Here at Equality Now, we believe that working together can change the world. Indeed, that ethos is a key part of the story at the heart of our founding.
Equality Now began our journey in 1992 in New York City. There, three human rights lawyers, Jessica Neuwirth, Navanetham “Navi” Pillay, and the late Feryal Gharahi, came together to ensure women’s equality—often relegated to the realm of culture—was brought squarely into the field of human rights. This shift would help ensure that countries prioritized women’s rights, afforded resources, and elevated to an international concern.
While the second half of the 20th century saw a rise in many progressive social and cultural movements, gender inequality remained embedded in virtually every country’s laws and policies. Domestic violence was just “life,” female genital mutilation and child marriage were cultural practices, and sex trafficking was not addressed in the law. Jessica, Navi, and Feryal saw that discrimination in the law – including the lack of recognition of various forms of violence against women—were fundamental impediments to gender equality. Women’s rights were not yet considered a foundational part of human rights. Taina Bien-Aimé soon joined Jessica, Navi, and Feryal. Together with a dedicated group of volunteers in several countries, they set about working to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world.
Led by these visionary women, Equality Now did some groundbreaking work:
In 1992, Equality Now led a campaign to appeal to UNICEF to help put female genital mutilation (FGM) on the international agenda. Today, of course, with the help of our partners around the world, Equality Now is among the organizations leading the charge to end FGM.
Equality Now played a critical role in identifying rape as a war crime in 1993. Feryal and Jessica advocated for the survivors of sexual violence in Yugoslavia, including through Feryal’s fact-finding mission to the region as part of a U.N. delegation. The Rwandan Tribunal’s precedent-setting decision in the 1998 Akayseu case that recognized rape as a weapon of war (as opposed to a by-product of war) was authored by Equality Now founder Navi Pillay, with Jessica Neuwirth by her side
While Navi was already—and remains—a most eminent legal scholar respected around the world. Through her leadership, Navi helped to make our mission possible. Following the end of the apartheid in her native South Africa, Navi contributed to the equality clause in the country’s constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion.
Under Jessica’s leadership, Equality Now produced the first ever report on sex discriminatory laws around the world in 1999. Advocacy around this and subsequent reports led to repealing over 60 sex discriminatory laws, recognizing this as a critical global issue by the UN and the World Bank and creating a special mechanism to address such laws at the Office of the High Commissioner.
When Taina became Equality Now’s executive director in 2000, our organization redoubled our efforts to help eradicate sex trafficking. On a global scale, these efforts culminated in 2000 with the adoption of the international treaty on trafficking, commonly known as the Palermo Protocol, At the time, Jessica worked to put together a coalition led by Equality Now, calling for the adoption of the protocol and ensuring that the provisions aligned with survivors’ experiences of sex trafficking. At a US federal level, our efforts led to the recognition of sex tourism as a federal concern. And at the state level, we put together the first coalition in New York to get a model law on trafficking adopted in New York state,
And this was only the beginning. Today, thanks to the foundation this group of women planted 30 years ago, Equality Now has achieved tremendous progress—and that is what anchors us as we continue our work to make equality reality for women and girls everywhere.