The Human Rights of Girls and Women
Many countries have enshrined the human rights of women in their national legislation. Several prohibit employment discrimination.(15) A number punish gender-based violence, including domestic abuse, and outlaw child marriage and discrimination against girls within the family.(16) About 25 countries have banned female genital mutilation/cutting.(17) Some have taken steps to increase women's awareness of their legal rights and facilitated their access to legal services.(18) More women now serve as judges.(19) Women themselves have been at the forefront of these efforts, galvanizing support and strengthening enforcement.
Despite these achievements, progress is uneven. Across most of the world, women and girls face discrimination. They have fewer social, economic and legal rights than men.(20) Inequalities abound: In some countries, a man can rape a woman with impunity if he then marries her. He can be exonerated for beating or killing his wife if he catches her in an act of adultery. (21) Legal systems are permeated by social norms that reinforce gender inequality, foster mistrust by women(22) and leave many women without effective recourse to justice.
Customary laws and practices sometimes take precedence over constitutional and legal provisions for equality. This is especially so in the areas of family, inheritance and land rights, nationality and personal status.(23) Even where progressive laws are in place, weak enforcement mechanisms and lack of funding often undercut their effectiveness. In many countries, women-especially those who are poor-are largely unaware of their rights and the laws that ostensibly protect them.(24)
"No individual and no nation must
be denied the opportunity to benefit
from development. The equal rights
and opportunities of men and
women must be assured."
- 2000 UN Millennium Declaration
THE FRAMEWORK FOR WOMEN'S HUMAN RIGHTS. All human rights instruments apply equally to all people, but the two conventions that provide the most explicit protection of the rights of women and girls are the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
The UN conferences of the 1990s bolstered the framework for women's human rights. In a historic declaration, the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna for the first time confirmed women's rights as human rights.(25) The platforms that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) provide concrete action plans on women's human rights.(26) They form the basis for many national policy and legislative reforms.
When they ratified CEDAW, 180 countries agreed to promote gender equality and combat discrimination against women. The Convention, which is nearing universal ratification, obliges states that are party to CEDAW to abolish discriminatory laws, customs and practices, establish public institutions and take measures to protect women's equal rights. However, the inclusion of gender equality in the MDGs is a reminder that many promises have yet to be kept. Many countries have missed the 2005 target set at Beijing to revoke all discriminatory laws based on sex.(27) Lack of resolve is also suggested by the many reservations by governments to articles of CEDAW that they do not accept as binding. The most problematic are those to Article 2-the core provision on gender discrimination-because these reservations essentially negate the convention's main objective. Regional instruments also provide protections for the human rights of women. Particularly noteworthy is the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, the only treaty of its kind exclusively focused on gender-based violence.(28) Another important instrument is the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights that sets out a bill of rights for the continent's women.(29)
Translating these powerful human rights instruments into concrete change in the lives of women and girls depends on sustained and concerted action at the country level. Civil society actors, especially women's organizations, play a critical role in promoting accountability and monitoring implementation and enforcement: Women's groups have pressed for CEDAW implementation by working with government agencies, writing "shadow" reports and publicizing recommendations on compliance. The "Global to Local" programme of International Women's Rights Action Watch trains NGOs on how to implement CEDAW. In Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania and Uganda, women's groups are using the convention to build a roster of judges to enforce property and inheritance rights.(30) In the Arab States, UNFPA facilitates training on CEDAW and works to further gender-sensitive strategies that enshrine the spirit and letter of the convention.(31) Parliamentarians also play a key role. In Mexico, the Netherlands, Sweden and Uruguay, for example, parliamentary sessions are devoted to reviewing progress on CEDAW and charting follow-up action on the convention's implementation.(32)