The Purpose of Module 4

The purpose of this module is to provide an overview of the ESC rights of women.

The module

  • summarizes the current ESC situation of women internationally;
  • discusses gender ideology and the impact of a gender perspective on specific ESC rights;
  • reviews the history of the struggle for women’s rights to be recognized as human rights;
  • explores some conceptual issues related to women’s rights;
  • reviews international legal norms on women’s rights; and
  • identifies challenges and opportunities for integrating women’s rights in ESC activism.


When men leave their villages for better-paid jobs in cities or abroad, women get saddled with the farm work as well as their domestic chores.  When bloated state en­terprises “rationalise” their workforces, women get laid off before male “heads of household.”  When sweatshops seek underpaid casual labour, women are the first to be recruited.

When newly rich men dabble in vice, village girls get dragooned into prostitution and middle-aged matrons wind up divorced.  Yet when fast-changing lifestyles provoke a traditionalist backlash, patriarchy reasserts itself with a vengeance.  When inflation bids up dowries and social pressures depress birth rates, girl babies get aborted or murdered in their cribs to make way for male heirs. When the resulting skew in the sex ratio makes for a shortage of marriageable women, a black market arises for kid­napped brides. [1]

This excerpt from the magazine Far Eastern Economic Review graphically captures the mul­tifaceted discrimination and exploitation faced by women.  Processes of political and eco­nomic transformation that have changed the face of the world over the past decades have had a profound impact on the lives of women.  Many of these changes have been positive.  Some, however, have strengthened the bonds of subordination and discrimination against women, restricting them from enjoyment of their economic and social rights.  Internal conflicts and wars have led to displacement and destruction of property and livelihoods, which place women in an ever more vulnerable position.  Military conflict also results in an increase in violence and crime, and women and girls become particular targets.  Extremism and religious fundamentalism deny women’s autonomy and subject them to the most cruel and inhuman of punishments for “transgression” of norms laid out by those in power within the hierarchies that rule these movements. 

The rapid globalization of the world’s economies has brought in its wake not only structural adjustment programs that weaken national economies and nation-states, but also promotion of forms of industrialization and agriculture that are more exploitative of both human and natural resources.  Statistics show that the female labor force is the most affected.  In addi­tion, as the poor of the world become poorer, women become the poorest of them all; the “feminization” of poverty is a reality in the contemporary world.  A decrease in social spending—for example, on public health, education, transport, food and fertilizer subsidies—has been a critical part of the “structural adjustment programs” imposed on many countries by the international financial institutions.  This decrease has had a disastrous impact on the quality of life of populations in general, and on disadvantaged communities, such as women, in particular.  (See Module 26 for more on this issue.)

The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 1993 high­lighted various areas in which women fare worse than men in accessing as well as enjoying ESC entitlements:

Literacy—Women are much less likely than men to be literate.  In South Asia, female literacy rates are only around 50% those of males . . . in Nepal 35% . . . Sudan 27%.  Women make up two-thirds of the world’s illiterates.

Higher education—Women in developing countries lag far behind men.  In Sub-Saha­ran Africa, their enrolment rates for tertiary education are only a third of those of men.  Even in industrial countries, women are very poorly represented in scientific and technical study . . .

Employment—In developing countries women have many fewer job opportunities, the employment participation rates of women are on average only 50% those of men (in South Asia 29% and in Arab States only 16%) . . . Wage discrimination is also a feature of industrial countries: in Japan, women receive only 51% of male wages.  Women who are not in paid employment are, of course, far from idle.  Indeed, they tend to work much longer hours than men . . .

Health—Women tend on average to live longer than men.  But in some Asian and North African countries, the discrimination against women—through neglect of their health or nutrition—is such that they have a shorter life expectancy . . .

National statistics—Women are often invisible in statistics.  If women’s unpaid housework were counted as productive output in national income accounts, global output would increase by 20-30%. [2]

Understanding Gender Ideology and Its Practice

The question of gender is normally ignored in the development of policies or programs for dealing with economic, social and cultural issues.  The 1995 UNDP Human Development Report rightly stated, “For too long it was assumed that development was a process that lifts all boats . . . that it was gender neutral in its impact.  Experience teaches otherwise.” [3]   It is thus essential to understand gender ideology and ensure that women’s perspective is not ignored or undermined by activists working in the field of ESC rights. 

Differentiation based on gender (male-female) forms the core of gender ideology.  Biological differences are real (e.g., chromosomes, external and internal genitalia, hormonal states and secondary sex characteristics) and lead to the determination of the male or female sex.  Through gender ideology, however, these differences are extended to the social milieu and are taken for granted in establishing social position and hierarchy, providing access to re­sources and participation in society, and creating stereotyped roles for men and women.  On the basis of sex differences, a superordinate-subordinate hierarchy is established, through which males have access to land holdings, inheritance, skills, productive employment and the associated high status.  Women, on the other hand, receive poor nutrition and medical care, and inferior education; they suffer violence and are even denied life (female infanticide).

Social institutions such as the family, religious groups or caste systems; political and legal structures; economic and educational institutions; and the mass media—all are permeated with norms and values that discriminate against women and legitimize and institutionalize social placements on the basis of gender. 

Invisible Work

Tanning of animal hides is a major export earning industry in the State of Tamil Nadu, India. Tanning is listed as one of the most hazardous industries in the state's Factories Act; it is considered seven times more hazardous than the next industry on the list. Employment of children and women in this industry is banned. A study on the tanning industry in the state found, however, that a large number of women are employed in contravention of the law. They are also involved in the most hazardous stage of production. Since their employment is illegal, it is hidden. They are never recorded as workers, so they have no rights or any form of protection under the existing industrial laws. 4

Applying a gender perspective would change the manner in which we articulate ESC rights.  The following are some examples:

1.  Right to Work and Rights at Work

From a gender perspective, the meaning of work would be changed to include unpaid work at home, on the family farm, and elsewhere, work that is currently not valued by society.  A redefinition of work would recog­nize women’s productive labor and enable women to profitably engage in home-based work.

Women are currently relegated to low-paid and low-skilled jobs; this needs to be rectified.  A fresh per­spective would help ensure that women have flexible working hours and that they are reintegrated into the labor force after time off for marriage and childbirth without penalization for absence. 

Rights at work would include protection from sexual harassment in the work place, trade unions and labor organizations.  They would also include provision of nursing breaks for breast-feeding mothers, and establishment of crèches and day-care centers; separate toilet facilities and free access to them; provision of dayrooms for rest and recognition of men­struation-related health problems as the basis of rest breaks; and ensuring participation of women in trade unions by holding meetings at times that are convenient to women. (See Module 10 for more on the right to work and rights at work.)

2.  Land Rights and Right to Property

Women’s claims to land bring into question their capacity to enjoy equal rights in every sphere—civil, political, economic, social and cultural.   Women’s rights to equal inheritance, to equal shares of matrimonial property, to recognition as legitimate and legal owners of land and property, who can buy, sell, lease and raise loans on the basis of that property, are denied all over the world, in a wide range of cultures and communities.  (See Module 18.)

Zimbabwe's Supreme Court Rules against Women's Inheritance

In a case involving inheritance rights, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe issued a landmark decision in April 1999, giving precedence to customary law over the Constitution. In this case, Venia Magaya, a 58-year-old seamstress, sued her half brother for ownership of her deceased father's land after her brother evicted her from the home. Under the Zimbabwean constitution, Magaya had a right to the land. However, the court ruled unanimously that women should not be able to inherit land, " because of the consideration in the African society which, amongst other factors, was to the effect that women were not able to look after their original family (of birth) because of their commitment to the new family (through marriage)."

The court backed up its decision by referring to Section 23 of the constitution of Zimbabwe. This section recognizes exceptions to the general rule against discrimination when it involves adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property on death or other matters of personal law and in applying African customary law. Essentially, by making this judgment, the Supreme Court elevated customary law beyond constitutional scrutiny. 5

3.  Right to Health

A gender perspective on health is not the same as focusing on women’s health or, even more narrowly, on health conditions exclusively experienced by women as a consequence of their biology.  The following passage provides a useful summary of key issues:

A gendered perspective on health includes, besides examining differences in health needs, looking at differences between women and men in risk factors and determi­nants, severity and duration, differences in perceptions of illness, in access to and utilization of health services, and in health outcomes.    

The heaviest burden of ill-health is borne by those who are most deprived, not just economically, but also in terms of capabilities, such as literacy levels and access to information.  Substantial evidence exists to indicate that in almost all societies, women and men have differing roles and responsibilities within the family and in so­ciety, different social realities, and unequal access and control over resources.  It therefore follows that gender is an important social determinant of health.  Gender differences are observed in every stratum of society, and within every social group, across different castes, races, ethnic or religious groups. 

Men and women perform different tasks and occupy different social and often, differ­ent physical spaces.  The sexual division of labour within the household, and labour market segregation by sex into predominantly male and female jobs, expose men and women to varying health risks.  For example, their responsibility for cooking exposes poor women and girls to smoke from cooking fuels.  Studies show that a pollutant released indoors is 1000 times more likely to reach people’s lungs than a pollutant released outdoors, since it is released at close proximity.  Thus, the division of labour by sex, a social construct, makes females more vulnerable to chronic respiratory dis­orders including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, with fatal consequences. ­­­­­ Men would in turn be more exposed to risks related to activities and tasks that are, by convention, male, such as mining. 

Differences in the way society values males and females, and accepted norms of male and female behaviour, influence the risk of developing specific health problems as well as health outcomes.  Studies have indicated that son preference and the under-valuation of daughters skew the investment in feeding and in health care made for boys and girls.  This has potentially serious negative health consequences for girls, including avoidable mortality.  On the other hand, social expectations about male be­haviour may expose boys to a greater risk of accidents, and to the adverse health con­sequences of smoking and alcohol-use.  

Patriarchal norms which deny women the right to make decisions regarding their sexuality and reproduction expose them to avoidable risks of morbidity and mortality, be it through a sexually transmitted infection resulting from coercive sex, or death from septic abortion because access to safe abortion has been denied by state legisla­tion.  The practice of unsafe sex by large sections of men who are well aware of the health risks cannot be explained except in terms of gender norms of acceptable and/or desirable male sexual behaviour.

Because of the socialisation of men and women to adhere to prevailing gender norms, women’s and men’s perceptions and definitions of health and ill-health are likely to vary, as is their health-seeking behaviour.  Women may not recognise the symptoms of a health problem, not treat them as serious or warranting medical help, and more commonly, not perceive themselves as entitled to invest in their wellbeing. 

Finally, because women and men do not have equal access to and control over re­sources such as money, transport and time, and because their decision-making power within the family is unequal, with men enjoying privileges that women are denied, women’s access to health services is restricted. 

There are other factors which compound women’s vulnerability because of the way society expects women and men to behave.  For the majority of women, high risk ac­tivity can simply mean being married.  Social norms which accept extra-marital and pre-marital sexual relationships in men as “normal”; and women’s inability to negoti­ate safe sex practices with their partners are factors that make it difficult for women to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections. 

To summarise, both “sex” and “gender” differences between women and men, and the many ways in which the two are intertwined, contribute to differences in health risks, health seeking behaviour, access to and utilisation of health services, and health outcomes between the two groups.  Research, policy and services aiming to improve the health status of a population will have to examine, understand and address these differences. 

A number of tools have been developed for monitoring how engendered a health pro­gramme is.  Some of the major questions to be asked include

  • does the programme address gender differentials in health risks, health informa­tion and access to health services?
  • does the programme load all responsibilities for improved health on women rather than also involving men?  does the programme add to women’s work load?
  • does the programme perpetuate gender biases?
  • will the programme contribute to redressing inequities in health by gender across various sections of the population?
  • does the programme address and help narrow gender gaps in terms of distribution of responsibilities and power among health personnel ? 6

See Module 14 for more on the right to health.

Women’s Rights as Human Rights

Some history

Women have struggled in every historical epoch and in every part of the world for equal treatment. In the early part of this century, the right of women to receive an education, to obtain paid employment, to enter professions, to vote and to stand for elections were all highly contested issues.  However, by the end of the century these rights, which could be de­scribed as a part of the “liberal democratic” political agenda, have been both recognized and established through law and customary practice in most societies.  However, women in many parts of the world still face multiple obstacles in enjoying these rights.

Women’s ability to enjoy civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights is interlinked with the issue of discrimination.  Discrimination based on gender ideology and patriarchy was not initially considered as part of the human rights agenda. Excluding sex discrimination and violence against women from the human rights agenda also results from a failure to see the oppression of women as political.  Female subordination runs so deep that it is still viewed as inevitable or natural rather than as a politically constructed reality maintained by patriarchal interests, ideology, and institutions.7

For many years the women’s movement has organized women at local, national, regional and international levels.  In recent decades, however, the movement has sought to use the human rights framework to mainstream women’s issues, rather than have the movement remain on the sidelines, benefiting from special programs, or continuing as a movement separate and apart from the rest of the human rights movement. 

The Unfinished History

The history of women's rights can in a brutal simplification be described as circular. A very early period of sex equality seems to have been followed by a long period of retrogression, then by efforts to regain some of the lost equality . . .

Descriptions of a general downward trend in societal recognition of women's equality hide their efforts to challenge inequality . . . Women martyrs are rarely known, but in every society, in every generation, there were women who led the way. For example, Fatimih Umm Salamih lived in Persia in the nineteenth century. She was born in 1817 and became known as Tahirih (The Pure One). She challenged the rules of the time, which relegated women to inferiority, and championed equality between men and women. She was murdered in 1852 and her body was thrown into a well which was then filled with stones. She was killed but not silenced; her last words were recorded: "You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women."

In the modern period, women have been active in the labour movement.

The 1918 Rice Riots in Japan were triggered off when women port workers refused to load rice and were joined by other workers; this led to a long struggle and a political crisis. In China in 1922 many thousands of workers in 70 Shanghai silk factories went on strike, calling for increased wages and a ten hour working day; this was the first important strike by Chinese women workers. In India and Sri Lanka, in the years after World War I, women workers were active participants in militant industrial agitation and strikes. To give only one example from the region, the most militant activists of the Ceylon Labour Union, which led strikes in Sri Lanka in the 1920s, were women factory workers in Colombo; they used to dress in red, were the most vociferous of the strikers and picketers, and formed a bodyguard for male trade union leaders during demonstrations. In Iran, Egypt and Turkey women were to join with men in the formation of left-wing political groups and trade unions, in spite of repression and adverse conditions for mobilizing the people.8


The women’s movement has used the Convention on the Elimina­tion of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as an ef­fective tool for bringing women’s issues into the rights arena.  Another major strategy has been to use the opportu­nities presented by international meetings and UN confer­ences.  The unprecedented mobilization of women at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1991 led to the inclusion of women’s human rights within the Vienna Declaration.  The groups and networks that became active during that process continued on to target other UN con­ferences—the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the 1995 World Sum­mit on Social Development and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. 

Women’s human rights activism has focused on expanding existing definitions of rights to include more gender-specific sensitivity to abuse as well as to provide gender-sensitive solutions and re­dress.  In addition, it has focused on the inter-sec­tionality of rights, seeking to correlate the princi­ples enunciated in separate conventions and covenants with each other.  This has most successfully been done with the Convention on the Elimina­tion of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereafter referred to as the Women’s Convention).

As a part of this exercise, violence against women has been framed as a violation of the right to life; the right not to be subjected to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treat­ment or punishment; the right to equal protection under the law; the right to liberty and secu­rity of person; and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health.  Freedom of expression and association have been additional critical areas under which diverse issues, ranging from the denial of access to information regarding contraceptives to the forced veil­ing of women, have been considered. 

The mainstreaming of women’s rights issues within the human rights movement and agenda has involved both conceptual and programmatic challenges:

Women’s rights—public and private sphere divide

Because women are defined in most human rights instruments in terms of their child-bearing and familial responsibilities, and because the family, which is a site of violence and oppres­sion for many women, continues to be described as the primary unit of society, there are se­vere limitations on the possibility of according equal treatment to women within the existing human rights regime.

The division between the “public” and “private” spheres constitutes the foundation for all forms of discrimination against women.  In the so-called private arena, the equal treatment of women remains extremely controversial.  The primacy of woman’s biological and reproduc­tive roles in defining her identity and her role in society is reinforced by social and cultural norms the world over.  Critical areas of human life such as marriage, divorce, maintenance, custody of children and inheritance continue to be determined according to religious, tradi­tional and customary practices in many countries.  Domestic violence, incest and marital rape are perceived as “private” matters and therefore “outside” the purview of the law.  These at­titudes are also articulated through many, varied legal systems and frameworks.  Given this context, women’s capacity to enjoy economic and social rights is often constrained by eco­nomic dependence and social attitudes that affirm her secondary and subordinate status in society.

The right to be treated on an equal basis with men when it comes to domestic and family matters is essential for women’s economic and social freedom.  The Women’s Convention remains the instrument with the largest number of reservations by governments ratifying in­ternational human rights conventions.  The fact that almost all of the reservations focus on the spirit of the Convention, which calls for changing unequal power relations between men and women in the private sphere, speaks to the resistance to this area of women’s rights.

Since civil and political rights have dominated human rights concerns over the last five dec­ades, the focus has been on the negative obligation of the state to refrain from action as op­posed to its positive obligation to intervene.  This, in turn, has strengthened the private/public dichotomy; the state was expected to refrain from interfering in the private sphere.  The em­phasis on constraints of state power has meant that gender inequality has been seen as falling under development policy rather than as part of the state’s affirmative human rights obliga­tions. 

Understanding of the responsibility of nonstate actors has, however, been evolving in recent years, and this has and will have a bearing on this private/public sphere debate.  (See Module 9 for further discussion on this point.)

Women’s rights and universality

The principle of universality—that human rights belong to all human beings on an equal ba­sis (see Module 2)—is an extremely critical, and sometimes hotly contested, concept within the struggle for women’s human rights.  Many customary practices, traditions and religious beliefs relegate women to a secondary status and sometimes even deny adult women their legal majority.  Most women define themselves, both as individuals and as members of communities, in terms of cultural factors that are inextricably linked to the social and eco­nomic aspects of their lives.  In a world where conflicts based on differences and identities are rampant, the issue of cultural rights remains one of the most controversial and divisive.  This makes the consideration of cultural rights from a women’s rights perspective very problematic.  The Women’s Convention reflects a clear awareness of this dilemma; in article 5(a) it calls on states parties to the Convention

to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

While respect for diversity and for diverse forms of social and cultural expression and identity must guide adherence to human rights princi­ples, women's rights activists argue for transformation of these practices and beliefs on the basis of recogni­tion of the dignity and worth of women as full human beings.  Women’s human rights groups, while organizing cross-culturally, remain sensitive to the needs and de­sires of every region of the world.  This sensitivity is a challenge for human rights activists in general and those involved in ESC rights activ­ism in particular.  Ar­ticulating and advocating for ESC rights requires a process that respects diversity as well as consensus.  (See Module 17 for a more in-depth discussion of cultural rights.)

"Tradition" and Women's Rights

The extreme extent to which culture and tradition can be used by those supporting patriarchical interests came to light in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India. A women's group, Vanangana, rescued an 11-year old girl who was being abused by her father. The organization helped the child and her mother seek protection and also took legal action against the father. The accused and his supporters in turn filed several false charges against, and published pamphlets attacking, the members of the women's organization. They charged that the organization was destroying the institution of the family and attacking Indian culture.9

Women’s rights and the indivisibility of human rights

The experiences of women all over the world point to the impossibility of their enjoying their ESC rights as a result of situations where their freedom and autonomy are constrained.   For example, the capacity of a woman worker to enjoy to the full her freedom to work, to receive equal pay, to organize or to be an active member in a workers’ organization is restricted by the prescription of a clearly defined role for her within the family and the community.   So­cial expectations that she fulfill her role as wife, housewife and mother combine with cultural sanctions that impose restrictions on her mobility and on her ability to interact on equal terms with male colleagues in public spaces.  Together these create a situation in which a woman worker’s capacity to become a leader in the workers’ movement is severely hampered.  Thus, a focus on the indivisibility of human rights is a critical part of women’s activism.

Empowering Women
The Handpump Mechanics of Banda

The handpump mechanics project in Banda in the State of Uttar Pradesh in India is an example of empowering women through ensuring access to ESC entitlements. It is one of the most backward districts in the State, known for its high degree of violence, including violence against women. The project was responding to the problem of water scarcity in the region. It began with teaching non-literate rural women to learn the skills of repairing handpumps. Acquiring a technical skill in a traditionally male domain was both a psychological and social breakthrough.

In becoming handpump mechanics, they had built confidence in their ability to learn, broken stereotypes, and entered into a spiral of learning. Of the 45 women mechanics, Sumitra (35) and Chamela (36) were probably the most technically competent. The derisive laughter, scepticism and even hostility they had first encountered from the community as they performed their new role, had grudgingly turned into respect. They had gradually become trainers as well. Travelling to different parts of the country as trainers had given them a wider exposure than most women in their villages. These experiences were testimonies of changes in their lives. Change for them was not just a distant possibility, but a concrete reality.

The women mechanics' engagement with the issue of water necessitated a move from literacy towards education. They had many questions for which they wanted answers. For instance, while dealing with acute water shortage in summer, they wanted to understand why the depth of underground water varies in different areas or during different seasons in the year. Also, they became increasingly aware of quality of drinking water and health. They wanted more information on these inter-linkages.10

Violence against women as a human rights violation

The phenomenon of violence against women cannot be ignored if human rights are to be ex­amined from a gender perspective.  The following is a summary from the Preliminary Report by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, which provides a useful perspective on the subject.

Violence against women, in particular, has inhibited women as a group from enjoying the full benefits of human rights.  Women have been vulnerable to acts of violence in the family, in the community and by States . . .

Women are vulnerable to violence because of their female sexuality (resulting in, in­ter alia, rape and female genital mutilation); because they are related to a man (do­mestic violence, dowry deaths, sati) or because they belong to a social group, where violence against women becomes a means of humiliation directed at the group (rape in times of armed conflict or ethnic strife).  Women are subject to violence in the family (battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry related violence, incest, deprivation of food, marital rape, female genital mutilation), to violence in the com­munity (rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, trafficking in women, forced prostitu­tion) and violence by the State (women in detention and rape during times of armed conflict). 

Among the historical power relations responsible for violence against women are the economic and social forces which exploit female labour and the female body.  Eco­nomically disadvantaged women are more vulnerable to sexual harassment, traffick­ing and sexual slavery.  They are also employed as bonded labour and low-paid la­bour in many economic enterprises throughout the world.  As migrant workers, they often face innumerable hardships in foreign countries.  Economic exploitation is an important aspect of modern female labour.  In addition, a study of 90 societies in relation to wife beating found that economic equality was a key factor which pre­vented violence against women.  Denying women economic power and economic in­dependence is a major cause of violence against women because it prolongs their vul­nerability and dependence.  Unless economic relations in a society are more equitable towards women, the problem of violence against women will continue.  

In the context of the historical power relations between men and women, women must also confront the problem that men control the knowledge systems of the world.  Whether it be in the field of science, culture, religion or language, men control the ac­companying discourse.  Women have been excluded from the enterprise of creating symbolic systems or interpreting historical experience.  It is this lack of control over knowledge systems which allows them not only to be victims of violence, but to be part of a discourse which often legitimizes or trivializes violence against women.  The ability to minimize women’s experience of violence ensures that no remedial action is taken by either States or individuals.  Part of the campaign to eliminate violence against women must be to challenge the systems of knowledge and the discourse of individuals which trivialize women’s experience of violence.  Women are also denied access to knowledge because they are refused education in many parts of the world.  The right to female education must therefore be the first step towards articulating a more sensitive history of violence against women. 

In addition to historical power relations, the causes of violence against women are also closely linked to the question of female sexuality.  Violence is often used as an instrument to control female sexual behaviour.  It is for this reason that violence against women often finds sexual expression.  Rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, female genital mutilation, all involve forms of violence which are an assault on fe­male sexuality.

Besides history and sexuality, the prevalence of ideologies which justify the subordi­nate position of women is another cause of violence directed against women.  In many ideologies a traditional legitimacy is given to using violence against women in certain instances.  In both the developed and the developing world, there have been cultural sanctions in the past for husbands chastising or beating their wives in certain circumstances.  These sanctions have been included in law codes in different cultural heritages . . .

The consequences of violence directed against women are difficult to ascertain be­cause the crimes are often invisible and there is very little data on the subject.  How­ever, it is very clear that fear is perhaps the greatest consequence.  Fear of violence prevents many women from living independent lives.  Fear curtails their movements, so that women in many parts of the world do not venture out alone.  Fear requires that they dress in a manner that is “unprovocative” so that no one can say that “they asked for it” if they are violently assaulted.  Fear of violence requires that they seek out male protection to prevent violence being directed at them.  This protection can result in a situation of vulnerability and dependence which is not conducive to women’s empowerment.  Women’s potential remains unrealized and energies which could be directed towards the amelioration of society are often stifled.

In certain cultural contexts, especially those in which female genital mutilation is practised, a woman is denied her existence as a sexual being with needs and expecta­tions.  This denial of female sexuality through the mutilation of the body has to be seen as a violation of a fundamental human right.

Women who are at the receiving end of violence have serious health problems.  In re­cent times, studies have been conducted on the harmful physical and emotional im­pact of violence against women, such as on the harmful effects of female genital mu­tilation on the health of women.  Other forms of abuse also result in physical injury to the body of the victim.  In addition there are psychological effects.  Abused women are subjected to depression and personality disorders.  They manifest high levels of anxiety and somatic disorders.  These psychological effects have a negative effect on the women as they paralyse them and inhibit their self-determination.

Violence in the family, in particular, has serious consequences for both women and children.  Children often show signs of post-trauma stress and have behavioural and emotional disorders . . .

In terms of development, violence prevents women from participating fully in the life of the family and the community and in society.  Energies which might be directed towards social good and development are curtailed.  Women’s potential and their contribution towards development and growth is an important aspect of the develop­ment process.  Violence against women prevents women as well as society from re­alizing their full potential.

The cost to society in terms of violence against women is phenomenal.  Much of the cost is hidden since statistics on this issue are rare.  The material cost of the conse­quences of violence is superseded by the more intangible costs relating to the quality of life, the suppression of human rights and the denial of women’s potential to par­ticipate fully in their society.11

Women’s Rights—Norms and Standards

The principle of nondiscrimination is a cornerstone of human rights principles.  Discrimina­tion based on sex is among the forms of discrimination prohibited.  This prohibition is en­shrined in the Universal of Declaration of Human Rights.  The commitment to nondiscrimi­nation was clearly reiterated by the international community in common article 2 of the two International Covenants—on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The United Nations declared 1975 the International Year of the Woman, with the first World Con­ference on Women being held in Mexico.  The year was extended to a decade, with conferences in Copenhagen (1980) and in Nairobi (1985).  The Fourth World Con­ference on Women was held in China in 1995.  The NGO Forum for the Beijing conference was attended by tens of thousands of women from all over the world.  The Platform for Action of the Beijing conference identified the hu­man rights of women as a critical area of concern.  Most of the other areas have a direct bearing on eco­nomic and social rights—poverty, education and training, health, the economy, power and decision-mak­ing, the media and the environment. 

Women’s concerns were also cen­trally featured at the World Conference on Environment (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) and at the World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995).   

There are at present two UN conventions that are women-specific: the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1954)12 and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Dis­crimination against Women (1979) (the Women’s Convention).13  In November 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted an Optional Protocol to the Women’s Convention, which will en­able individual women to bring their complaints about noncompliance with the Convention to the attention of the Convention’s monitoring committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  The Optional Protocol will come into force when it is rati­fied by ten countries.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is best described as an international bill of rights for women as it sets out in detail both what is to be regarded as discrimination against women and the measures that have to be taken in order to eliminate this discrimination.  Women’s rights are conceptualized as human rights and a “nondiscrimination” model is adopted, so that women’s rights are considered violated if women are denied the same rights as men.

The Women’s Convention defines discrimination as: “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the rec­ognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, eco­nomic, social, cultural or any other field.”

Thus, the Women’s Convention defines discrimination against women broadly.  The ele­ments of the definition are:

  • Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex is discrimination.
  • The Convention covers both the effect and the purpose of such distinction, exclusion or restriction based on sex that hampers the enjoyment by women of their human rights.
  • It covers discrimination in political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.
  • It covers discrimination in public and private (“or any other”) actions.
  • It prohibits intentional or unintentional discrimination.
  • The rights enshrined in the Women’s Convention apply to all women irrespective of their marital status.

The Women’s Convention is the UN treaty that most clearly brings together civil and politi­cal rights with ESC rights.  In addition, since its inception, the committee (CEDAW) estab­lished under the Convention has issued a number of General Recommendations (GR) that elaborate on the articles of the Convention.  Among the most critical have been: GR 12 and 19 on violence (1989 and 1992); GR 13 on equal remuneration for work of equal value (1989); GR 14 on female circumcision (1990); GR 15 on unpaid women workers in rural and urban family enterprises (1991); GR 21 on equality in marriage and family relations (1994); and a new GR on health (1999). (See the pages that follow this module for excerpts of certain GRs).

Substantive equality

The Convention promotes a model of substantive equality.  The concept of equality has traditionally been problematic, because the term “equality for women” is conven­tionally understood to mean “the right to be equal to men.”  The fact is that women face gross inequalities in relation to employment opportunities, wages, access to and enjoyment of health, rights within the family, citizenship, etc.  Remedying these ine­qualities has been interpreted to mean that women should have the same rights as men.  Problems arise, however, if women must be treated exactly like men if they are to gain equality with men.  The “right to be equal to men” obscures the fact that women are different from men. 

The substantive model of equality that the Convention promotes adopts a corrective approach, one which recognizes difference.  In particular, the Convention recognizes that the function of child bearing is one exclusive to women and argues that that function cannot be used as a basis for discrimination against women. 

The Convention presumes that women are in an unequal position because they face current discrimination or bear the effects of past discrimination, and that the envi­ronment in the family and in the public sphere is hostile to women’s autonomy.  This approach assesses specific provisions or rules to determine whether the latter contrib­ute to women’s subordination in the short or long term, whether they build on exist­ing subordination (thereby reinforcing it) or help to overcome it.

Furthermore, the corrective approach requires that socially constructed differences, such as the traditional roles ascribed to women and men, as well as cultural practices that see women as inferior, must be changed. 

The substantive model of equality is concerned with equal opportunity, but even more so, with equality of results.  It stresses equal treatment as well as equal access and equal benefits.  It recognizes that women and men may have to be treated differently in order for them to benefit equally.  This may take the form of providing enabling conditions and/or affirmative action. 14

Standards on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women

The CEDAW’s General Recommendation 19 deals entirely with the question of violence against women.  The committee stated that “gender-based violence is a form of discrimina­tion that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equal­ity with men,” and concluded that the definition of “discrimination against women” in article 1 of the Women’s Convention includes gender-based violence.  Such violence may violate specific provisions of the Convention regardless of whether violence is mentioned in those specific provisions.  The committee defined gender-based violence as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately.  It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.”

A Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women was adopted in 1994 by the UN General Assembly.  Based on the Declaration, the UN Commission on Hu­man Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences.  The Rapporteur submits annual reports to the Commission.  The economic, social and cultural causes of women’s vulnerability to violence as well as the economic and social consequences of women being exposed to violence within the family, the community and in public life form key components of the Rapporteur’s investigations.

Culture and Women's Rights
Female Genital Mutilation

Most communities have their own rituals, which are practiced to respond to or achieve certain social needs and goals, such as protection or purification. Some of these rituals and rites are linked to specific age phases. Female genital mutilation is a widespread ritual, which is also known as a "rite of passage." It is usually practiced when young girls are entering womanhood. It is a way of restructuring women's bodies, as a symbol, to adapt to the prevailing social norms, values and traditions with regard to women's sexuality.

Such rituals usually interact with other elements of the specific culture, such as religion, which confers sanctity and sacredness on the ritual, so that, in the long term, the boundary between what is religious and what is ritual becomes vague. The ritual becomes transformed into an essential component of the cultural identity of the communities practicing it.

Female circumcision/genital mutilation is not mentioned in the holy books of the Bible or the Qur'an, and yet it is practiced among some of the followers of these books as if it were ordained by them. For example, some religious leaders in Egypt support FC/FGM as condoned by Islamic teachings, although the overwhelming majority of both Arab and Moslem countries do not practice FC/FGM, and many Moslem scholars in Egypt condemn the practice as against Islamic teachings. Studies in Egypt have highlighted the fact that FC/FGM is practiced by Moslems and Christians alike. The primary reason given for the practice is: "It is our tradition."

Struggles to stop the practice have gone on through the past few decades, for the most part with no tangible success. However, in the 1990s efforts have made increasing inroads in many countries. One main change in the campaigns against FC/FGM was the shift in advocacy from a health framework to a human rights framework, thanks to the involvement of feminist and human rights activists. The health framework emphasized the hazardous health effects of FC/FGM, which channeled most efforts into improving the practice to decrease pain, bleeding and infection. Thus health workers were increasingly doing the cutting in private and public health facilities using sterile instruments and anesthetics; these changes in many cases entrenched the practice and led to its medicalization. The human rights framework, on the other hand, presented the practice as a violation of many of women's human rights, regardless of who does it, where it is practiced, and whether or not complications arise from it.

In prior decades many UN bodies refrained from open condemnation of the practice, because of the "cultural specificity" argument, focusing on the health consequences of the practice. However, following the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and the international declaration on violence against women, UN bodies such as WHO and UNICEF came out with a firm position against FC/FGM as a violation of women's rights. 15

In 1995, a new, regional convention entitled the Inter-American Convention on the Preven­tion, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women came into force.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights may investigate cases brought under the Conven­tion.  A new Women’s Commission is authorized to receive complaints and resolve them in cooperation with the Inter-American Commission.  Any person or group of people or NGOs from a state party to the Convention may petition the Inter-American Commission.  Persons belonging to countries that have not ratified the Convention may approach the Women’s Commission for relief.

ILO Conventions and Other Standards

In addition, the International Labour Organization has adopted a series of conventions re­garding women’s employment; subjects include maternity benefits, equal pay and equal treatment.  The World Health Organization, the UN Fund for Population Activities and UN/AIDS have over the years developed a series of policy guidelines regarding women’s health that increasingly focus on issues of reproductive and sexual rights.  UNESCO has sev­eral documents that focus on women’s rights to education and training.

Conclusion—Challenges and Opportunities

Promoting and protecting the ESC rights of women provides a unique opportunity to link with strategies for defense of civil and political rights.  It also challenges many existing as­sumptions regarding women’s role in society and can lead to substantive changes in the une­qual power relations between men and women.

One strategic area of work for the promotion of women’s economic and social rights is that of building alliances between women’s rights groups and human rights groups.  In addition, it is important to support linkages between women’s groups and other social movements that work in the area of economic and social justice.  Trade unions, farmers’ organizations, groups working for media and cultural freedom, environmental rights groups, groups work­ing for the rights of minority and indigenous communities should become natural allies in this work.  Bringing a gender-sensitive approach to the work of these various groups, how­ever, remains a major challenge.

Developing conceptual bridges between forms of gender-based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on differences such as race, ethnicity, language, religion, age and sexual preference would also be of strategic importance for linking not only our under­standing of the issues but also our activism across sectors and across national and regional borders.

Author: This module is based on a paper prepared by Sunila Abeyesekera following the Phi Phi Island workshop, which was modified to incorporate comments made by the participants at the Yogyakarta workshop.



1. Lincoln Kaye, “To Bear any Burden: Asia’s Women Pay a Disproportionately High Price for the Region’s Economic Boom.” Far Eastern Economic Review 158 (1997): 42-3.

2. UNDP Human Development Report 1993, 25, quoted in International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics and Morals by Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 894.

3. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1995 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1.

 4.  Taken from Report of a Workshop on Integrating Women’s Rights in Human Rights Activism (Bangkok: Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, 1998), 8.

 5.  Taken from Zimbabwe: Urgent Action Alert, from Sisterhood Is Global website:

6. Taken from T.K. Sundari Ravindran, “Engendering Health,” seminar (New Delhi, 2000) (forthcoming).

7. Charlotte Bunch, “Transforming Human Rights from a Feminist Perspective,” in Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives, eds. J.S. Peters and Andrea Wolper (New York: Routledge, 1995), 11-17.

 8.  Katarina Tomasevski, Women and Human Rights (London: Zed Books, 1993), 1-4.

 9.        Narrated by Huma Khan, member of Vanangana, February 2000.

10. Windows to the World: Developing a Curriculum for Rural Women (New Delhi: NIRANTAR, 1997), 3-6.

11. Commission on Human Rights, Preliminary Report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Ms. Radika Coomaraswamy, UN Doc. E/CN.4/1995/42 (1995), 20-21.

12. Convention on the Political Rights of Women, opened for signature 31 Mar. 1953, entered into force 7 July 1954, 193 UNTS 135.

13. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted 18 Dec. 1979, GA Res. 34/180, 34 UN GAOR Supp. (No. 46), UN Doc. A/34/46 (1980), 1249 UNTS 13, entered into force 3 Sept. 1981, reprinted in 19 ILM 33 (1980).

14. This section on substantive equality is taken from IWRAW Asia Pacific draft training material, 1997.

15.  Adapted by Amal Abd El Hadi from “No Retreat: The Experience of an Egyptian Village” (Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 1998).

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