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Are human rights bad for women?

Wednesday, 28 June 2017 14:10 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Systematic violations of women’s rights indicate that human rights all too often fail to deliver on their stated moral objectives

This question will disturb many women’s rights activists as human rights appear to provide a compelling moral authority to women’s groups everywhere.

In fact, most activists draw heavily upon human rights in their continuing struggle against women's discrimination and inequality. 

The human rights-based approach includes a raft of international legal instruments, at the heart of which is the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by 189 UN member states.

Given all of this, few would consider even questioning the relationship between human rights and the rights of women.

It is, however, precisely a profound concern for the lives of so many women and girls which compels re-evaluating the predominant global approach to gender inequality.

While a robust international legal framework has been established, women and girls continue to suffer systematic discrimination, oppression, and worse.

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation.

Over 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18.

It is estimated that 35 percent of women worldwide are victims of domestic abuse.

Sex selective abortion results in some 100 million ‘missing’ girls, a phenomenon which has been labelled as gendercide.

According to a World Economic Forum 2016 report, it will take 170 years to eliminate the global gender pay gap.

Finally, the so-called leader of the so-called free world has dismissed his boasting about sexual harassment as mere “locker room talk”.

Given all of this pathology (and many more depressing statistics and examples have been omitted), it would be morally irresponsible not to question whether the human rights-based approach is effective.

Some feminists have questioned the effectiveness of human rights. While many issues have been raised, three concerns are particularly important and relevant.

First, the distinctly legal character of human rights. Second, the potential for rights to religion and culture to reinforce gender inequality, and finally, the individualistic philosophical grounding of human rights.

Human rights exist as a tangible body of domestic and international law. There is, however, a fundamental tension, if not contradiction, at the heart of the relationship between law and human rights.

While international human rights law is based upon a set of universal moral standards, the ratification and implementation of these standards is ultimately a matter for sovereign states.

Human rights are, in a sense, heavily, if not entirely, dependent upon state recognition.

This is profoundly problematic given that many sovereign states act in ways which contradict the moral purpose of human rights.

CEDAW exemplifies this: while 189 states have ratified the convention, many either systematically fail to implement its provisions, or avoid their legal obligations by entering legally-permissible reservations against specific requirements of the convention.

International law effectively provides the means by which states can ignore or flout the principal human rights instrument for the protection of women’s human rights.

In respect of the second issue, no human right may be claimed in order to violate some other human right.

In theory, rights to religion and culture cannot be used to violate the equal human rights of women: there are no cultural exemptions to the recognition of the equal rights of women.

Notwithstanding such pronouncements, women’s rights are frequently sacrificed at the altar of protecting the purported integrity of various religious and cultural communities’ ways of being and believing.

This is particularly the case in respect of the grounds upon which many state reservations to CEDAW are made. 

Finally, the entire doctrine of human rights is founded upon the philosophical foundation of individualism.

While there are multiple interpretations of what this means for human rights, some, including myself, have argued that an entirely individualistic approach to understanding violations of human rights is deeply flawed.

The alternative, relational approach to understanding gender inequality insists upon what should be obvious to all: gender-based discrimination and inequality results from the relationships between men and women.

Protecting the dignity and self-worth of women will require fundamental changes in the attitudes and behaviour of many men who, in a multitude of ways, contribute to social conditions which prevent the de facto achievement of gender equality.

Human rights for women must extend to include the behaviour and attitudes of many men.  

I don’t ultimately believe that human rights are essentially bad for women.

However, the wholesale and systematic violations of women’s rights indicate that human rights all too often fail to deliver on their stated moral objectives.

Things can’t go on like this. Changes need to be made. More radical political approaches are required.

If human rights are to continue providing a legitimate moral platform for gender equality, some uncomfortable truths need to be addressed.

Most importantly, we need to urgently acknowledge and begin to overcome the fact that the human rights-based approach to gender equality includes significant elements which are antithetical to realising the stated moral objectives of human rights generally. 

Andrew Fagan is a human rights scholar and educator. He has taught human rights at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre since 1998.