WOMEN’S RIGHTS: Why are women’s rights important?

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Gender equality is at the very heart of United Nations values. Equality between men and women has been among the most fundamental guarantees of human rights and a fundamental principle of the United Nations Charter adopted by world leaders in 1945 is “equal rights of men and women“, and protecting and promoting women’s human rights is the responsibility of all States..[1] It proclaimed the equal entitlements of women and men to the rights contained in it, “without distinction of any kind, such as … sex, ….” This prohibition of discrimination based on sex is repeated in its Articles 13 (mandate of the General Assembly) and 55 (promotion of universal human rights).

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees, among other rights, the right to life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery, the 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 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees, for instance, 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.[2]

Yet millions of women around the world continue to experience discrimination:

Moreover, some groups of women face compounded forms of discrimination — due to factors such as their age, ethnicity, disability, or socio-economic status — in addition to their gender.

Effectively ensuring women’s human rights requires, firstly, a comprehensive understanding of the social structures and power relations that frame not only laws and politics but also the economy, social dynamics and family and community life.

Harmful gender stereotypes must be dismantled, so that women are no longer viewed in the light of what women “should” do and are instead seen for who they are: unique individuals, with their own needs and desires.[4]


Which international documents and institutions are important?

United Nations

The founding United Nations charter (1945) included a provision for equality between men and women (chapter III, article 8). Subsequently, from 1945 various female officials within the United Nations and leaders of women’s movements on the global stage attempted to turn these principles into action.  

The Convention on the Political Rights of Women adopted in 1953 by UN General Assembly is a first international legislation regarding political rights of women and it aims to codify a basic international standard for women’s political rights. It has 122 state parties.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty adopted by UN General Assembly in 1979. The Convention defines discrimination in its article 1 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, civil or any other field.” [5]

The Convention articulates the nature and meaning of sex-based discrimination and lays out State obligations to eliminate discrimination and achieve substantive equality. As with all human rights treaties, only States incur obligations through ratification. However, the Convention articulates State obligations to address not only discriminatory laws, but also practices and customs, and discrimination against women by private actors. [6]

Both civil and political rights (rights to vote, to participate in public life, to acquire, change or retain one’s nationality, equality before the law and freedom of movement) and economic, social and cultural rights (rights to education, work, health and financial credit) are covered by The Convention. CEDAW and its Optional Protocol from 1999 are referred to as the international bill of rights for women. Structured around the concepts of equality and non-discrimination, the Convention asserts: “…the equality of women and men and the right of women to be treated equally in every sphere of life. Focusing on civil and political as well as economic and social rights, the Convention urge[s] States to take positive measures in the field of public administration, education, health, employment and the family to ensure that women enjoy full equality with men.”[7]

CEDAW encompasses a variety of possible  discriminatory actions (any distinction, exclusion or restriction) having  either the express purpose or the actual effect of discriminating against  women. The Convention goes further than other human rights treaties in also describing in detail the State obligations and actions to be taken to  achieve gender equality in practice. It not only requires equality between  women and men, but also prohibits practices that can perpetuate women’s inequality. Substantive gender equality and formal gender equality, as well as de facto discrimination and de jure discrimination, are central concepts in the Convention’s equality framework.[8] Among the countries that have ratified CEDAW few have a legal bar to the eligibility of women, yet women remain seriously underrepresented at all levels of government.[9]

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) was adopted by UN General Assembly in 1993.

Article 1

For the purposes of this Declaration, the term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

DEVAW became the first international instrument explicitly addressing violence against women, providing a framework for national and international action. It defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.[10]   

Fourth World Conference on Women convened by the United Nations in 1995 had a key outcome in Beijing Declaration. This document, alongside its Platform for Action set up a visionary agenda for the empowerment of women. It still remains today the most comprehensive global policy framework and blueprint for action and is a current source of guidance and inspiration to realize gender equality and the human rights of women and girls, everywhere. The Beijing Declaration is an agenda for women’s empowerment. It aims at removing all the obstacles to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making. It emphasizes that equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace[11].

In 2012 UN General Assembly adopted a resolution called A Future We Want which calls for enhancing gender equality and women’s rights. Resolution supports prioritizing measures to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in all spheres of societies, including the removal of barriers to their full and equal participation in decision-making and management at all levels, and emphasizes the impact of setting specific targets and implementing temporary measures, as appropriate, for substantially increasing the number of women in leadership positions, with the aim of achieving gender parity.[12]

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women is a part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in resolution 1994/45, adopted on 4 March 1994, decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

According to his/her mandate the Special Rapporteur is requested among others to:

  • recommend measures, ways and means at the local, national, regional and international levels to eliminate all forms of violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences
  • work closely with all special procedures and other human rights mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and with the treaty bodies, taking into account the request of the Council that they regularly and systematically integrate the human rights of women and a gender perspective into their work, and cooperate closely with the Commission on the Status of Women in the discharge of its functions[13]

One of the latest urges that Special Rapporteur on violence against women, pointed was regarding the topic of violence against women in politics called “Stop violence against women in politics”. She pointed that violence against politically active women is, when it results in a tragic outcome in particular, a form of highly visible violence against women that aims to discourage their political participation. It constitutes a major barrier to women’s political participation and thus denies them their civil and political rights. It also hinders the participation of half of the world’s population, thus undermining the democratic exercise and good governance and as such is creating a democratic deficit.[14]  

Council of Europe

In 2011 the Council of Europe adopted the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention).[15]

By ratifying The Istanbul Convention, states are obliged to implement in their legislation a document whose main task, as the name implies, is protection of women from all forms of violence and consequently eliminating violence against women and domestic violence.

This is the first legal-binding international instrument which criminalizes acts such as physical, mental and sexual violence, sexual harassment, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and forced abortion. It practically means that states that ratify it for the first time are obliged to introduce these serious criminal offenses into their criminal procedures.

This Convention for the first time includes enabling financial aid to victims as well as the obligation of the state to annually finance an adequate number of shelters for women.

GREVIO is a body that oversees the implementation of the Convention. It consists of 10 to 15 persons who ought to be distinguished in the field of human rights protection, protecting women from violence and must not be members of political parties. GREVIO can collect information about the implementation of the Convention from NGOs and civil society, as well as from national institutions for the protection of human rights[16].

States are obliged to undertake measures for promoting programs and activities for empowerment of women and prevention of violence through various campaigns for informing the public. Campaigns such as these will also be undertaken to eliminate gender stereotypes.

Responsibility for ensuring a certain form of legal aid to the victims is also provided in order for victims to gain information and access to regional and international mechanisms of complaints as well as to free phone lines for help.

All 28 EU member states have individually signed the convention, but only 18 of them have ratified it.

In 2003 Commite of Ministers of Council of Europe brought up Recommendation Rec (2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision making. This document sets out the standard which has since been followed by other organisations and countries: balanced participation of women and men is defined as a minimum 40% representation of each sex in any decision-making body in political and public life. A set of legislative, administrative and supportive measures is recommended to member states in order to achieve balanced participation and equal sharing of decision making power between women and men. Its implementation by member states has been monitored to provide member states with information on progress and existing gaps[17].

There are vast disparities between European countries in terms of the representation of women in national parliaments. The average representation of women in January 2005 stood at 21.2 percent for the Lower Houses in EU member states, accession countries and the Balkans.[18]

Representation of women in national parliaments by country[19]:

Bosnia and Herzegovina: 9/42

Croatia: 28/151

Kosovo: 32/120

Montenegro: 19/81

Serbia: 31/250[20]

Despite the widespread movement towards democratization in most countries, women are largely underrepresented at most levels of government, especially in ministerial and other executive bodies, and have made little progress in attaining political power in legislative bodies. The equitable distribution of power and decision-making at all levels is dependent on Governments and other actors undertaking statistical gender analysis and mainstreaming a gender perspective in policy development and the implementation of programmes. Having that in mind, equality in decision-making is essential to the empowerment of women.


[1] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/WRGS/Pages/WRGSIndex.aspx

[2] Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2014

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm#part1

[6] Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2014

[7] Handbook for the protection of women and girls, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2008

[8]  Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2014

[9] Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2014

[10] http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/global-norms-and-standards

[11] Handbook for the protection of women and girls, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees , 2008

[12]  Resolution adopted by the General Assembly of United Nations on 27 July 2012, “The future we want”

[13] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/SRWomenIndex.aspx

[14] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21652&LangID=E

[15] Women’s Rights are Human Rights, United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner, New York and Geneva, 2014

[16] https://www.coe.int/en/web/istanbul-convention/grevio

[17] Gender Equality and Women’s Rights, Council of Europe Standards, Council of Europe

[18] Introducing Parity Democracy: The Role of the International Community and the European Women’s Lobby, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA)/CEE Network for Gender Issues Conference, Budapest, 2004

[19] http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm; http://www.kuvendikosoves.org/?cid=2,102

[20] approx.


Photo: Study Breaks Magazine

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