Women’s Rights as Human Rights

by UHRC on 10/12/10 at 6:02 pm


By Sanan Shirinian

Violence against women can be considered one of the first issues on the women’s rights agenda to be fluidly incorporated into the discourse of human rights. The slogan ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ was first used at the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. This conference was successful in integrating women’s rights by recognizing rape, sexual slavery, and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation as human rights issues. In this article I will point out some of the benefits and shortcomings of realigning women’s rights into a human right’s framework.

Although ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ has become commonly used logic for’ the past 15 years, many activists and scholars have problematized this application of a human rights framework by arguing that it is embedded with certain biases favoring a western mindset. The human rights discourse might be Eurocentric in that it values the European notion of the individual. The strong emphasis placed on the individual might come at the expense of the community. This becomes problematic when considering cultures that do not view themselves as individualistic but as communal. The western notion of individualism upon which the human rights framework is largely based can lead to its rejection from cultures who suspect expansion of westernization. For example, when western feminist argued that basic human rights to women in Afghanistan were denied, the political interests motivating U.S. elites to invade the country was ironically not thought to be a violation of any rights.

A western understanding of human rights can be further problematic because it has the potential of being a top down strategy, meaning popular norms are implemented by those who hold more power. ‘Activists have noticed that global human rights discourse does not always follow the needs of local people and does not take structural inequalities into account. ‘It is evident that different parts of the world emphasize different aspects of human rights. In the global north there is a stronger emphasis placed on civil and political rights such as women’s access to political office. In the global south more attention is given to economic, social and cultural rights such as fair distribution of wealth.

It is important to realize that in the age of rapid globalization, universalism of any sort is suspect and targeted for critique. However, this should not defer our acknowledgment of the various positive outcomes the human rights framework has provided for women’s rights.
Activists such as Mallika Dutt believe the international human rights discourse and strategies are important because they bridge the divides of civilization and create universal standards and norms. Whether you are a prostitute, an incarcerated person or an ‘illegal alien,’ you are still protected by your fundamental human rights regardless of which legal system you are living under. Because human rights provide tools to interrogate power structures and transforms power relations in society, people feel a sense of entitlement to their rights, and are less afraid to seek justice and hold those in power accountable for any violations.

In response to the claim that a universalized human rights framework does not respect or understand values of non-western cultures, I believe that human rights language has the ability to incorporate difference, while simultaneously protecting the rights of people from all cultures. If we understand human rights as being expansive and not essentialist, the issue of differences in culture would be less of a concern because language and practice can be adjusted to respect peoples everywhere. However, even if a human rights agenda is successful in respecting different cultures, various forms of inequality, discrimination and oppression continue to be justified in the name of culture or religion. For example, within the Armenian nation, there seems to be a rejection or hesitation of women’s rights discussion. This might be based on a fear that women’s rights, feminism and gender equality are thought to be American values that are imposing themselves onto our traditions. However, it is important to accept that no culture is static or unchanging. It is constantly being renegotiated by all of the individuals who comprise it, including women. Thus, if beating one’s wife to keep her in line was once considered a normal part of Armenian culture, let us not discount the hundreds who are taking a stance against the practice today. These individuals have the power to change traditional values and norms because they also define and shape our culture.

Human rights enable us to challenge politics that dismiss marginalized groups as special interests because it is based on internationally recognized normative and legal principles. The violence against women that took place in Juarez, Mexico is a strong example of how issues disregarded by local governments can be framed as a human rights case in order to gain international support and attention. Disempowered groups need the protection of universalized human rights standards in order to gain proper justice denied them within the local level of government.

Framing women’s rights as human rights can be a useful tool for producing change and mobilizing communities. Although it is important to take different cultural values into consideration when applying discourse of human rights, I do not believe culture can be used as a justification to deny people of their dignity and security.

Dutt, M. (1998).”Reclaiming a Human Rights Culture: Feminism of Difference and Alliance. in E. Shohat (ed.),’Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Keck, E. & Sikkink, K. (1998). Activists beyond Borders. Cornell University Press.




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