Introduction: Silence Breaking: The Women's Dimension of the Human Rights Box

August 6, 2000

Around the world, women and girls face constant threats of violence—sometimes socially sanctioned—in the form of bride kidnapping, forced prostitution, rape as a weapon of war, and wife beating. They disproportionately suffer the negative effects of globalization and struggle to feed their families. Barred from accessing their rights under local law, they are denied their rights to education, to vote, or to hold office. The international human rights movement believes it can improve the lives of women, but is it in fact responding to their needs? As the movement gains greater notice on the international stage, has it managed to attract the attention of women and girls around the world? As the Beijing +5 meeting takes place at the United Nations this June to assess progress on women’s human rights since the 1995 UN Beijing World Conference on Women, this issue of Human Rights Dialogue devotes itself to the topic of women’s human rights.

Lack of resources, lack of political will, and entrenched systems of patriarchy challenge the human rights movement’s ability to protect the rights of women. At the local level, most women are not even aware of their rights and, when they are, they often don’t place great stock in what human rights can do to help them. To many women, human rights, not to mention women’s human rights, are foreign to their culture and challenge deeply held notions of individual and community identity. Moreover, women are frequently too preoccupied with the daily struggle for survival to invest much hope in abstract ideals or identify with a distant movement that doesn’t seem to represent their concerns.

Perhaps more than any other set of rights, women’s human rights are profoundly hindered by the “human rights box”—the ongoing theme of this series of Human Rights Dialogue. The “box” is a set of historical and structural circumstances that allow the human rights framework to gain currency among elites while limiting advances, even creating setbacks, for the awareness and acceptance of human rights among the general population. Traditionally, the international human rights community has privileged men’s civil and political rights, protecting their rights to privacy in personal and family life. Women have therefore been particularly vulnerable to human rights abuse in the private sphere, with respect to such issues as sexuality, marriage, reproduction, inheritance, and the custody of children.

Moreover, discrimination on the basis of sex is frequently justified as being in accordance with culture and religion. Because the abuse of women’s human rights is often kept silent, the promotion of those rights is particularly challenging.

To break this silence, many activists are seeking to place women’s issues within the human rights framework. But in order to change underlying societal norms and raise awareness of women’s rights at the grassroots level, more context-specific approaches to human rights implementation are needed. To be accepted and legitimated locally, human rights ideals must be translated into particular social and cultural contexts.

Human Rights Dialogue asked community-based advocates from a variety of countries to write about their experiences implementing women’s human rights at the local level. Their essays speak of silence breaking: how women’s human rights are changing discriminatory norms when these rights reflect vital needs and complement existing belief structures. Lúcia Ribeiro demonstrates this in her account of the Basic Christian Communities in Brazil, from which women’s awareness and empowerment have emerged organically. But Anna Pinto’s experience of trying to implement women’s human rights in the context of insurgency in Northeast India demonstrates the uphill battle that ensues when such concerns must contend with issues of greater local priority.

In many cases human rights concepts reflect women’s needs but nonetheless face resistance because of prevailing stereotypes. Sandra Chapin has found that the human rights framework has limited power to the challenge the U.S. welfare system because of negative preconceptions of poor mothers on state assistance, although she herself has been empowered by human rights as a welfare recipient and activist. Drawing upon interviews of fellow sex workers’ rights advocates, Penelope Saunders shows how women in this vilified profession are benefiting from human rights concepts and speaking out about the abuse they face, despite the fact that sex workers’ rights continue to prove highly controversial, particularly in international human rights forums.

But sometimes it is better not to use human rights language when addressing abuses, as Melron Nicol-Wilson from Sierra Leone and Nadia Wassef from Egypt argue with respect to female genital mutilation. Both make the case that human rights arguments are too much at odds with ocal realities and thus cannot change the deeply entrenched cultural norms that perpetuate the practice. Another alternative to the human rights model is offered by Martha Nussbaum, a leading American political philosopher. The “capabilities approach,” she argues, presents a clearer and less controversial means of implementing social justice for women than a human rights strategy alone.

We conclude this issue of Dialogue with an essay by Susan Bazilli, a global women’s rights activist. On the eve of Beijing +5, she reflects on the connection between international work and effective social change at the local level and encourages the women’s human rights movement to be self-critical at every level.