ross has contributed greatly to empowering women and ensuring equal rights. She did so by encouraging her students to help women around the world fight for and achieve equal rights, she did so by working with partners in other countries to change discriminatory laws, and she did so domestically by leading the work on important legislation like the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Her work on the Pregnancy Discrimination Act ensured that pregnant women and new mothers would have access to the same paid sick leave and health insurance as other workers receive for medical conditions, and that they are protected from being fired when pregnant. The Family and Medical Leave Act protected women’s right to parental leave, but also made sure that fathers have access to the same leave. It also gave workers the right to a leave from work to care for sick children, spouses, and parents. This structure ensures that both women and men can care for their families, while being employees as well. It helps break down the old structure of women caring for the family at home, while the men were at work providing for the family.

Professor Ross demonstrates true commitment to advancing the rights of women and girls worldwide by addressing many issues that women face on a daily basis. Issues like safe abortions, divorce law, inheritance law, and protection from discriminatory policies at work are among the many issues Professor Ross worked on throughout her career. Especially impressive is her commitment to not only address domestic issues, but help women worldwide by working with domestic human rights partners in many countries and encouraging her students to focus on building alliances that can benefit women everywhere.

Professor Ross recognizes that as a global society, we have taken important steps forward and provided women with opportunities and protections when they are most vulnerable, but we have a long way to go. By encouraging her students and other young professionals to get involved and build international partnerships, Professor Ross wants to ensure that this important and labor intensive effort continues until the global community is able to fully protect the rights of women and girls everywhere.

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