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Women’s Human Rights and the Persistence of Inequality and Discrimination

Opinion

Yolanda Sitoe

 

Original published in “Outras Vozes”, nº 31-32, August-November 2010

 

On the 31st of July and the 1st and 2nd of August 2010 the Mozambican daily Notícias published some comments on its Readers’ Page under the title “Dwelling on Human Rights”, in which certain ideas where expressed that drew my attention – because of the title, to begin with – for dealing with a topic to which I am directly related professionally, but that also touched my sensitivity as a human being and as a woman.

Well then, the author of the article states that he thinks it absurd to want to give certain rights to women, risking to be creating a certain discrimination for the women themselves, based on the articles of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. In this text we want to discuss the reasons for the need for a specific mechanism, designed to protect women’s rights, while taking the opportunity to reflect on the latest advances in matters of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

First of all we need to stress that talking about Women’s Rights means touching upon a very sensitive issue, because there is no unanimity. In some people this topic raises concern, in others indifference. The majority of people, including the author of the article, are of the opinion that equality between man and woman is a vested right, defending that both have the same rights to education, employment, etc. However, paying closer attention to this issue we can conclude that there are in today’s society a whole series of problems which are a result of the state of inequality and injustice against women.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, describes what is today considered the fundamental consensus about human rights, dealing with issues such as the security of people, slavery, torture, protection, freedom of movement and of expression, of religion and of assembly, and the rights to social security, to work, health, education, culture and citizenship. The Declaration stipulates clearly that those human rights apply to everybody in the same way “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language (…)” or any other situation (Article 2).

However, there are certain aspects like tradition, culture and preconceptions that in combination exclude women from their human rights, relegating them to a secondary position when human rights are considered. This marginalisation of women in relation to human rights has been a reflection of gender inequality in the world in general and it has had an enormous impact on their lives, contributing to the perpetuation of the subordination of women. Those aspects limited the range of what was seen as governmental responsibility and thus made the search for reparation for human rights’ violations disproportionately difficult for women.

It’s particularly important to observe that sex is a significant factor in the decisions of governments to interfere in the private sphere, when it comes to evaluating violations of human rights. The violations that occur in the private sphere, for example, like homicide between brothers, are liable for condemnation by the government and by the society in general. However, governments ignore much of what happens with women at the hands of men and of male relatives, like domestic violence, for example. In this way, abuse perpetrated against women in the name of family, religion and culture have been kept hidden by the sanctity of the “private sphere” and the authors of such violations of human rights have enjoyed impunity in relation to their acts.

You would expect the world today to have evolved and cast off prejudice and to have overcome all problems related to social, moral, religious, sexual and other differences. Humanity, however, has not managed yet to reach this stage, particularly regarding equality between sexes. We don’t need to make a thorough analysis to conclude that Women’s Rights, although recognised as Universal Rights, are not being honoured yet in their entirety. It is still women that have less access to education, to political power, to leading positions and on the labour-market, as the roles that are traditionally assigned to them are considered inferior in relation to the roles habitually played by men. Said tradition attributes to women a merely “domestic” status; she is supposed to devote herself to tasks such as taking care of her husband, her children and her home. This conception of women is as old as the history of mankind but it has survived to our days almost in its original form and is still surviving.

That is why women concluded that the international instruments and mechanisms of Human Rights are insufficient and inadequate for the needs and demands of women, culminating in the creation of the Feminist Movement in the 1960s. Feminism surges as an attempt to reveal the historical dimension of the role of women (tied for a long time to determinist explanations based on the biological and social identity of women), making a fundamental contribution to the paradigm shift of modern society. The public sphere has always been a men’s world, while the private world belonged to women, thus developing a submission that was projected as inferior in relation to men.

Struggling for the recognition of women’s human rights

The creation of new instruments specifically related to women, like the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in 1967 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979, the Beijing Platform for Action and other international agreements, have been important instruments to pressure governments to enforce mechanism of equality of opportunities between women and men and changes in gender relations that are still marked by inequalities.

Human rights, therefore, sprang from a global point of view based on the oppression of women, condemning and confining them to the private sphere. As a result of this “privatisation” the violation of the rights of women became invisible, emptied of its public sense and, therefore, of its political meaning. So, it is necessary to establish and to define from a female perspective, certain areas or questions that require special attention. This shows the need to redefine the concept of human rights from a gender perspective, based on a reading of reality that makes the complexity of relations between men and women visible, revealing the causes and effects of the different forms in which stereotypes and discrimination show themselves. For the United Nations, the Twelve Rights of Women, in terms of priority, are the following[1].

1. Right to life

The right to life is not restricted to the fact of being alive, to breath, to walk and to speak, but refers to the right to control your life, to live without violence and without fear. There are still many women that live in this situation, whose lives are at risk because of lack of access to health services or to services for sexual and reproductive health, many women that, after marriage, remain dependent on their husbands, who become the ones that dispose of their lives. In countries where the culture is still extremely patriarchal, the birth of girls often is considered a tragedy by the family, because boys are seen as having better chances to survive. This often leads to death at birth, or later because of physical abuse of the girls.

2. Right to freedom and personal security

Because there is no excuse for a women to be treated as a prisoner, loosing not only her freedom, but also her privacy, when she enters prison. This freedom includes the right not to have the way she dresses, for example, and her life in general, controlled by her husband or partner.

3. Right to equality and to be free from all forms of discrimination

Of course people are different. And having the same rights does not imply having to behave in the same way. Equality starts with mutual respect, with the same right to be happy and to have pleasure, with the right to choose, to listen and be listened to, to divide tasks, sorrow and joy. Therefore, a mechanism has to be created to eliminate the discrimination against women in all aspects regarding marriage and family relations, and to ensure, based on the principle of equality between man and woman, the same rights to decide freely and responsibly about the number of children and the spacing between pregnancies and to have access to information, to education and to the means necessary to be able to exercise those rights.

4. Right to freedom of thought

All people have the right to freedom of thought and of expression in relation to their lives. Unfortunately, a considerable number of women live a life based on interpretations originating from religion, beliefs, philosophies or customs, as a way to limit their freedom of thought, establishing a moral conduct to restrict the exercise of their rights. There are societies in which women are not allowed to give an opinion about business deals, politics or any other issue, because they are not considered capable of doing so. The women have to subject themselves to their father, husband or to the male society of which they are part. The men are the ones that have the power and the freedom to decide and to act, thus limiting the rights of women and their possibilities to play an active role in society.

5. Right to information and to education

All people have the right to receive an education and sufficient information, so as to assure that any decisions regarding their lives are exercised with their full, free and informed consent. Access to information and to education has to exist at all levels. There are women who do not have the possibility to develop a professional career, because their husbands do not allow them to visit any kind of educational institution, from schools to universities, saying that “you didn’t come to my house to study; if you want to study, go back to your father’s house”. Society will have to accept that information is a right of women and that it forms one way for her to gain the right to exercise her freedom with responsibility.

6. Right to privacy

Privacy in this context presupposes respect. How many women are still watched over by their husbands, fathers, family, living in a world of fear, shame, guilt, false beliefs and other psychological factors that inhibit and harm their social relations?

7. Right to health and the protection of health

Women have the right to obtain information about and to have access to safe, efficient, affordable and acceptable methods of their choice, to regulate their fertility, as well as the right to receive adequate health services, that allow risk-free pregnancy and delivery. She will have to have information regarding her sexual and reproductive autonomy, allowing her to take an informed decision that is appropriate to her life project and personal aspirations.

8. Right to build a conjugal relationship and to plan a family

To have the right to plan their family, women need to know how to do that. The number of women that live in complete ignorance about how their body works and about the responsibilities entailed by putting a child into the world is still very high. Many do not have access to safe, effective and acceptable methods of contraception, and do not have the freedom of choice to use a safe method to protect her against unwanted pregnancy.

9. Right to decide to have or not to have children and when to have them

The decision of when and how many children to have should be the result of a consensus between husband and wife, but in many cases it is the husband who decides. Society has always demanded of women that they fulfil their role as spouse and mother and for the majority of its members it is inadmissible that a woman wants to remain single for a long time. She could choose to have children even without being married, something that in the past was looked upon with disapproval, living on the fringe of society. Today, at least theoretically, it is accepted for a single woman to have children, but the refusal to marry or the option not to have children is seen as something “unnatural”.

10. Right to the benefits of scientific advancement

The right of women to the benefits of scientific advancement is essential to guarantee full access to the new, safe and effective health technologies.

11. Right to freedom of assembly and political participation

The right to participate in the realms of political decision is a demand that starts to be on the agenda of various women’s movements. The political field is an extremely symbolical space in the public domain, where the participation of women is still very limited. Participation of women in the spheres of political decision remains very low. It is not enough to state that the number of female MPs or women that occupy political offices tends to grow; we must ask ourselves what possibilities women in the ministries, in the parties and in parliaments have to assert their interests and put their needs on the public and political agendas.

12. Right not to be submitted to torture and physical abuse

Domestic violence against women has taken on alarming proportions. On the other hand, sexual harassment in the workplace, in schools, and other forms of gender violence are also appalling, like genital mutilation, the trafficking of women, prostitution and sex tourism. Who hasn’t heard the expression that “nobody can do any good between a man and his wife”? The husband is allowed to use physical violence whenever the reasons are “justified”; in other words, he can attack or murder his wife because she didn’t prepare the food, didn’t come home in time, in short, because she decided not to obey him. The little importance given to crimes committed in the domestic realm can lead to the idea that there is a private law, a law that operates inside families, and that allows parents to punish their children even in cruel ways and husbands and partners to punish their wives because they do not live up to the role of traditional spouses and mothers.

To finish, the expression “women’s human rights” does not refer exclusively to the theoretical approaches used by women to transform the concepts of human rights. In addition to being instrumental in the formulation of the conceptual challenges and in the demands of women, the idea of women’s human rights has an enormous impact as a tool for political activism. The expression has cleared the way for women in the whole world to ask difficult questions about the official lack of attention and the general indifference towards the generalised discrimination and the violence that they experience in their everyday lives.

The idea of Women’s Human Rights allows women to define and to articulate the specificity of their own experiences while at the same time supplying them with a vocabulary that enables them to share the experiences of other women around the world and to work together for change.

However, we should not forget that inequality and discrimination cannot be resolved by promulgating decrees or laws, but demands a change in mentality in men as well as in women, because after so many years of servitude and subordination to the male sex, women have deep-rooted discriminatory ideas and concepts that they take for natural.

To conclude, I would like to remind that even if there are many who say that men and women have the same rights and even if it is true that much legislation has been set up in the course of time, the truth is that women are still experiencing situations of discrimination and inequality in their professional, social and family lives. Even in societies, like Mozambique, where women have established rights, equal to men, there still remains, especially at an informal level, a significant disparity between the everyday life of some – men and women – and of others. This is because the way in which tradition determines what is means to be male or to be female does not change just because a new law or new regulations come into force, however widely they are publicised and even if their introduction is accompanied by campaigns to raise awareness about their necessity. And those traditions are in general penalising women, because of the submission that they entail and the restrictions that they impose on the choices available to them.

 

References:

  1. United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  2. IPAS, Os 12 direitos da mulher.

 

Nota:

[1] Cited by the Brazilian organisation IPAS: http://www.aads.org.br/wp/?page_id=366

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Other documents available:

  • Shadow Report on the “Stage of implementation of the CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) in Mozambique”.
  • Mozambique NGO Statement, presented at the 38th CEDAW Session, highlighting the main issues mentioned in the shadow report.
  • Concluding comments by the CEDAW Committee, identifying areas of concern and suggesting recommendations to the Government of Mozambique.

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