GENEVA, Monday, 7 March 2017
Elimination of discrimination against women – an unfinished agenda
Persistence of discrimination against women
Since women workers first took to the streets of New York at the beginning of the last century, marking the origin of the observance of the International Women’s Day, progress has been made around the world in the quest for equality. Today women have gained the right to vote and run for public office; enjoy constitutional guarantees of equality in many countries; are active participants in the economy; are acquiring high level education; and are playing a crucial role in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their families, communities and countries.
The increase in gender equality and women’s participation in public life has led some to believe that there is no longer any discrimination against women. The reality is that, despite the much cherished historic achievements of generations of women pioneers and activists, the continuation of both structural discrimination and of direct and indirect discrimination, is responsible for women lagging behind.
Structural causes of inequality have not been successfully and fundamentally tackled. Gender stereotypes persist, circumscribing equality of opportunity for women and girls at all stages of the life cycle. The disparate imposition of unpaid care obligations on women deprives them of an equal basis for participation in political, public and economic activities. Gender-based violence impacts women and girls in all spheres of life, damaging their health, welfare and depriving them of equality. Gender hierarchies of power in cultural and religious institutions, often with the legal authority of the state, subordinate women in the public sphere and in the family.
Though discriminatory laws have been repealed in many countries, such laws, especially those governing family life, are still in force in a significant number of countries, mandating a lower minimum age of marriage for girls; imposing guardianship; depriving women of custody rights; legitimising polygamous marriages which subordinate women; discriminating against women in property and land rights; denying women and girls equality in succession and inheritance rights, preventing women from passing on their nationality to their children and husbands; or denying women’s sexual and reproductive health and right or allowing impunity for femicide or gender related killings of women.
Women’s high educational achievements have not always translated into corresponding leadership positions or even equality in the economic field. With rare exceptions, women remain a minority, and in some cases completely absent, in national parliaments, cabinets of Governments, civil service, the judiciary, and corporate boards and executives. Women continue to earn less for work of equal value.
In some countries, women still live under threat of criminal punishment for sexual or reproductive conduct such as adultery, prostitution, or termination of pregnancy. Criminalization of behaviour that is attributed only to women is inherently discriminatory. So is denying access to services which only women require and failing to address their specific health and safety, including their reproductive and sexual health needs.
Violence against women persists in every country, despite the enormous energy invested over the years in its eradication. Gender-based violence cannot be effectively addressed unless we dismantle the foundations of the discriminatory system that gives women a lower status in society.
Danger of reversal of achievements
Not only is the advancement of women taking a very long time and full equality far from a global reality, but today women’s hard fought achievements face the risk of reversal. An unprecedented pushback has been launched across regions by an alliance of conservative political ideologies and religious traditionalism. This pushback happens both in established democracies and countries in transition. Misogynistic discourse and male chauvinism have become increasingly overt in public and political life. Retrogressive laws and policies are being implemented, with detrimental impact on women’s health and well-being. Some Governments are fuelling discrimination against women human rights defenders, particularly those denouncing environmental devastation caused by industrial activity and those working on issues contested by fundamentalist groups, such as sexual and reproductive rights.
Continuous fight for women’s right to equality
Amidst persistent discrimination against women and the danger of regression in the women’s human rights agenda, women around the world are carrying on the struggle. They are the vanguards of social movements taking aim at the intersectional causes of discrimination. Women and girls are fighting the odds to take up the mantle of leadership in the spires of academia and the corridors of business, from city streets to the halls of power. They are demonstrating their competence in the institutions of law enforcement and in the laboratories of science and technology. They are leading their communities in the struggle for justice, for human rights and women’s rights as human rights.
On this International Women’s Day, we seize the occasion to say loud and clear that Governments must give women’s right to equality high visibility and high political priority, as required in the Sustainable Development Goals, both as a stand-alone goal and one that cross cuts all other goals. Women should not be treated merely as one in the listing of many vulnerable groups. Women constitute half of humanity, and themselves constitute generally half or often more than half of each of these vulnerable groups. Women’s demand for equality must not be subsumed in the important struggle against discrimination on grounds of identity. Discrimination against women is not only an identity issue but a structural issue rooted in the political, economic and cultural foundations of society.
Women’s human rights are fundamental rights which cannot be subordinated to cultural, religious or political considerations. We say to the women of the world – stand up and push forward. We call upon men to join in this fight. We pay tribute to all those women who courageously defy patriarchal oppression. Today we need more than ever to unite forces to preserve the democratic space. The fight against all forms of discrimination against women must continue until women everywhere obtain full equality in civil, political, economic, social, familial, cultural and religious life.
Press release: "UN experts mark International Women’s Day saying equal rights should be top of the agenda
The Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination Against Women in Law and in Practice: In 2010 the United Nations Human Rights Council decided to establish a special procedure mandate, in the form of an expert working group, to focus on the issue of discrimination against women and the empowerment of women worldwide. This represents an important step undertaken by the international community, as it establishes an independent mechanism to engage with a wide range of actors, governmental and non-governmental, to bring about changes in law and in practice. The expert Working Group has at its disposal several tools in discharging the mandate. It communicates with Governments, bringing to their attention situations of concern, including issues such as constitution building and drafting of anti-discrimination legislation, violence against women, reproductive health and discriminatory state practices. The expert group conducts country visits at the invitation of Governments and reviews challenges and good practices and makes recommendations. It also undertakes research and analysis on issues of relevance for women’s equality. This has been reflected in its annual thematic reports to the Human Rights Council focusing on eliminating discrimination against women in political and public life (2013), in economic and social life (2014), and upcoming reports on family and culture (2015), health and safety (2016), and a compendium of good practices (2017). For more information on the Working Group and access to its reports and papers, please access its webpage:
Ms. Dubravka Šimonoviæ (Croatia)
was appointed as
Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2015, to recommend measures, ways and means, at the national, regional and international levels, to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences. Ms. Šimonoviæ has been member of the CEDAW Committee from 2002 to 2014 and served as its Chairperson from 2008 to 2009. She headed the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Croatia and was the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Permanent Mission of Croatia to the UN in New York. She chaired the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She was also Ambassador to the OSCE and UN in Vienna. At a regional level, she co-chaired the Ad hoc Committee (CAHVIO) of the Council of Europe that elaborated the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention). She holds a PhD in Family Law and published books and articles on women’s rights and violence against women. Currently, she is visiting professor at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW consists of 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world. Countries that have ratified the treaty are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights of the Convention are being implemented. The Committee conducts a dialogue with the Government delegation on the basis of these reports, and addresses its concerns and recommendations to the country in the form of "concluding observations". For further information on the work of the Committee, please see: