A series of human rights treaties and international conference
agreements, forged over several decades by governments increasingly
influenced by a growing global movement for women's rights
provides a legal foundation for ending gender discrimination and
gender-based rights violations. These agreements affirm that women
and men have equal rights, and oblige states to take action against
Jorgen Schytte/Still Pictures
|Judge in Ghana. Human rights treaties provide a legal foundation for ending gender-based human rights violations.
starting point is found in the principles of the United Nations
Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which
all member states of the United Nations subscribe. Specific descriptions
of rights and freedoms have been elaborated since these two instruments
were written in the 1940s, but every subsequent human rights treaty
has been rooted in the founders' explicit recognition of equal rights
and fundamental freedoms for individual men and women, and their
emphasis on protecting the basic dignity of the person.
As expressions of the world's conscience, the consensus decisions
of international conferences are also powerful instruments for promoting
change both within countries and internationally. The Vienna Declaration
and Programme of Action, theProgramme of Action of the International
Conference on Population and Development and the Platform for Action
adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) are international
consensus agreements that strongly support gender equality and women's
In particular, the ICPD and FWCW documents, drawing on human rights
agreements, clearly articulate the concepts of sexual and reproductive
rights including the right to sexual and reproductive health;
voluntary choice in marriage, sexual relations and childbearing;
freedom from sexual violence and coercion; and the right to privacy1
which are essential to gender equality.
Human Rights Treaties
The Preamble of the United Nations Charter, adopted in 1945,
reaffirms "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and
worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women
and of nations large and small". The Charter recognizes that one
purpose of the United Nations is "to achieve international cooperation
in . . . promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and
for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race,
sex, language, or religion".
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948,
further elaborated the scope of human rights. Article 1 summarizes
all of the subsequent articles and succeeding treaties and conventions
when it says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity
and rights." In some matters, such as marriage rights, the declaration
goes into some detail in specifying the ways in which men and women
should be treated. It specifies that "men and women of full age,
without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have
the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal
rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage
shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the
More than 20 years after adopting the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the international community agreed on two covenants
spelling out in more detail the rights embodied in the declaration.
These were the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (often referred to as the political covenant) and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
(often referred to as the economic rights covenant). Both entered
into effect in 1976. These are legally binding on states that have
ratified them. However, many member states have not done so, and
many others have done so only with substantial reservations. (States
can make reservations to treaty articles that they do not wish to
be bound by, as long as these are not contrary to the meaning of
Both covenants incorporated understandings based on the declaration,
many of which have important implications with regard to gender
and reproductive rights; these include the right of women to be
free of all forms of discrimination, the right of freedom of assembly
and association, and family rights. The political covenant, among
other things, recognizes the rights to "liberty and security of
the person" (Article 9) and "freedom of expression", including "freedom
to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds"
(Article 19); and affirms that "no marriage shall be entered into
without the free and full consent of the intending spouses" (Article
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 and had
165 states parties as of January 2000. The Convention seeks to address
pervasive social, cultural and economic discrimination against women,
declaring that states should endeavour to modify social and cultural
patterns of conduct that stereotype either sex or put women in an
inferior position. It also declares that states should ensure that
women have equal rights in education and equal access to information;
eliminate discrimination against women in access to health care;
and end discrimination against women in all matters relating to
marriage and family relations. The Convention declares that states
must act to eliminate violations of women's rights whether by private
persons, groups or organizations.
The Convention sets clearer definitions and standards than the
earlier covenants with respect to gender equality and expands the
protections against discrimination. In particular, it recognizes
that because socially defined gender roles differ, provisions against
discrimination and abuse cannot simply require equal treatment of
men and women; there must be a more positive definition of responsibilities
that applies appropriate rights standards to all. The Convention
recognizes the need to examine rules and practices concerning gender
in society to make sure that they do not weaken rights guarantees
ensuring the equality of the two sexes in all aspects of their lives.
Nearly all states have ratified the Convention on the Rights
of the Child, making it a strong tool for holding governments
accountable on human rights issues. In addition to upholding specific
rights of children, this Convention, adopted in 1989, deals more
broadly with gender relations. It reaffirms, for example, the right
to family planning services, recognized by prior conventions and
Article 24 obligates states "to ensure appropriate prenatal and
post-natal health care for mothers". It also calls on them to take
"all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing
traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children"; this
is an explicit recognition of the deleterious effects of such practices
as female genital mutilation. Article 34 says that states must "undertake
to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual
abuse". Article 17 states that the child should have access to information
"aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral
well-being and physical and mental health".
Applying the Convention, the Committee on the Rights of the Child
has, for example: recommended that specific laws be enacted and
enforced to prohibit FGM (1997); called on Kuwait to take action
to prevent and combat early marriage (1998); and called on Mexico
to raise and equalize the minimum legal ages for marriage of boys
and girls (1999).
Human Rights Treaty Bodies: Reports and Recommendations
Countries that have ratified human rights treaties are required
to report regularly on actions they have undertaken to ensure the
exercise and enjoyment of the specified rights. Established bodies
monitor the implementation of rights instruments. For example, the
Human Rights Committee monitors compliance with the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and receives complaints from
individuals whose rights have been violated, while the Committee
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights monitors implementation
of the economic rights covenant.
Treaty bodies offer recommendations and interpretations to assist
in monitoring, reviewing and evaluating the international human
rights treaties. Their recommendations can take several forms. Some
clarify treaty provisions, for example, by specifying actions that
states, groups or individuals should take. These monitoring bodies
can also define standards and recommend actions needed to protect
or expand a right. NGOs may also submit "shadow reports" when a
state is before a treaty body.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has
issued a number of recent rulings on reproductive rights. For instance,
it has called on Cameroon to eliminate the practices of polygamy,
forced marriages and FGM, and bias in favour of the education of
boys (1999); noted with concern the high incidence of pregnancies
among females of school age in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
(1997); and noted that Switzerland's Parliament had not yet recognized
the right of pregnant women to maternity benefits as Article 10
Concerned about the high number of suicides of adolescent girls,
"which appear in part to be related to the prohibition of abortion,"
the Human Rights Committee called on Ecuador to help adolescents
facing unwanted pregnancies to obtain adequate health care and education
(1998). Regarding Poland, the committee voiced concern about: strict
abortion laws leading to high numbers of unsafe clandestine abortions;
limited access for women to affordable contraceptives; the elimination
of sexual education from schools; and the insufficiency of public
family planning programmes (1999).
In March 2000, the committee adopted a comprehensive new General
Comment on gender equality, spelling out what Article 3 of the political
covenant entails and what information states parties are expected
to provide in their reports. It states that gender equality applies
to the enjoyment of all rights civil, cultural, economic,
political and social and is not merely a right to non-discrimination;
affirmative action is required. States parties are obliged to prohibit
discrimination on grounds of sex, and to "put an end to discriminatory
actions both in the public and the private sector".
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against
Women monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. At its January 1992
session, the committee adopted General Recommendation 19 on violence
against women, which states that "gender-based violence which impairs
or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental
freedoms is discrimination" within the treaty's purview.
In 1994, the committee found that violence against women within
families constituted a violation of the "right to non-discrimination
against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations".
It called for: criminal penalties and civil remedies in domestic
violence cases; outlawing the "defence of family honour" as a justification
for assault or murder; services to ensure the safety of victims
of family violence; rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators of
domestic violence; and support services for families where incest
or sexual abuse had occurred.
The committee subsequently decried the high incidence of teenage
pregnancy in Belize, which it linked to a lack of adequate family
planning information and contraceptive use; it also expressed concern
that schools are free to expel girls because of pregnancy, and that
only a few allow girls to continue their education after pregnancy
(1999). It ruled that in Chile, "deep-rooted social and cultural
prejudices" hold back the achievement of equality for women; it
expressed concern at high rates of teenage pregnancy, which it linked
to sexual violence; and it urged the Government to revoke laws imposing
criminal penalties on women who undergo abortions and requiring
health professionals to report them (1999).
It urged Nepal to amend discriminatory laws on property and inheritance,
marriage, nationality, birth registration and abortion; and to punish
persons who procure women for prostitution or for trafficking; and
it expressed concern about harmful traditional customs and practices,
such as child marriage, dowry, polygamy, and ethnic and religious
practices that force girls to become prostitutes (1999). The committee
expressed concern about Peru's high incidence of domestic violence,
including incest, and sexual violence against rural and indigenous
women, including teenagers; it recommended that the Government review
its law on abortion and ensure that women have access to complete
health services which include safe abortion and to emergency medical
attention when complications arise from abortions (1998).
Only a small number of countries report to the committee each year.
The impact of recommendations and rulings gains from their general
relevance and cumulative application.
On 10 December 1999, Human Rights Day, the Optional Protocol
to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women was opened for signature, ratification and accession.
As of 28 March 2000, 33 countries had signed the protocol and some
had started parliamentary procedures required before ratification;
10 ratifications are needed for the protocol to enter into force.
The Optional Protocol is a legal instrument that will enable victims
of gender discrimination to submit complaints to the Committee on
the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. By accepting the
protocol, a state would recognize the committee's competence to
receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups of individuals
within its jurisdiction in cases where they have exhausted domestic
The Optional Protocol also enables the committee to initiate inquiries
into situations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights.
Although the protocol allows states upon ratification or accession
to declare that they do not accept the inquiry procedure, it explicitly
provides that no reservations may be entered to its terms. Upon
its entry into force, the protocol will put the Convention on an
equal footing with other human rights instruments that have individual
complaints procedures, such as the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
in April 2000 adopted a general recommendation which recognized
that some forms of racial discrimination have unique and specific
impacts on women. The committee resolved to take gender factors
into account when examining racial discrimination.
In addition to the work of the treaty monitoring bodies, the Commission
on Human Rights monitors states' compliance with international
human rights law and investigates alleged rights violations. Operating
through special rapporteurs and working groups, the Commission sends
fact-finding missions to developing and developed countries in all
parts of the world. There is, for example, a special rapporteur
on violence against women.
In April 1999, the commission adopted consensus resolutions that
called on governments to take effective action to combat trafficking
in women and girls and violence against women. It also urged that
all treaty bodies, special procedures and other United Nations human
rights mechanisms systematically take a gender perspective into
account in implementing their mandates.
International Conference Consensus Agreements
While agreements reached at international conferences are not legally
binding, the human rights treaty monitoring bodies can take their
recommendations into account, for example, in setting standards
and in making interpretations and recommendations. As expressions
of international consensus, the conference agreements are also strong
advocacy tools that can and do influence the formulation of national
laws and policies. Several of the major conferences of the 1990s
addressed issues of gender equality and women's rights.
The World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in
1993, declared human rights to be a universal norm, independent
of the standards of individual states. The Vienna Declaration emphasizes
that the rights of women and girls are "an inalienable, integral
and indivisible part of human rights", requiring special attention
as part of all human rights activities.
The conference urged that increased priority be given to eradicating
all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex; to ensuring women's
full and equal participation in political, civil, economic, social
and cultural life; and to ending all forms of gender-based violence.
Countries agreed that women's enjoyment of rights including
equal access to resources is both an end in itself and essential
to their empowerment, to social justice, and to overall social and
The Vienna Declaration also affirms that women should enjoy the
highest standards of physical and mental health throughout their
lifespans. It reaffirms the principle of equality between men and
women, and the right to equal access to all levels of education.
And it acknowledges women's right to accessible and adequate health
care and the widest range of family planning methods and services.
As a result of the Vienna recommendations, the General Assembly
in December 1993 adopted by consensus the Declaration on the
Elimination of Violence against Women which stipulates
that all states parties, in accordance with national legislation,
should prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against
women, whether perpetrated by the state or private persons
and appointed a special rapporteur to monitor implementation of
measures designed to end violence against women.
International Conference on Population and Development
The 1994 ICPD recognized that empowering women and improving their
status are important ends in themselves and essential for achieving
sustainable development. The ICPD Programme of Action2 affirmed that
universally recognized human rights standards apply to all aspects
of population programmes.
Box 28: The Right
to Reproductive Health Care
The Programme of Action sets out the context and content of reproductive
rights. Paragraph 7.3 spells out the underlying precepts:
[R]eproductive rights embrace certain human rights that
are already recognized in national laws, international human rights
documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the
recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to
decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of
their children and to have the information and means to do so, and
the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive
health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning
reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed
in human rights documents.
Another landmark event in efforts to achieve full equality for
women was the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing
in 1995. The Platform for Action3 adopted by the FWCW affirms that
women's human rights are inalienable, universal, indivisible and
interdependent. It puts forth the principle that rights for all
must be defended in order that rights for any are preserved. It
calls on all governments, organizations and individuals to promote
and protect the human rights of women, through the full implementation
of all relevant human rights instruments, especially the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,
and to work to ensure that equality of the sexes and non-discrimination
based on gender exist both in the law and in practice.
The Beijing platform identifies "12 critical areas" of action needed
to empower women and ensure their human rights: women and poverty;
education and training of women; women and health; violence against
women; women and armed conflict; women and the economy; women in
power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms for the advancement
of women; human rights of women; women and the media; women and
the environment; and the girl-child.4
The FWCW reaffirmed and strengthened the consensus that had emerged
at the ICPD in Cairo the year before. Much of the ICPD language
on reproductive rights was incorporated directly into the Platform
for Action. Paragraph 92 states: "Good health is essential to leading
a productive and fulfilling life, and the right of all women to
control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility,
is basic to their empowerment." Paragraph 96 states: "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, discrimination
Following the FWCW, the Commission on the Status of Women
was mandated to regularly review the Platform for Action's critical
areas of concern and play a catalytic role in follow-up to the conference.
The Commission, established in 1946, meets annually to make recommendations
and reports promoting equal rights for women and men in political,
economic, civil, social and educational fields. Among other things,
it ensured that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights included
provisions on gender equality.
The consensus documents of the ICPD and other conferences are intended
to lead to action. Five-year reviews have assessed progress towards
the agreed goals, identified obstacles and set new benchmarks
The "ICPD+5" follow-up, for example, took place in 1998 and 1999
in a series of events5 culminating in a special session of the General
Assembly. The special session adopted a document on key actions
for the further implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.
While endorsing all of the provisions of the ICPD Programme of Action,
it went beyond that document in certain areas, including the reproductive
rights of adolescents and of women in emergency situations.
The special session called on governments to respect, protect and
promote the human rights of women and girls particularly
freedom from coercion, discrimination and violence, including harmful
practices and sexual exploitation by developing, implementing
and effectively enforcing gender-sensitive policies and legislation.
It called for intensified action on: reproductive and sexual health;
maternal mortality; the reproductive health needs of adolescents;
reducing abortion and addressing the health consequences of unsafe
abortion; prevention of HIV/AIDS; gender issues and education (Boxes
4 and 7).
Governments were encouraged to sign, ratify and implement the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women;
to remove reservations incompatible with the convention's objective
and purpose; and to consult with civil society in the human rights
treaty-reporting process. United Nations bodies responsible for
indicators relating to women's human rights were urged to incorporate
sexual and reproductive health issues.
The "Beijing+5" review, entitled "Women: 2000: Gender Equality,
Development and Peace for the 21st Century", took place 5-10 June
2000. The General Assembly session assessed progress in implementing
the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women,
adopted in 1985, and the FWCW Platform for Action, and considered
future actions and initiatives (Box 5).
For the rights written into treaties and consensus documents to
become a reality, they need to be incorporated into national laws,
policies and programmes. The monitoring mechanisms growing out of
the international conferences have made it much easier than in the
past to keep abreast of national progress in turning ideals into
Understandings about what human rights entail, and how they should
be protected and monitored, are developed in a variety of processes,
internationally and within countries. Consideration of gender factors
needs to become an integral and systematic part of all these processes.
Despite important progress, this largely remains to be achieved.
Box 29: The ICPD Programme
of Action and Gender Equality
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