The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 is the guiding international document on human rights. Universality is therefore a key element of the human rights vision. Human rights and the mechanisms designed to actualize them are supposed to be equally available to men and women. Since the beginning of this decade, there has been increasing recognition that the international human rights movement has benefited men more than women. Therefore some activists and organisations, mainly NGO´s, and in some countries also state authorities, have worked to redefine the meaning of human rights to reflect the specific experiences of women at all stages of their lives, from birth through adulthood. Their work has brought about remarkable advances in women's human rights:
* In June 1993, The United Nations World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna significantly expanded the international human rights agenda to include gender-specific abuses as human rights violations. The Vienna Declaration and Programme for Action, the final conference document, cited examples of gender-specific abuse as human rights violations and called for the integration of efforts to ensure women's human rights across the full range of The United Nation's activities.
* In December 1993, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration Against Violence Against Women.
* In March 1994, The United Nations Commission on human rights, agreed to appoint a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, and to integrate the rights of women into human rights mechanisms of the United Nations.
These breakthroughs have begun to reclaim the vision of human rights for women and to reverse the pattern of neglect of women's human rights by the international community.
Looking back on the history of women´s human rights legislation
To understand the need of the Vienna Declaration it is necessary to have a historical perspective on women´s human rights. The international human rights agenda has expanded dramatically since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An extensive body of international standards has been adopted and a wide range of institutions has been established to monitor and secure implementation of these rights.
* The United Nations Charter affirms in its preamble "faith in fundemental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women". It then states in Art. 1 that one of its purposes is to promote and encourage "respect for human rights and fundemental freedoms for all without distinction" on the basis of sex or any other grounds.
* Art. 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights broadly formulates the norm of discrimination of any kind, entitling all to "the rights and freedoms set forth in the declaration without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex".
* The general norm of non-discrimination is enshrined in the twin Covenants of 1966.
The general norm barring sex based discrimination is found in all major human rights treaties and is reinforced by a number of conventions and other international instruments that have special importance to women.
* The 1989 Convention on the Rights of The Child, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in Art. 2.
* The 1949 Convention on the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.
* The 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, The Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages.
* The ILO convention No.s 100, 111 and 156, concerning equal remuneration for work of equal-value, discrimination in the respect of employment and occupation and workers with family responsibilities.
* The UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, 1960.
1979 - A landmark in Women's Human Rights - CEDAW
The approval of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was a real landmark in the history of women's human rights. CEDAW moves beyond the guarantees of equality before the law and equal protection under the law found in earlier instruments. It sets out measures aimed at achieving substantive equality between men and women, regardless of marital status, in all fields of political, economic, social and cultural life. Unlike previous international instruments concerned with women's status, CEDAW allows for temporary measures of affirmative action. It binds states to seek to modify cultural patterns of behaviour and attitudes regarding sexes, and attempts to impose standards of equality and non-discrimination in private as well as in public life.
Despite all these legal and procedural achievements, the majority of the world's women and girls remain excluded from the prevailing vision of human rights. There are many reasons for this, and we shall look into some of them.
The UN Charter and other instruments that guarantee equality, non-discrimination, or nondistinction on the basis of sex do not create rights for women that are specific to their day-today reality. Rather they offer women the opportunities to exercise rights on the same basis as men, rights that are universally recognized and inherent because of men's and women's common humanity.
These instruments are gender-neutral: They confer on women the right to be placed in the same situation as men. They envisage the human condition to be gender-free. But the human condition is not gender-free. There are some aspects of life that are common to men and women, and, clearly, women should be accorded equal opportunity in those areas. In general, however, women and men lead very different lives. A number of human rights which reflected the realities of most women's lives would look different indeed. In, for example, autonomy within the family, conditions suitable for healthy reproduction, sufficient economic resources to sustain oneself and one's family, and adequate food and shelter.
For most women a relevant rights regime would be one that only guaranteed equality with men in most areas of life that are common to the sexes, but would also promote social justice in private and civil life. It would pursue the collective interests of humanity in a way that integrates the perspective of women.
And it would stress freedom from gender-based violence. Current human rights instruments reflect male experience in a world of men; they largely ignore the fact that around the world, most women live daily with violence or threat of violence. The right to be free from torture, as defined in international human rights law, fails to encompass violence in the family. Many legal systems fail to adequately address the issue. Some regard it as culturally acceptable, others say that it is inevitable. Moreover, the definition of torture does not include sexual assault, which many states still fail to acknowledge as a serious issue warranting legal and administrative action and provision of services. It includes the growing incidence of seemingly random, but very often systematic, acts of violence directed at women in situations of economic, civil or political turmoil, or during international and civic warfare.
How CEDAW obligates states
Unlike other human rights treaties, CEDAW specifically obligates states which ratify the Convention to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise. Many women suffer gender-based violations of rights by direct actions of the state. Sexual violence is frequently used in many states as a method of torture or by soldiers as an instrument of war. Female detainees are at greater risk of genderbased violence than their male counterparts. Studies indicate that female refugees are at high risk of sexual and physical violence during flight. Decision-makers prove to be easily persuaded that sexual violations constitute individual, rather than state-linked activity.
Most violations of women´s rights occur in other, more private spheres of life and at the hands of private individuals. As a result, it is more difficult to make a case for state responsibility. Domestic violence, sexual abuse of women in the working place and elsewhere, trafficking in women and denial of reproductive choice are all examples of the violations that women commonly experience. Discrimination within the families not discrimination by the state or its agents; but here again, many states maintain a cultural context that legitimizes the subjugation of women in what should be the smallest democracy at the core of society.
Human rights discourse affirms that all rights - not only civil and political, but also social, economic and cultural - are indivisible and interdependent. It stresses that the promotion and enjoyment of certain fundamental freedoms cannot justify the denial of other human rights and fundamental freedoms. These concepts of "indivisibility and interdependence" were reiterated and confirmed at the World Conference on Human Rights, and are restated in both the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the final document of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994.
Here again, there is a gap between theory and practice. In practice, international human rights law tends to give priority to civil and political rights, devaluing social, economic and cultural rights and thereby marginalizing some of women's most pressing concerns.
Clearly the universal realization of civil and political rights is erucial. But the priority given to these rights has shifted economic, social and cultural rights away from center stage. Some of the most urgent concerns of women's day-to-day existence involve the denial of economic, social or cultural rights. These include policies on women's abilities to sustain themsleves and their families; or the devastating effect of environmental degradation on the quality of their daily lives. These issues have been effectively marginalized. At the same time, the human rights establishment has failed to take adequate account of the economic, social and cultural subordination that inhibits many women from claiming even basic civil and political rights.
How to strengthen CEDAW
Policies that are strictly gender-neutral often fail to protect girls and women from the kinds of discrimination that threaten their autonomy, their security, even their very lives. Most international human rights are about to come to terms with these facts. However many bodies still define rights in gender-neutral terms.
By elaborating the meaning and scope of discrimination against women, CEDAW has provided a vital tool to advocates of human rights for women. Together, the Convention and the General Recommendations of the CEDAW Commitee have proven to be effective tools for those who are establishing an international human rights framework that is relevant to the majority of the world's women. And in countries around the world, these tools have been powerful instruments for those working to eliminate or reform discriminatory laws and practices.
At the same time, advocates recognize that CEDAW has yet to fully realize its promise for women. Judging by the number of ratifications, accsessions and signatures, CEDAW is second only to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as the most widely endorsed UN human rights treaty. At the same time, it is the treaty to which countries have entered the greatest number of substantive reservations.
Some of these reservations strike at the heart of the concepts of gender equity and nondiscrimination - the very foundation of CEDAW. They divest women of the Convention's guarantees of equality, and strip women of guarantees of equality and non-discrimination enumerated in other treaties and instruments. Other reservations maintain the general thrust of the treaty obligation, but preserve the power of state parties to continue discrimination in particular spheres by maintaining discriminatory laws, practices and patterns of behaviour. Most frequently, states' reservations exclude from the reach of their treaty obligations the family - the very sphere where rights for women are most crucial.
CEDAW contains no international mechanism to reject reservations considered to be inconsistent with the object and purpose of its obligations. The absence represents a major challenge to advocates of women's human rights, who are determined to strenghten CEDAW in five areas:
* First, they want to strengthen CEDAW's implementation and monitoring procedures in particular, its investigatory and enforcement powers. They believe that the CEDAW Committee should have a mandate to evaluate and reject reservations that are incompatible with the objectives of the Convention; to demand that ratifying countries submit reports; and to sanction those that fail to comply with the terms of the Convention.
* Second, they want to provide for the resolution of interstate or individual complaints related to non-compliance with CEDAW.
* Third, they seek wider recognition of the role of NGOs, who at present have no formal status or powers in relation to CEDAW. For example, they want the Committee to encourage NGOs to submit shadow reports on their countries' compliance with CEDAW, even in cases where the NGOs have no right to make formal representations to the Committee.
*Fourth, they urge attention to be given to CEDAW by the lawyers and political scientists who are developing the jurisprudence of human rights and absorbing human rights standards into national law.
A great deal has been accomplished in recent years, and CEDAW certainly represents a long stride toward a gender equality. But as we approach a new century, we realize that the greatest challenges for women s human rights lies ahead.
Women and education
In 1960 UNESCO proclaimed an International Convention against Discrimination in Education. Since then the denial of equal education opportunities to women and girls has been recognized as a fundamental challenge to the dignity of the person. The denial of education is a limitation of the scope of human rights that undermines the capability of nurturing those values of solidarity and mutual obligation that ultimately hold society together and help to ensure social cohesion.
Education is a basic human right and an essential tool for achieving the goals of full equality, development and peace and for the full realization of women s potential
Literacy of women is the key to improving health, nutrition and education in the family. My Indian friend Jayshree Metha would add in this connection: "A literate mother would always see to her children´s education so they at least will learn how to read and write." To keep women ignorant is in many ways to keep the family in poverty. That´s why education of women is even more important than education of men.
Prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland stated in her speech at the Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994:
Women s education is the single most important path to higher productivity, lower infant mortality and lower fertility. The economic returns on investment in women s education are generally comparable to those of men, but the social returns in term of health and fertility by far exceeed what we gain from men's education. So let us pledge to watch over the numbers of school-enrollments for girls. Let us watch also the number of girls that complete their education and ask why...
She is well supported by the late General Secretary of UNICEF, James P. Grant who said:
Literacy of women is the most important single factor in reducing the mortality of children. The children of more educated mothers have a greater chance of survival and of healthy growth than those of less educated or illiterate.
Yes, education is important for both men and women. However, with regard to the best for the family, with regards to chilren's possibilities, mother's education seems to be more important than fathers .
And yet, nearly two-thirds of the worlds´ illiterate adults are women (565 million), most of them live in the developing regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the majority of countries still, the literacy rate of women is significantly lower than that of men. Few other indicators capture as decisively the imbalance in the status of men and women as does this simple measure. The gap between male and female literacy rates is not just a statement about men and women and the educational opportunties which have been provided for them. It also tells about society's development and its capacity and willingness to provide such opportunities.
The Girl Child
In probably more than 100 countries the overall participation of girls in the formal education system is certainly still significantly lower than that of boys. In 1990, 130 million children had no access to primary school; of these 81 million were girls. Most analysts and commentators have stressed that out-of-school factors in the family and the community are probably more important than in school factors. There is a general agreement that family poverty is probably the most important reason for holding girls back from school or causing their early withdrawal, although this is often re-inforced by cultural norms and traditional conceptions of the divison of labour in the household.
It has been observed that women and girls in many poorer parts of the world are locked into a cycle of poverty and early marriages, with illiterate mothers bringing up illiterate daughters. At the pre-conference to The 4. Women's Conference in New York in March last year, the African participants proposed a special chapter on the girl child to be included in the Bejing document. The background for this proposal was that the situation for girls is alarming in certain parts of the world.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes rights for every child regardless of "race, color, sex..." etc. However, in many countries available indicators show that the girl is discriminated against from conception through childhood, and into adulthood. In some areas of the world, men outnumber women by 5 in every 100. The reasons for the discrepancy, for the missing of millions of women, include among others, harmful attitudes and practices, such as female genital mutilation, son preferences which results in female infanticide and prenatal sex selection, early marriage, violence against women, prostitution, sexual abuse, discrimination against girls in food allocation and other practices related to health and wellbeing. As a result, fewer girls than boys survive into adulthood.
The chapter on The Girl Child was included in the document and strategic objectives were given for elimination of all forms of discrimination against the girlchild and proposals for actions to be taken by governments were listed.
Literacy, educational opportunties and development are inseparable. The four World Conferences on Women held in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and in Beijing (1995) as well as the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace (1976-85) and the three United Nations' conferences on population held in Bucharest (1974), Mexico City (1984) and Cairo (1994) have helped stimulate a body of international research and inquiry that has begun to expose the real cost for society of neglecting to ensure women's and girl's rights to equal educational opportunity.
Still education on women's rights are coloured by descriptions of misery. This is necessary to make people aware of the situation for women and girls in greater parts of the world. However, knowledge and information must aim at visualizing the contribution women will add to society being free and equal. Governments must understand the real cost of neglecting to ensure women's rights.
Local and state authorities need to know about women's human rights, politicians need to know, teachers most certainly need to know to be able to pass on the information to the students and last but not least women need to know about their human rights.
Back to CONTENTS