Women: reflections on our human rights

It's seventeen years since women's rights were recognised as human rights at the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna. openDemocracy writers examine the struggle to turn these rights into a day-to-day reality for women and girls and examine the challenges that lie ahead

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Iran: time to change the question

Jane Gabriel

Parvin Ardalan spoke to Jane Gabriel at the UN CSW about the link between a conversation with her father and her work fighting for the rights and freedom of both men and women in Iran, and why it's time the international community changed the question: how can we help?

Jane: When you won the Olof Palme prize in 2005 it was "for making the equal rights of men and women central to the struggle for democracy in Iran". To what extent has the green movement taken on board your demands for equal rights?Parvin: Women in Iran started asking for their rights a hundred years ago, first for the right to education, then to be part of the parliament, and then the right to reform civil Family Law and then for the right to vote. After the 1979 revolution we lost some of the rights that we had achieved- such as the right of Muslim women not to cover; and they had made polygamy much harder before the revolution and it got much easier again.

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This is my witness

Emily Stokes

Until 1988, Saw Mar was a housewife in her home country of Burma. Born into a well-educated, middle-class family in Rangoon, she spent her time looking after her two daughters, cleaning the house, and cooking for her husband. She had never worked for a living. But on a rainy morning in August, she witnessed a massacre by army troopers, and decided to join the fight to replace the military government. She became the Organizer for the National League for Democracy, working closely with the party’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi. One year later, Saw Mar was arrested, interrogated and sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour. In prison, she witnessed disturbing abuses of power, and was herself tortured by prison guards.

On Tuesday, Saw Mar – who has lived in the US for the past decade – was one of twelve Burmese women to testify at the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma held in New York, a event organised by the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma.

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Burma may save its tigers and not its women

Cora Weiss

The World Bank is determined to play conservationist and protect the last of the 3200 wild tigers, down from 100,000 a century ago, most in Burma, but finds it is “shackled from doling out aid” to this South East Asian nation. But shackles also seem to be in place when it comes to a robust policy to demand freedom for Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, her National League for Democracy adherents and thousands of Burmese members of traditional ethnic groups jailed or abused following a democratically held election in May 1990 which gave her party 80% of parliamentary seats. The military coup following that election has left the natural resource wealthy country drowning in the most egregious human rights abuses including documented child soldiers, sexual violence, forced labour, slavery, destruction of entire villages of the many ethnic groups, extra judicial killings, over a million internally displaced persons and a record of being condemned for this by the UN for the past 15 years.

This is the background that led to the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women of Burma, held on March 2nd in New York City as one of nearly 200 parallel civil society sponsored events during the United Nations 54th Commission on the Status of Women annual conference.

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Challenging ourselves at Bejing +15

Sunila Abeysekera

At the forthcoming sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women, we will commemorate 15 years after Beijing. In so doing, I fear that many of us will forget a trajectory that leads us back to before Beijing and the Fourth World Conference on Women, to Nairobi in 1985 and Mexico in 1975. We will thus assess the past and our achievements only in part. And this I think is problematic not only because it may mean that we forget or downplay some key achievements and challenges, but also because it may mean that a new generation of women activists inherit a partial history of our global movements for transformation.

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My Beijing diary

Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith

The day before...

Just in the middle of packing to go off to China (hooray!) and got a call from BBC World TV; can I come and say something nice and upbeat about Beijing before I go, maybe at six o’clock tomorrow morning for the world news slot?  UK coverage un-useable, too negative – and won’t go down well with worldwide audience...Not too happy about the early start time but the doorman at the beeb said it was one of the most upbeat interviews he’d ever heard; well chuffed with that!

So glad that for the first time we’ve got an NGO rep on the UK govt delegation to Beijing, but I’ve got mixed feelings about being invited to be that representative myself! On the one hand it’s a great experience but on the other hand, I maybe I would be happier with my sisters at the NGO Forum like I was at the Nairobi conference - much more fun? (As you’ll know there are always two parallel conferences, one for NGOs and one for the Governments)

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Brazilian feminists on the alert

Cecilia Sardenber

Recognized as one of the most articulate and influential women’s movements in Latin America, the feminist movement in Brazil has taken important strides beyond national limits, making its presence positively noted in global spaces. We were present at the UN from its very beginnings, Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian feminist who led our struggles for women’s right to vote (won in 1932), was one of the only four women delegates to the UN founding Charter in 1946. She played an important part in securing the inclusion of clauses against sexual discrimination and regarding equality between the sexes in the San Francisco Charter. And it was partly under her influence that Brazil pushed for the creation of the CSW as an organ of the Social and Economic Council.

Despite this early contribution and a short mandate in the Commission in the 1950s, 1985 and 1988, Brazil did not take a more progressive position towards women’s empowerment in the UN until the 1990s.

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 Equality between women and men is not a ‘women’s issue’

Jane Gabriel

Fifteen years ago 30,000 women gathered in Huairou, Beijing, and over two weeks held 3,500 workshops and worked with UN member states to produce a vision of global social transformation - the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). It is an extraordinary document that came out of what one member of the UK delegation called the ‘mud, madness and magnificence’ of Huairou.  Building on the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna 1993 when women and girls were first declared to have human rights, the BPfA declares:

“The advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women's issue. They are the only way to build a sustainable, just and developed society. Empowerment of women and equality between women and men are prerequisites for achieving political, social, economic, cultural and environmental security among all peoples.” 

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 Holding up half the sky: not for ourselves alone

Kavita Ramdas

This weekend I spent an evening watching the evocative Ken Burns Documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although I knew the broad outlines of this revolutionary friendship between two American women in the early 19th century and their joint efforts at advancing the struggle for universal suffrage, it was fascinating to watch it through the eyes of my viewing companions – my daughter and three of her close friends, sixteen-year-olds, who have grown up in a post 9/11 America.

The images of women from that era were greeted with exclamations of, “why is she is wearing a head scarf?”, while the narrator’s reminder that at that time women were considered the private property of their husbands, and were not supposed to get “too educated,” elicited, “wow, that’s like Afghanistan, right?” These girls, all of them talented athletes as well as good students, could hardly believe that there could have been a time where this was the plight of the women in the United States.

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 What’s wrong with a democratic world with justice, equality, development and peace?

Cora Weiss

My most vivid recollection of the 4th World Conference on Women where 15 years ago nearly 30,000 women gathered in China is of nine refugee Tibetan women. The International Campaign for Tibet sent Reed Brody, a human rights lawyer, to support the women who, out of hundreds who applied, were granted visas and also permitted to hold an officially approved event at the NGO Forum. They were constantly harassed by Chinese police. Frightened, but determined, Brody helped them agree to a silent demonstration at the gates to the Forum in Hairou. They made gags of the yellow silk scarves that were gifts from China to all the participants, and stood in the rain with tears flowing, locked hand in hand while cameras broadcast their message around the world on the plight of Tibet.

Civil society women gathered and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ as these brave women, who had never engaged in such activity before, feared arrest. They were the first exiled Tibetans to demonstrate inside China. Looking for a safe space, Brody, now counsel with Human Rights Watch, brought them to the Peace Tent and simply said “protect them”.

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About the author

Jane Gabriel is the founder and editor of openDemocracy 50.50. Jane produced and directed more than thirty documentaries for Channel Four Television and the BBC international current affairs series "Correspondent" before joining openDemocracy. She won the Royal Television Society award, and the One World Media award for her work as a documentary director.