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HUMAN RIGHTSQUARTERLY

Women's Rightsas Human Rights:


Towarda Re-Visionof Human Rights
CharlotteBunch*
Significantnumbersof the world'spopulationareroutinelysubjectto torture,
starvation,terrorism,humiliation,mutilation,and even murdersimply because they are female. Crimessuch as these againstany group other than
women would be recognizedas a civil and politicalemergencyas well as
a gross violation of the victims' humanity.Yet, despite a clear recordof
deathsand demonstrableabuse,women's rightsare not commonlyclassified
as humanrights.This is problematicboth theoreticallyand practically,because it has grave consequences for the way society views and treatsthe
fundamentalissues of women's lives. This paper questionswhy women's
rightsandhumanrightsareviewed as distinct,looksatthe policy implications
of this schism, and discusses differentapproachesto changingit.
Women's human rightsare violated in a varietyof ways. Of course,
women sometimessufferabusessuch as politicalrepressionthatare similar
to abuses sufferedby men. In these situations,female victims are often
invisible,because the dominantimage of the politicalactor in our world is
male. However, many violations of women's human rightsare distinctly
connected to being female-that is, women are discriminatedagainstand
abused on the basis of gender. Women also experience sexual abuse in
situationswhere their other human rightsare being violated, as political
prisonersor membersof persecutedethnicgroups,forexample.Inthis paper
Iaddressthose abusesin which genderis a primaryor relatedfactorbecause
gender-relatedabuse has been most neglectedand offersthe greatestchallenge to the field of humanrightstoday.
The concept of human rightsis one of the few moralvisions ascribed
to internationally.
Althoughitsscope is not universallyagreedupon, it strikes

* A shorterversionof thisarticleappearedin RESPONSE


of Womenand
to the Victimization
Children.
HumanRightsQuarterly12 (1990) 486-498 o 1990 by The JohnsHopkinsUniversityPress

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Women'sRightsas HumanRights

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deep chordsof responseamongmany.Promotionof humanrightsis a widely


accepted goal and thus providesa usefulframeworkfor seeking redressof
genderabuse. Furtherit is one of the few concepts that speaksto the need
for transnationalactivismand concern about the lives of people globally.
The UniversalDeclarationof HumanRights,'adopted in 1948, symbolizes
this world vision and defines humanrightsbroadly.While not much is said
about women, Article2 entitlesall to "the rightsand freedomsset forthin
this Declaration,withoutdistinctionof any kind,such as race, colour, sex,
language,religion,politicalor otheropinion, nationalor social origin,property,birthor otherstatus."EleanorRooseveltand the LatinAmericanwomen
who fought for the inclusion of sex in the Declarationand for its passage
clearly intendedthat it would addressthe problemof women's subordination.2
Since 1948 the world community has continuouslydebated varying
of humanrightsin responseto global developments.Littleof
interpretations
this discussion, however, has addressedquestionsof gender, and only recently have significantchallenges been made to a vision of human rights
which excludesmuchof women'sexperiences.Theconceptof humanrights,
like all vibrantvisions, is not staticor the propertyof any one group;rather,
itsmeaningexpandsas people reconceiveof theirneedsandhopes in relation
to it. In this spirit,feministsredefine human rightsabuses to include the
degradationand violation of women. The specific experiences of women
must be added to traditionalapproachesto humanrightsin orderto make
women more visible and to transformthe concept and practiceof human
rightsin our cultureso that it takes betteraccount of women's lives.
In the next partof this article, I will explore both the importanceand
the difficultyof connectingwomen's rightsto humanrights,and then I will
outlinefourbasic approachesthat have been used in the effortto makethis
connection.

I. BEYONDRHETORIC:
POLITICAL
IMPLICATIONS
Fewgovernmentsexhibitmorethantokencommitmentto women'sequality
as a basic human rightin domestic or foreign policy. No governmentde-

1. UniversalDeclarationof HumanRights,adopted10 December1948, G.A. Res.217A(III),


U.N. Doc. A/810 (1948).
2. BlancheWiesen Cook, "EleanorRooseveltand HumanRights:The Battlefor Peace and
PlanetaryDecency,"EdwardP.Crapol,ed. WomenandAmericanForeignPolicy:Lobbyists,
Critics,and Insiders(New York:GreenwoodPress,1987), 98-118; GeorginaAshworth,
"OfViolenceand Violation:Womenand HumanRights,"ChangeThinkbookII(London,
1986).

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QUARTERLY

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terminesits policies towardother countrieson the basis of theirtreatment


of women, even when some aid and trade decisions are said to be based
on a country'shumanrightsrecord.Amongnongovernmentalorganizations,
women are rarelya priority,and HumanRightsDay programson 10 Decemberseldom includediscussionof issues like violence againstwomen or
reproductiverights.When it is suggestedthatgovernmentsand humanrights
organizationsshould respondto women's rightsas concerns that deserve
such attention,a numberof excuses areofferedforwhy this cannotbe done.
Theresponsestendto follow one or moreof these lines:(1)sex discrimination
is too trivial,or not as important,or will come afterlargerissues of survival
that requiremore seriousattention;(2) abuse of women, while regrettable,
is a cultural,private,or individualissue and not a politicalmatterrequiring
state action; (3) while appropriatefor other action, women's rightsare not
human rightsper se; or (4) when the abuse of women is recognized, it is
consideredinevitableor so pervasivethatany considerationof it is futileor
will overwhelmother human rightsquestions. It is importantto challenge
these responses.
The narrowdefinitionof humanrights,recognizedby many in the West
as solely a matterof state violationof civil and political liberties,impedes
considerationof women's rights.In the UnitedStatesthe concept has been
furtherlimitedby some who have used it as a weapon in the cold waralmost
exclusively to challenge human rightsabuses perpetratedin communist
countries. Eventhen, many abuses that affected women, such as forced
pregnancyin Romania,were ignored.
Some importantaspects of women's rightsdo fit into a civil liberties
framework,but much of the abuse againstwomen is partof a largersocioeconomic web thatentrapswomen, makingthemvulnerableto abuseswhich
cannot be delineatedas exclusivelypoliticalor solely caused by states.The
inclusionof "second generation"or socioeconomic humanrightsto food,
shelter,and work-which are clearly delineated as part of the Universal
Declarationof HumanRights-is vitalto addressingwomen'sconcernsfully.
Further,the assumptionthatstatesare not responsiblefor mostviolationsof
women's rightsignoresthe fact that such abuses, althoughcommittedperhaps by privatecitizens, are often condoned or even sanctionedby states.
I will returnto the questionof state responsibilityafterrespondingto other
instancesof resistanceto women's rightsas humanrights.
The most insidiousmythaboutwomen's rightsis thatthey are trivialor
secondaryto the concerns of life and death. Nothingcould be fartherfrom
the truth:sexism kills.Thereis increasingdocumentationof the manyways
in which beingfemale is life-threatening.
Thefollowingare a few examples:
-Before birth:Amniocentesisis used for sex selection leadingto the
abortionof more female fetuses at ratesas high as 99 percent in Bombay,
India; in China and India, the two most populous nations, more males than

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females are born even though naturalbirth ratios would produce more
females.3

-During childhood: The World Health Organizationreportsthat in


manycountries,girlsarefed less, breastfed forshorterperiodsof time, taken
to doctors less frequently,and die or are physicallyand mentallymaimed
by malnutritionat higherratesthan boys.4
-In adulthood:The denial of women's rightsto controltheirbodies in
reproductionthreatenswomen's lives, especially where this is combined
with povertyand poor healthservices.InLatinAmerica,complicationsfrom
illegalabortionsare the leadingcause of deathforwomen betweenthe ages
of fifteenand thirty-nine.5
Sex discriminationkillswomen daily.When combinedwith race, class,
and other forms of oppression, it constitutesa deadly denial of women's
rightto life and libertyon a large scale throughoutthe world. The most
pervasiveviolationof females is violence againstwomen in all its manifestations,from wife battery,incest, and rape, to dowry deaths,6genital mutilation,7and female sexual slavery.These abuses occur in every country
and are found in the home and in the workplace,on streets,on campuses,
and in prisonsand refugeecamps. Theycross class, race, age, and national
lines; and at the same time, the forms this violence takes often reinforce
other oppressionssuch as racism,"able-bodyism,"and imperialism.Case
in point: in orderto feed theirfamilies,poor women in brothelsaroundUS
militarybases in places likethe Philippinesbearthe burdenof sexual, racial,
and national imperialismin repeated and often brutalviolation of their
bodies.
Evena shortreviewof randomstatisticsrevealsthatthe extentof violence
againstwomen globally is staggering:
3. VibhutiPatel,InSearchof OurBodies:A FeministLookat Women,HealthandReproduction
in India(Shakti,Bombay,1987);LoriHeise,"International
Dimensionsof ViolenceAgainst
Women,"Response,vol. 12, no. 1 (1989): 3.
4. SundariRavindran,
HealthImplications
in Childhood(Geneva:World
of SexDiscrimination
Health Organization,1986). These problemsand proposedsocial programsto counter
themin Indiaarediscussedin detailin "GenderViolence:GenderDiscrimination
Between
Boy and Girl in ParentalFamily,"paperpublishedby CHETNA(ChildHealthEducation
Trainingand NutritionAwareness),Ahmedabad,1989.
5. DebbieTaylor,ed., Women:A WorldReport,A New Internationalist
Book(Oxford:Oxford
UniversityPress,1985), 10. See JoniSeagerand Ann Olson, eds., WomenIn The World:
An International
Atlas(London:PlutoPress,1986) for morestatisticson the effectsof sex
discrimination.
6. Frequentlya husbandwill disguisethe deathof a brideas suicide or an accidentin order
to collect the marriagesettlementpaid him by the bride'sparents.Althoughdowryis now
illegal in many countries,officialrecordsfor 1987 showed 1,786 dowrydeaths iRIndia
alone. See Heise, note 3 above, 5.
7. Foran in-depthexaminationof the practiceof female circumcisionsee Alison T. Slack,
"FemaleCircumcision:A CriticalAppraisal,"HumanRightsQuarterly10 (1988):439.

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-In the United States, batteryis the leading cause of injuryto adult
women, and a rape is committedevery six minutes.8
-In Peru,70 percentof all crimes reportedto police involve women
who arebeatenby theirpartners;and in Lima(a cityof seven millionpeople),
168,970 rapeswere reportedin 1987 alone.9
- InIndia,eightout of ten wives arevictimsof violence, eitherdomestic
battery,dowry-relatedabuse, or, among the least fortunate,murder.10
- InFrance,95 percentof the victimsof violence arewomen; 51 percent
at the handsof a spouse or lover.Similarstatisticsfromplaces as diverseas
Bangladesh,Canada,Kenya,and Thailanddemonstratethat more than 50
percentof female homicideswere committedby familymembers."
Where recorded,domestic batteryfiguresrangefrom40 percentto 80
percentof women beaten, usually repeatedly,indicatingthat the home is
the mostdangerousplace for women and frequentlythe site of crueltyand
torture.As the CarolStuartmurderin Bostondemonstrated,sexist and racist
attitudesin the United States often cover up the real threatto women; a
woman is murderedin Massachusettsby a husbandor loverevery22 days.12
Such numbersdo not reflectthe full extent of the problemof violence
againstwomen, much of which remainshidden. Yet ratherthan receiving
recognitionas a majorworld conflict, this violence is accepted as normal
or even dismissedas an individualor culturalmatter.GeorginaAshworth
notes that:
Thegreatestrestriction
andatthesametime,
of liberty,dignityandmovement,
ofviolence.... However
directviolation
ofthepersonisthethreatandrealisation
violenceagainstthefemalesex,on a scalewhichfarexceedsthelistofAmnesty
International
victims,is toleratedpublicly;indeedsomeacts of violationare
in customor courtopinion,andmost
notcrimesin law,othersarelegitimized
areblamedon the victimsthemselves.13
Violence againstwomen is a touchstonethat illustratesthe limitedconcept of human rights and highlightsthe political natureof the abuse of
women. As LoriHeise states:"Thisis not randomviolence.... [T]he risk
factor is being female."'4Victimsare chosen because of theirgender.The
8. C. EverettKoop,M.D., "ViolenceAgainstWomen:A Global Problem,"presentationby
the SurgeonGeneralof the U.S., PublicHealthService,WashingtonD.C., 1989.
9. Ana MariaPortugal,"Cronicade Una ViolacionProvocada?",
Fempressespecial "Contraviolencia,"Santiago,1988; Seagerand Olson, note 5 above, 37.
10. Ashworth,note 2 above, 9.
11. "ViolenceAgainstWomeninthe Family,"CentreforSocialDevelopmentandHumanitarian
Affairs,UnitedNationsOfficeat Vienna,1989.
12. Bella English,"StereotypesLed Us Astray,"The BostonGlobe, 5 Jan. 1990, 17, col. 3.
See also the statisticsin Women's InternationalNetworkNews, 1989; United Nations
Office, note 11 above;Ashworth,note 2 above; Heise, note 3 above; and Fempress,note
9 above.
13. Ashworth,note 2 above, 8.
14. Heise, note 3 above, 3.

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message is domination:stay in your place or be afraid.Contraryto the


argumentthat such violence is only personal or cultural,it is profoundly
political. It resultsfrom the structuralrelationshipsof power, domination,
and privilegebetween men and women in society.Violence againstwomen
is centralto maintainingthose political relationsat home, at work, and in
all public spheres.
Failureto see the oppressionof women as politicalalso resultsin the
exclusionof sex discriminationandviolence againstwomen fromthe human
rightsagenda. Femalesubordinationrunsso deep that it is still viewed as
inevitable or natural,ratherthan seen as a politically constructedreality
maintainedby patriarchalinterests,ideology, and institutions.ButI do not
believe that male violationof women is inevitableor natural.Such a belief
requiresa narrowand pessimisticview of men. Ifviolence and domination
are understoodas a politicallyconstructedreality,it is possible to imagine
deconstructingthatsystemand buildingmorejust interactionsbetween the
sexes.
The physical territoryof this political struggleover what constitutes
women's humanrightsis women's bodies. The importanceof controlover
women can be seen in the intensityof resistanceto laws and social changes
that put controlof women's bodies in women's hands:reproductiverights,
freedomof sexualitywhetherheterosexualor lesbian, laws thatcriminalize
rape in marriage,etc. Denial of reproductiverightsand homophobiaare
also political means of maintainingcontrol over women and perpetuating
sex roles and thus have human rightsimplications.The physical abuse of
women is a reminderof thisterritorialdominationand is sometimesaccompanied by otherformsof humanrightsabuse such as slavery(forcedprostitution),sexual terrorism(rape),imprisonment(confinementto the home),
and torture(systematicbattery).Some cases areextreme,such as the women
in Thailandwho died in a brothelfire because they were chained to their
beds. Most situationsare more ordinarylike denying women decent education or jobs which leaves them prey to abusive marriages,exploitative
work, and prostitution.
This raisesonce again the questionof the state'sresponsibilityfor protecting women's human rights.Feministshave shown how the distinction
between privateand publicabuse is a dichotomyoften used to justifyfemale
subordinationin the home.Governmentsregulatemanymattersin the family
and individualspheres. Forexample, humanrightsactivistspressurestates
to preventslaveryor racialdiscriminationand segregationeven when these
are conducted by nongovernmentalforces in privateor proclaimedas culturaltraditionsas they have been in both the southernUnitedStatesand in
South Africa.The real questionsare: (1) who decides what are legitimate
humanrights;and (2) when shouldthe state become involvedand for what
purposes. Riane Eisler argues that:

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the issueis whattypesof privateactsareandarenotprotectedbythe rightto


privacyand/orthe principleof familyautonomy.Evenmorespecifically,the
issueis whetherviolationsof humanrightswithinthe familysuch as genital
wife beating,and otherformsof violencedesignedto maintain
mutilation,
controlshouldbe withinthe purviewof humanrightstheoryand
patriarchal
action.... [T]heunderlying
problemforhumanrightstheory,asformostother
thathasbeendevelopedfordefiningand
fieldsof theory,is thatthe yardstick
humanrightshasbeenbasedon the maleas the norm.'s
measuring
The humanrightscommunitymustmove beyondits maledefinednorms
in orderto respondto the brutaland systematicviolationof women globally.
This does not mean that every human rightsgroup must alterthe focus of
its work. However it does requireexamining patriarchalbiases and acknowledgingthe rightsof women as humanrights.Governmentsmustseek
to end the politicallyand culturallyconstructedwar on women ratherthan
continue to perpetuateit. Everystate has the responsibilityto intervenein
the abuse of women's rightswithin its bordersand to end its collusion with
the forces that perpetratesuch violationsin othercountries.
II. TOWARD ACTION: PRACTICAL
APPROACHES

The classificationof human rightsis more than just a semantics problem


because it has practicalpolicy consequences. Human rightsare still consideredto be more importantthan women's rights.The distinctionperpetuatesthe idea thatthe rightsof women are of a lesserorderthanthe "rights
of man,"and, as Eislerdescribes it, "servesto justifypracticesthat do not
accord women full and equal status."'6In the United Nations,the Human
RightsCommissionhas more power to hear and investigatecases than the
Commissionon the Statusof Women, more staff and budget, and better
mechanismsfor implementingits findings.Thus it makes a differencein
what can be done if a case is deemed a violationof women's rightsand not
of humanrights.17
The determinationof refugee status illustrateshow the definition of
human rightsaffects people's lives. The Dutch RefugeeAssociation,in its
pioneeringeffortsto convince othernationsto recognizesexual persecution

15. Riane Eisler,"HumanRights:Towardan IntegratedTheoryfor Action,"HumanRights


Quarterly9 (1987):297. See also AlidaBrill,Nobody'sBusiness:TheParadoxesof Privacy
(New York:Addison-Wesley,1990).
16. Eisler,note 15 above, 291.
17. SandraColiver,"UnitedNationsMachinerieson Women'sRights:How MightTheyBetter
Help WomenWhose RightsAre BeingViolated?"in EllenL. Lutz,HurstHannum,and
KathrynJ. Burke,eds., New Directionsin HumanRights(Philadelphia:Univ. of Penn.
Press,1989).

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and violence against women as justificationsfor grantingrefugee status,


foundthatsome Europeangovernmentswould take sexual persecutioninto
account as an aspect of otherformsof politicalrepression,but none would
make it the groundsfor refugeestatusper se.1' The implicationsof such a
distinctionare clear when examininga situationlike thatof the Bangladeshi
war, subwomen, who having been rapedduringthe Pakistan-Bangladesh
to
at
the
hands
of
relatives
faced
death
male
preserve"family
sequently
honor."Westernpowersprofessedoutragebut did not offerasylumto these
victimsof human rightsabuse.
I have observed four basic approachesto linking women's rightsto
human rights.These approachesare presentedseparatelyhere in orderto
identifyeach more clearly.In practice,these approachesoftenoverlap,and
while each raisesquestionsaboutthe others,I see them as complementary.
These approachescan be applied to many issues, but I will illustratethem
primarilyin termsof how they addressviolence againstwomen in orderto
show the implicationsof theirdifferenceson a concrete issue.
1. Women'sRightsas Politicaland CivilRights.Takingwomen'sspecific
needs into considerationas partof the alreadyrecognized"firstgeneration"
political and civil libertiesis the firstapproach.This involves both raising
the visibilityof women who suffergeneral humanrightsviolationsas well
as calling attentionto particularabuseswomen encounterbecause they are
female.Thus,issuesof violence againstwomen areraisedwhen theyconnect
to other forms of violation such as the sexual tortureof women political
prisonersin SouthAmerica.19Groupslike the Women'sTaskForceof Amhavetakenthisapproachin pushingforAmnestyto launch
nestyInternational
a campaignon behalf of women political prisonerswhich would address
the sexual abuse and rapeof women in custody,theirlack of maternalcare
in detention,and the resultinghumanrightsabuse of their children.
Documentingthe problemsof women refugeesand developingresponsive policies are other illustrationsof this approach.Women and children
make up more than 80 percentof those in refugeecamps, yet few refugee
policies arespecificallyshapedto meetthe needsof these vulnerablepopulations who face considerablesexual abuse. Forexample, in one camp where
men were allocated the community'srations,some gave food to women

18. MarijkeMeyer,"Oppressionof Womenand RefugeeStatus,"unpublishedreportto NGO


Forum,Nairobi,Kenya,1985 and "SexualViolence AgainstWomen Refugees,"Ministry
of Social Affairsand Labour,The Netherlands,June1984.
19. XimenaBunsterdescribesthis in Chile and Argentinain "TheTortureof WomenPolitical
Prisoners:A Case Studyin FemaleSexual Slavery,"in KathleenBarry,CharlotteBunch,
and ShirleyCastley,eds., International
Feminism:NetworkingAgainstFemaleSexualSlavery (New York:IWTC,1984).

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and their children in exchange for sex. Revealingthis abuse led to new
policies that allocatedfood directlyto the women.20
The politicaland civil rightsapproachis a usefulstartingpointfor many
human rightsgroups; by consideringwomen's experiences, these groups
can expand theireffortsin areas where they are alreadyworking.This approach also raises contradictionsthat reveal the limits of a narrowcivil
libertiesview. One contradictionis to define rapeas a humanrightsabuse
only when it occurs in state custody but not on the streetsor in the home.
Anotheris to say that a violation of the rightto free speech occurs when
someone is jailed for defendinggay rights,but not when someone is jailed
or even torturedand killed for homosexuality.Thuswhile this approachof
addingwomen and stirringthem into existingfirstgenerationhumanrights
categoriesis useful, it is not enough by itself.
2. Women'sRightsas Socioeconomic Rights.The second approach
includesthe particularplightof women with regardto "secondgeneration"
humanrightssuch as the rightsto food, shelter,healthcare,and employment.
Thisis an approachfavoredby those who see the dominantWesternhuman
rightstraditionand internationallaw as too individualisticand identifywomen's oppressionas primarilyeconomic.
This tendency has its originsamong socialists and labor activistswho
have longarguedthatpoliticalhumanrightsaremeaninglessto manywithout
economic rightsas well. Itfocuseson the primacyof the needto end women's
economic subordinationas the key to other issues includingwomen's vulnerabilityto violence. This particularfocus has led to work on issues like
women's rightto organize as workersand opposition to violence in the
workplace, especially in situations like the free trade zones which have
targetedwomen as cheap, nonorganizedlabor.Anotherfocus of this approach has been highlightingthe feminizationof povertyor what might
betterbe called the increasingimpoverishmentof females. Povertyhas not
become strictlyfemale, but females now comprisea higherpercentageof
the poor.
Lookingat women's rightsin the contextof socioeconomicdevelopment
is anotherexample of this approach.Thirdworld peoples have called for
an understandingof socioeconomic developmentas a human rightsissue.
Within this demand, some have sought to integratewomen's rightsinto
developmentand haveexaminedwomen'sspecificneeds in relationto areas
like land ownershipor access to credit.Among those workingon women
in development,there is growinginterestin violence againstwomen as both

20. Reportgiven by MargaretGroarkeat Women'sPanel,AmnestyInternational


New York
RegionalMeeting,24 Feb. 1990.

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a health and development issue. If violence is seen as having negative


consequences for social productivity,it may get more attention.This type
of narroweconomic measure,however,should notdeterminewhethersuch
violence is seen as a humanrightsconcern.Violence as a developmentissue
is linked to the need to understanddevelopmentnot just as an economic
issue but also as a questionof empowermentand humangrowth.
One of the limitationsof this second approachhas been its tendency
to reducewomen's needs to the economic spherewhich impliesthatwomen's rightswill follow automaticallywith thirdworld development,which
may involve socialism. This has not provento be the case. Manyworking
fromthisapproachare no longertryingto addwomen intoeitherthe Western
capitalistor socialistdevelopmentmodels, but ratherseek a transformative
developmentprocess that linkswomen's political,economic, and cultural
empowerment.
3. Women'sRightsand the Law.The creationof new legal mechanisms
to countersex discriminationcharacterizesthe thirdapproachto women's
rightsas humanrights.Theseeffortsseek to makeexistinglegal and political
institutionsworkfor women and to expandthe state'sresponsibilityfor.the
violationof women's humanrights.Nationaland local laws which address
sex discriminationand violence againstwomen are examples of this approach.These measuresallow women to fightfortheirrightswithinthe legal
system.The primaryinternationalillustrationis the Conventionon the Eliminationof All Formsof DiscriminationAgainstWomen.21
The Conventionhas been describedas "essentiallyan internationalbill
of rightsfor women and a frameworkfor women's participationin the
developmentprocess ... [which] spells out internationallyaccepted principles and standardsfor achieving equality between women and men."22
Adopted by the UN GeneralAssemblyin 1979, the Conventionhas been
ratifiedor acceded to by 104 countriesas of January1990. In theorythese
countriesareobligatedto pursuepolicies in accordancewith it and to report
on theircomplianceto the Committeeon the Eliminationof Discrimination
AgainstWomen (CEDAW).
While the Conventionaddressesmany issuesof sex discrimination,one
of its shortcomingsis failureto directly addressthe question of violence
againstwomen. CEDAWpassed a resolutionat its eighth session in Vienna
in 1989 expressingconcern thatthis issue be on its agenda and instructing

21. Conventionon the Eliminationof All Formsof Discrimination


AgainstWomen,G.A. Res.
34/180, U.N. Doc. A/Res/34/180(1980).
22. International
Women'sRightsActionWatch,"TheConventionon the Eliminationof All
Formsof DiscriminationAgainstWomen" (Minneapolis:HumphreyInstituteof Public
Affairs,1988), 1.

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states to include in their periodic reportsinformationabout statistics,legislation,and supportservices in this area.23The CommonwealthSecretariat
in its manualon the reportingprocessforthe Conventionalso interpretsthe
issue of violence againstwomen as "clearlyfundamentalto the spiritof the
Convention,"especiallyin Article5 which calls forthe modificationof social
and culturalpatterns,sex roles, and stereotypingthatare based on the idea
of the inferiorityor the superiorityof eithersex.24
TheConventionoutlinesa clearhumanrightsagendaforwomen which,
if accepted by governments,would markan enormousstep forward.It also
carriesthe limitationsof all such internationaldocuments in that there is
little power to demand its implementation.Withinthe United Nations, it is
not generally regardedas a convention with teeth, as illustratedby the
difficultythatCEDAWhas had in gettingcountriesto reporton compliance
with its provisions.Further,it is still treatedby governmentsand most nongovernmentalorganizationsas a document dealing with women's (read
"secondary")rights,not humanrights.Nevertheless,it is a usefulstatement
of principlesendorsed by the United Nations aroundwhich women can
organizeto achieve legal and politicalchange in theirregions.
4. FeministTransformation
the human
of HumanRights.Transforming
rightsconceptfroma feministperspective,so thatit will takegreateraccount
of women's lives, is the fourthapproach.This approachrelateswomen's
rightsand humanrights,lookingfirstat the violationsof women's lives and
then askinghow the humanrightsconcept can changeto be moreresponsive
to women. Forexample,the GABRIELA
women'scoalitionin the Philippines
stated
that
"Women's
are
Rights HumanRights"in launchinga camsimply
As
last
Ninotchka
Roscaexplained,coalition memberssaw that
year.
paign
"human rightsare not reducibleto a question of legal and due process.
... Inthe case of women, humanrightsare affectedby the entiresociety's
traditionalperceptionof whatis properor notproperforwomen."25Similarly,
a panel at the 1990 International
Women'sRightsActionWatchconference
assertedthat "Violence AgainstWomen is a Human RightsIssue."While
work in the three previousapproachesis often done from a feministperspective,this lastview is the mostdistinctlyfeministwith itswoman-centered

23. CEDAWNewsletter,3rd Issue(13 Apr.1989), 2 (summaryof U.N. Reporton the Eighth


Session,U.N. Doc. A/44/38, 14 April1989).
of All Formsof Discrim24. CommonwealthSecretariat,"TheConventionon the Elimination
inationAgainstWomen:The ReportingProcess-A Manualfor CommonwealthJurisdictions,"London,1989.
New YorkRegionalConference,
25. Speechgivenby NinotchkaRoscaatAmnestyInternational
24 Feb. 1990, 2.

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1990

Women'sRightsas HumanRights

497

stanceand its refusalto waitforpermissionfromsome authorityto determine


what is or is not a humanrightsissue.
Thistransformative
approachcan be takentowardany issue, but those
this
from
approachhave tendedto focus most on abusesthat arise
working
out
of
specifically
gender,such as reproductiverights,femalesexualslavery,
violence againstwomen, and "familycrimes" like forced marriage,compulsory heterosexuality,and female mutilation.These are also the issues
most often dismissedas not reallyhumanrightsquestions.This is therefore
the most hotly contested area and requiresthat barriersbe brokendown
between public and private,state and nongovernmentalresponsibilities.
Thoseworkingto transformthe humanrightsvisionfromthisperspective
can draw on the work of otherswho have expandedthe understandingof
humanrightspreviously.Forexample,two decadesago therewas no concept
of "disappearances"as a humanrightsabuse. However,the women of the
Plazade Mayo in Argentinadid not wait for an officialdeclarationbutstood
up to demandstateaccountabilityforthese crimes.In so doing, they helped
to create a contextfor expandingthe concept of responsibilityfor deaths at
the hands of paramilitaryor right-wingdeath squads which, even if not
carriedout by the state, were allowed by it to happen.Anotherexample is
the developing concept that civil rightsviolations include "hate crimes,"
violence that is raciallymotivatedor directed againsthomosexuals,Jews,
or otherminoritygroups.Manyaccept thatstateshave an obligationto work
to preventsuch human rightsabuses, and gettingviolence againstwomen
seen as a hate crime is being pursuedby some.
The practical applicationsof transformingthe human rightsconcept
fromfeministperspectivesneed to be exploredfurther.The dangerin pursuing only this approachis the tendencyto become isolatedfromand competitivewith otherhumanrightsgroupsbecause they have been so reluctant
to addressgenderviolence and discrimination.Yetmostwomen experience
abuse on the groundsof sex, race, class, nation,age, sexual preference,and
politics as interrelated,and little benefit comes from separatingthem as
competing claims. The human rightscommunityneed not abandon other
issues but should incorporategender perspectivesinto them and see how
these expand the terms of their work. By recognizingissues like violence
againstwomen as humanrightsconcerns,humanrightsscholarsand activists
do not have to take these up as their primarytasks.However,they do have
to stop gate-keepingand guardingtheir prerogativeto determinewhat is
considereda "legitimate"humanrightsissue.
As mentionedbefore,these fourapproachesare overlappingand many
strategiesfor change involve elements of more than one. All of these approachescontain aspects of what is necessaryto achieve women's rights.
At a time when dualistways of thinkingand views of competingeconomic
systems are in question, the creative task is to look for ways to connect these

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498

HUMANRIGHTSQUARTERLY

Vol. 12

approachesand to see how we can go beyond exclusive views of what


people need in theirlives. Inthe wordsof an earlyfeministgroup,we need
breadand roses, too. Women want food and libertyand the possibilityof
living lives of dignityfree from dominationand violence. In this struggle,
the recognitionof women's rightsas human rightscan play an important
role.

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