Oliver Rhodes talks to the chair of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women about her work on Soviet Women’s History
I meet Professor Dalia Leinarte in the spacious precincts of the Law Faculty just minutes after her keynote speech at the recent conference, ‘The Development of Abortion Rights in a Changing Europe’. A Lithuanian historian specialising in women and families in Imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union, Leinarte had been given the responsibility of opening the first conference of its kind at the University, organised by undergraduate students.
Leinarte’s address comes at an important crossroads in the development of abortion rights. In May, one of Western Europe’s most institutionally conservative nations, Ireland, voted to overturn the Eighth Amendment, which had banned abortion in cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality.
Conversely, the photograph of President Trump reinstating the ‘Mexico City Policy’ – denying US federal funding to international non-governmental organisations that advocate abortion rights or perform abortions – inside a male-only Oval Office has become, for some, symbolic of the spirit of the administration. A similar backlash is occurring across the Atlantic: Poland’s far-right government attempted to restrict abortion to only the most extreme cases, while tens of thousands marched earlier this year to protest the “Stop Abortion” bill, which would prevent abortion even in cases of extreme foetal abnormalities.
I ask Leinarte about these developments. In Eastern Europe, she argues, “we didn’t experience the second wave of feminism.” She added: “that changed [Western European] societies forever because it completely changed attitudes towards women and their role in society and the family – but it also changed how men treated women. So the mentality of both genders has been completely changed.”
“America is one of maybe two or three countries that still doesn’t ratify the CEDAW convention. It allows them, without any meaningful punishment, to be more conservative regarding women’s rights.”
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. Leinarte is well-known for her role on its committee, consisting of “23 experts on women’s rights”, acting as its chairperson. The committee studies the implementation of the convention, and seeks to enforce it.
Since becoming a CEDAW member in 2012, Leinarte has worked to promote women’s rights in the constitutions of those countries that have ratified the convention. “As someone who was born in the Soviet Union, I understand the value and the importance of having many voices that come from different religious and cultural backgrounds.” She says, “that is what I learned and that is what should be treasured: It’s not that you should avoid all diversity of opinion – you should take them on board and then find consensus.”
Yet with member states from every continent, I am curious as to how CEDAW manages to reach consensus on such a sensitive issue. “It’s a living document”, Leinarte argues. “So far we have reached the consensus that abortions should be allowed at least in four cases: of rape, incest, health and life of a pregnant woman, and the malformation of fetus.”
It’s a surprisingly liberal consensus, given the membership. Many of its signatories have constitutions which are heavily influenced by religious conservatism. But one need not look so far for variation on the issue. Northern Ireland continues to recognise abortion only when the mother’s life is at risk. It therefore fails to meet the criteria of the convention of which the UK is a ratified member.
But Leinarte has faith that through persistent political pressure, national governments take the convention seriously. Leinarte also stresses the importance of regional conventions, which propose recommendations for the constitution. “If you ask me whether the CEDAW convention has made an impact in fostering human and women’s rights globally, I would say yes. Of course we cannot say that women’s rights have been implemented fully in any country. There is no such country. But the fact is that globally in 165 constitutions, they have this notion of gender equality and women’s rights.”
It is not in the legalities, however, where Leinarte’s passions lie. She sees this as part of a broader commitment to liberate women. “When I was analysing national laws regarding prostitution, I found that the more national jurisprudence has restrictive laws regarding abortion – full or partial ban on access to legal abortion – the more they have liberalised laws regarding prostitution.” This inverse relationship between abortion and prostitution law, she argues, reflects the relative importance of cultural beliefs. “The more cultures are patriarchal, the more they divide their women into good and bad. So good women should produce children, no matter what, and bad women should be always available.”
Leinarte criticises those who point to the Soviet Union, where legal abortions were readily available, as a feminist success story. She stresses that it is relations between the genders that really determine the rights of women in any particular society. “A lot of Western academics and historians say there was real gender equality in the Soviet Union. They brought 100% literacy, they brought women into labour, brought them education and so forth; everything was available to them. It’s not true. It was part of modernisation and openisation, but partially it was because the Soviet government needed their hands to work.”
The Iron Curtain, she argues, insulated Eastern Europe from the cultural changes happening in liberal democracies. The entrenchment of traditional gender roles means that political activism can only go so far. “Now these countries have been accepted into the European Union, women’s rights and gender equality have been implemented in these countries only in the form of directives, of change in the laws.”
Changing the law is difficult. But changing the culture, it seems, is even harder. This realisation has put Leinarte in a challenging yet vital position. Constitutional change can often be frustratingly incremental. It is in the relationship between constitutional change and cultural attitudes, however, where the real struggle lies. In countries with corrupt or weak legal systems, large rural populations, and social and economic structures centred on traditional models of the household, how far can ‘top-down’ activism hope to change practices? By making abortion rights a human as well as a legal matter, Leinarte is attempting to bridge that gap.