By LOUISE ARBOUR
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March and the progress made in achieving women’s rights everywhere, we should not lose sight of the fact that widespread discrimination against women persists in law and practice, directly or indirectly, all over the world. Public outcry and headlines tend to concentrate on egregious cases of female genital mutilation, punishment of rape victims, sexual slavery, and degrading treatment of all sorts. But it is "lower intensity" discrimination, often sanctioned by law, that condemns millions of women to daily hardship and suffering. Beyond sparse and mainly ritual condemnations, such pervasive conditions continue to fly below the international radar.
A recent study, commissioned by the UN, underscores that this occurs despite the fact that the rights of women to equality and non-discrimination are enshrined in a number of international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter and, most extensively, in the Convention on the Elimination of All Form of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Under this normative canvass, which is complemented by regional human rights treaties and national legislation, States have the obligation to enact and implement effective measures to promote and protect the rights of women, including repealing discriminatory laws.
One hundred and eighty-five States have accepted CEDAW, suggesting almost universal endorsement of its norms. However, the persistence of laws and customs that make women second-class citizens or expose them to abuse paints a different picture. It is telling that many States have taken full advantage of their right to enter reservations to CEDAW, which allow them under international law to withhold consent or postpone adoption of specific treaty provisions. Indeed, among human rights treaties, CEDAW has been one of those subjected to the largest number of reservations, although this attitude is now changing.
Not surprisingly, most misgivings of States revolve around control of the private life of women. A key aspect of women’s legal disenfranchisement in many countries is the limitation placed on their ability to own or manage property, and their lack of entitlements to property, including inheritance, following divorce or the death of kin. Many States still grant nationality and citizenship of children exclusively through the male line. Women’s freedom of movement is hindered in some States by laws which require male guardianship. A dearth of legal protection or lack of law enforcement often allows violence against women and girls, including rape, to go unpunished.
The reality check at the regional level is also far from reassuring. Although some regional normative frameworks have built and expanded on CEDAW standards, both the interpretation of these standards and their application at the national level leave serious protection gaps.
Latin America has introduced some of the most progressive and pioneering regional legislation for the protection of women, including in 1994 the first ever human rights convention focusing on violence against women. Yet ten years after the adoption of the convention, Amnesty International noted that the situation of women in the region had not improved significantly because States parties were failing to fulfil their duties under this treaty.
In Africa, despite widespread ratification of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which enshrine and pledge protection for the whole spectrum of women’s rights, discrimination and harmful practices, such as human trafficking, violence in armed conflict, and female genital mutilation, persist.
Asia, the largest and most populous continent is also the most diverse with regard to progress on women's rights. The region counts some vibrant National Women's Commissions. Recently enacted legislation has advanced women’s rights in India and elsewhere. However, much ground remains to be covered in terms of implementation and even formulation of laws in key areas, including human trafficking.
An extensive regional human rights regime and regional and national jurisprudence has not made Europe immune from many of the inequalities that hold women back. The Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK has noted that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 200 years before Parliament has equal representation of men and women. Even Norway, which has consistently topped the UN human rights development and gender indices, registers gaps in remuneration and access to employment between the sexes.
Clearly, the conditions of oppression and lack of voice and opportunity are as much a part of the discrimination that women experience as are the laws that hamper the enjoyment of their rights. The combination of these incapacitating factors accounts for the fact that 70 percent of the world’s poor are women; that two out of three children not in school are girls; and that women own only one percent of the world’s titled land. Real equality demands that international obligations be upheld both in law and in practice. At a minimum, States should review, amend or repeal discriminatory legislation, and address the negative effects that these laws have on women.
Without such political initiative, as well as dedicated financial resources, much needed and long overdue change will not happen. Governments must tangibly show their determination to empower more than half of the world’s population, and thus enable women to claim and enjoy their human rights and contribute to the welfare of all.