Law Students Study Human Rights Advocacy in the Field

Wen Huang
UChicagoNews
April 9, 2014

In December 2013, members of the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic conducted fieldwork in India to study why sex ratios at birth in some parts of the country are out of balance. The government bans sex-determination tests, in part to prevent the abortion of female fetuses, but policy analysts believe some families nevertheless continue the practice through the use of ultrasound screening.

During the weeklong trip, Clinic Fellow Brian Citro and student Jeff Gilson interviewed professors, non-governmental organization activists, legal experts, and government officials in New Delhi to understand why the practice of sex selection exists and to assess the effectiveness of existing laws and policies.

“We have found from our investigation that son preference in India is the result of many economic, social, and cultural factors such as the practice of dowry, unequal opportunities, and in some cases unfair laws,” Gilson said. Over the past decade, the Indian government and many local groups have been working actively to address this problem, but in some rural regions, the preference for boys is so prevalent that men outnumber women by 15 to 20 percent.

Sex selection represents a complex and controversial human rights issue, both in India and the United States. The goal of the Law School project is to bring accurate information about the situation in India to the United States and help direct policy debates here.

Sex selection practices in the United States

“Transcripts from recent legislative hearings show that U.S. lawmakers have relied heavily on data drawn from India and China to support bans on sex-selective abortions here, but this information is presented through the lens of a narrow political agenda,” said Sital Kalantry, who founded and directs the International Human Rights Clinic.

In the United States, anti-abortion activist groups claim there is a sex-ratio crisis here and blame Asian immigrants for replicating sex-selection practices in their home countries, Kalantry said. The groups suggest a need for new laws in the United States to curtail sex selection. As a result of their lobbying, eight states have passed prohibitions on sex-selection abortion, and similar bills are pending in several other states. 

These laws and legislation have caused concerns for Asian American organizations. They fear that women of Asian descent could be denied reproductive choices because of the assumption that they are seeking an abortion for sex-selective purposes, even when they are not. Many women’s groups also say that the issue in India is fundamentally about women’s rights and not relevant to reproductive laws in America.

In an effort to bring empirical data to bear on the policy discussions about sex selection here, Citro said the clinic is collaborating with economists to analyze census and other data in the United States. Initial results from their analyses show prohibitions on sex-selective abortion in Illinois and Pennsylvania, which enacted such laws in 1984 and 1989, respectively, were not associated with changes in sex ratios in these states. That suggests U.S. laws are not making an impact on a real problem.

“We are compiling our findings in a report, which will be presented to state legislatures,” Citro added. “Ultimately, we hope to help lawmakers determine if such laws are effective and necessary and make more informed decisions.”

Legal advocacy across the world

Since its inception in January 2013, the International Human Rights Clinic has given students the opportunity to work on both local and international projects and cases, which represent some of today’s most pressing human rights concerns. The clinic has called attention to human rights abuses in countries such as Argentina, India, Colombia, and the U.S. Through extensive research reports and litigation they have sought justice on behalf of victims, held perpetrators of serious human rights violators accountable, and worked toward practical multidisciplinary solutions.

“The clinic has enabled me to acquire practical skills for effective international lawyering and human rights advocacy,” says Lindsay Short, '15, who joined the clinic last quarter.   

In February, Short and Marco Traversa of Italy, LLM '14, participated in a fact-finding trip in Colombia to bring a claim in an international tribunal addressing a lack of access to education for indigenous people. “We examined the application of human rights law and experienced firsthand the challenges that indigenous groups face there,” Traversa said. “It was an exciting part of my UChicago experience.”

In March, clinic students Brian Ahn, '14, Alex Kiles, '14, and Marco Segatti, a JSD candidate, traveled to New Delhi and worked with a local NGO, Nazdeek, to examine the city’s housing policies and advocate for greater protection for slum dwellers and homeless people. The trip culminated in a presentation to the Law Commission of India and former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, A.P. Shah.

Drawing on housing policies in other global cities, the clinic provided an important comparative perspective. As the commission is advocating a national housing rights bill in India, it has invited the clinic to submit its findings upon its completion by the end of the school year.    

“We are thrilled that our students were able to make an impact on the prestigious Law Commission of India as they deliberate on what could become a key piece of human rights legislation in the country,” Citro said. 

Protecting women in prison

Julie Park has been with the clinic since its founding. She became interested in international human rights issues after she took a class on the subject in high school. “I used to think that international human rights was such an abstract and remote topic and there wasn’t much we could do to change things,” she said. “The class changed my outlook.” While in high school, she initiated a hunger-relief program for people in Bangladesh and continued the effort during her undergraduate studies at Cornell University.  

At the Law School, Park said she was able to combine her interest in human right issues with her legal training. Last year, she took part in a project that focused on a human rights violation in the United States. The clinic, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, prepared a report arguing that the shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Constitution. The clinic submitted the report to government agencies and the United Nations Human Rights Committee in September 2013.

“The project required a lot of hard work and we put in lots of late nights,” Park said. “It taught me some valuable skills in legal research and human rights advocacy. More importantly, we learned how to work in a team.”

On a related topic, the clinic also partnered with government agencies in Argentina to examine the rapidly expanding female prison population, the conditions of imprisonment for women, and how female imprisonment affects children. Clinic students and faculty developed a survey that was administered to more than 30 percent of Argentina’s women prisoners.

The authors presented their report, containing the survey results and recommendations, at an expert panel discussion at the Law School in May 2013. Rashida Manjoo, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, moderated the panel to help raise awareness of the causes and conditions of women’s imprisonment in Argentina and around the world.

Looking back at last year’s clinical projects, Park said her entire education at the Law School has been shaped by her clinical experience. This quarter, she is representing a client in a political asylum case.

Park says her clinical experience “has added spice to my life here. My student life wouldn’t have been as colorful and rewarding if it hadn’t been for the clinic.”

Faculty: 
Brian Citro