Bringing Women's Rights Back into the Human Rights Movement

Human Rights Dialogue 1.10 (Fall 1997) "Efforts, East and West, to Improve Human Rights Assessments"

The mainstream international human rights movement has evolved with a particular focus on a specific group of civil and political rights expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It has strongly advocated freedom of speech, religion, and association, and it has effectively campaigned against the repression of these rights by torture, unfair trial, political imprisonment and extrajudicial execution. While these issues are theoretically gender-neutral, in fact they have a disproportionate impact on men: most political prisoners in the world are men.

There are other civil and political rights and some economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights set forth in the UDHR that have a far more significant impact on women. Equality Now was formed in 1992 to protect and promote these human rights. The organization uses the proven strategies of the human rights movement to address violations that disproportionately affect women, such as rape, domestic violence, trafficking of women, denial of reproductive rights, female genital mutilation, and other forms of violence and discrimination against women.

Historically, these violations have often been dismissed as “cultural.” The fact that South Africa allowed only whites to vote generated an international campaign fueled by outrage, whereas the fact that Kuwait allows only men to vote has gone virtually unnoticed. The notion that human rights violations against women are acceptable cultural practices is a manifestation in itself of discrimination that allows “culture” to be defined by those largely responsible for violations. Women in Kuwait demonstrated during the last election to protest the denial of their voting rights. In all cultures there are women working to promote respect for their fundamental human rights. It may only be the courageous few who articulate the silent concerns of others, but these few also represent their culture. The aspiration for equality is a universal phenomenon.

Many activists and international lawyers consider women’s rights to be an emerging area of international law. But the fact is that the right to equality under the law and equal protection of the law was included in the UDHR. Other rights affecting women contained in the UDHR include rights to freedom of movement, to ownership of property, to free choice of employment, to education, and to participation in the political process. The UDHR even includes the right to consensual marriage. So these human rights are not new; it is the human rights movement’s recent attention to them that is new. And this attention is a reflection less of new legal analysis than of the persistent efforts of women’s rights activists within and outside the human rights movement.

It is not difficult to assess women’s rights, as some contend. The difficulty is a matter of resources, not a matter of methodology. Back in the mid-1980s, the feminist writer and activist Robin Morgan surveyed 70 countries around the world. The resultant book, Sisterhood is Global, included information on women with respect to education, literacy, life expectancy, political participation, representation in the work force, proportionality of wages, and laws relating to marriage, divorce, family, reproductive rights, sexual harassment, violence against women, and prostitution.

Only recently have certain human rights groups taken up such issues as the trafficking of women, female genital mutilation, and domestic violence in some countries. But they do not yet comprehensively and systematically address the human rights of women in their annual international surveys. The hope is that as more resources become available for international women’s rights, more comprehensive and systematic monitoring will take place.

Because violations against women often reflect converging political and economic forces, greater attention to human rights violations against women will naturally erode the rigid differentiation of civil and political rights from ESC rights. By including concern for violations of the economic and social rights of women and girls in its research and actions, Equality Now hopes to speed this process.

The right to education, for example, is denied to girls in many developing countries. Depriving girls of education is not a human rights violation that falls neatly into a civil and political or economic, social, and cultural rights category. The cause is both economic and political: lack of resources for educational programs and gender discrimination. In such circumstances additional resources for education will not necessarily reverse the situation. Similarly, removing restrictions on girls’ education will not necessarily result in the education of more girls unless there are additional resources. To address all aspects of the right to education, and other rights with an economic aspect, the human rights movement must develop the capacity to assess the allocation of public resources. This type of monitoring, while new, is not inherently difficult.

Equality Now is also working to break down the public/private distinction traditionally drawn by the human rights movement. Historically the private sphere of action has been excluded from the agenda of the human rights movement, even though it is equally protected by the UDHR. The distinction has left the private sphere, where many human rights violations against women take place, beyond scrutiny, and is used to justify inattention to violence against women. For example, although human rights organizations have in recent years taken up the issue of rape as a weapon of war, they are still reluctant if not unwilling to address the issue of rape as a weapon of control in civil society. As a result of police nonresponsiveness, rape, like domestic violence, is carried out with systematic impunity in the “private spheres” of many countries.

When other human rights are at stake, silent acquiescence by law enforcement authorities in the face of violations has been challenged by the human rights movement. The movement’s denunciation of police nonresponsiveness to death squad activities in authoritarian regimes around the world, for example, strongly supported the individual right to political dissent. Yet the movement has not equally championed the underlying human rights targeted by violence against women, such as the right to personal freedom.

What full integration of women’s rights would mean for the international human rights movement is no less than a reconceptualized human rights framework. The hierarchy that has been imposed on the UDHR by the human rights movement has tainted public perceptions of the universality of human rights and played into the hands of governments that try to evade responsibility for human rights violations through charges of bias or double standards. A reconceptualized framework would not distinguish civil and political rights from ESC rights. It would not distinguish between public and private spheres of action. It would effectively free the UDHR from a hierarchy that favors some rights over others without clear justification.

The UDHR represents a broad and balanced conception of human rights. With more support, organizations working for women’s rights and for economic and social rights can help create an equally broad and balanced human rights movement. This would be a fitting way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Read More: Human Rights, Ethics, Human Rights, International RelationsWomen's Rights,

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