Women’s rights in principle, women’s rights in practice



International Women’s Day (8 March) is a celebration unlike any other: on one hand we have the accomplishments of half the world to celebrate. On the other, we have to confront the fact that women and girls continue to face discrimination in almost all sectors of life: from the home to school, to the workplace, to the political arena.

One of the most devastating forms of discrimination is violence which takes on many forms. In half of all murders of women, the perpetrator is a member of her own family. And across the globe, some women and girls are restricted even from participating in education and employment due to the risk of violence and harassment from disapproving men. A UN report states that one in three women experience sexual violence in their lifetime, but most offences go unreported.

In combination, all these elements serve to restrict the liberties of women and girls: through fear, through trauma, through a lack of knowledge of their rights.

Women’s human rights should be beyond question. Almost all the world’s countries have signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since it was introduced in 1981. Discrimination has not been eliminated, even in countries which have made the greatest commitments to achieving gender equality. Norway is ranked third highest on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, but only 6.4 per cent of managers in listed companies are female.

Inequality in the workplace

Elsewhere, CEDAW is weakened through being passed with reservations, 30 countries have passed CEDAW with reservations in relation to equal rights and marriage. This has been justified in the name of ‘culture’ or conformity to ‘religious laws’, which maintain structures of family law that are biased towards men, making it harder for women to live alone or keep custody of their children. Kyrgyzstan, for example, has a law against kidnappings and forced marriages, but the justice system often views bride kidnappings as a culturally protected tradition, and therefore fails to enforce the law.

Whether there are reservations in place or not, there may well be failures of accountability and enforcement. In too many countries where CEDAW has been signed, state justice is unaffordable and corrupt, and local systems of informal justice are typically dominated by males, restricting justice to the elite. Almost universally, policing and judicial systems are dominated by men who often have macho values that undermine attempts to address violence against women. Moroccan law states that a rapist can escape punishment by marrying his victim.

There are many more barriers standing between women and justice: the inability to afford or access help; feelings of shame and hopelessness; lack of knowledge and awareness of agencies available to support them.

If we want to work towards a world in which women are treated with respect as men’s equals, then we need to treat agreements like CEDAW as essential baselines from which more profound changes can be developed, not as aspirations or a list of options to pick and choose from.

We cannot allow ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ to be used as elastic categories in order to excuse an unwillingness to comprehend women as human beings with human rights. We need to establish a firm baseline of women’s rights in principle and encourage work to ensure that these are shared and understood from the grassroots up.

Women human rights defenders should be included at every level of planning and policy to ensure that their voices are heard and that women’s interests do not continue to be neglected; and they should be protected against all means to silence them.

This is what I wish for the next decade: we need to bring change into legal systems and reinforce the universality of human rights, challenging all the justifications for women’s subordination.

But we cannot stop there.

A true end to discrimination would not be restricted to the statutes of law. It would be visible in the ways people interact on an everyday basis, and in the ways they understand each other. We need to explode the limitations of gender: to acknowledge and encourage the capacity of both women and men to be courageous and compassionate, strong and sensitive; to be able to express our humanity to the fullest degree without fear and without limits. This is the world we can accomplish together.

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