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50 Years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Women's Human Rights—Making them Visible

The UNDP Human Development report states that no country treats its women as well as its men (1995). They are safer on the street unprotected than they are at home. In one country the leading cause of hospital death of women of child bearing age is not childbirth or motor car accidents, as one might expect, but rather, domestic violence. In addition, in many countries around the world, rape is used as a war tactic to terrorize populations living in areas of conflict. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 women and girls were raped during the war in ex-Yugoslavia. In each of these circumstances, women's human rights are dramatically violated.

This year, as part of the celebration of the International Human Rights Day on December 10th, the United Nations will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Declaration of Women's Human Rights. As part of these celebrations, during 1998, a number of activities have been developed around this historic event. Within this context, a UN Inter-Agency campaign A Life Free of Violence: It's Our Right was launched in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. This campaign aims to promote a wide variety of activities to call attention to gender-based violence as a violation of women's human rights.

Two Key EventsTop of Page

During the present year, two important events have marked this 50th anniversary. The first was the world forum of Vienna+5, organized by the United Nations last June in Ottawa, Canada. This forum evaluated the state of human rights five years after the Vienna conference and incorporated gender and diversity as key elements in human rights: "This also includes the economic, social and cultural rights of women, on an equitable level with men, which is linked to the elimination of all forms of gender-based discrimination which are the result of various structural aspects" (ALAI, 1998). In addition to these legal gains, representatives from women's organizations considered this a significant step forward because women's concerns were raised in the general discussion rather than relegated to specific, separate sessions.

The second key event was the recognition of rape as a war crime by the recently formed International Criminal Court. The United Nations' formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in July 1998 during a conference held in Rome, Italy carried significant impact in the area of women's human rights. This court will hear and pass rulings on war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC differs significantly from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, which has a limited jurisdiction. To date, 120 countries have signed the treaty creating the ICC.

During the conference in Rome, the Consejo de Mujeres por la Justicia de Genero (Women's Council for Gender Justice)— a lobbying group that represents some 380 women's organizations worldwide — played a key role lobbying government representatives, experts on international law and members of human rights organizations. Their efforts led to incorporating crimes against women within the definition of crimes against humanity.

According to Costa Rican human rights expert Alda Faccio, director of the United Nations' Caucus de Mujeres por una Justicia de Genero (Women's Caucus for Gender Justice) the women's movement triumphed in Rome with the recognition that "sexual violence can be a crime of war or a crime against humanity rather than a simple crime against human dignity, as previously established in international humanitarian law" (Fempress, 1998). Similar weight was given to forced pregnancy, forced sterilization, sex slavery, forced prostitution and other forms of sexual violence. Participants at the Rome meeting also approved a legal counsel on gender-related issues to assure that the denunciations will merit the ICC's support.

Decisive MechanismsTop of Page

Historically, rape, battering and other forms of intimidation within the home were not perceived as violations of women's human rights. Until the 1980s, this category was applied only to torture and rape perpetrated by dictatorships against political prisoners.

Yet as concern for the defense of women's human rights has grown, permeating governments and other national and international institutions, this cause has motivated international agreements and commitments. For example, in June 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action recognized that "the human rights of women and the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights" (Chap. 1, Para. 18).

Furthermore, the Programme of Action established that "the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community" (Chap 1, Para. 18). It is no longer valid to believe that state apparatuses maintain a monopoly over human rights violations.

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action reaffirms the seriousness of violations of civil and political rights, which include torture, illegal detention, disappearance, and summary executions, and places similar acts committed against women on the same level. It records gender-based violence as a violation of human rights since "gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated" (Chap. 1, Para. 18). Enforcing this Programme of Action requires ending the shameful silence and anonymity which cloak domestic violence, and makes these private acts the legal equivalent of murder, torture and rape perpetrated by the State.

At the Third International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in 1994, the world's governments first validated sexual and reproductive rights, recognizing the right of women to make their own decisions on issues of sexuality and reproduction, as well as the right to information about and access to contraceptive services.

The exercise of sexual and reproductive rights is clearly described in the Cairo Programme of Action as "the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence..."(ICPD Programme of Action, Chapter 7.3).

Another decisive gain in establishing women's human rights is the Beijing Platform for Action, approved by governments at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. This instrument stresses that "all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social, including the right to development — are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated" (Platform for Action, Chap. IV, Strategic Objective H.3, 213).

The Platform for Action emphasizes diversity, stressing that it is necessary to "give priority to promoting and protecting the full and equal enjoyment by women and men of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origins, property, birth or other status" (Platform for Action, Chap. IV, Strategic Objective I.2, 232, a).

In Beijing, the governments committed themselves to condemning violence against women and abstaining from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to evade their obligation to eliminate gender-based violence. This commitment assumes the ratification and application of all the international norms related to this issue, specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the OAS Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Eradicate and Eliminate Violence Against Women (1994), better known as the Belem do Para Convention.

Facing the New MillenniumTop of Page

Vienna, Cairo and Beijing are important milestones in the struggle of the women's movement, but they were preceded by significant achievements. After protesting the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights use of "man" as the paradigm for human beings, the women's movement has worked hard to force national and international legislation to recognize that discrimination and abuse committed against women because of their gender is a human rights violation and therefore covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1993, the Comite de America Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de las Mujeres (CLADEM, Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights) published the "Declaracion de los Derechos Humanos con Perspectiva de Genero" (Declaration of Human Rights with a Gender Perspective). Its central proposal is that "all human beings have the right to enjoy and exercise their human rights with no deference or discrimination due to race, ethnicity, age, sex, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, language, religion, political opinion, national origin, economic status, birth or any other status."

Success continues. Vienna, Cairo and Beijing provided the perfect contexts for the proactive stance of the women's movement. Representatives of NGOs, sensitive government delegates, United Nations officials and international journalists united in an efficient, articulate whole, set an historical precedent. The Vienna debate on the CLADEM document, as well as the International Tribunal on Women's Human Rights Violations captured the attention of the international press, government representatives and human rights organizations from around the world.

Clearly, Vienna, Cairo and Beijing were important first steps toward the gains for women's human rights which will make meaningful progress as we face the new millennium.


Isis Internacional Information and Documentation Center

E-mail: isis@reuna.cl

Related FiguresTop of Page

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) of the 22 million refugees in the world, 17 million are women and children.

Increased incidence of armed conflict and migration in Latin America and the Caribbean have resulted in an increased number of women heads of households. In Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago, as many as 29% of all households are headed by women (CIMAC, 1998).

Women form 25% of the refugee population in South America. All live in urban areas and the majority in the capital cities (CIMAC, 1998).

The Beijing Platform of Action defines rape in situations of armed conflict as a war crime, which could, in certain circumstances be considered a crime against humanity (Noticias Actuales de Poblacion, June 1998).

According to a study by the Episcopal Conference, *** in Colombia 58.2% of the 600,000 people displaced by armed conflict are women and girls. In this country, 24.6% of all homes have women heads of household and most of them are widows due to violence (Vida sin violencia. Nuevas Voces Nuevos Desafios. Santiago: Isis Internacional, 1998)

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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

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