Women’s Human Rights: From Slogan to Global Agenda
By Charlotte Bunch, WeNews guest author, March 11, 2012
(WOMENSENEWS)–I first heard the expression “women’s rights are human rights” as the name of a campaign launched in 1988 in the Philippines by GABRIELA, a women’s coalition that emerged from the anti-Marcos struggles. It immediately clicked as a succinct way of expressing what many of us were saying. This short phrase was catchy and proactive and made the case for women’s rights in terms of human rights law, concepts, and practices–instead of asking permission from others to include us. Of course, adopting an effective tagline was the easy part. Making a slogan a reality for billions of women turned out to be much harder.
The first mobilizing tool for what became the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights was a short 1991 petition to the United Nations World Conference on Human Rights to be held in Vienna in 1993 that asserted, “Violence against women violates human rights.”These simple but powerful words touched a nerve and helped to spark a movement that was revolutionary in its consequences for women. When the agenda for the Vienna conference was first drawn up, women and gender were nowhere to be found on it, and violence against women was not contemplated as a human rights concern. But by the time the petition was presented on the floor at the world conference less than two years later, women’s rights had become a central theme. The petition had been translated into twenty-three languages, was sponsored by more than a thousand organizations in 124 countries, and had garnered half a million signatures, including thumbprints from illiterate women–bearing witness to the truth it spoke.
In a pre-Internet era, the rapid movement of the petition by hand, letter, or–for a privileged few–sparkling new fax machine reflected the emergence of the women’s movement as a global political force. However, the petition was not just to be signed. It was an organizing tool for feminists to provoke a discussion of why human rights were not already systematically seen as including women’s rights, as well as to mobilize women around the world to make their voices heard.
Framing women’s rights in terms of human rights, as expressed by the phrase “women’s rights are human rights,” was an idea and a movement whose time had come. It came simultaneously from more than one source, but it began to bubble to the surface in the context of the global feminist movement of the 1980s. This was a formative time for feminists in our development as women’s human rights activists.
This approach helped to galvanize a heightened commitment by the United Nations, some governments and many human rights organizations to the objective of “gender integration” within their work. Among the most significant steps were the inclusion of gender-based persecution and sexual violence in the 1998 Rome Statute which created the International Criminal Court, and the UN Security Council’s adoption in 2000 of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which addressed violence against women in armed conflict and the role of women in peacekeeping.
Major, even revolutionary, advances have been made in awareness, recognition, and standard setting around women’s rights as human rights. Yet the revolution is unfinished. UNWomen’s 2011-2012 Report on Progress of the World’s Women shows clearly that justice–an essential element in the realization of human rights–is still a distant dream for most women. When it comes to violence against women in particular, impunity is still rampant and justice is often denied.
The backlash and violence experienced by women’s rights activists is especially worrisome. Women defenders often face gender-specific abuse in addition to the threats all defenders face, especially if they are seen as defying societal norms. This can take many forms: sexual violence and harassment, familial pressures and threats to their children, name calling and sexuality baiting, or other attacks on their reputation in the community or work place. Increasing numbers of women activists from Colombia to Nepal to South Africa and Mexico have been murdered or driven out of their communities for their defense of women’s rights.
Despite the daunting challenges they face, women keep showing extraordinary, courage and creativity in demanding their rights and seeking to create a better world. New technologies have spread ideas of change rapidly, and young women have played key roles in the recent revolutions in the Middle East. These women–connected to each other and women in the rest of the world–are poised to be key actors and potential leaders in movements for change as well as governments in the near future.
For a field that has only really existed for two decades, the spirit and vitality of women’s human rights is alive. Many problems still remain, but there is also an ever-widening number of actors–men as well as women–seeking state and global accountability for women’s human rights. This engagement of new players, seeking new remedies to both ancient and fresher challenges, should lead to another decade of discovery and recognition in the work for women’s rights as human rights and the realization of human rights for all.
Charlotte Bunch is the founding director and senior scholar at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.