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Citizens' Rights are Women's Rights

Women's Citizenship Day, celebrated on September 8, is a day to commemorate the full rights of women as citizens. This important day was an initiative begun by the Latin American and Caribbean women's movement after the 4th World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China (September 1995). Citizen participation in public affairs is not only fundamental to democratic governance but reinforces solidarity, respect for personal autonomy and dignity, and egalitarian and tolerant attitudes. Only when all citizens, including women, are truly empowered, gaining real access to political representation will they be able to sustain and direct their interests, formulate agendas and overcome common obstacles towards the full development of society. One such common interest and agenda is the need to eradicate violence against women, the most prevalent and universal obstacle to empowerment and exercising citizenship. Hence, on the third anniversary of this Conference, Women's Citizenship Day will promote and reinforce the message carried by the United Nations Campaign for Women's Human Rights, "A Life Free of Violence: It is Our Right."

Follow-up is EssentialTop of Page

The activities of September 8 aim to increase the importance of exercising citizenship through concrete actions by monitoring the governments' commitment to the Platform for Action in terms of policies enacted over the past three years. Approved at the 4th World Conference on Women at Beijing, the Platform for Action contains a number of measures that seek to overcome the conditions of discrimination to which women are subjected to, and in particular, to eliminate the different forms of gender based violence. Women's Citizenship Day will link various follow-up activities that promote democracy building and women's human rights.

For women today, citizenship means more than just voting. As Guatemalan sociologist Ana Cecilia Escobar warns, "we exercise citizenship to the extent that we are able to interact as subjects among ourselves, with the State, with civil society. This process must include the politization of the private sphere, which has to do with individual rights and access to the world that is considered public."

But in this effort, as UNICEF reminds us, it is essential to begin by building citizenship from childhood, which means providing girls with quality education that includes equal conditions for accessing all areas of study. "Recognizing girls as citizens means giving them the same rights to

participation and freedom of expression in school, the family and the community, as well as assuring them protection against all forms of violence."

Linking women's citizenship with the entire life cycle, Beijing's Platform for Action dedicates an entire chapter to the rights of girls. As UNICEF asserts, "recognizing the link between girls' citizenship, the creation of the basis for equity in childhood and women's citizenship is key in our campaign for the future."

The United Nations campaign to promote and raise awareness on women's human rights, especially in regard to eradicating gender-based violence, is advocating a culture that affirms women’s leadership, empowerment, equal participation, and citizenship throughout all sectors of society.

Pioneer LegislationTop of Page

Three years after Beijing, a follow-up and evaluation revealed that over 70 per cent of the 187 governments that originally attended the 4th World Conference on Women have developed plans to put into practice their commitments to the Platform for Action. The figures from the third annual survey compiled and coordinated by the New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) are the result of the reporting of Beijing follow-up activities undertaken by networks, NGOs, women's groups and other civil society organizations. This report also highlights the pioneer role played by Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of legislation against gender-based violence. According to WEDO's findings, nearly 26 countries in our region have laws to eradicate sexual and domestic violence.

Among the prime examples is Mexico, where the legislature approved a law against incest and marital rape. Colombia also passed legislation on similar issues; an amendment of the penal code increases sanction for the various sex crimes, particularly those committed against minors. This decree also eliminates release on bail in order to protect the victims. Finally, this new legislation changes the term "sexual indecency and crimes against freedom" replacing it with "crimes against sexual freedom and human dignity."

Positive steps have also been taken against sexual harassment, an issue repeatedly championed by the women's movement. In December 1995, Costa Rica passed the Law Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and School. In recent legislation, the regulations governing the law establishes sexual harassment as a serious form of workplace discrimination. This law allows the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to reprimand, fine or close any business where such abuse occurs.

Another important advance has been witnessed in the growing number of Women's Police Stations. One example is in Ecuador where the government issued a decree in 1997 to increase the Women’s Police Stations' budget and promised to create new ones with the goal of covering all 21 provinces. Other outstanding examples of social services for women are found in the Defensorías de la Mujer (Women's Defense Counsels) of Costa Rica and Peru. And in 1997, the Comisión de la Mujer del Gobierno Central (Central Government's Women's Commission) and the Oficina de Asuntos de la Mujer (Department of Women's Affairs) in San Juan, Puerto Rico inaugurated a telephone hotline for women to report any sort of violence.

Additional regional examples include pioneer initiatives on gender sensitivity training programs on gender-based violence for the police in Chile and the military in Venezuela. The former was organized by Chile's Servicio Nacional de la Mujer (SERNAM, National Women's Service) and the latter by UNDP and UNHCR. Other groundbreaking programs are for judicial personnel in the Andean region which was coordinated by UNIFEM's Andean Office. At the municipal level, the 1996 Constitution of Buenos Aires is considered quite advanced in regard to women's demands. This legal document incorporates a series of chapters that directly refer to the equal rights of women and men before the law. The Constitution also recognizes sexual and reproductive rights as human rights and establishes sanctions for gender-based violence.

Obstacles to CitizenshipTop of Page

There is, however, a less optimistic side of the post-Beijing evaluation process. The main obstacles to the real fulfilment of the Platform for Action are the economic adjustments that have increased levels of poverty in many areas of the region, affecting women most severely. These policies consistently lead to the reduction of fiscal budgets for women's programs. One of the most notorious examples cited in WEDO's report is Guatemala, where spending on gender-related issues has been reportedly cut by 60 per cent.

Last year after evaluating the reports of the Argentine government, the UN Commission on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women expressed concern for the sub-optimal living conditions of women in rural areas of Argentina. This UN commission while recognizing the advances in the 1996 Constitution of Buenos Aires, also recommended that Argentina amend its penal code, adapting it to the recent international agreements on discrimination and sexual harassment. In addition, they noted that regulations to penalize sexual harassment in the private sector and strategies to remedy the high rate of female unemployment were in need of further elaboration.

Poverty and Limited ParticipationTop of Page

Two key events that took place in Santiago, Chile late last year form part of this monitoring process for Beijing. One of the events was the 7th Regional Conference on the Integration of Women in Social and Economic Development. Organized by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), this Conference brought together representatives from 30 Latin American and Caribbean countries to evaluate the gains in the region after Beijing and to present recommendations intended to speed up the process of change according to the Regional Program for Action for Latin American and Caribbean Women, 1995-2001.

The Conference's Executive Committee decided to begin by addressing the obstacles that "hinder women's real exercise of citizenship, particularly in regard to participation in power and decision-making, as well as those obstacles which stem from poverty, with the intent of proposing measures

for the most rapid recuperation possible." Prior to the ECLAC conference, representatives of 80 NGOs from throughout the region met at the Forum on Women and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, organized by the Grupo Iniciativa Chile "De Beijing al 2000" (Chile Initiative Group "From Beijing to the Year 2000"). This forum produced the "Political Declaration of the Non-Governmental Organizations," which was presented to the governments that attended the 7th Regional Conference. Among the most important issues, the Declaration identifies gender-based violence as an element that hinders both social and economic development. In this respect, the Declaration calls for the "promotion of policies for overcoming poverty that bear in mind the very factors that produce poverty, from the most personal—lack of self-esteem, lack of autonomy and violence against women—to social factors such as access to health, education and even specialized financial services." The Declaration also demands that human rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, be guaranteed as indivisible, comprehensive and universal, "as a requirement for the full development of individual abilities and therefore of participation, empowerment and overcoming poverty." In this regard, the Declaration requests that an Alternative Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) be adopted in order to facilitate the process of receiving and processing denunciations of women's rights violations.

It is clear that the strategies in favour of increasing women's citizenship are closely linked to the subordinate conditions to which women are subject to throughout their life-cycle. It is precisely this redefinition of the concept of citizenship that aids women's groups fighting violence in all its forms by providing a political content for their actions. The slogan "democracy in the country and in the home" perfectly illustrates how women perceive structural violence as affecting both the private sphere and the public domain. Poverty, women's lack of access to decision-making bodies, and the increasing rates of gender-based violence are factors that diminish and distort the exercise of women’s right to true citizenship, and through it to a more equitable and just democracy. The UN Campaign on Women’s Human Rights advocates on Citizenship Day and every day that all women deserve to demand and fully exercise their rights as equal citizens of society.


Isis International Documentation and Information Center

E-mail: isis@reuna.cl

Obstacles to the Free Exercise of CitizenshipTop of Page

Guatemala has the second highest rate of illiteracy among women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Six out of ten women cannot read or write, and 73 per cent of these illiterate women are Mayan.

In Mexico, 19 million women are heads-of-household with precarious employment.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, women earn 27 per cent less than men.

Women in our region dedicate 31 to 41 hours to domestic work, while men spend 5 to 13 hours on these chores.

According to the Instituto Brasileiro de Estadística (Brazilian Institute of Statistics), out of 100 unemployed workers in Brazil, 60 are women.

Paraguayan women earn 30 per cent less than men.

According to a report by the United Nations, in the rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean, women work 20 per cent longer than men.Top of Page

UNDP Against Violence Home Page

For more information, please contact Aparna Mehrotra, Focal Point for Women, Tel: (212)963-6828 Fax: (212) 963-9545, e-mail: mehrotra@un.org

Management and direction: Aparna Mehrotra
Website  design
: Lola Salas
Writing, editing& proofing: Aparna Mehrotra, Dana Burde, Rini Banerjee and Tanaz Pardiwala
Graphic: Joan Miró
(detail) from folder by Isis International