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Featured Focus Month Human Rights

Still Fighting for the Rights of all Women Worldwide

Source: Jaco Blund 2018

COMMENT Lena Scheibinger and Prof. Dr. Thoko Kaime 15 October 2021

Regular readers of this blog will know that women’s rights was the focus of last month. Nevertheless, the fight for women’s rights continues. One month is not enough to encapsulate the importance, development and barriers regarding women”s rights, therefore, we want to feature this extracurricular article.

In the second half of the twentieth century states adopted a plethora of international and regional human rights instruments dealing with the special experiences and needs of women worldwide. The most significant and comprehensive among these documents is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Since its entry into force in September 1981, an impressive number of 189 states has ratified the treaty and thereby explicitly committed to respect the enshrined guarantees. At a global level, the necessity for further progress and protection was again firmly claimed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995, where Hilary Clinton eloquently proclaimed that ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights’.

More than 25 years later, there is a good occasion to examine the status of these women’s rights around the globe. A closer assessment of the adoption and implementation of the universal standards at the local level clearly demonstrates that we are still far from a wholesale success story. And instead of a continuing improvement in gender equality and protection levels women continue to face major setbacks. Many of these problems result from social and legal conservatism, political inaction, religious ideologies, cultural traditions as well as the consequences of environmental disasters, violent conflicts and health crises.

The women’s human rights corpus has attempted to resolve some of these challenges in a number of different but reinforcing ways. For example, a key prerequisite for women’s emancipation and participation in public political discourse where normative conception of women’s position and function in society are negotiated and constructed was the guarantee of their involvement in elections. However, although the voting right is assured in national constitutions, women still more often than not make use of their suffrage in its passive dimension than actively joining state parliament and government and thereby shaping political agendas and legal reforms affecting their daily lives.

A further step in the empowerment of women were major changes in family and marriage law limiting the decision power of husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons not just with regard to material concerns of inheritance and marital property but also in the realm of self-determination culminating in controversial debates about forced marriages, early marriages, and family planning. Even though all these criticisms were accompanied by well-intended law enforcement initiatives, the intimate sphere is still one of the most dangerous spaces for women in a way that the term domestic violence could never fully encapsulate. But we must not forget that women are not abused, raped and killed by these spaces but by their male inhabitants.

These manifestations of physical and psychological suppression directly lead us to another dimension of gendered violence and discrimination. With regard to their sexual and reproductive health rights women are still experiencing various forms of bodily mutilations or massive restrictions of the access to safe and legal abortions.

What is clear is that these cases of individual subordination and disenfranchisement are of course co-constituted by a structural and institutional marginalisation of women. Although there are definitely enormous endeavours to enable economic independence of women through their comprehensive integration in the labour market not just in the low-paid and part-time sector but also in the leading positions, women are still thwarted by glass ceilings, pay gaps as well as gendered care and household responsibilities with major implications for independent agency.

Finally, although the trajectory of women’s rights is in the direction of gender equality and protection against structural, physical and emotional abuse, it is also important to question from an intersectional perspective who is actually part of these achievements: Do black women, poor women, migrant women, elderly women, homosexual and queer women, and women with disabilities profit in the same way as white young middle class women in the global North do? Having in mind the different lifeworlds of women around the globe, we would want to supplement Chimamanda Adichie’s famous slogan on the universality of feminism with another inclusive dimension: We should all be feminists fighting for the rights of all women worldwide.

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