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

Political Discrimination and Persecution

Participants in the working session identified several key issues:

Towards a Women’s Human Rights Framework. The definition of human rights must be broadened to include women’s perspectives. It must also take account of different needs and diversity among women. A women’s human rights framework must be broadened to include marginalised women. The implementation of women’s human rights must explicitly take into account different needs. The rights of marginalised women must be defended by those women themselves, but they must also be taken on board by the women’s movement as a whole. It should be recognised that because marginalised groups may only have the resources to work locally, they must be represented at the national and international level by those who do have the capacity. There is also "a need to look inward as well as outward to ensure the inclusion of marginalised women."

Discrimination. Discrimination in Irish society takes many forms and occurs on multiple levels. Women and members of minority groups are the main targets of discrimination. Travellers, lesbians, people with disabilities, those who are infected with HIV/AIDS, members of other racial and ethnic minorities, people with low skill/education levels, prostitutes, women in prison, and many children and teenagers are in large part "invisible" and vulnerable to systematic discrimination. Women who belong to marginalised groups experience "double minority status resulting in isolation."

Social exclusion and discrimination are fuelled by the perception people have that there are "normal people" and others who are "not normal" and who, as a result, are treated as second class citizens. There is a need for education to challenge this mindset and to ensure the right of marginalised people to express their points of view. The failure to stop discrimination against, and to take active measures to protect, minority groups such as the Travellers amounts to the destruction of culture and a denial of cultural rights.

Government policies, practices and procedures often allow discrimination against minority groups and/or condone discrimination by individuals. The refusal of access to "public" amenities such as shops and pubs, for example, is a common form of discrimination faced by Travellers and at present there is no legal protection against such practices.

Poverty often keeps women – "especially housewives and carers" – silent and without the means to express their concerns or demand their rights. The lack of status afforded to women in unpaid work must be recognised as an obstacle to realising women’s human rights. There is a need to create opportunities "to find and use women’s voices". This includes tackling patterns of discrimination which limit women’s access to resources and capacity building.

Institutional and Individual Oppression. We need to recognise both institutional oppression and discrimination and oppression by individuals and insist that both require an effective response.

Lack of Recognition of Cultural Rights. The failure to recognise cultural difference and to protect minorities has serious consequences for the enjoyment of human rights. In the case of Travellers, there has never been recognition of their distinct ethnic identity. It was suggested in the working session that we need constitutional reform (in keeping with international human rights agreements) to recognise and protect cultural difference and Traveller culture in particular. In addition, lobbying campaigns and petitions for legal reform should be employed. It was noted that while "test" cases are being brought at present, a lack of funding for legal action is a major obstacle in pursuing this strategy.

Furthermore, participants in the working session emphasized that any process aimed at achieving constitutional and legal reform to ensure human rights for Travellers must involve Traveller groups – especially Traveller women’s groups – and other supportive organisations in discussions at the local and national levels to discuss possible changes in the law and their affects on Travellers. All discussions around improving the situation of Travellers must take into consideration the discriminatory attitudes and practice that prevail in every aspect of Traveller women’s lives.

However, the issue of securing human rights for Travellers must be tackled on many levels in addition to a drive for legal and constitutional reform. State services being provided to Travllers are inadequate and are failing to meet their specific needs. Some of the more obvious problems relate to the failure to provide appropriate accommodation: " Travellers are subjected to frequent evictions where women are specifically targeted; trenches are dug around caravans; and there are often no basic amenities." More generally, Travellers have to deal with widespread social stigma and discrimination. They are frequently denied access to facilities and services and women Travellers—as the primary care takers in their community—are often on the frontline of this abuse as they go shopping or seek out health and social services on behalf of their families. In addition, Traveller children are subjected to bullying at school by settled children which undermines their human right to education.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers. The status of refugees and asylum seekers is also of concern in this context. The human rights of refugees is not only about their legal status with regard to the state, but about the way they are treated by society and by individuals more generally. The growing negative image of refugees in Ireland is a serious cause of concern. In addition to facing discrimination on grounds of race and/or ethnicity, we should also be vigilant about the gender-specific aspects of the treatment of refugees. Further, the fact that asylum seekers are not allowed to work or study while awaiting a decision on their application for asylum – a process which can take many years – also raises many questions the human rights status of refugees in Ireland.

Violence against Women. Domestic violence must be brought into the public domain. The private must be made public in that we acknowledge such violence as a violation of human rights. We must insist "that the state is responsible – that what happens in the domestic arena is also political." Recognising violence against women as a form of discrimination and persecution demands that the state supports adequate remedial and preventive measures. However, the provision of refuges is grossly inadequate with many refuges having to turn women away. One participant, for example, told of a situation where a twelve-year-old boy was denied entry to a refuge and the whole family then refused to go as a result.

There is also gender-based persecution in the public domain – either by individuals or by representatives of the state – which needs to be monitored and addressed. For example, the human rights of lesbians are routinely violated through margnalisation, discrimination, harassment, and/or the threat of violence.

State-Sponsored Abuses of Human Rights. The situation of prisoners is one of the more clear-cut areas of potential human rights abuses by the state. The case of Roisin McAliskey has served to highlight the gender-specific issues involved and the way in which pregnant prisoners are vulnerable to abuse. More generally, the often precarious position of Irish prisoners in prisons overseas leaves them and their relatives open to abuse and harassment. For example, prisoners’ families (mainly women members) may be obstructed in seeking prison visits and otherwise harassed by the authorities. Participants in the working session suggested that "the rights of prisoners to serve sentences at home should be campaigned for by lobbying governments and questioning transfer procedures."

In the case of Ireland there are grounds for serious concern regarding overcrowding and inadequate facilities for all prisoners, including women prisoners. There is poor provision for drug treatment, for example, in a situation where many of the inmates are coping with addiction. Concern was also expressed about the treatment of prostitutes in prison. Consideration also needs to be given to the fact that women experience additional pressures as a result of separation from their children.

Discrimination in Education. "Stereotypical sexist images of girls and boys abound" from an early age, fostering sexist attitudes and behaviour. Such attitudes are often reinforced in schools through the "dominance of male authority conveyed in school books," for example, or through "policies such as the streaming of classes which have a negative effect on girls in particular." The overall ethos in schools also fosters "a lack of recognition of skills other than those which are narrowly academic." In particular, the status accorded to women who work in the home continues to be very low. Women who stay at home as carers "are often penalised for this care" in that "they are sacrificed to allow a spouse to pursue his career." Women also face discrimination in their pursuit of third-level education as mature students. In particular, mature students (many of whom are women who did not have the opportunity for third-level education when they left secondary school) still have to pay full fees and are often relegated to night classes. This marginalisation of mature students who are likely to be carrying the added burden of family responsibilities is a form of discrimination.

Human Rights Education. Programmes are needed to promote an awareness of rights among women. The language used to discuss human rights can be too legalistic and inaccessible. While we need to be familiar with our human rights and the human rights system, we also need to simplify it to make it accessible to all women. One suggestion made by participants was to produce a summary of the UN conventions that Ireland has signed and to organise workshops to discuss the implications – including levels of state and UN responsibility for the areas of discrimination that concern us. The working session identified two interconnected levels of work in area of human rights education: first, the political level where dissemination of information aims to connect women at the local level to wider campaigns for change; and second, where human rights education is used as a tool to strengthen local work and to "set out our own agendas."

Rural Women. Women experience difficulty in accessing services in rural areas and this leads to their isolation. Again, participants highlighted access to childcare for women in rural areas as a significant aspect of what women’s human rights mean. Further, women who are married to farmers experience the limits of economic dependence in specific ways; "Farming women in later life have no pension rights and there is no means-tested benefit system for rural women."

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