Library special Women’s Rights and Gender Equality


Women’s rights are the fundamental human rights that were enshrined by the United Nations for every human being on the planet nearly 70 years ago. These rights include the right to live free from violence, slavery, and discrimination; to be educated; to own property; to vote; and to earn a fair and equal wage. As the now-famous saying goes, “women’s rights are human rights.” That is to say, women are entitled to all of these rights. Yet almost everywhere around the world, women and girls are still denied to these rights, often simply because of their gender. This goes both for developed and developing countries. Gender equality is achieved when women and men enjoy the same rights and opportunities across all sectors of society, including economic participation and decision-making, and when the different behaviours, aspirations and needs of women and men are equally valued and favoured.

Numerous international and regional instruments have drawn attention to gender-related dimensions of human rights issues, the most important being the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979. In 1993, 45 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and eight years after CEDAW entered into force (3 September 1981), the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna confirmed that women’s rights are human rights. That this statement was even necessary is striking – women’s status as human beings entitled to rights should have never been in doubt. And yet this was a step forward in recognizing the rightful claims of one half of humanity, in identifying neglect of women’s rights as a human rights violation and in drawing attention to the relationship between gender and human rights violations.

In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD) articulated and affirmed the relationship between advancement and fulfilment of rights and gender equality. It also clarified the concepts of women’s empowerment, gender equity, and reproductive health and rights. The Programme of Action of ICPD asserted that the empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status was a highly important end in itself as well as essential for the achievement of sustainable development. In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing generated global commitments to advance a wider range of women’s rights. The inclusion of gender equality and women’s empowerment as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals was a reminder that many of those promises have yet to be kept. It also represents a critical opportunity to implement those promises. In spite of these international agreements, the denial of women’s basic human rights is persistent and widespread.

Womens rights and gender equality_irishtimesWhat has changed for women 20 years after the World Conference in Beijing in 1995? There have been many changes in law and policy post-Beijing. Human rights treaty bodies including the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, have reinforced the message that states have an obligation to both pass laws and ensure compliance. Furthermore, they have noted that states have a duty to challenge negative attitudes towards women which are based on gender stereotyping. International and regional courts have taken a more gender-sensitive approach in addressing gender stereotypes especially with respect to violence against women.  The Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) has been established. The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe convention against violence against women and domestic violence which was opened for signature on 11 May 2011, in Istanbul, Turkey. The convention is based on the understanding that violence against women is a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women because they are women. It is the obligation of the state to address this fully in all its forms and to take measures to prevent violence against women, protect its victims and prosecute the perpetrators. The Convention came into force on 1 August 2014 and it has been signed by 44 countries.

Fighting for women’s rights is more than just giving opportunities to any individual woman or girl. It is also about changing how countries and communities work. It involves changing laws and policies, winning hearts and minds, and investing in strong women’s organizations and movements.

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