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


By Niamh Reilly

The idea to convene a Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights emerged from a recognition of the vibrant international movement for women’s human rights which has gained visibility throughout the 1990s. In particular, women from every region, including Ireland, have organised effectively to shape policy discussions and outcomes at United Nations fora from the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), to the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995).

The many successes of the movement for women’s human rights are evident in the concrete commitments to women which have been secured in international human rights policy arenas as well as in the extensive global networking among women which has made the policy successes possible. The policy gains to date include the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (1994); the adoption of a UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993); the recognition that violence against women is a violation of human rights - whether perpetrated by a state actor or by a violent spouse - and a commitment to integrate gender throughout the UN human rights machinery (Vienna Declaration, 1993); and the development of an "optional protocol," expected to be adopted in 1998, that will allow individual women and groups to make formal complaints against their government for failures to implement the women’s human rights convention (CEDAW).

These policy commitments could not have been achieved where it not for the many networks and linkages that were forged by women’s groups across geographical and cultural boundaries in the name of making women’s human rights a reality. The networking activities of the women’s human rights movement took place in the corridors of UN buildings, in the foreign ministries of various countries, among local community groups, and in street marches designed to raise public awareness. One example is the "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence," a campaign linking International Day Against Violence Against Women (November 25) to International Human Rights Day (December 10), which underscores the fact that violence against women violates human rights and cannot be tolerated in any country that purports to care about human rights. Women in Ireland have used the "16 Days" since the campaign first started in 1991 to highlight the issue of domestic violence in this country.

In Part 1, Florence Butegwa and Shireen Huq also describe how women all over Africa and in Bangladesh have used the "16 Days" campaign to address women’s human rights concerns in their regions. Likewise, the worldwide petition drive calling upon the UN to address women’s human rights concerns comprehensively was signed at local venues in 148 countries by well over one million people. The petition effectively linked local and global arenas; it was delivered to the UN in batches of hundreds of thousands from 1992 to 1995, sending a strong message to governments that the demands being made by women at UN fora had broad-based support. The current challenge for the women’s human rights movement is how to translate commitments on paper into commitments in practice. Mary Lawlor poses some of the critical threats to women’s human rights and highlights the pivotal role that women human rights defenders play in the process of realizing rights. Similarly, Charlotte Bunch emphasizes that just as organising at the local level was critical in achieving international policy commitments, persistent organising and lobbying is required by women locally and nationally to insist on the implementation of the gains that have been made. Towards this goal, the Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights aimed to strengthen linkages among women, both across different sectors and diverse backgrounds within Ireland, and with groups around the world, such as those represented by Charlotte Bunch, Florence Butegwa, and Shireen Huq.

The conference also set out to explore what a feminist approach to human rights means in the context of Ireland and what it means to view women’s concerns through a human rights lens. Ursula Barry, Catherine Joyce, Inez McCormack, Monica O’Connor, Catriona Ruane and Ailbhe Smyth addressed the human rights concerns and crises affecting women in Ireland in relation to economic dependence and poverty, social exclusion and racism, the denial of full citizenship, male violence, and reproductive and sexual rights. Their presentations are contained in Part 2. Part 3 records the lively working sessions which ensued where participants identified in more detail their priorities for a women’s human rights agenda in Ireland.

It is important to emphasize that the women who work to challenge the injustices experienced by women around the world are human rights defenders, even though they have not been named as such. In large part this lack of recognition exists because of a narrow (albeit important) definition of human rights violations that has come to dominate the human rights system over the last fifty years. Dominant approaches to human rights focus on state-sponsored violations such as illegal detention or torture by security forces so that many violations of women’s human rights which occur in private contexts or at the hands of non-state actors are rendered invisible. In addition, the focus on direct state-sponsored violations has made it difficult to tackle social exclusion and discrimination as human rights concerns. The mainstream human rights system has also fostered a minimalist and legalistic interpretation of human rights protection at the national level. The result is that as long as states are not directly violating or denying certain civil and political rights, little else is required of them. By insisting that women’s right are human rights, women are challenging this traditional approach to human rights. They are asserting that human rights apply inside as well as outside the home; that all perpetrators of human rights violations must be held accountable whether they are state actors or private individuals; and that human rights are indivisible – that economic, social and cultural rights are equally important as civil and political rights. Women are seeking accountability not only for what the state does, but for what the state fails to do to actively protect and promote women’s human rights.

In addition to providing space to begin an on-going dialogue on the meaning of women’s rights as human rights in Ireland and to foster linkages among diverse women in this process, the conference also aimed to be a springboard for developing action strategies around the utilisation of human rights standards and tools and the implementation of existing commitments to women’s human rights. Part 4 presents the outcome of these discussions covering the Vienna Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action, Feminist Approaches to Human Rights Education, Expanding Resources and Networking for Women’s Human Rights, and Human Rights Instruments, Agreements and Lobbying. Together these sections constitute an ideal point of departure for building a women’s human rights agenda in Ireland. Finally, in moving forward beyond the conference and towards the realisation of human rights for women, the words of Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, underline the nature of the path ahead:

The barriers to the implementation of [women’s] human rights are two-fold. First, the lack of proper implementation machinery to make rights real in the lives of women is an obstacle, as is women’s lack of awareness of the rights machinery that would empower them. The second and more formidable barrier is the refusal to accept the values in and of themselves: an ideological resistance to human rights for women

Niamh Reilly is an activist and academic in the field of human rights.

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