Making women's rights human rights

The story of how women's rights became part of the international human rights movements shows the influence of local movements on global change - and that international agendas need to listen to community priorities. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Jean H. Quataert
19 August 2013

I am jumping into the question raised by Stephen Hopgood about whether “universal human rights [are] the best foundation to build the local political leverage necessary to end discrimination and violence against women.” Given the breadth and extent of women’s organizations and mobilizations throughout the globe today, the answer is necessarily complex. To me, it must be set in an historical context, although one that does not extend too far back in time!

Dramatic changes in the nature and visibility of transnational feminisms emerged during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). In three women’s world conferences (Mexico City, Copenhagen and Nairobi), the UN offered diverse women a chance to meet face to face and hash out responses to the perceived disadvantages of women with respect to men’s life opportunities globally. In retrospect, this was one historical high point of women’s activism, leading to the emergence of a global women’s human rights movement around the highly persuasive slogan “women’s rights are human rights.” 

While multi-faceted in its aims, the new movement dramatically confronted the problem of women’s shared vulnerabilities to all manners of violence, whether in the family or economy, in war or peacetime, or through products of political culture or traditional values and customs. At the time, this attention to violence appeared to hit a raw nerve around the globe, even convincing older women’s rights groups and movements skeptical of international law arguments to join the campaigns.

Important normative and institutional changes followed quickly. The UN established a special oversight office to address cases of violence against women; included the violation in monitoring state compliance to the Women’s Convention (in effect, 1979); and made rape and sexual slavery in wartime a crime, among other changes. These were significant structural gains that have had reverberating impacts in societies. Importantly, they were the products of diverse women’s grassroots mobilizations tied into increasingly coordinated transnational advocacy networks.  

Backlash in global and national settings, however, followed this high point of women’s international activism. Since the mid-1990s, gender has emerged as a major fault line in global politics as witnessed by the divisive negotiations among states over the inclusion of gender protections in the charter of the International Criminal Court, renewed hostility to women’s reproductive rights in many national settings, and opposition to gay and lesbian rights and protections. Indeed, the climate for human rights advocacy generally deteriorated in the early twenty-first century, which, perhaps, is the backdrop to the discussions in this blog. What is less understood are the serious divides among global feminists today about the viability of human rights politics for women’s causes, although these divides also reflect reasons for optimism.

The feminist critiques are two-fold. First, many feminist activists observed how human rights and women’s rights became subsumed internationally as justifications for the US-led war on terror as well as occupation and nation-building. In the dominant rhetoric, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are in part defended by the advances they promise to bring to women, as the iconic images in the western media of veiled women voting show. While this pattern of co-optation does not remove the need to defend rights, it makes the politics tricky. 

Second, and particularly for women’s movements and NGOs in developing countries, many feminists have come to recognize how powerful donor interests funding violence against women campaigns have, in effect, marginalized local community voices and definitions of needs. For many, combatting violence might be critical goal but so is, among others, the fight against economic deprivation, poverty, or deforestation. What is crucial is to have women in the community set their own agendas.

That is the record of successful human rights mobilizations in the many campaigns against patterns of violence and discrimination constraining women’s lives, as Marsha Freeman notes. Just as gender needs to be deepened by equal attention to class, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation in order to reach its full analytical potential, so too do local human rights movements combatting violence against women need to address wider community needs: tackling the lack of employment and low wages, the devastations of overdevelopment, notions of femininity constraining women’s opportunity and men’s assumptions about masculinity and marriage. 

Then the resonating language of human rights has the potential to connect these locally-defined struggles for change to larger groups in transnational civil and international society. These circular ties—sometimes called ‘glocal’ politics—are one of the key ingredients to strategic successes in today’s globalizing world.


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