Our Response to the United States Country Report for the Universal Periodic Review

The goal of the Universal Periodic Review is to improve human rights around the world. Each member of the U.N. takes turns being “reviewed” by their peers as part of the UPR. While this process seems complicated it is designed to provide access for human rights defenders and NGO’s around the world to engage by providing “stakeholder” reports that highlight real human rights issues on the ground. WLN submitted a stakeholder report in October of 2019 and has been engaging with the United Nations members who will “review” the United States. Part of the Universal Periodic Review process is a Country Report after the submission of the Stakeholder Reports. While the country report was due long ago, it was submitted in August 2020. There are many clear omissions and significant misinformation in the report. WLN has prepared a response to the country report and have disseminated it to the members of the United Nations that will be part of the United States UPR on November 9th, 2020. You can link to a copy of the United States Country Report and the Stakeholder Reports here. You may download our response or view it below:

WOMEN’S HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE UNITED STATES:

A Response to the United States Country Report for the Universal Periodic Review

Women’s Rights are Human Rights: This includes all who define themselves as women, as well as other birthing and menstruating people. [i]. [i] It is important to note that individuals who do not identify as “women” may also be impacted by these violations, including transgender and non-binary individuals


Overview:  The language to address issues of gender in the United States Country Report utilizes a binary framework and is exclusive of a broad range of gender expression or gender identity.[i] Without acknowledgement of gender diversity, the mental and physical health of women and girls in the U.S. can be severely compromised[ii]. Additionally, while the U.S. highlights its engagement with Civil Society, only one specific call for consultation was sent out from the U.S. Department of State, broadly, to Civil Society in preparation for the UPR.  

A: Treaties, International Mechanisms and Domestic Implementation

The United States notes that it is a party to five (5) of the nine (9) human rights treaties described by the Office of the High Commissioner as “Core International Human Rights Instruments.”[iii] To the detriment of women, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is not one of them.  While the U.S. notes that it is a signatory to CEDAW, it has yet to be ratified, leaving a gap in the protections for U.S. women[iv].

The U.S. also points out its commitment to human rights by invoking its creation of a Commission on Inalienable Rights. This Commission, instead of expanding access to rights, creates a risk to women as it is being used to “justify restrictions on reproductive freedom and the rights of LGBTQ people.” [v]

B: Civil Rights and Non-Discrimination

The U.S. government states that law enforcement and criminal justice systems in the U.S. are not “systemically racist”, however there is significant evidence to the contrary[vi]. When we add gender to race as a variable, a picture emerges of a deeply racist and sexist environment. Women of color make up an increasing share of arrests and use of force[vii], women’s incarceration rates have increased twice as quickly as men’s over the last several decades, with a disproportionate number of Black, Brown and Indigenous women being incarcerated[viii]. Additionally, the treatment of women in carceral settings constitutes significant violations of women’s human rights. While we have previously submitted a report on the lack of reproductive health care and sexual assault experienced by undocumented immigrant women in immigration detention[ix], recent reports about the non-consensual sterilizations of predominantly Black and Latinx women in prison[x] [xi]have unveiled the both racist and misogynistic law enforcement system and practices in the United States[xii].

The U.S. report also claims that State and Federal laws protect the rights of individuals with regard to race and gender. While laws preventing racial discrimination at a Federal level are in place, recent court rulings have chiseled away at those protections[xiii] and states increasingly enact laws that prevent women’s access to reproductive care[xiv] and that lift protections in the workplace[xv].

C. Criminal Justice, Violence Against Women and Human Trafficking

In its report, the United States highlights the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act which is supposed to provide tools to the Department of Justice to investigate and correct conditions in prisons where there is a pattern or practice of the deprivation of individuals’ Constitutional rights. The use of an Alabama case of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse as an example of this process does not provide context for sexual abuse perpatrated against prisoners, particularly women, at the hands of facility staff. This has been raised in both stakeholder reports and by the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women [xvi]and instead of an investigation, the U.S. deflects responsibility to hold detention center staff accountable[xvii].

The U.S. report also highlights the use of the Violence Against Women Act as a mechanism to address gender based violence and protect women from abuse, yet Congress has failed to Re-Authorize it, so it cannot be used to support victims of gender based violence.

D. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Measures; Indigenous issues; and the Environment

The U.S. highlights, in its report, the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant Program that “seeks to improve maternal health outcomes, including rates of severe morbidity and maternal mortality”; however, the US has the highest maternal mortality rate of similarly wealthy countries. Pregnant people in the United States are now 50% more likely to die in childbirth or soon after than they were just 30 years ago, with those deaths more often occurring in states with the most restrictions on abortion access. [xviii]Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, primarily due to the lack of access to health care that is not associated with jobs[xix]. Women are overrepresented in jobs that lack health care benefits and provide low wages, like part time work, hospitality, and sex work. The U.S. has made clear in its report that it intends to continue to deprive women access to reproductive healthcare whether or not that care involves abortion access. Abortion is an essential health service and it must be kept accessible.[xx] 

E. National Security and Other Matters

The U.S. continues to frame the migrant crisis at the border as a “security” issue even though more than one-half of those immigrating to the U.S. are women and girls, often escaping gender-based violence in their own countries[xxi].  In fact, the U.S. doesn’t address the experiences of migrant women at all. Inadequate reproductive health care is thought to play a role in the increasing number of pregnancy complications being reported for women and birthing people in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement[xxii].  Menstrual hygiene is a critical part of reproductive health and has been recognized as a human right[xxiii].  However, menstrual hygiene materials are considered a “luxury” item for women in detention settings who are often given only one sanitary pad per day and not allowed to access showers or private toilet facilities[xxiv]. Also, the separation of children from their families has a disproportionate impact on women in immigration detention. The right to parent children is a human right[xxv].

COVID-19

One of the most glaring omissions from the U.S. report is that the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 are not mentioned at all.  The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on women. Women make up 76% of all healthcare jobs and informal care roles are disproportionately performed by women. They are also the majority of health facility service-staff, making them the most exposed to contracting the coronavirus[xxvi]. COVID-19 creates circumstances that foster intimate partner violence, which is most often experienced by women — specifically low-income women — and LGBTQ people. The pandemic and social distancing orders leaves women with fewer options to find safety or help.

Recommendations:

  • Promptly ratify CEDAW and disband the Commission on Inalienable Rights.
  • Ensure statutory language, policies and practices protecting prisoners from sexual abuse include specific reference to the protection of immigration detainees and make explicit institutional accountability for anyone under the control of Immigration Control and Enforcement who abuse or sexually harass detainees. 
  • Immediately Re-Authorize the Violence Against Women Act and ensure protections for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Transgender Women and prioritize services for prevention and response to gender-based violence 
  • Increase access to timely and appropriate quality health care for all women, free from economic, legal, psychosocial, and cultural barriers and ensure data collection is disaggregated.
  • Protect essential health services for women and girls, including sexual and reproductive health services
  • Ensure equal voice for women in decision making and long-term impact policy development

Appendix A: Footnotes


[i] https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2013/the-gender-spectrum

[ii] https://www.apa.org/pubs/books/The-Gender-Affirmative-Model-Chapter-1-Sample.pdf

[iii] https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/204/16/PDF/G2020416.pdf?OpenElement

[iv] Several members of the U.N. urged the U.S. to ratify conventions reflecting international norms during the 2015 UPR Process

[v] https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/27/pompeos-commission-unalienable-rights-will-endanger-everyones-human-rights#

[vi] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/03/10-things-we-know-about-race-and-policing-in-the-u-s/

[vii] https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2019/05/14/policingwomen/

[viii] https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/incarcerated-women-and-girls/

[ix] Motherhood, Menstruation and Sexual Violence: Joint Stakeholder Report MaMa JuNetwork/Women Lead Network 10.2019

[x] https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/07/09/200444613/californias-prison-sterilizations-reportedly-echoes-eugenics-era

[xi] https://www.aclu.org/news/immigrants-rights/immigration-detention-and-coerced-sterilization-history-tragically-repeats-itself/

[xii] Several U.N. members urged the U.S. to address issues related to humane incarceration standards and alternatives to incarceration, in particular for women

[xiii] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/717244-supreme-court-decision-in-shelby-county-v-holder.html#document/p32

[xiv] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/08/27/489786/state-actions-undermining-abortion-rights-2020/

[xv] https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/issues/birth-control/burwell-v-hobby-lobby

[xvi] Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. 2011. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women it Causes and Consequences, Mission to the United States. New York: United Nations.

[xvii] https://www.aclu.org/cases/ed-v-sharkey

[xviii] UN Women Policy Brief on the Impact of COVID-19 on Women https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en.pdf?la=en&vs=5029

[xix] Black Mama’s Matter-Black Maternal Health and the COVID 19 Response-https://blackmamasmatter.org/2020/black-maternal-health-week-2020-webinar-series/

[xx] Feminist Alliance for Rights – Call for a Feminist COVID-19 Policy http://feministallianceforrights.org/blog/2020/03/20/action-call-for-a-feminist-covid-19-policy/

[xxi] Link to Asylum, Migration and Borders https://fra.europa.eu/en/themes/asylum-migration-and-borders

[xxii] Link to Letter from The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Family Physicians https://downloads.aap.org/DOFA/ACOG%20AAP%20AAFP%20Letter%20to%20Deputy%20Director%20Homan%20FINAL.pdf 

[xxiii] Human Rights Watch and Wash United. 2017. “Understanding Menstrual Hygiene Management and Human Rights.” U.S.A.: Human Rights Watch.

[xxiv] Link to report by Alma Poletti, Investigator with Washington State documenting lack of access to menstrual products https://agportal-s3bucket.s3.amazonaws.com/uploadedfiles/Another/News/Press_Releases/2019-08-23%20Poletti_Declaration_FloresCDCA_Washington_FINAL.pdf

[xxv] Members of the international community have identified norms and standards in addressing the needs of migrants and refugees.  The U.S. has lacked leadership in these areas.

[xxvi] National Women’s Law Center-Promoting Equitable Access to Health Care in Response to COVID-19 https://nwlc.org/resources/promoting-equitable-access-to-health-care-in-response-to-covid-19/

Human Rights Cannot Be Delayed

Today, May 11th, would have been the day that U.S. human rights defenders would have met in Geneva, Switzerland to call attention to the human rights abuses of vulnerable people in the U.S. While the UPR has been postponed to November #HumanRightsCannotBeDelayed. Watch this video to hear from Human Rights Defenders in the United States.

UPR2020: Rights Cannot Be Delayed from PJ Starr on Vimeo.

Women Lead Network U.N. Advocacy Fund

Please consider supporting our efforts by contributing to our Go Fund Me Page

Women lead.  Women take action.  Women support other women.  We are a collective of women who have combined our skills and passion about making the world right to support other women.

Our current focus is on addressing the human rights atrocities impacting migrant women, girls and other menstruating and  birthing individuals, in border detention centers and in other custody of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection).  Women and children make up more than half of the migrants entering the U.S. as refugees seeking asylum.  Violence against women and economic insecurity are “push” factors, driving many women and girls from their home countries to U.S. borders seeking safety.  These conditions, and others like the climate crisis, have direct links to the actions of the United States corporations, government policies and military actions.  Instead of working to solve these problems and creating access to support these women, the U.S. has developed “zero tolerance” immigration policies that criminalize poor women, girls and other menstruating and birthing individuals and victims of violence, detaining them indefinitely in inhumane conditions in immigration detention centers.  This is both a violation of multiple U.N. Conventions, treaties and norms, and of our own laws protecting women.

Migrant women, girls and other menstruating and birthing people, in U.S. immigration detention are prevented from accessing reproductive health services, menstrual hygiene products, maternity care and experience alarming rates of sexual assault at the hands of detention staff.  The women of Women Lead Network, as members of the U.S. Human Rights Network, have been engaged in advocacy with the United Nations ambassadors and permanent missions to hold the U.S. accountable for these violations at the upcoming Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism used by the international community to enforce international norms to protect human rights.

We are raising funds to travel to Geneva in May of 2020, as part of a delegation from the U.S. Human Rights Network, to advocate on behalf of migrant women,  girls and other menstruating and birthing people during the Universal Periodic Review of the United States.  Our team will participate as part of a delegation of the U.S. Human Rights Network, and will meet directly with members of the UN, to call attention to these issues and request the UN Human Rights Council  hold the U.S. accountable for these violations in a public, international forum. 

Accountability is critical to our integrity.  While the U.S. engages in “humanitarian work” around the world, we have allowed these harms to continue in our own country.  Your support will help us be a voice of accountability to ensure that the international community is aware of the experiences of these migrant women, girls and other menstruating people in detention and  their treatment.  Any support is welcome.  Thank you for considering supporting our work.

Women lead.  Women take action.  Women support other women.  We are a collective of women who have combined our skills and passion about making the world right to support other women.

Our current focus is on addressing the human rights atrocities impacting migrant women, girls and other menstruating and  birthing individuals, in border detention centers and in other custody of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection).  Women and children make up more than half of the migrants entering the U.S. as refugees seeking asylum.  Violence against women and economic insecurity are “push” factors, driving many women and girls from their home countries to U.S. borders seeking safety.  These conditions, and others like the climate crisis, have direct links to the actions of the United States corporations, government policies and military actions.  Instead of working to solve these problems and creating access to support these women, the U.S. has developed “zero tolerance” immigration policies that criminalize poor women, girls and other menstruating and birthing individuals and victims of violence, detaining them indefinitely in inhumane conditions in immigration detention centers.  This is both a violation of multiple U.N. Conventions, treaties and norms, and of our own laws protecting women.

Migrant women, girls and other menstruating and birthing people, in U.S. immigration detention are prevented from accessing reproductive health services, menstrual hygiene products, maternity care and experience alarming rates of sexual assault at the hands of detention staff.  The women of Women Lead Network, as members of the U.S. Human Rights Network, have been engaged in advocacy with the United Nations ambassadors and permanent missions to hold the U.S. accountable for these violations at the upcoming Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism used by the international community to enforce international norms to protect human rights.

We are raising funds to travel to Geneva in May of 2020 to advocate on behalf of migrant women,  girls and other menstruating and birthing people during the Universal Periodic Review of the United States.  Our team will participate as part of a delegation of the U.S. Human Rights Network, and will meet directly with members of the UN, to call attention to these issues and request the UN Human Rights Council  hold the U.S. accountable for these violations in a public, international forum. 

Accountability is critical to our integrity.  While the U.S. engages in “humanitarian work” around the world, we have allowed these harms to continue in our own country.  Your support will help us be a voice of accountability to ensure that the international community is aware of the experiences of these migrant women, girls and other menstruating people in detention and  their treatment.  Any support is welcome.  Thank you for considering supporting our work.

Motherhood, Menstruation and Sexual Violence: Brief on Women and Girls in Immigration Detention

More than 1/2 of those immigrating to the U.S. are women, girls and other menstruating people

Many are between the ages of 13-50 in which reproductive care is crucial to health and life

The U.S.’s “ZERO TOLERANCE” IMMIGRATION POLICIES significantly increases the number of women, girls and other menstruating and birthing people in ICE detention.

WHILE THE U.S. HAS A DUTY TO PROVIDE HUMANE DETENTION CONDITIONS WOMEN, GIRLS AND OTHER MENSTRUATING PEOPLE IN IMMIGRATION DETENTION EXPERIENCE:

  • A LACK OF ACCESS TO MENSTRUAL HYGIENE MATERIALS AND SANITARY CONDITIONS RELATED TO MENSTRUATION
  • A LACK OF ACCESS TO REPRODUCTIVE CARE (INCLUDING CHILD-BIRTH, PRE-POST NATAL CARE AND ABORTION RELATED INFORMATION AND SERVICES)
  • INCREASED VULNERABILITY TO SEXUAL VIOLENCE PERPETRATED BY IMMIGRATION OFFICIALS WITHOUT ACCOUNTABILITY

THE UNITED NATIONS RECOGNIZES THAT:

WOMEN AND GIRLS ARE PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE TO HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

REFUGEES AND MIGRANTS ARE A POPULATION AT GREAT RISK OF MASS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

WOMEN AND GIRLS IN DETENTION SETTINGS ARE TARGETED FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND THREATENED BY INHUMANE CONDITIONS

For more information on these issues download the brief below:

Motherhood, Menstruation and Sexual Violence: Human Rights Violations at the U.S.-Mexico Border

The U.S. – Mexico Border has become ground zero for human rights violations against women. Lack of access to reproductive care and menstrual hygiene materials and vulnerability to sexual violence at the hands of detention staff, women who are migrating through the U.S. Mexico border are at particular risk for these violations and the U.S. needs to fulfill its obligation to protecting their human rights.

Women Lead Network, as part of the community of Human Rights Defenders, submitted a stakeholder report to the U.N. detailing these specific violations in anticipation of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of the United States at the United Nations 36th Session of the Universal Periodic Review coming up in May of 2020. Please take a moment to review all the reports of Human Rights Defenders in the U.S. at www.upr2020.org. Our report can be found at #17 or you can download the report below.

Is Violence Inevitable?

The question posed here is an interesting one.  Is violence an inevitable part of human existence? There have been many scientists studying human evolution that differ on their views about if humans are “naturally” violent.  There is evidence that early hominids were, in fact, very passive and later evidence that suggests that violence was used only to expand territory to support increasing human populations.  While the knowledge continues to develop in this area, it is important to note that much of the early writings related to humans natural tendencies towards violence were written between the 1st and 2nd world wars, when it was critical, in western thought, to view humans (in particular men) as “the hunter” and when  “It was very easy to see warfare and violence as inherent in the human condition during a period when humanity was literally trying to exterminate itself.” according to Professor Michael Bisson, archaeologist at Montreal’s McGill University  (Whipps, 2006)

What about violence targeted at women? The origin of violence targeted against women, however, is easier to pinpoint.  In particular in North America, but in similar patterns all over the world, colonization brought with it a structured view of women as subordinate to men within the context of all social spheres. Prior to colonization, indigenous communities had more balanced governance and social value systems related to gender.  Women held critical roles and responsibilities within their communities.  During the process of colonization, patriarchal belief systems, typically stemming from “new religions” where there was only one god and he was male, were forced on the settled societies.  “Colonization disrupted the balance of complimentary gender roles and shared power in Indigenous societies.” and the “ settlers introduced new values and ideals steeped in white male superiority and suppressed the leadership roles women held in many Indigenous societies.” (Bear)

Today, this patriarchal view of women remains, which contributes to the epic proportions of violence targeted at women.  Mayela Garcia and Gloria Sayavedra note in their writing on “Violence Empowerment and Women’s Health” in Mexico that “Gender based violence is socially tolerated violence against women because they are women.  Sometimes it is used consciously to perpetuate masculine power and control, sometimes it is an unconscious expression.  Either way, the damage caused by violence, perpetuates female subordination.”  Gender based violence is an “act of force or coercion with an intent to perpetuate or promote gendered hierarchical relationships”. (Garcia, 1996)

In the United States, feminists have long been calling attention to the promotion of violence against women through structures of patriarchy.  Data is hard to collect and therefore the problem is hard to articulate.  Even some of the most well-known and agreed upon statistics like, 1 in 5 college age women will experience sexual assault (White House Council on Women and Girls Report, 2013) and 1 in 3 women will be the victim of physical violence from an intimate (NCADV, 2018), are still fraught with collection problems that prevent us from seeing the full picture. For example, data is collected typically from reports to police or victim services.  Often women don’t report, including women historically marginalized by policing agencies and other governmental structures.  Many victim’s groups have direct connections with these governmental agencies creating barriers for women seeking out victim support.  Most recent examples include the United States governments targeting of immigrants, undocumented or otherwise.  Many local communities had created mechanisms that would prevent victims of gender based violence from having to disclose their immigration status.  The current presidential administration has begun to force these communities, through threats of retaliation, to share information related to immigration status with the federal immigration policing agencies.  This has led to a great deal of fear within communities of undocumented people, and women who are undocumented or have family members that are, are no longer reporting their domestic abuse to police or seeking out victim support.  This also doesn’t account for the numerous women seeking asylum because of domestic violence in their home countries, who are separated from their children and detained at the border, often indefinitely.

Additionally, data related to sexual violence typically focuses on those women who have access to privilege in society, as is illustrated by the focus on women experiencing sexual assault on college campuses.  There has been a great deal of media and governmental attention given, in recent years, to the violence perpetrated on women who are college students.  While this is a critical threat to the advancement of women in society overall, in an educational system that is not open and free to all, the women who attend college tend to have social identities with more privilege (white, middle to upper class, non-parents, not required to work).  This focus, therefore, misses the vast numbers of women who experience sexual assault from communities that are poor, marginalized, working, aging, etc.  According to the Rape, Incest National Network, “American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races”.  These stories don’t become the headlines in the national news and our societal institutions tend to ignore them. 

While the U.S. has certainly made some progress in addressing the issues of gender based violence, it has a long way to go.  Until the norms of society change, and we create equality in other areas like eliminating the inequitable treatment of women in education, work environments and leadership, the home will remain a dangerous place to be for women.

Are Women’s Rights Really Human Rights? Feminist Critiques of Human Rights

Feminist critiques of human rights tend to present two main arguments. First, human rights discourses’ reinforcement of the private vs. public sphere. Secondly, that the precarious nature of an emphasis on the “right to culture” is a tool of repression for women.  Additionally, Third World Feminists emphasize that the focus on the “universality” of women’s rights homogenizes the experiences of women who are unable to identify with mainstream feminist rhetoric.  These women must situate their own experiences within the context of other rights they lack due to their race, ethnicity, social class/caste or identity within indigenous communities.  This essay will present the feminist views of the private vs. public sphere debate, critiques related to an emphasis on cultural rights, and criticisms presented regarding the universalizing of women’s experiences.

Patriarchy is a gender arrangement that is characterized by men’s domination of women in all or most aspects of society.  It emphasizes the essentialist nature of gender and gender roles.  It is built upon the idea that roles for men and women are fundamentally set and clear.  In most societies maleness is the norm and femaleness becomes the other (Fleay, 2018).  Patriarchy also reinforces gender as a binary, establishing rigid categories that, while evolving, are a cornerstone of most Western cultures.  “Patriarchy is essential to the understanding of gender inequality” (Johnson, 1997)

This is the context in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Covenants were developed.  Built upon theories of “natural rights” developed during the Enlightenment when rights were extended only to propertied white men, the documents reinforced ideas which existed in 1948 during the development of the declaration and later in 1966 with the two covenants.  Even the women involved in the development of the declaration likely held ideologies that emphasized men’s experiences as central.

Public vs. Private Sphere Debate

The separation of private and public spheres is evident throughout the development of human rights discourse.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reinforced these spheres with an emphasis on the importance of “family”.  While there is evidence of this throughout the document (for example, “human family” in the preamble), the most pronounced instances appear in Article 12 and 16 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

Article 12 states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence…. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).  For most women around the world, the private sphere, including home and family, is the environment where they are the most likely to experience human rights abuses.  The U.N. notes that 1 in 3 women will experience some form of intimate violence and less than 40% of the worlds women have been able to access help or support (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2015).  In “Feminist Analysis of Human Rights Law” Shazia Qureshi recounts Engles’ references to the precarious conditions of women’s lives, and quotes “most feminists view the private sphere as the ‘locus of women’s oppression’” (Qureshi, 2012). (Engle, n.d.).  This “bifurcation” of spheres, makes the private sphere virtually untouchable by the state, providing few remedies for women in their own homes.

Additionally, Article 16 sets forth the central unit of society as “the family”.  It states, “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).  In addition to the specific view of the family articulated by this Article (that of man and woman, not kinship networks or other alternative family structures), it centralizes the experiences of women in relationship to family.  While other Articles attempt to be “gender neutral” this Article specifically places women’s role within the family and centralizes it.  While it is the only Article that creates a distinct set of rights for women, those rights are within the context of family and marriage.  Binion identifies the fundamental problem with this approach.  She states “A separate spheres approach has relegated women to the home, away from…”public institutions that determine the nature and quality of life in a community…and …subject to the control of patriarchal familial authorities…therefore, beyond the scope of governmental authority and intervention” (Binion, 1995).

Emphasizing “Cultural Rights”

Arguments in the development of human rights have frequently emphasized the “westernization” of rights.  Efforts to draw distinctions between individual rights and collective rights have resulted in continued debate on how to implement rights most effectively.  For women, this is not grounded in their lived experiences.

The emphasizing of “cultural rights” is evident in the bifurcation of civil and political rights from economic, social and cultural rights.  In 1966 the UN National Assembly adopted the dual Covenants of “Civil and Political Rights” and “Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (The Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center).  While this was an attempt to implement rights schemes and meet the demands of states adverse to the imposition of “Western Liberal Values”, this bifurcation of covenants had its greatest impact on women’s access to rights.   By reinforcing the separation of rights as “cultural” or “political” it served as a legal reframing of the “private” vs. “public” spheres debate. 

While, feminists disagree as to whether this bifurcation of rights advantages or disadvantages women, advocates of “cultural rights” frequently argue limiting state intervention when cultural practices limit women’s power and bodily autonomy.  Binion observes that “feminist scholars have asked why culture appears to be a defense only in regard to gender roles and to the governmental and nongovernmental denials of fundamental rights to women.” (Binion, 1995).

Universalizing Women’s Experiences

“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” has served as a catalyst for a mainstreaming of the experiences of women in relationship to human rights.  Charlotte Bunch notes that it became a “guiding framework” for integrating women’s experiences into human rights discussions, “development and other aspects of the UN operations” (Bunch, 2013).    

In “Feminist praxis and women’s human rights” Laura Parisi lays out the balancing act of feminist contributions to human rights discourse.  She documents the efforts of early western feminists to ensure that the private and public sphere gap was intentionally filled.  They emphasized the political and civil rights of women.  However, she notes that these rights did not address the experiences of women in most parts of the world which included issues of poverty, malnutrition and population, frequently grounded in cultural and economic, not political realms. (Parisi, 2002)

Collins et al express concern about this “mainstreaming approach” to human rights through the articulation of the stories of women who are human rights workers.  They write about the diversity of women’s experiences in relationship to the “framing” of women’s rights.  By providing examples of women whose social location is intersectional, they challenge the notion of a universal women’s experience (Dana Collins, 2010).  Similarly, in “We are Not Victims, We are the Protagonists of this History” Viviana Beatriz Macmanus points out that women’s experiences related to human rights discourse are frequently captioned as “victims”, particularly victims of sexualized violence and familial abuse.  Without denying that these are experiences that impact women around the world, she is concerned that a simple narrative of “sexual assault victim” for women may not contextualize their full experience and ensure their protection in the vast range of human rights abuses they experience, including as political activists.  She identifies a gender normative approach to feminist and human rights scholarship that “reduces women’s histories of resistance to their experiences as passive victims of sexual violence and/or as grieving mothers and partners.” and by doing so reinforces hierarchal structures of women as subordinate and passive (Macmanus, 2015).

A primary feature of feminist critique is its ability to look inward.  While it is a pertinent practice to analyze the existing norms and ideology that disadvantage women outside of feminist circles, it is just as critical to look within for areas of continued growth.  Therefore, feminist critique is not reserved for documents, ideas and cultural traditions developed by men in a patriarchal society but is also used as a tool to view internal biases.

While the conceptualization of human rights provides a mechanism by which we can measure and account for human needs and state responsibility, it is also constructed within social norms.  Those norms advantage certain individuals over others, providing a shaky foundation on which to build the rights of the disadvantaged.  Charlotte Bunch describes the events leading up to Vienna as a method of incorporating women’s experiences that did not attempt an “add and stir” approach (Bunch, 2013).  The question remains, without a new approach that involves women’s diverse experiences, can the documents developed to protect all humans really claim universality? 

Feminist critique has challenged the idea of private and public spheres and emphasized the falsely developed dichotomy.  It has called attention to the problems of viewing “culture” through a monolithic lens and even challenged other feminists notions of the “universality” of women’s experiences.  Through the process of critique, feminists have engaged in a robust discussion that can result in human rights schemes that are not absent the needs of more than half of the human population.

References

Binion, G. (1995). ‘Human Rights: A Feminist Perspective,’. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 17, No.3.

Bunch, C. (2013). ‘Legacy of Vienna: Feminism and Human Rights’. International Expert Conference on Vienna + 20. Vienna.

Dana Collins, S. F. (2010). ‘New Directions in Feminism and Human Rights’. nternational Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol. 12, No. 3-4, 298- 318.

Engle, K. (n.d.). In D. Buss(ed), International Human Rights and Feminisms’ .

Fleay, C. (2018, October). Human Righs and Feminist Critique. Human Rights Theory and Philosophy. Perth, WA, Australia: Curtin University.

Johnson, A. (1997). The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Macmanus, V. B. (2015). ‘We are not Victims, we are Protagonists of this History’; Latin American Gender Violence and the Limits of Women’s Rights as Human Rights. International Feminist Journal of Politics Vol. 17, No. 1,, 40–57.

Parisi, L. (2002). Feminist praxis and women’s human rights. Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 1, No. 4, 571–585.

Qureshi, S. (2012). Feminist Analysis of Human Rights Law. Journal of Political Studies.

The Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center. (n.d.). The International Bill of Rights, Fact Sheet #2. Minnesota, United States: The Minnesota Human Rights Resource Center.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2015). The World’s Women 2015; Trends and Statistics. New York: United Nations.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (1948, December 10). Paris.