International standards and global commitments
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
The UDHR proclaimed equal entitlements to the rights contained in the Declaration, “without distinction of any kind, such as . . . sex, … .” In the drafting of the Declaration, there was considerable discussion about the use of the term “all men” rather than a gender-neutral term. The Declaration was eventually adopted using the terms “all human beings,” and “everyone,” in order to leave no doubt that the Declaration on Human Rights was intended for everyone, man and woman alike.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
The human rights guaranteed by the ICCPR include inter alia the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, right to liberty and security of the person, rights relating to due process in criminal and legal proceedings, equality before the law, freedom of movement, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of association, rights relating to family life and children, rights relating to citizenship and political participation, and minority groups’ rights to their culture, religion and language. The ICCPR sets out the prohibition of discrimination based on, inter alia, sex, as well as the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all rights contained in the treaty.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
The ICESCR guarantees rights including inter alia the right to work, the right to form trade unions, rights relating to marriage, maternity and child protection, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health, the right to education, and rights relating to culture and science. The ICESCR also sets out the prohibition of discrimination based on, inter alia, sex, as well as the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all rights contained in the treaty
Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
The CEDAW articulates the nature and meaning of sex-based discrimination and gender equality, and lays out State obligations to eliminate discrimination and achieve substantive equality. Importantly, the Convention covers not only discriminatory laws, but also practices and customs, and it applies not only to State action, but also State responsibility to address discrimination against women by private actors.
The Convention covers both civil and political rights (rights to vote, to participate in public life, to acquire, change or retain their nationality, equality before the law and freedom of movement) and economic, social and cultural rights (rights to education, work, health, property and financial credit). CEDAW also pays specific attention to particular phenomena such as trafficking, certain groups of women, such as rural women, and specific areas where there are special risks to women’s full enjoyment of their human rights, such as matters related to marriage and the family.
Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW)
The DEVAW is the first international instrument to specifically address the issue of violence against women. It recognizes that violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women and a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women. The Declaration calls on States to condemn violence against women and to works towards its eradication.
The prohibition of discrimination based on sex is also provided for in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 2) and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (article 7). The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 6) recognizes the multiple discrimination that women with disabilities are subjected to, and States Parties commit to addressing this discrimination and taking “take all appropriate measures to ensure the full development, advancement and empowerment of women” in the enjoyment of their human rights. The Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which oversees compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, has also recognized the gender dimensions of racial discrimination, and has “endeavour[ed] in its work to take into account gender factors or issues which may be interlinked with racial discrimination.” Additionally, the Committee against Torture, which monitors the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, regularly addresses issues of violence against women and girls.
Women’s rights have been at the heart of a series of international conferences, which have produced significant political commitments to ensure women’s human rights, and equality such as:
In addition, the rights of women belonging to particular groups, such as older women, minority ethnic women or women with disabilities have been also addressed in various other international policy documents such as the International Plans of Action on Ageing (Vienna 1982 and Madrid 2002), the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (2001) and the World Programme of Action concerning Disabled Persons (1982).
Vienna Declaration & Platform for Action
In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights was held in Vienna and sought to review the status of the human rights machinery in place at the time. Women’s rights activists mobilized to ensure that women’s human rights were fully on the agenda of the international community, joined by the rallying cry “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” The Conference was successful in adopting the Vienna Declaration and Program for Action, which stated that “the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights” and placed particularly heavy emphasis on eliminating all forms of gender-based violence.
International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)
The ICPD, which was held in Cairo in 1994, represented an important milestone for women’s rights. The ICPD Programme of Action is explicitly grounded in human rights, and proclaims that “[a]dvancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and the elimination of all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility, are cornerstones of population and development-related programmes.” The Conference was also important for its clear statement of reproductive rights, explaining that these “rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights documents.” The Programme of Action sets specific targets relating to the provision of universal education; the reduction of infant, child and maternal mortality; and to ensuring universal access by 2015 to reproductive health care, including family planning, assisted childbirth and prevention of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS.
Beijing Declaration & Platform for Action
Adopted during the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action focused on 12 areas concerning the implementation of women’s human rights and set out an agenda for women’s empowerment. It is considered a significant achievement in explicitly articulating women’s rights as human rights. The Platform for Action includes a series of strategic objectives, aimed at the elimination of discrimination against women and achievement of equality between women and men. It involves political and legal strategies at a global scale using a rights framework as its basis. The Platform for Action is the most comprehensive expression of governments’ commitments to the human rights of women. It is concerning though that both the 2005 and 2010 reviews of the Platform concluded that de jure and de facto equality has not been achieved in any country in the world and the 2010 review recognized that even where legal reforms have taken place, they are often ineffectively implemented.
Millennium Development Goals (MDG)
In 2000, the international community agreed to 8 time-bound development targets to be achieved by the year 2015, including a Goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women, as well as one on the reduction of maternal mortality. MDG 3 aims to promote gender equality and empower women. However, the corresponding target relates only to eliminating gender disparities in education. In addition to an indicator on the ratio of girls to boys in education, Goal 3 includes indicators on the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector and the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament. MDG 5 aims to reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio. Unfortunately, at the 2010 review Summit of the MDGs, the goal on maternal mortality was revealed to be the most off track of all of the MDGs. This reality has been considered especially scandalous considering the fact that we have the knowledge and tools available to make pregnancy and childbirth a safe experience for women. In 2010, the Secretary General launched a Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, setting out key actions to improve the health of women and children worldwide.
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development
The Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development brought Heads of State and Government to Brazil in 2012, to appraise implementation progress and gaps for agreements struck since the landmark 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio. In Rio+20, countries renewed their political commitment to sustainable development and agreed to establish a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). Importantly, the outcome document also reaffirms the commitments of States to “women’s equal rights, access and opportunities for participation and leadership in the economy, society and political decision-making,” and includes explicit references to accelerating implementation of commitments in CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Declaration. The outcome document also includes recognition that “gender equality and the effective participation of women are important for effective action on all aspects of sustainable development” and calls for the repeal of discriminatory laws and ensuring women’s equal access to justice.