Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives

Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)

Edited by Niamh Reilly

International Human Rights: Challenges Posed by Women

By Charlotte Bunch

It is a particular pleasure to be at this conference, which, I feel, represents the best of what is happening post-Beijing. That is, it represents the effort of women throughout the world at the local and the national level to apply the principles, standards, instruments, and platforms that women have worked so hard for during these last years. This conference is also a great pleasure for me because it is an example of what it means for us to bring the global home, of what it means to make the local and the global connections that are the key to the success of women’s networking internationally. It was indeed the local and the regional organising work done by women all over the world that enabled us to put women’s human rights on the agenda in Vienna and to win a women’s human rights platform at the Beijing World Conference on Women. I think we can all agree that this platform is one that affirms the human rights of women in all areas – the rights of women to education, to health care, to a life without violence, and to fundamental political participation and to first class citizenship in all countries of the world.

The issue of violence against women as a women’s human rights issue has a particular importance because it is an issue that also emerged very much from the work of women at the local, grass roots level all over the world. This issue was on no one’s agenda in 1975, despite the fact that the international women’s year and the first decade for women had been declared. This issue wasn’t even mentioned in the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was an issue that no government addressed in its policies. Indeed, the issue has really emerged in the past twenty years because of the efforts of local women – women who were seeking to end violence in all its manifestations – who worked to put the issue of violence against women on the international human rights agenda. This again I think is an indication of the strength of the women’s movement – a strength that lies in its grass roots and in the diverse projects that make it up. Many women in the women’s movement are working on different topics in different areas, and yet together they have built an understanding of what it means to look at the world through women’s eyes. This understanding is what many of us have been trying to take to international conferences. Indeed, I think the work of the 1990s really represents the effort to bring the perspectives that have grown out of women’s movements locally into the global arena.

Why is this important? Many people ask, "Why bother to work at the UN? Why bother to work internationally? There’s so much to be done at home." The reason we have to bother internationally is that the decisions, concepts, and agendas that are being set at the international level shape the conditions of our lives locally. Those agendas and decisions determine the policies and the conditions in which we all live. There is no longer any part of the world that is unaffected by the global economy, by global culture, and by the kinds of decisions that are being made at the UN and internationally. Yet in almost all of those arenas women are underrepresented (if represented at all). Women are taking leadership locally, but when you move up the scale to look at power on the global level, women disappear. It is that problem that the women’s human rights movement and many of the other global women’s networks of the past decade have been trying to redress: how to bring women’s perspectives and women’s lives into the global policy arena and into redefining how we understand the issues. These efforts are clearly redefining all the major concepts that provide the basis for the way policy is made in the world today – concepts of development, understandings of peace, and so forth. Indeed, how can people talk about world peace without talking about violence in the home? How can we achieve real peace without bringing an end to the notion that peace exists if there are no "world wars"? In fact, since World War II there have only been forty-five days of "peace" in the world, that is, days when there wasn’t a war somewhere. However, there has been no day of "peace" when there wasn’t a war against women at home. So we don’t have a peaceful world. We don’t have a peaceful era.

Looking at other issues – issues such as development, population, the environment, democracy – we have to ask, "What constitutes citizenship for women? What are the conditions necessary for women to exercise their human rights, to be able to enter the public arena as citizens with full and equal opportunity?" What this is all about is correcting the male gender bias of politics. When people say, "What is a gender perspective?" I say, "Well, we already have a gender perspective in politics, but it only represents one of the genders." So we are not trying to create a gender politics – we are trying to correct a gender politics, to make it into a multiple gender politics. This politics would incorporate women’s experiences and women’s perspectives into the centre of policy making and thinking and not simply embrace that which has usually been taken to be the norm – the male experience.

Why women’s human rights particularly? Why bother with adding the concept of human rights to women’s rights? I have often been asked, "Aren’t `women’s rights’ enough? Why do you need `women’s human rights’ as well?" For us in the women’s human rights movement this is an important question. In fact, some of us spent a long time arguing about it before we began this work. What I have come to see is that by claiming women’s rights as women’s human rights, we have taken another step in the process of establishing what women’s fundamental rights to humanity are. After all, "human rights" is the term that today most expresses the effort across national lines to come to some agreement about basic ethical visions and principles of what it means to be human, of what it means to preserve human dignity and to defend and promote the right to citizenship. For this term to be defined and developed without hearing the voice of half of humanity, is simply not to have human rights. It is a very limited and narrow piece of the human rights vision. As women have claimed this term, we have claimed the right to be a part of the definition of the conditions of what is basic to humanity in the world. We have claimed what Boutros Boutros Ghali, at the Vienna world conference on human rights, called "the common language of humanity".

Secondly we have also claimed access to some very specific international, regional, and national standards, treaties, and mechanisms that have been developed since World War II and by which human rights are defended and promoted. These mechanisms provide us with more effective tools for defending the human rights of women. They also teach us some effective ways of reaching the goals that women have been working for over the last few decades. Finally, the concept of human rights has been an important one for women in our own process of self-impowerment – in our process of really claiming for ourselves that our rights and our needs as humans are really, fully, and totally a part of the human community, that they are not something on the margin, that they are not something you add on to an already defined agenda. I have seen many women who took the petition that we did for Vienna to women in battered women’s shelters or to women who do legal defence. When these women saw it, they said, "Yes. Not only do I have the right not to be battered, but that right is something that the international human rights community has addressed and has declared to be mine." This was an important step in the process of those women, as they moved to fulfil and claim their rights.

Basic to what I am saying is the understanding that human rights is not static, it is not something that somebody gives from on high, whether that be the UN or any other body. It is something that people claim and fight for and struggle for and keep redefining in every era as we all grow in our understanding of human dignity.

Other groups have fought to expand the concept of human rights throughout this century: national independence groups, groups working against racial discrimination, groups working for indigenous rights, lesbian and gay groups, groups working for labour rights. All of these groups are bringing this concept in line with the experiences of people everywhere.

So, what is a gender perspective on women’s human rights? Well, that’s what you will be discussing all day tomorrow. It is a question that you will bring to bear on the various issues you work on. Let me just give a couple of quick categories, though. First of all, in applying the principles of women’s rights to women’s lives and looking at human rights through women’s eyes, we see that there are indeed some areas of violation of human rights where women’s experience is much the same as men, but where women are less visible simply because we still somehow have the concept of the human rights activist as a male actor. One example of this would be a report on conditions of political activists in a particular country in which only the male political activists are asked to give their thoughts. In this instance, the issue is about making the women activists visible.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in most areas of human rights violation – even those where the violation is not specifically based on gender, such as where people are violated for their political views or because of their race or ethnicity – you find that the actual violations are very gendered. That is, the violations take different forms depending on the activist’s gender. Women and men who are tortured as political prisoners are tortured in ways very specific to their genders. So if we want to fight torture we need to know about the ways in which gender affects the experience of torture. This is not to say that women’s experience is worse or better than men’s, but simply different. We have also come to recognize the many ways in which being a refugee is a very gendered experience. Almost every woman refugee – well over 90 percent – are sexually abused. For example, women refugees are often sexually harassed in exchange for food or safe passage across borders. Unless we take these kinds of situations into consideration, the refugee experience will be defined according to male norms alone.

Finally, there are many areas of human rights abuse which are specifically based on gender. These are the ones that have traditionally been ignored by the human rights community and are the ones that have been left outside when human rights policy is made. These abuses involve a number of areas, but they particularly involve sexual discrimination – the ways in which women are discriminated against in education, or in access to jobs, food, or health care – and the understanding that this discrimination does not simply mean that a woman makes a little less money. Indeed, it often means that women have fewer opportunities to ensure the security of life. In many cases it can lead to the death of females, resulting from infanticide or violence in the home, or because the paths leading to the financial resources necessary to sustain a family are denied to women.

The human rights area that we have talked about the most in this campaign is violence against women. The women’s human rights movement has sought to show that violence against women is simply another expression of common human rights violations. For example, much of the battery, incest, and abuse that women experience at home are forms of torture and often involve the imprisonment of women in their homes. Much of the sexual harassment that women are subjected to on the streets – such as gang rapes that happen to women who go where women are not supposed to go – are forms of terrorism aimed at keeping women from exercising their right to be in public spaces, whether those spaces are bars or legislatures. Trafficking in women is another form of slavery – slavery often for sexual work as well as for domestic work – and leads to situations of bonded labour and other forms of traditional human rights abuse. Compulsory heterosexuality often leads women into forced marriages, suicides, or situations of forced sex and rape. Rape in war and rape by the military is another form of war crime. We could go on with these issues.

What I think the women’s human rights movement has also done is to say that as we claim our human rights, we also are claiming a role in broadening the understanding of the human rights of all people, of women, of men, of children. In particular, we are developing the understanding of human rights abuse in the private sphere, of public responsibility for the private sphere, and of extending that responsibility into areas that have not been dealt with and which concern not only women but also the abuse of children. Essentially, the women’s human rights movement has promoted the understanding that people cannot create a culture of respect for human rights if they continue to abide by and remain silent in the face of a culture that lacks respect for women and children in the home and in the family. This is where we must begin to build a culture of respect for human rights.

I would like to end by reminding us all that the human rights abuses I have been talking about happen everywhere, in the North and in the South, in the East and in the West. It happens in my country, and it happens in your country. Western countries often talk about human rights as if they are a problem somewhere else and not at home. One of the challenges facing the women’s human rights movement is to bring together international and domestic policy – which are often discussed as if they are separate issues and present separate problems – and to show that in an era of globalisation what happens inside our countries is very significantly affected by what is happening outside them. The kind of accountability that we ask for from our governments is accountability for the abuse of human rights both domestically and internationally, including accountability for the way our own country’s foreign policy affects human rights in other countries. Globalisation means that we must also build an international movement that can demand a transnational accountability, one that recognises that governments must be held accountable for their participation in international institutions even when they don’t directly control those institutions. A movement of women that crosses those lines can begin to call for government policies as well as international policies that respect the human rights of all people. Global solidarity will result in a new kind of human rights movement that crosses those national lines – not by ignoring them, but by working at both the national and the international level. Its this global solidarity – something that we experienced in Vienna and Beijing – that leads all of us who are speaking tonight to see the women’s human rights movement as both a local and a global movement that can play an important role in the building of human rights as a concept, a movement, and a reality that works for all humaity in the twenty-first century.

Charlotte Bunch is director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, New Brunswick, N.J., USA.

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