Inequality before the law

Every year the Human Rights Council sets aside a day to discuss the human rights of women. The focus this year was on women’s equality before the law and the concrete steps that need to be taken to move forward.

A full day is set aside annually during the Human Rights Council to address women’s human rights - UN Photo/Jean-Marc FERREWhile speakers on the special Council Panel acknowledged some progress, the overall assessment was grim.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995 gave the international community a decade to revoke “remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.”

“This deadline has come and gone: that call remains unheeded,” noted the Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay. 

Pointing out that inequality can still be found “in all regions of the world and in all legal traditions,” Pillay described in detail the forms that discrimination can take. She gave as examples married women who are forbidden from keeping their own names, whose rights in marriage and divorce are subjugated to those of their husbands, women who do not have freedom of movement, whose educational and employment prospects are heavily circumscribed and who may be excluded from public office.

The panelists included Rama Yade, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights, a number of the Council’s special mandate holders, representatives of treaty bodies, civil society and legal experts.

Minister Yade said the international community is “still far from having achieved a victory over inequality regardless of which continent we look at.” Yade urged mobilization on the issue and said she saw it as the duty of governments to bring principles of anti-discrimination to life through tangible action.

Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said he believed “gender inequality is the single biggest challenge to the international human rights system.”

Pramila Pattern, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), said that discriminatory laws make a mockery both of the legal obligations that Governments have undertaken in acceding to CEDAW and other pledges and commitments taken, such as those in Beijing. Michael O’Flaherty, member of the Human Rights Committee, underlined that all treaty monitoring bodies, in addition to CEDAW, had the responsibility to monitor equality before the law.

Yakin Ertürk, the out-going Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, said although there had been progress in recognition of women’s right there was a gap in the way States were responding to their obligations to respect and protect women’s rights.

Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression spoke of women throughout the world who have been silenced. From early on in their lives women must be able to express themselves freely. “Women must have access to relevant information,” he said, “so they can make informed decisions.”

The Panel discussion not only reviewed women’s equality before the law globally, it also considered proposals for action. The High Commissioner expressed support for the creation of a mechanism specifically focused on finding ways to promote legal equality for women. Mechanisms are established by the Human Rights Council to address either specific country situations or thematic issues.

Last year, the High Commissioner’s Office presented a commissioned, in-depth study on laws that discriminate against women which looked at the issue of a special mechanism. The study concluded that such a mechanism would be timely and helpful. Pillay said she now hoped the idea would move forward.

The concept was endorsed by a number of speakers, amongst them Minister Yade, the representative from the Human Rights Committee and other participants in the discussion that followed.

The President of the Council, Ambassador Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi of Nigeria, noted support for the creation of a dedicated mechanism and that equality before the law would require renewed commitment and effective actions. The Human Rights Council, he said, had a key role to play in promoting and achieving gender equality.

June 8, 2009