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FromTheIssue

Women of the Year 2003

Jessica Neuwirth
By Stephanie Goldberg

Whether lobbying against sex tours in New York City or judging genocide in Rwanda, Jessica Neuwirth makes women's rights a legal priority.

Big Apple Oriental Tours was no ordinary travel agency. For a price, men could fly to the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia, where they would be paired with female “companions” for the length of their stay. The owners contended it was nothing more than a lonely hearts club, but Jessica Neuwirth, founder and president of Equality Now, an organization that protects women’s rights worldwide, believed it was promoting prostitution.

It took Neuwirth six years to interest prosecutors in shutting the company down. Then, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer got involved, and “there couldn’t have been more of a difference,” she says.

The payoff came on July 29, 2003, when the New York Supreme Court granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the company from advertising or promoting the tours. Within a month, prosecutors filed a civil suit against the agency’s owners to halt them permanently.

Neuwirth, 41, a Harvard-educated lawyer who has been working on human rights issues since high school, thinks the lawsuit will send a message to the estimated 25 U.S.-based companies that offer similar sex tours: “Once it becomes clear that this is against the law and the law will be enforced, I think it will have a huge impact on the industry.” In Hawaii, Equality Now is trying to get the state to revoke the license of another alleged sex tour operator.

Even more ambitious is the initiative to convince the U.S. military to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward prostitution, which invariably springs up around its overseas facilities. Equality Now launched the campaign in 2002, following a Fox News exposé. The story helped mobilize 13 members of Congress, but the Pentagon has yet to “enter into a dialogue,” she says.

Neuwirth is not discouraged, even though she knows she’s challenging the conventional wisdom that an army can’t function without prostitutes.

“I think one of the fallacies of the whole prostitution debate is the idea that men require prostitutes for survival,” she says. “As Americans, when we’re sending troops that are not that all that welcome to begin with, it creates the deepest resentment when you treat women with so little respect.”

Campaigns such as these “are just the right size for us,” says Neuwirth, who spent several months during 2003 in Tanzania assisting judges in the U.N.’s war crimes tribunal in Rwanda. Targeting the major international sex-trafficking rings, for instance, “is just too big.”

Instead, Neuwirth does research selecting targets and gathering evidence. In the Big Apple case, she recruited a male associate to go under cover.

Equality Now also focuses on domestic violence, female genital mutilation and reproductive rights—issues that first attracted Neuwirth’s interest while working for Amnesty International. Later came a stint at an elite Manhattan law firm where she familiarized herself with the vagaries of international debt financing. “I wanted to learn how it impacts on human rights,” she explains.

Neuwirth thought often about founding an organization devoted specifically to women’s (and girls’) rights and finally took the plunge in 1992 after hearing the story of a 9-year-old from Hyderabad, India, sold as a wife to a 70-something Saudi Arabian. The girl was rescued after a flight attendant learned of her plight, but the authorities returned her immediately to her parents.

“I suddenly had this flash that this girl could be on the next plane the next day and her parents would tell her, ‘Don’t cry,’ or a flight attendant wouldn’t notice her tears. There wasn’t any monitoring or any group working on this issue,” she says.

But today, Equality Now has 13 employees and a considerable volunteer network. A London office is scheduled to open next year.

Meanwhile, the two-year-old Nairobi office already has played an instrumental role in guiding the African Union to adopt its Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. While the declaration gives this extraordinary activist some comfort, “The most effective weapon is public pressure,” she says.

Photo by Colour Chrome

 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009