Human rights are based on the fundamental principle that all persons possess an inherent human dignity and that they are equally entitled to enjoy these rights. As Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) states –
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
The majority of the world’s women, however, never experience equal dignity or equal realization of their human rights
Discrimination Based on Gender Roles
Gender roles, the culturally determined expectations that societies consider appropriate for women/girls and men/boys, present a major obstacle to women’s human rights. 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 or 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. These factors often combine to create “multiple discrimination” towards females.
Realizing True Equality
In the human rights context equality does not necessarily mean treating everyone in the same manner. When people are in unequal situations, treating them in the same way invariably perpetuates, rather than eradicates, injustices. For example, a man and a woman may equally have the right to vote, but if the woman lacks literacy or access to the polls, she cannot equally access this right. As a result such formal equality may fail to ensure the broader aims of equality.
Women often require different treatment than men to enjoy the same rights. For example, to enjoy the right to work, women may require help with childcare and/or official recognition of the unpaid work that women traditionally do in the home. In addition, particular groups of women may require accommodations to enjoy their right to nondiscrimination and equality. Promoting equality and creating a truly just society means taking steps such as affirmative action to address institutionalized power imbalances. In this context human rights are not gender-neutral. Violation of rights and finding solutions cannot be accomplished without recognizing the unequal positions of women in society and going beyond formal equality to create equality of opportunity and outcome.
Women and the UN Human Rights Framework
The UN human rights system emerged at the very foundation of the United Nations in 1945 with human rights principles enunciated in the UN Charter and further articulated in the International Bill of Rights, which includes the UDHR (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1976).
Because these foundations of the UN human rights framework were laid well before the emergence of the women’s human rights movement, women were essentially excluded from the process of defining the rights and creating the structures for enforcing them. In its first decades, the evolving human rights framework focused principally on:
- curtailing powers of the state rather than on demanding accountability for positive actions to ensure women’s human rights
- civil and political rights rather than on social, economic, and cultural rights, within which many of the rights most central to women’s experiences are located.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, due to the advocacy of women within the UN system and efforts of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), progress was made in the form of the development of women-specific instruments and institutions. These included –
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, Women’s Convention, 1979) the first legally binding international instrument prohibiting discrimination against women and obligating governments to take affirmative steps to advance the equality of women.
- The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted by the General Assembly in 1993, which recognizes the right of women to be free from violence and obligates governments to take steps to eliminate violence against women. Examples include violence in armed conflict, murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, gender- based sexual harassment, and trafficking.
Women’s Human Rights Issues
While women are entitled to enjoy all human rights, certain aspects of life especially impact them:
- Girlhood: From the beginning of life girls face discrimination from selective abortion in favor of boys and frequent female infanticide. Often girls are socialized to be silent, passive, and obedient. Worldwide girls receive less food, healthcare, and education than boys, and are frequently subject to early marriage, violence, and harmful traditional practices.
- Poverty: The majority of the world’s poor are women and their poverty results in widespread violations of their human rights, such as access to adequate food and housing, clean water, health care, and education. Poverty can also be caused by violations such as discrimination in employment opportunities, less pay for equal work, or the prohibition on property ownership.
- Education: Equality of access to all levels of education is crucial to empowering women and girls to participate in economic, social, and political life of their societies. Yet more than 2/3 of the world’s illiterate people are women. At least 60% of the children who do not attend school are girls.
- Health: Many women and girls face serious obstacles to the realization of their human right to health, including inequality of access to health care, food and nutrition, and customary practices detrimental to their health and wellbeing.
- Violence: Physical, psychological, and sexual violence against women and girls, both in public and private, plagues all societies and classes and poses tremendous obstacles to the achievement of equality, development, and peace. This includes both domestic violence and the violence of armed conflict, which affects whole societies but impacts especially on women who are left to care for families, flee as refugees, or become vulnerable to rape and other forms of brutality.
- Participation in Power and Decision-Making: Until the 20th century women were denied the right to vote. In many parts of the world they are still excluded from positions of power, depriving them of a voice in issues that concern them and their communities, and depriving their communities of the benefit of their skills, knowledge, and perspectives.
- Human trafficking: Nearly 80% of all trafficked persons are involved in sexual exploitation, and these are almost all women.
Related Human Rights Instruments:
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979)
- Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women
 For a more detailed discussion of women’s human rights, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 171: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.