At the outset of the modern human rights movement, the UN Charter emphasized the importance of nondiscrimination. The principle was incorporated into the UDHR’s Article 2, which mandates that all persons are entitled to all human rights “without distinction of any kind,” including race, sex, religion, political opinion, national and social origin, among others (Brownlie and Goodwin-Gill, 2002). Although a number of delegates did argue for giving more explicit attention to issues of gender discrimination, they ultimately satisfied themselves with folding the prohibition on gender discrimination with the general nondiscrimination of Article 2 and avoiding sexist language in the UDHR as much as possible (Twiss 2004; see also Morsink 1999. and Bell 1992).
They therefore declined to specifically identify and remedy the particular vulnerabilities of women in traditional and modern societies. While this approach was entirely consistent with the general strategy of emphasizing individual human rights, this strategy — as we have seen with the case of indigenous rights — left various groups vulnerable to systematic abuse by others (Twiss 2004). This has persistently been the case for women in the context of patriarchal societies.
Since the drafting of the UDHR, empirical studies have definitively shown that there is considerable justification for more focused concern for the human rights of women (Sen 1999). Twiss provides a litany of compelling evidence:
It is clear, for example, that especially in the underdeveloped and developing countries of the world, women suffer disproportionately from hunger, malnutrition, and lack of access to health care; they are subjected to domestic violence, rape during peacetime and war, and sexual abuse and harassment; they… suffer from unequal pay and other discriminatory treatment; in many cases there are substantial barriers to political participation in their societies… and they often suffer from unequal treatment before the law… (2004)
Increasing awareness of these problems led to women’s liberation movements across the world. In the late 1960s, through the 1970s, and continuing to the present day, these movements have coordinated their efforts, assisted by global information, communication, and transport technologies — globalization – from – below — to liberate women from practices and conditions of oppression (Twiss 2004).
The UN has had a longstanding commitment to safeguarding the rights of women since the international human rights regime began to emerge in the post-World War II period. Women represent more than half of the world’s population and have been systematically repressed for much of ancient as well as modern history.
Women are disempowered in many parts of the world, both in the family, economic, and political spheres, and thus face structural challenges to improving their conditions their lots. In many cases, women cannot overcome these obstacles without some form of international assistance. In addition, they face issues unique to their sex, such as those involved in reproduction, which demand special group-specific protections.
A number of international conventions have been established to deal with women’s rights. These include the
- Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949, 1951), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/33.htm
- the Convention Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value (1951, 1953), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/d_ilo100.htm
- the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952, 1954), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/22.htm
- the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962, 1964), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/63.htm
- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/e1cedaw.htm
- the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(Symbol)/A.RES.48.104.En
- and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will. in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000), http://www.uncjin.org/Documents/Conventions/dcatoc/final_documents_2/convention_%20traff_eng.pdf.
Two human rights issues involving women will be discussed below: reproductive rights and human traffickingin the context of “human trafficking,” it is the illegal recruitment and trade of people to be exploited against their will..
For more on women’s issues, see the Issue in Depth on “Women and Globalization.”
For a discussion of violence against women, see the News Analyses: “Violence Against Women – Global War on a Global Issue” and “A Global Challenge: Protecting Women against Violence.”
* Picture: International Women’s Day in Liberia