The Feminization of Human Rights
Human rights, as they currently stand, are pretty amazing. They ensure that you can walk around without being tortured, detained by the government for no reason, or killed. They mean you can vote, speak your mind, marry, and enjoy your family life undisturbed. But, in the #MeToo era, is there anything missing from this list? In particular, are women’s experiences fully captured and protected within this framework?
In the 1990s, law professors Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin criticised the major human rights treaties for being “directed towards protection for men within their public life – their relationship with government”. In their view, human rights treaties ignore the “ways in which being a woman is in itself life-threatening and the special ways in which women need legal protection to be able to enjoy their right to life”.
They also criticised how many human rights treaties use only the masculine pronoun (he/his/him). For example, while much of the European Convention on Human Rights refers neutrally to ‘Everyone’, it also refers to ‘his life’, ‘his conviction of a crime’, ‘his liberty’, and ‘his lawful detention’. Even if intended to be generic, this can be harmful. As scholar Helen Bequaert Holmes has written, “a man is sure that he is included; a woman is uncertain.”
Feminist law professor Charlotte Bunch added that excluding violence against women from the human rights agenda indicates that “female subordination runs so deep that it is still seen as inevitable or natural, rather than a politically structured reality maintained by patriarchal interests.”
The professors mentioned above were writing in the 1990s, which is when the Violence Against Women movement was crystallizing. This movement recognized the huge problem of gender-based violence and resulted in 1992 being proclaimed the ‘Year of the Woman’ and the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This included a mandatory requirement that countries report statistical data on violence towards women to United Nations committees. 1995 marked Hilary Clinton’s famous ‘Women’s Rights Are Human Rights Speech’ in the Beijing conference for the Commission on the Status of Women.
2018 calls for different concerns. While recognizing that violence against women is a critically important issue, the time has come for human rights to recognize the specific needs of women.
A number of women’s concerns are addressed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural rights (the ICESC). The ICESC is a treaty between 166 countries in the world, which commit to gradually improving people’s economic, social, and cultural rights. For example, by ensuring equal opportunity for employed people to be promoted to a higher level, the right to social insurance, and paid maternity leave (or adequate social benefits). The main problem with this treaty is that many countries (like the UK) have not implemented it into national law. In practice, it is therefore very difficult to rely on in a court or legal proceedings. It also only asks countries to ‘take steps’ to work towards ‘full realization’ of the rights, which most countries can always say they are doing (not always credibly).
Equally, the ICESC leaves out a number of considerations women might think very important. Period poverty is a really good example. Period poverty is when women or girls don’t have the money to buy sanitary products to get them through their monthly period. Girls miss school because of it, and no doubt suffer much unnecessary embarrassment and harm to self-esteem.
If the purpose of human rights is to ensure equality and dignity for all, then we need to take account of these biological and differences within our human rights framework. These differences clearly have the potential to hamper women’s opportunities to participate in all the areas of life protected by human rights – including education, politics, and work. In other words, we need to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to our human rights framework to account for sexual differences, including periods and pregnancy.
More than biological differences, we also need to start thinking about differences based on the cultural construct of ‘gender’ or ‘being a woman in today’s society’. Should women, for example, have to go through life being cat-called, wolf-whistled at, groped or otherwise objectified (treated as thing rather than person)? A recent report by Plan International UK found that 66% of girls aged between 14-21 in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual attention or sexual or physical contact in a public place, and girls as young as eight are experiencing street harassment.
If we don’t think they should, then should we be calling on governments to deliver educational programs to school children about the inherent value in each child and each sex? How can we change perceptions of women to ensure they live a life devoid of harassment and biological disadvantage? Is freedom from street harassment a human right? This, collectively, is something we as a society need to work out.