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“The challenge is to ensure that women own their culture as well as their human rights” – UN rights expert

NEW YORK (2 November 2012) – Culture, including traditional beliefs and practices, must no longer be viewed as largely an impediment to women’s human rights, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, told the UN General Assembly today, warning that this “overly-simplistic attitude diverts our attention from the specific actors, institutions, rules and regulations that keep women subordinated within patriarchal systems and structures.”

Presenting her 2012 annual report* to the General Assembly, Shaheed proposed to concentrate efforts on ensuring women’s equal enjoyment of cultural rights, adding that cultural rights can play a key role in ensuring women’s human rights are respected more widely.

“Women also have the right to access, participate in, and contribute to all aspects of cultural life; they have the right to actively engage in identifying and interpreting their cultural heritage, and deciding which cultural traditions, values or practices are to be kept intact, modified or discarded altogether,” the expert stated.

Shaheed stressed that the time has come to question the existence of legal norms or practices that authorize distinguishing between women and men, including in the internal affairs of institutions that are based on a religious ethos or cultural identity. In many instances, such differentiation may result in women being excluded from taking part in the interpretation or development of cultural or religious life.

“The struggle for women’s human rights, including cultural rights, is not against religion, culture, or tradition,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The critical issue is not whether and how religion, culture and tradition prevail over women’s human rights, but how to ensure that women own their culture (including religion and tradition) as well as their human rights.”

She added that “constructed” gender differences have served in family and law, in church and state to prevent women from enjoying their human rights, including cultural rights.

“I have received and gathered information on many obstacles to women’s cultural rights which impede them from being full members of their communities,” the Special Rapporteur said. “These can take the form of restrictions against playing a particular instrument or song, or practising a particular craft or skill, or engaging in interpreting and applying particular texts, rituals or customs.” Women remain underrepresented in the fields of science, culture and the arts, even in countries with relatively long histories of equality.

“I am deeply concerned about the use of cultural relativism to challenge the universal legitimacy and applicability of human rights norms,” said Shaheed, who stressed that no one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon or limit human rights. “The cohesion of a specific cultural community should not be achieved to the detriment of one group within the community, such as women.”

“At present, gender discrimination is so frequently defended by reference to culture, religion and tradition that we can conclude that no social group has suffered a greater violation of human rights in the name of culture than women. Many such practices would not be tolerated were they predicated upon race for example,” Shaheed added.

The UN expert on cultural rights pointed out that cultural rights also relate to who in the community holds the power to define its collective identity. “This is what we should now focus on,” she said. “All voices within a community, representing the interests, desires and perspectives of diverse groups, must be heard without discrimination and given equal opportunities to shape their communities, state and societies.”

Ms. Farida Shaheed took up her functions as Independent Expert and then Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights in August 2009. She has worked for more than 25 years promoting and protecting cultural rights by fostering policies and projects designed in culturally sensitive ways to support the rights of marginalized sectors, including women, peasants, and religious and ethnic minorities. Ms. Shaheed has been the recipient of several national and international human rights awards, and is an experienced participant in negotiations at international, regional and national levels. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/CulturalRights/Pages/SRCulturalRightsIndex.aspx

(*) Read the full report: http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N12/459/30/PDF/N1245930.pdf?OpenElement or http://www.un.org/en/ga/third/67/documentslist.shtml

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Dragana Korljan (+ 41 (0)79-469-8561/ dkorljan@ohchr.org) or write to srculturalrights@ohchr.org.

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