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Women's Human Rights
A Historical Countdown

Over 300 years have transpired since Frenchwoman Olympe de Gouges was beheaded at the guillotine in 1793 for rebelling against the prevailing powers and claiming that women had rights as citizens. Yet her ideas, articulated in her well-known 1791 Declaration of Women's and Female Citizens' Rights, remain timely; likewise the book entitled Defense of Women's Rights, by English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. The spirit of both documents continues to inspire the agenda of feminist movements the world over, regarding recognition of women's human rights.

On December 10th, 1998, we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year, we will also celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Second World Conference on Human Rights, held by the UN in 1993 in Vienna, where—historically—women’s rights were recognized as human rights. Both dates are considered to be high-water marks in the United Nations Inter-agency campaign for women's human rights and against violence, which has also been proclaimed by the international women's movement in order to point out the gaps in the fundamental document.


The concept of human rights has evolved over time, and according to the historical context. In 1776, this concept was initially expressed in the Declaration of Rights of Virginia (USA) and again in 1789, in the Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens, an outgrowth of the French revolution. Neither document considered women. It fell to Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft to stand up, in their writing, for rights of the other half of the world population. In the first years of the 20th century, in the heat of suffragist movements and long before the United Nations came into being, efforts were made in international law to legislate on major aspects of women's lives.

In 1902, in The Hague, international conventions were adopted regarding marriage, divorce and the custody of children. Other agreements, in 1904, 1910, 1921 and 1933, contained provisions to put an end to white slavery. At the time, the Pact of the League of Nations was calling for governments to ensure better living conditions for all people, and also resolved that men and women would be hired as League staff under equal conditions.

In the words of Peruvian feminist attorney Gladys Acosta, "There was an interesting evolution that began to examine, in 1935, the civil and political aspects of women's status and drove a detailed study of women’s status in different countries. This process was interrupted with the advent of World War II. This demonstrated, once again, that attention to the problems of women's lives are scattered and dispersed by warfare".

In Latin America, the issue of women's legal and political status would be debated in those countries where there were feminist organizations, which mainly worked to obtain the right to vote, women's access to equal education, and to receiving equal pay for equal work. In 1923, in the wake of the Fifth Pan-American Conference (held in Santiago, Chile) it was resolved that all programs pursued by that agency would work to abolish laws and decrees that hindered women's rights.

In 1928, the Inter-American Women's Commission was created in the Organization of American States (OAS). That organization took measures to address discrimination based on gender. In 1938 they adopted the Convention on Nationality of Married Women, and in 1948 the Conventions on Women's Political and Civil Rights. A century had gone by since, in 1848, in the US town of Seneca Falls, the first feminists had laid the groundwork for recognition of their rights as women and citizens.


As they obtained civil and political rights, women's movements in Latin America and the Caribbean began to debate the weaknesses and limitations of these rights, which daily reality generally denies. Some current statistics confirm this:

  • One out of every four households in urban areas is headed by a woman. The Caribbean is the region with the highest proportion of female heads of household (35%).
  • Most women working outside their homes are in the service sector, and they work under precarious conditions (60% to 68%).
  • The migratory phenomenon in this region has moved, for example, nearly 50 thousand Dominican women to Europe, most of them recruited by networks of slavers to practice prostitution .
  • In 1993, a study by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) established that 40 to 60% of female murder victims are killed in their homes, most of them by their husbands or partners.
  • Women attempt suicide 12 times more often when they have been victims of violence than when they have not.
  • The Center for Raped Women in Mexico City reported in 1990 that some l 5% of the women appealing for help became pregnant as a consequence of being sexually assaulted.
  • According to a report issued in 1997 by the Legal Center for Reproductive Rights and Public Policy, headquartered in New York City, that region's maternal mortality rate is 194 mothers per 100 thousand births, the fourth highest rate in the world. The main reason is underground abortion, performed under poor sanitary conditions.
  • Clandestine abortions total some tour million per year, out of which 800 thousand require hospitalization due to complications. In the Caribbean, abortion accounts for 30% of maternal deaths.
  • It is estimated that between 250 and 300 thousand girls and young women are engaged in prostitution in Brazil.
  • In Central America, over two million girls and boys aged 5 to 15 work under serious conditions of exploitation.

This dramatic reality, portrayed in numerous assessments, research findings, journalistic reports and legislative proposals, is contributing to a shift in traditional perceptions about the doctrine of human rights: these rights have evolved according to the times and the changes undergone by our societies.

As some Latin American activists have pointed out, the list of rights cannot remain unchanged as new needs arise, new challenges appear and -most importantly- new social stakeholders, both male and female, come to the fore.


At the end of World War II, the human rights cause again became a world-wide concern as a result of the drama of Nazi genocide and the large-scale taking of political prisoners and driving of persons into exile. In 1948, the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most people do not know that four women were among the signers of this new Charter: Dominican Minerva Bernardino, Brazilian Bertha Lutz, Virginia Gildersleeves from the U.S. and Wu Yi-Tang of China. This illustrious foursome struggled for women's recognition of the Charter's contents and for women's inclusion in political positions within the UN.

As Minerva Bernardino once stated, it took months of hard work to get the term "sex" included in Article 2 of the Declaration. "I was a fully empowered delegate at the time, and there were only four women with such a standing: two from Latin America, Bertha Lutz and I. Bertha was a friend of mine; the other two were from the U.S. and China. There were other women there as counselors for the delegations and, although they did not sign the Charter, they played a key role in the work of bringing the principle of equality to light within the document. Yes, because to achieve that we worked intensely for three consecutive months". These freedom-fighting women also questioned the term of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, and managed to get that changed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another of this group’s toughest struggles within the United- Nations was to form the Commission on the Status of Women, which Bernardino was elected to chair from 1953 through 1 955. One of the Commission's first achievements was to formalize women's political rights. The seed planted by these pioneering women was to bear its first fruits twenty years later, under the United Nations' Decade for Women (1975-1985}.

The first major advance during that decade was the International Court for Crimes against Women, which met in Brussels in 1976; an action organized by northern feminists. For the first time the violence cases presented there were characterized as crimes against women. As an outgrowth of those hearings, which were widely publicized, the International Feminist Network for Actions or Support and Solidarity was created.

The second advance occurred in 1979 when the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which is a starting point to discuss specific women's human rights. The spirit of this document is to broaden the male centered concept of human rights that assumes gender-based discrimination as a norm. This involved recognizing that women remain the object of major discrimination" and that this discrimination "violates the principles of equal rights and respect for human dignity (...i impede women’s participation, under the same conditions as men, in political, social, economic and cultural life".

Although that Convention and other subsequent international instruments have provided support for recognition that women's human rights are just as valid as human rights in general, the international foundations -according to Colombian attorney Carmen Posada- have been laid during the nineties, as a result of the cycle of international conferences and world summits of governments organized by the United Nations. "The Second World Conference of Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the Fourth International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) were decisive in affirming these rights as indispensable for achieving the objectives of equality, development and peace.

Perhaps one of the most important achievements in this historical process is the integrated approach now taken toward the idea of human rights, grounded in the intervention by and presence of women's movements in different international settings. As highlighted by Isabel Duque, Executive Coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, "the indifference characterizing legislation regarding women's human rights has to do with the majority presence of men in such places as courts of justice and also in human rights organizations". Duque believes that human rights theory has never taken women's life seriously.

But there are changes in the making. Classification of violence against women as a violation of human rights has been a step forward in the Declaration and Action Plan for the Second World Conference on Human Rights. It is also a step forward, according to attorney Gladys Acosta, to equate the torture committed by State agents with the suffering by women tortured inside their own homes; or when the similarity is grasped between arbitrary detention and the binding house arrest decreed by paternal or marital authority.

In 1998, the United Nations and women's organizations throughout the world hope that these advances will become more effective, concrete commitments by governments and by human rights organizations.

To this end, actions are pursued under the slogan of "A life free of violence: It's our right", the motto of the United Nations Campaign for Women's Human Rights, an inter-agency campaign for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Source: Isis International Documentation Centre. E-mail: isis@reuna.clTop 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
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: Lola Salas
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(detail) from folder by Isis International