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

The Status of Women’s Human Rights Globally

By Mary Lawlor

Friends, it is with great pleasure that I welcome you all here to-night on behalf of the organising committee of this conference.

As women, the struggle for human rights has been underpinned by our need to challenge a particular concept, and reality, of power which marginalizes women. Whatever we have gained has been gained by the single-minded, often hidden, and unacknowledged work of women from all over the world. Nonetheless, it is important to value the immense contribution of our three eminent speakers – Shireen Huq and Florence Butegwa have both been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights as human rights in Asia and Africa. And when you think of the road from Vienna to Beijing and the move finally to embrace human rights from a gender perspective, the name of Charlotte Bunch comes naturally.

When I look around this room, I am so conscious that in each of you is a unique history of living and hope; of perseverance and pain – experienced through injustice in your personal lives or in your struggle to make human rights women’s right. That is what we share. That is our power.

This room is full of stories and is like so many other rooms and spaces around the world where women have gathered painstakingly to build the bricks of equality, development and peace. Today, what unites us all internationally - transcending class, race, culture, religion, nationality and ethnic origin – is the vulnerability of women to the denial of our fundamental human rights and your dedication to claim those rights. Women are in double jeopardy: discriminated against as women, they are also likely to become victims of human rights violations.

The long struggle for equality and justice has been continually subverted and at each new seeming victory women have had to pay the price as age-old power structures have re-established themselves.

They have to pay the price just as Olympe de Gouges did. At the onset of the Revolution, the French Assembly proclaimed the Rights of Man. Olympe de Gouges published her famous feminist "Declaration of the Rights of Woman" (1791) – "Woman is born free and her rights are the same as those of a man." With a prophetic irony, de Gouges had claimed in her declaration that women should have the right to stand for parliament if they have the right to go to the scaffold. Two months later she was guillotined.

We’ve travelled a long way since then – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and then the whole series of intergovernmental conferences, the elaboration of a body of international law and principles along with the growth in strength of the worldwide women’s movement.

But perhaps each gain is a new beginning. Today we ask, What good is the Vienna Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action to the mother of eight, trapped in poverty, without access to education or the hope of it? Or the women working twenty-four-hour shifts in Bangladesh, without a minimum wage, allowed only go to the toilet once a day for three minutes after which their salary is cut? What good is it to women here who have been raped and physically abused? Or to seventy-three year-old Faye Copeland, on death row in the United States, stripped of her dignity and will by an abusive husband who committed the murder?

How does it help those women with disability who every day struggle for visibility and recognition, or those countless women throughout Africa and Asia who have been mutilated by landmines while seeing to their families needs? How does it help those rural women overcome isolation and lack of access to economic power? Or Belen Torrés, from Colombia, under death threat for her work against the mighty landowners and their paramilitary thugs, in her fight for families to be allowed remain to work on their land? How does it help the families and relatives of victims of killings in Northern Ireland, in their search for truth and justice, or those like Roisin McAliskey whose basic dignity as a human being is being violated by the conditions of detention? Or the mothers of the "disappeared" in Vukovar, with sunken eyes from too much crying and too little sleep, in their struggle for truth and justice?

How does it help Travelling women in Irish society overcome endemic discrimination? Or the twenty Roma women in Bulgaria, detained and locked in a pigsty overnight and beaten? How does it help lesbians who are targeted in the first instance because they are women activists and then because of their sexual orientation? Or those women in some countries who, when they express their sexuality, pay for it with their lives?

Let us be clear. The only thing that will force governments and individuals truly to act out the commitments in the Vienna Declaration and the Beijing Platform for Action is the power of women everywhere, working in solidarity with each other. Women like Martha Ojeda Skeda, working for the rights of Mexico’s million low-wage assembly workers. She knows the power of international solidarity and its value to her work. She says, "when I see the faxes that come into our office, that gives me courage and hope. …I used to think I lived in a little town lost on a map, alone in the world. Now I know that workers everywhere are struggling for the same thing."

The growth in strength and depth of the truly global movement for women’s rights as human rights has been marked by gatherings such as this one today. I am privileged and honoured to be part of this ongoing process which will no doubt be enhanced by this important conference.

Ding Zilin’s seventeen-year-old son was shot dead in Tiananmen Square on the night of 3 June 1989. He was not a "ruffian," a "rioter" or a "counter-revolutionary rebel." Despite the climate of terror which followed the massacre, she has tried to establish the truth about what happened that terrible night. When some of us were there in Beijing in September 1995, Ding Zilin was kept in detention and interrogated for the entire duration of the Women’s Conference. But she remains unbowed. "I am doing nothing illegal. …It is what the government should be doing, but if they won’t do it, then I will." And if Ding Zilin will not remain silent, how can we?

Mary Lawlor is director of Amnesty International Irish Section.

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