Fifth Meeting of Spanish and African Women for a Better World, Valencia, 27-28 March 2010
27 March 2010
Women leaders and friends,
It is a great pleasure for me to participate in this Fifth Meeting of Spanish and African Women for a Better World. I particularly welcome the opportunity to contribute to your dialogues on peace and provide some thoughts on women’s human rights and citizenship.
Today, I speak as the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but also as an African woman and a committed, long-time advocate for the empowerment of women and the achievement of their human rights. I also speak to you as someone who is convinced that the dialogue this Meeting is engendering make us all stronger.
Citizenship is the principle that governs relations between the State and those within it. It empowers them to claim their rights and seek justice when these rights are violated. It enables individuals to participate and be involved in the various public institutions of the community and its life. Citizenship endows on individuals the freedom to devise and influence policies that affect them. It creates opportunities to associate with other individuals in order to pursue common goals.
Those who do not have access to public institutions and have less privileges, means, and resources are frequently called “second class citizens.” Women and girls are often found in this category as, both in law and in practice, they have been—and in many parts of the world still are—prevented from fully enjoying the entitlements of citizenship. In some States, women are systematically treated as less than human, denied access to education, employment and health care, and are subjected to horrific violence, sometimes because they dare to be visible.
But there is no doubt that much has been achieved in the quest for gender equality in citizenship, the elimination of discrimination against women, and their equal participation in public life.
Let me underline some of the achievements that have been made. The fifteen year review of the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, and the outcomes of the twenty-third session of the General Assembly on Beijing+5 undertaken by the Commission on the Status of Women this month showed that frameworks for positive outcomes for women and girls are in place.
Progress has been most significant in education, although it remains a problem in some regions, including higher education, where women’s participation has increased at a rate faster than men’s. Women have gained access to various institutions in the public sphere which had traditionally been considered the domain of men. Many States have introduced legal provisions, in their Constitutions -and elsewhere, which grant women rights with regard to public life. In almost all countries which grant suffrage to their citizens, women now have the right to vote. Women’s access to paid employment has also been kept apace. They now occupy high-level positions in many international, regional, national and local decision-making bodies.
In my view, two factors have led to these improvements. The first was the emergence of a global women’s human rights movement. The second was the determination of the United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations to provide a welcoming space to women’s rights activists, a place where they could build a growing grid of solidarity, engineer change, and claim all the rights which make up citizenship.
The pressure of women’s rights activism led to the elaboration and adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), now accepted by 186 States, and its Optional Protocol. All of the experts who have served on the twenty-three member Committee which oversees the Convention’s implementation have been strongly committed to equality and non-discrimination and have emphasized the importance of women’s equal participation in all areas. Many have been part of non-governmental networks and communities engaged in the realization of the rights of women and girls. This has ensured that the Committee’s work is relevant in practice to the lives of women and provided a context for the creative and dynamic interpretation of the Convention’s terms.
The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Commission on Human Rights’ creation of its first women-specific mandate--that of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in 1994 - were also driven by women’s human rights activists.
These advocates have also worked hard to ensure that the Human Rights Council, the premier intergovernmental human rights body, keeps the rights of women on its radar. The Council has maintained a focus on violence against women, and has taken up the pressing issue of maternal mortality. As an annual event on its agenda, the Council convenes a discussion on the integration of a gender perspective in its work. The Council’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism, which provides for an assessment at regular intervals of the human rights record of all UN Member States, offers an important new space for civil society’s participation, including women human rights activists. I urge you to encourage them to take full advantage of this vehicle to convey their concerns and recommendations regarding individual countries.
The Security Council has also played an important role in responding to women’s advocacy. With its resolutions 1325 on women, peace and security, adopted ten years ago, and subsequent resolutions 1820, 1888 and 1889, the Security Council has sought to ensure that women’s rights and women’s views are taken into account as countries emerge from conflict and rebuild their institutions. The underlying rationale of these resolutions is that women and girls are not only victims, but also indispensible agents of change.
Given the priority they deserve, the focus and paradigm shift of these resolutions will contribute to solidify peace, help justice take root, strengthen equality and offer protection to the vulnerable. They also provide the basis for sustained activism. Yet stereotypical attitudes relating to the gender roles of women remain deeply rooted in every country and culture and hamper the implementation of the Security Council’s will. I am confident that the appointment of Margot Wallström as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict will give the process of implementation both the energetic push it demands and the profile it deserves.
Crucially, and here I speak as a former judge of the International Criminal Court, its constituent document, the Rome Statute, lists rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy; enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity among crimes against humanity. This is another first achieved because of women’s advocacy.
As I noted, advancements made at the international level are mirrored at the national level. We have heard of the progress in Liberia, a country that has emerged from the horrors of a long civil war, where women’s development and wellbeing have been included in its post-conflict transition. Liberia has created an action plan that aims at furthering gender equality, combating violence against women, and achieving sustainable peace and security.
In sum, progress on many grounds and in many places that transforms women into citizens has been heartening. We must build on it and step up efforts to work for changes so that all women, our sisters, can claim their entitlement to full citizenship and participation everywhere.