Human Rights: Women's Rights

views updated

Human Rights: Women's Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (U.N.) on 10 December 1948, provided the most detailed outline of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals in the modern era. Furthermore, it was a milestone in that these rights and freedoms applied to every person around the world. The language of the document was, however, gender neutral, meaning that it did not specify the unique rights of women. Throughout the modern human rights era, the debate continues as to whether or not this document and others like it truly encapsulate the needs and views of non-Westerners. Efforts to address the human rights of women have likewise been plagued by such disagreements. Nonetheless, by the turn of the twenty-first century much progress had been achieved, while more work remained to be done to advance the rights of women around the world.

U.N. Decade for Women and World Conferences on Women

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), established in 1946 by the U.N. Economic and Social Council to promote the rights of women in political, economic, civil, social, and educational fields, successfully lobbied the U.N. General Assembly to designate 1975 the International Women's Year. The highlight of the year was the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City, which recommended a U.N. Decade for Women (19761985). The decade sought to address the needs of women in what were then known as the first, second, and third worlds with a tripartite theme of equality, peace, and development by making recommendations for action at local, national, and international levels.

Midway through the Decade for Women, in 1980, the World Conference of the U.N. Decade for Women was held in Copenhagen. A world conference was held in Nairobi in 1985 to review the achievements of the Decade for Women and to create a ten-year action plan for the advancement of women. The resulting document, Forward-Looking Strategies

YearLandmark Events for the Advancement of Women within the UN
1946Establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Branch for the Advancement of Women
1948Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
1953Adoption of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women
1957Adoption of the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women
1962Adoption of the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages
1967Approval of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
1975International Women's Year, International Women's Day (8 March), World Conference of the International Women's Year (Mexico City)
197685United Nations Decade for Women
1979Adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
1980World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women (Copenhagen)
1985World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women (Nairobi)
1995Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing)
2000Beijing +5 (New York)

for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000, served as a benchmark to measure improvements in women's conditions. Despite having begun with divergent goals, the U.N. Decade for Women succeeded in finding common ground between activists in the North and the South hemispheres and further legitimized activities to promote women's rights within the U.N. system and beyond. Aimed at accelerating implementation of the Nairobi agreement, the Platform for Action, approved at the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, called for strategic action in twelve critical areas of concern, including women and poverty, education and training, women's health, and violence against women. Given the focus on human rights, population, and social development at world conferences in Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994), and Copenhagen (1995), respectively, increased attention was given to the issue of equality at Beijing. Implementation of the agreements made at Nairobi and Beijing and initiatives for the future were assessed at a special session of the General Assembly, commonly referred to as Beijing 5, held in New York in 2000.

Women in the U.N. System

Women's issues are addressed by many agencies and bodies of the United Nations, several of which focus exclusively on the rights of women. Among them are the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Other U.N. agencies have developed their own gender divisions such as the Bureau for Gender Equality of the International Labour Organization (ILO). These divisions strive to achieve the United Nations' goal of gender mainstreaminga strategy to make gender perspectives and gender equality central to all activities of the United Nations including policy development, research, and program implementation. Despite the extensive institutionalization of gender mainstreaming throughout the United Nations, some have argued for the continued need for women-specific activities and enhanced efforts to draw more men into these processes.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) having consultative status with the United Nations have regularly influenced international policies concerning women. With the growth in numbers and diversity of NGOs since the 1970s, a new breed of women's NGOs and networks has emerged. At each of the major world conferences on women, representatives from these NGOs participated in parallel NGO forums. Their involvement in the preparatory processes of other international conferences has ensured the inclusion of women's issues on international agendas, particularly those impacting women in developing countries and those incorporating a multiplicity of feminist perspectives.

International Treaties and Women's Rights

While a few other international treaties have addressed the rights of women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) surpasses these other treaties in terms of its scope and in its monitoring capabilities. This "international bill of rights for women" was officially adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1979 and entered into force two years later. By ratifying CEDAW, states pledge to end discrimination against women in all forms and must submit regular reports on the status of implementation of the convention to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It is one of the most widely accepted international human rights treaties in existence, although a number of countries have submitted reservations to key articles of the agreement on cultural and religious grounds. For example, several Muslim countries have submitted reservations against articles deemed to run counter to Islamic law.

Major Issues in the Human Rights of Women

The scope of issues falling under the heading of the human rights of women has expanded greatly since the 1970s, with poverty and violence being two major areas that have been addressed.

Women and poverty.

According to the United Nations, of the world's 1.3 billion poor people, it is estimated that 70 percent are women. To blame is a complex web of factors including external debt, structural adjustment policies, and globalization. Ester Boserup's pivotal 1970 book Woman's Role in Economic Development first brought to light women's role in the process of development. Since then, the field has experienced a range of policy approaches (welfare, equity, antipoverty, efficiency, and empowerment), which reflect the changing debates on the topic and expanded participation of women from the Southern Hemisphere. Development has been a key issue in several international conferences and declarations and has been incorporated into the intersectoral work of several U.N. agencies.

In the late twentieth century, the topic evolved into discussions of gender and macroeconomics and women and poverty. Multiple actors, including governments, multilateral financial and development institutions, and national and international nongovernmental organizations and women's groups, have been urged to provide women economic opportunities, autonomy and resources, access to education and support services, and equal participation in decision-making processes. Despite several decades' worth of efforts to improve the lot of poor women, in the early years of the twenty-first century the gap between the world's rich and poor continued to expand unceasingly.

Violence against women.

Women and girls are often victims of violence because of their sex. Thanks in large part to the efforts of transnational networks, the topic of violence against women finally gained U.N. attention in the mid-1980s. It has since garnered enormous notice in a wide range of areas of concern including domestic violence, sexual assault and abuse, sexual harassment and trafficking in women, as well as prenatal sex selection in favor of male babies, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution, dowry-related violence, battering, and marital rape. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been a surge in violence against women in situations of armed conflict, in particular murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1993, and the Beijing Platform for Action are the most comprehensive international policy statements to address gender-based violence. The U.N. General Assembly established at UNIFEM the Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women with the aim of identifying and supporting inventive projects to prevent and eliminate gender-based violence. Among other suggestions, governments and other national bodies are urged to enact and enforce legislation against the perpetrators of practices and acts of violence against women, to promote the modification of social and cultural patterns that condone violence, and to ameliorate institutional mechanisms for the reporting of violence. With increased attention to the issue, violence against women is bound to appear to get worse before it improves due to an increase in the reporting of violence and an ever expanding number of acts subsumed in the definition of violence.

Women have long strived to expand modern notions of human rights to move beyond Western, liberal conceptions based on the rights of man meaning males. Those from the South in particular have struggled to ensure that the human rights of women take into consideration their unique needs and concerns. With the help of national governments and national and international organizations, including human rights and women's rights networks, the U.N. system has become instrumental in identifying and addressing the human rights of women as being unique from those of men. Though progress has been achieved, much work remains for the full realization of equality between the sexes.

See also Equality: Gender Equality ; Feminism ; Gender .


Agosín, Marjorie. Women, Gender, and Human Rights: A Global Perspective. New Brunswick, N.J:. Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Askin, Kelly D., and Dorean M. Koenig, eds. Women and International Human Rights Law. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 1999.

Benedek, Wolfgang, Esther M. Kisaakye, and Gerd Oberleitner, eds. The Human Rights of Women: International Instruments and African Experiences. London and New York: Zed Books, 2002.

Chen, Martha Alter. "Engendering World Conferences: The International Women's Movement and the U.N." In NGOs, the U.N. and Global Governance, edited by Thomas G. Weiss and Leon Gordenker. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1996.

Cook, Rebecca J., ed. Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Kerr, Joanna, ed. Ours by Right: Women's Rights as Human Rights. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1993.

Lockwood, Carol Elizabeth, et al., eds. The International Human Rights of Women: Instruments of Change. Washington, D.C.: American Bar Association, 1998.

Peters, Julie, and Andrea Wolper, eds. Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Pietilä Hilkka, and Jeanne Vickers. Making Women Matter: The Role of the United Nations. Rev. ed. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1994.

Sen, Gita. Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions: Third World Women's Perspectives. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987.

United Nations. The United Nations and the Advancement of Women, 19451996. Rev. ed. New York: Department of Public Information, United Nations, 1996.

Walter, Lynn, ed. Women's Rights: A Global View. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Christine Min Wotipka

About this article

Human Rights: Women's Rights

Updated About content Print Article