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Political transitions provide opportunities to promote women’s human rights

This year, millions of women have taken to the streets in the Arab world to demand change.

“This year has been eventful in terms of democratisation, the recognition of freedom of expression and people’s empowerment,” said UN Human Rights chief Navi Pillay. “The courage and determination of women involved in the Arab spring should be a source of inspiration for all of us.”

Women played a vital role during the uprisings. They seized the moment of the Arab spring and voiced their hopes for democracy and participation in society and politics. They rose up and called for change. For many women, the demonstrations represented their first chance to take part in public life.

“It came as no surprise to me that women played a key role in the protest movements in those regions,” Pillay stressed. “Their struggle was simply a confirmation that there has always been a global women’s movement, with many names and faces, further reflecting the diversity we are promoting today.”

The active participation of women in public protests in many parts of the world reflects their strong desire to promote societal change, including respect of the rule of law and human rights. “Women have stood together with men in the streets, at the frontline of the struggle for a better future,” said Rashida Manjoo, the UN expert on violence against women.

Too often civilians participating in these movements of change have encountered different types of violence. Women are among those who have had to pay a high price, as political and economic transitions often exacerbate pre-existing discrimination, subordination, and violence against women.  “Women have experienced sexual abuse, inappropriate touching, invasive body searches, as well as insults and humiliations of a sexual nature. Women human rights defenders, including activists, journalists and bloggers, as well as women political candidates have been particularly targeted for politically motivated purposes,” said Manjoo.

Women are entitled to contribute to societal change and transformation, free from threats of violence. “Their voices must be heard and their concerns taken into account during times of transitions and reform,” she stressed.

Thousands of women have recently demonstrated in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, to express their anger at the treatment of women by military and security forces.

Pillay expressed strong concern at what appears to be a deliberate targeting of peaceful women protestors. “The ruthless violence being used against unarmed women protestors is especially shocking and cannot be left unpunished,” she said. “There have also been extremely disturbing reports of the ill-treatment of women in detention. These must be immediately investigated and perpetrators brought to justice.”

Transitional justice processes in the Arab region can offer unique opportunities to address violations of women’s rights and promote the transformation of traditional and societal norms that promote a subordinate position of women. 

The awarding this year of the Nobel Peace Prize to three women – Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian activist, and the Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman – has emphasised the important role that women can play in peace processes.

In these moments of historic transition, “women’s rights should be at the top of the list of new priorities,” said Pillay. “Women must be able to shape the future of their countries by being involved in institutional reforms from the beginning. Women’s full participation is essential not only for their empowerment, but for the advancement of society as a whole.”

“Let us ensure that women’s rights are at the foundation of these new beginnings, and let us be vigilant against any retrogression,” she added.

26 December 2011

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