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  April 30, 2001

Human Rights Activist Focuses
on Plight of Women of Color

Women of color have been subordinated in a multitude of ways, according to Celina Romany, professor of law and human rights activist. They do not have a political space to make their opinions significant or their actions effective, and are not adequately protected against domestic violence.

Romany made her remarks during her keynote address, "Human Rights and the Interaction of Race, Gender and Ethnicity: A View from the Americas," April 20 in the Konover Auditorium. The lecture was part of a one-day conference "Latino/as, Language and Globalization : Education, Law & the Media." Romany was introduced by Blanca Silvestrini, a professor of history and interim director of the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latin American Studies.

"When we talk about human rights, we are talking about dignity, we're talking about our own humanity; our own struggle to be recognized as a human being and not be labeled or discriminated or objectified by virtue of our social condition, by virtue of our race, or by virtue of our gender," Romany said.

Race, gender and ethnicity are closely intertwined in the discussion of human rights, she said.

Women of color suffer not only from the greater status accorded to rationality over emotions and to the public domain over the private, Romany said, but also from lack of respect accorded to differences in culture.

Culture and diversity exhibited in a parade or a festival are not enough to make a difference, she said, for that "cannot lead to the center of the constitutional world.

"When you recognize that gender discrimination is experienced through the filter of race and ethnicity, you have to begin to talk about ways in which law and public policies address and eradicate that reality."

The human rights discourse has failed to conceive violence as an equality issue, she said.

When Latinas seek help in abusive relationships, they "are silenced when they find English-only hotlines," Romany said. Shelters that exclude non-English speakers or translators also present a "fatal picture for Latina victims of domestic violence."

A law professor and practicing attorney for the past 25 years, Romany co-founded the City University of New York's clinic on women's international rights. She was the first Puerto Rican law professor to hold a tenured position at a law school in the United States.

The legal system is a powerful vehicle, Romany noted. "As a lawyer, as a legal advocate, as a human rights advocate, I do believe in the power of law as a system that can bring about social change," she said. "But law can also be a very dominant power that crushes people."

Referring to her recent work on the upcoming World Conference on Racism in South Africa, Romany said, "It is crystal clear from the experiences and the dialogues and interaction that have taken place throughout the regions in Africa, Latin America and Europe, that the reality of racism is alive and well, and that subordination on the basis of racism is very much in need of eradication."

Romany advocated reconstruction of political democracy, "especially in a world where globalization is minimizing incrementally the role of the state, the state as a broker of rights, the state as providing social safety nets."

Multinational corporations, which are not subject to United Nations provisions, are raising new human rights issues, she said.

"With the growth of multinational corporations, we have to begin to figure out ways in which we can redefine the role of the state, redefine the role of democracy, expand that role in a way that the growing number of people who are on the poor side of the fence can begin to experience some protection."

She called on scholars and advocates to work together. "Theory and practice go hand in hand," she said. "Some say the younger generation is not into social causes. My experience has been quite the contrary."

Sherry Fisher

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