Women’s economic, social and cultural rights


There has been seen considerable progress worldwide in advancing women’s economic, social and cultural rights. In the last decades, laws which prohibit discrimination against women in economic and social life have been adopted in many countries, parity has been reached in the enrolment of boys and girls in primary education, and women have more access to employment than before. However, women still do not enjoy economic, social and cultural rights on a equal basis with men. Women continue to experience numerous violations of their right to health, including as evidenced by unacceptably high maternal mortality and morbidity rates around the world. There is pervasive discrimination against women in matters relating to land, property and inheritance. Women’s employment is very often more precarious and less well paid than men’s. Girls’ access to secondary education and some areas of university education, traditionally reserved for men, is not yet ensured. Violence against women has dramatic consequences on women’s enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. When violations of these rights occur, women’s equal access to justice is not guaranteed.

What OHCHR does

OHCHR works for the protection and promotion of women’s economic, social and cultural rights in a variety of ways, including through its support to the Treaty Bodies, especially CEDAW and CESCR, and Special Procedures.

1. Sexual and reproductive health rights

Works together with other UN agencies and departments to provide guidance on specific issues pertaining to women’s human rights

Maternal Mortality and Morbidity

The OHCHR’s work on maternal mortality and morbidity, which is grounded in the larger sexual and reproductive health and rights framework, provides detailed analysis and guidance on how States can realize their obligations to ensure human rights in this context. OHCHR undertakes work on maternal mortality and morbidity as a human rights issue. The reasons why women and girls ultimately die or suffer injury during pregnancy and childbirth are often classified as the “three delays”:

  • delays in seeking appropriate medical care,
  • delays in reaching an appropriate health facility, and
  • delays in receiving appropriate care once at a facility.

Multiple human rights concerns fuel these delays, resulting in compounded human rights violations including violations of the right to life, the right to physical integrity, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, and the right to equality and non-discrimination. OHCHR's work on maternal mortality and morbidity is premised upon empowering women to claim their rights, and not merely avoiding maternal death or morbidity. Women are seen as active agents who are entitled to participate in decisions that affect their lives. Addressing maternal mortality and morbidity as a human rights issue also requires addressing the social determinants of women's health, including discrimination against women, as well as particular attention to vulnerable or marginalized groups of women who often have markedly higher rates of maternal deaths. 

The OHCHR has submitted to the HRC three reports on this crucial topic:

OHCHR is currently leading efforts to use this technical guidance in national settings, together with UN and civil society partners.

2. International processes: ICPD, Post-2015

OHCHR contributes to international discussions and reviews of international agreements pertaining to development, population and women’s rights

- International thematic conference on human rights: OHCHR is co-chairing with UNFPA and the Dutch Government an International thematic conference on human rights in the context of ICPD Beyond 2014 Review. This conference that will take place in July will bring together a variety of stakeholders to identify and discuss positive human rights developments in the past 20 years, remaining gaps and challenges, as well as emerging issues and priorities for the future to ensure that human rights are advanced without discrimination. The conference will generate discussions as to effective ways to ensure human rights related to the ICPD agenda, in particular sexual and reproductive health rights, and point towards future actions to better incorporate these rights into the wider development discourse. (add link to conference website/or programme)

- Post 2015 development agenda: OHCHR is contributing to the thematic working groups in connection with the post 2015 development agenda discussions, in particular the thematic working group on inequalities, chaired by UNICEF and UN Women.

3. Women, land, housing and property rights

OHCHR devotes particular attention women’s equal rights to land, housing and property. The focus of the Commission on the Status of Women last year on rural women was an important catalyst for OHCHR and UN Women to organize an expert meeting on women’s rights to land and other productive resources (add link to UN Women website on EGM). During the meeting a variety of expert papers were presented, representing various sectors and regions, which helped to surface many of the critical issues facing women today in relation to the enjoyment of their land rights.  The meeting aimed to identify good practices in realizing women’s rights to land and other productive resources. The sharing of experiences among experts led also to the identification of key recommendations addressed to policy makers and other stakeholders.  In June/July 2013, OHCHR and UN Women will produce a Handbook reflecting these practices and recommendations and will share them widely to contribute towards improved respect for rights in this domain.

Also in 2012, OHCHR released a publication on “Women and the Right to Adequate Housing” (add link to Publication), which provides in depth analysis of the enjoyment of this right by women and the gender specific dimensions of this right. The publication notes that in many parts of the world, and especially in rural areas, women’s enjoyment of the right to adequate housing continues to be dependent on their access to and control over land and property. Through examples, and drawing on the work of the human rights mechanisms, this publication is a tool for advocates and Governments to improve enjoyment of this right by women.

OHCHR has also provided substantial support to the development of the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (add link to Voluntary Guidelines). The Tenure Guidelines are the first international guidance on the governance of tenure, negotiated and agreed through an inter-governmental negotiation, with substantial participation of civil society and the private sector. OHCHR participated in all three rounds of negotiations and provided technical advice to ensure the guidelines are consistent with international human rights norms. The Guidelines recognizes "gender equality" as one of the key principles of implementation.

Also our OHCHR offices around the world are involved in various activities aiming at defending and promoting women’s access to land and property.
For example, the OHCHR Colombia Office has been supporting the implementation of the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law. In this context, the Office published in 2012 a “compilation of national and international case law and doctrine on land and human rights” (add link to Compilation) which specifically includes sections dealing with women’s rights issues such as “evictions and access to property land for displaced women” and “women’s rights and the right to adequate housing”. In Cambodia, women are at the forefront of protests relating to land issues and the right to adequate housing, sometimes at risk of violence and arbitrary detention. The OHCHR Office in the country (add link to OHCHR country website) has intervened to secure the release of these defenders and to facilitate dialogue between the communities and authorities to help them reach negotiated settlements.

Main OHCHR thematic studies/reports/documents

Main speeches