Gender and Human Rights

What Is Gender?

“Gender” describes roles, rights, and responsibilities that communities and societies consider appropriate for women/girls and men/boys. One’s gender is different from one’s sex, which refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. For example, “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories. Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly and are principally culturally determined. In other words, gender roles are not a “natural” result of biological differences but are determined by the systems and cultures in which we live. We are born as males and females, but we learn to become girls and boys, men and women, from our families and societies.

Discrimination Based on Gender

Gender is a fluid concept and often changes over time, as well as from one culture to another. This means that these roles can be addressed by challenging the status quo and seeking social change. Although gender expectations affect both males and females, women and girls experience far more gender-based discrimination and inequality. Global trends show, for example, that –

  • Females are less likely than males to go to school and/or be literate.
  • Females are more likely than males to be married before the age of 18.
  • Females are more likely than males to become infected with HIV.
  • Females are more likely than males to have experienced sexual violence.
  • Females are less likely than males to receive adequate health care, especially for reproductive health.
  • Women hold fewer leadership positions both in politics and in the workplace.
  • Women who work outside the home earn less than men doing similar work.
  • Women are less likely to participate in decision making in both the family and the community.
  • Women are less likely to have access to justice, including restrictions in some countries on freedom of movement, discounting of evidence given by women, and lack of training of police, prosecutors, and judges.
  • Women and girls are the principal victims of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking.

Women and girls from minority populations and rural areas are especially affected by gender bias when their gender roles intersect with discrimination based on other factors such as age, ethnicity, poverty, belonging to indigenous groups, caste, or disability to create “multiple discrimination” towards females.

Ending Gender Discrimination

Recent years have seen progress on issues of gender and human rights in standard-setting and to some extent application of those standards Some governments have made commitments to gender equality through ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, Women’s Convention, 1979) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, Children’s Convention, 1989). These international frameworks promote the rights of girls and women and lay out what governments must do towards achieving gender equality. However, governments also need to make sure that these standards and laws protecting the rights of girls and women are implemented.

Existing stereotypes and behaviors among all members of society must also be addressed, challenging long-standing beliefs and attitudes in a community that violate women’s rights. Religion, tradition, and culture continue to be used as a shield for violating women’s rights.

But it is only when all girls and women are respected as equals that they can achieve gender equality and realize their full human rights.

Related Human Rights Instruments