Do women and girls have human rights?

Pinar Ilkkaracan
26 February 2007

The Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations was the culmination of pioneering work by the international women's movement. But rather than a vehicle to advance women's human rights, it has become a vehicle of global political interests, says Pinar Ilkkaracan.

When do you think women and girls were finally deemed to have "human rights" by the world's nations? The obvious answer might be 1948, when the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; or perhaps the 1970s, when the global feminist movement started changing the world?

Well, it might come as a surprise to many - including younger generations of women in the global north, many of whom perceive feminism to be an outdated ideology - that it was only in the early 1990s that the United Nations finally recognised that women and girls also have human rights. If you consider this a bit late in history, you might be even more surprised to learn that the UN did so rather unwillingly, and only under the immense pressure of thousands of women and women's groups both from the south and the north, initiated by a global women's network coordinated by the Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL). The network was determined to have women's rights recognised as human rights by the world's governments at the World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993, and started to work towards this goal three years before this landmark event.

The success of the advocacy efforts of the global feminist movement at this 1993 conference is considered by many researchers to be one of the most successful cases of impact of the transnational movements. This success was the culmination of the determined, motivated effort of the emerging global women's movement, but it could only be realised by joint and well organised international lobbying work, both in the pre-conference period and during the conference itself.

As a result, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adapted at the conference includes the often cited paragraph 18, which states:

"The human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. 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 grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community."

Progress and backlash

As an activist who participated intensively in the global campaign for the Vienna conference in my late 20s, I still smile when I remember our enthusiasm and determination, supported by nothing except our our own limited private resources. PCs were then a luxury beyond our reach; the age of electronic communication had not yet started for us.

As a Turkish woman then studying and working at the women's shelter in Berlin, my main campaigning tool was a huge orange fax machine donated (as a result of my persistent begging) by the husband of a friend. The machine, which occupied the most important corner of my living-room, could be operated only manually. To accommodate the time difference between various continents, receiving or sending faxes around the world at the appropriate time meant regular sleepless nights. When we did succeed, and women's and girls' rights were finally accepted by the United Nations to be human rights, we were intoxicated with joy: it felt like we had moved a huge mountain, opening new roads. Little did we anticipate the backlash that was to come.

Our efforts continued throughout the 1990s. Important steps towards the realisation of women's and girls' rights were made at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, and the so-called Beijing + 5 conference (aiming at a five-year review of the Beijing conference) in New York in 2000. It was a frustratingly slow pace, but at least we were progressing.

By the at the 1995 conference in Beijing there were already signs of backlash, among them an evident increase in coordination efforts by the religious conservative opposition. An alliance of Muslim and Christian (mainly Catholic) delegations made sexuality - sexual orientation, women's control of their bodies and abortion - a topic of major debate, and strongly objected to the term "women's and girls' sexual rights". Yet the bulk of the progress on sexual rights had come - contrary to assertions in the press and by opposition delegations - not from northern feminists, but from women of the south (see Joan Dunlop, Rachel Kyte, and Mia MacDonald, "Women Redrawing the Map: The World After the Beijing and Cairo Conferences", SAIS Review, 16/1, 1998).

In any case, despite the fierce opposition, this paragraph (96) was finally included in the Beijing Platform for Action:

"The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrmination and violence. Equal relationships between women and men in matters of sexual relations and reproduction, including full respect for the integrity of the person, require mutual respect, consent and shared responsibility for sexual behaviour and its consequences."

A time of regress

The Beijing debates were but a taste of things to come. The remarkably smooth, friendly cooperation between Christian and Muslim religious conservatives there (illustrated by Catholic nuns in their habits and Muslim women waering hijab walking arm-in-arm at Huariou, site of the NGO forum) was still in its infancy.

The inauguration of the Bush administration in January 2001 greatly reinforced the conservative trend. For six years, the US government has been resolute in seeking to overturn or weaken agreements made at previous international UN conferences. It has used its massive political and economic power to take the lead in coordinating opposition to advancing women's and girls' rights, especially in the sexual and reproductive domain.

The post-9/11 political context has deepened tensions between north and south, strengthening the hand of conservative, "moral" forces among southern nations opposed to concessions on women's issues. The current political landscape is filled by rightwing Christian revivals in Africa and the United States and the rise of rightwing religious movements in the middle east and southeast Asia. This environment creates a very hostile climate for struggles for gender equality, sexual rights and the empowerment of women and girls.

At the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March 2003, for example - which occurred in parallel with the crucial UN Security Council debate on Iraq - delegates could not reach consensus on a statement on violence against women. A group of conservative Muslim delegates, fuelled by anger at US unilateralism, tried to reverse gains women had made over many years by rejecting a previously agreed-upon text.

The next battleground

A comparable, though even more dangereous scenario was on display at the United Nations general assembly special session (Ungass) on HIV/Aids+5, held in New York in 2006. There, all Muslim states sought to show their political opposition to the north in the era of "war on terror" by joining together for the first time at a UN Ecosoc meeting under the banner of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC had been a virtually non-functioning economic entity of Muslim countries, with no mission or authority over social issues. Yet, at the Ungass+5 on HIV/Aids, it provided an umbrella for all Muslim states to forge a "Muslim identity" to challenge several proposals (especially those related to sexuality) made by northern states.

The fifty-first session of the CSW takes place on 29 February - 9 March 2007. Its priority theme is "the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child"

Also in openDemocracy: our Women UNlimited blog from and about the 2007 Commission on the Status of Women by our guest bloggers from global south and north

Also in openDemocracy on the CSW:

Patricia Daniel, "Women, violence and empowerment: the world we live in"
(23 February 2007)

The effects of United States military policy in Iraq, and their impact across the middle east, put immense pressure even on Muslim states with a relatively progressive HIV/Aids policy (such as Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia) to join the newly formed OIC block under the leadership of Syria and Egypt; opposition to the various progressive proposals from northern countries was presented as a sign of proof of political solidarity with fellow-Muslim nations against their "axis of evil".

A political split between African states over several HIV/Aids-related issues supported their action; as a result, and in light of given the huge negative impact of the global epidemic and the urgent steps required to address it, the outcome of the meeting was very disappointing. Indeed, international civil-society groups from various backgrounds denounced the meeting as an absolute failure.

The accumulated result of this conservative, religious political dynamic across fifteen years is that women's and girls' human rights in general, and sexual and reproductive rights in particular, have increasingly become tokens of global politics, to be traded by the world's governments in at least three distinct ways: as a parading of ideology designed to increase a state's political power on the national or international stage (by, for example, the US, Egypt or the Vatican); as a display of political solidarity against the north in the post-9/11 world (for example, Muslim states under the banner of the OIC); or as tools of the construction of religious-right and/or nationalist identities (many ideological groups across the world fall into this category).

It seems that the fifty-first session of the Commission on the Status of the Women (CSW) - held in New York on 26 February - 9 March 2007 - will witness the latest battle between south and north over women's and girls' human rights. The conference is likely to see the world's governments offering many trade-offs on global political issues and conflicts, but precious few real advances for women and girls throughout the world in desperate need of support.

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