Laura Neuman ’89, JD’93

Keeping Women in the Know

Laura Neuman and Cleotilde Vasquez

Photo: Chris Hale

Journalists often get the credit for shining light into the dark corners of government. But Laura Neuman ’89, JD’93 (at right, with Cleotilde Vasquez, the assistant secretary for the Presidential Secretariat for Women in Guatemala) has a better idea: empower citizens to demand transparency from their elected officials. She’s worked in nearly forty countries, mostly in the developing world, to advance laws designed to reduce corruption and promote human rights.

Neuman is the director of the Global Access to Information Program at the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based nonprofit founded by former president Jimmy Carter. She’s especially focused on helping to improve the access to government information for vulnerable populations — an interest that stems from her years as an advocate with Legal Action Wisconsin. Neuman regularly filed freedom-of-information cases to better understand government policies and to make sure that her mostly elderly, minority clients received their public benefits. She found that white women often received benefits for longer periods than Latina or African American women.

Neuman was gradually inspired to shift her career toward public health, and she happened to visit the Carter Center during a visit to Atlanta. Shortly after, the center offered her a position. “There were only two things I understood when I came [to the Carter Center],” she says: “how to work the phone system and the value of access to information.”

On one trip to India, Neuman saw that value on display. She watched as poor, illiterate residents gathered to listen as an aid worker read their health care rights out loud. The residents were upset to learn that sixteen government-purchased hospital beds had mysteriously gone missing. “After the meeting, you could see a little parade of beds being brought back,” she recalls. “Doctors and nurses had taken them.”

When Neuman started at the center in 1999, only a couple dozen countries had passed freedom-of-information laws. Now more than one hundred have implemented such laws, and Neuman’s team has influenced many.

Recently, former president Carter encouraged Neuman to conduct studies on women’s access to information in Liberia, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. She found that women are less likely than men to ask for and receive information about a wide range of topics. Much of her work now centers on addressing this problem and others that she’s identified.

“This isn’t an issue of one country or continent. It really is reflective of the state of women around the world,” she says. “When you give people information, it can transform their lives.”

Published in the Winter 2015 issue


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