New nonprofit champions women’s rights around the world

Cheryl Thomas (left) with two advocates from Georgia helping a group in Armenia build a campaign pushing for domestic violence legislation. Credit:

Inspired: Profiles and conversations featuring notable Minneapolitans.

More than 600 million women live in countries without laws against domestic violence.

A new downtown Minneapolis-based nonprofit, Global Rights for Women, is out to change that.

Cheryl Thomas, the nonprofit’s founding executive director and Kenwood resident, speaks with optimism about the pace of change around the world. She has been involved in fighting for the rights of women and girls for 20 years. Newsweek magazine named her one of the 150 “Women Who Shake the World” in March 2011.

“I see so much more awareness about the obstacles women and girls are facing — the violence that they are facing and the understanding that their lives and what is happening to them is so connected with the health of smaller and global communities,” she said. “Women around the world are understanding that exposure of something like a girl getting shot in Pakistan or a rape in India — exposure of that gets a response. Where they might have felt hopeless before they now see that people care and they will expose it.”

Thomas and the nonprofit’s program director Helen Rubenstein travel around the world to help women launch successful movements to pass legislation protecting women and girls from violence.

“We want to change how the world responds to violations of women’s human rights — in particular violence against women through really deep social infrastructural changes,” Thomas said. “We prioritize laws. We think that’s the bedrock for change.”

Minnesota has a legacy of being at the forefront of efforts to protect people from domestic abuse.

“As a leader in women’s rights, Minnesota is often the first place international advocates turn to for this expertise,” Rubenstein said. “We are also experiencing a unique moment in international women’s rights where mainstream awareness of the issues is growing, and we formed Global Rights for Women to maximize the impact we can make now and for years to come.”

Since it launched in the fall, the nonprofit has worked with advocates in Armenia, Morocco, Russia, Lithuania, Serbia, Turkey, Tonga and Romania. The nonprofit has an office in the IDS Center — space donated by the law firm Lindquist & Vennum.

Global Rights for Women also hosted two presentations at the recent United Nation’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York City focused on strengthening international legal standards on violence against women and cyber violence.

Thomas traveled to Armenia on March 24 with Julie Tilley, managing director of Praxis International, a St. Paul-based nonprofit focused on ending violence toward women and children, to offer tips to a local group organizing a campaign to pass a domestic violence law in the country.

A group from the Republic of Georgia was also be on hand to talk about their successful campaign to pass domestic violence legislation.

Armenia is one of the few countries formerly part of the Soviet Union that hasn’t passed a law against domestic violence, Thomas said.

They planned to discuss creating a Femicide report similar to the one pioneered by Tilley in Minnesota as a way to raise awareness about the violence faced by people killed as a result of domestic violence.

Tilley is one of Global Rights for Women’s expert trainers who offer their assistance to people in other countries advocating for change.

Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance is another expert trainer. She has traveled to Bulgaria, the Republic of Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Turkey, Moldova and most recently Serbia to help train judges, police, prosecutors and advocates on the Coordinated Community Response strategy for addressing domestic violence — an approach developed in Duluth during the early 1980s that takes the blame off victims and emphasizes the voices and experiences of victims in creating policies to protect people from violence.

“It’s incredibly invigorating to be in these very dynamic situations where you see change happen right in front of you over a period of a day or two,” she said. “It’s very gratifying.”

Thomas is the former director of the Women’s Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights in Minnesota and executive director of WATCH, a court monitoring organization focused on cases of violence against women and children. She has also served on a United Nations Expert Groups to report on both good and harmful polices and practices dealing with violence against women around the world.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School, she worked in the state Attorney General’s office and then later for Briggs & Morgan where she was a partner. She also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School where she taught a women’s international human rights course from 1996 to 2002.

“I never dreamed when I started this work 20 years ago that we would see laws that prohibit violence and provide protections to women pass at the rate that they did,” she said. “It’s just so inspiring and heartening to see women continue to work on these issues despite the obstacles they face in really under-resourced places with people who really don’t believe in a woman’s right to be free from violence. And they are in positions of great power and the women keep moving forward — chipping away every chance they get.”