The assertion of women's issues as human rights has been central to their transformation from needs to rights that Governments have an obligation to protect and promote.
The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (adopted in 1993) stated that the human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights and this shift in paradigm was affirmed at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995).
The Beijing Platform for Action was heralded as a referendum on the human rights of women in twelve critical areas of concern, which range from women’s socio-economic rights (such as equality in education, access to employment and income, elimination of poverty) to women’s political participation and combating violence against women.The Beijing Conference also established that gender equality is central to progress in development and democracy.
Goal 3 of the Millennium Development Goals is to “promote gender equality and empower women”, including the elimination of gender disparities in education. In recent years, language on the protection and promotion of the human rights of women has been widely incorporated into the rhetoric of governments and intergovernmental organizations.
Human rights of women are those referred to in international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)(1981), and its Optional Protocol (2000), as well as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1967). Yet, reality lags far behind such rhetoric. For example:
- Two-thirds of the world’s 876 million illiterates are women, and three-fifths of the 115 million children out of school are girls;
- Just 15.6% of members elected to parliaments (both houses combined) in the world are women;
- There is no country in the world where women earn as much as men. On average women earn from 50% to 80 % of men’s wages;
- Since the founding of the United Nations, of the 49 presidents of the General Assembly elected since 1945, only two were women;
- There has been no woman Secretary General of the United Nations, nor has there been a woman Director General of UNESCO.
UNESCO has stated its commitment to gender equality and women’s human rights. Article 1 of the UNESCO Constitution states that the purpose of the organization is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion.
Academic research since the 1980s has shown how gender relations (like other power relations) are inscribed in laws and norms, cultural practices, social relationships, and collective action, and in social institutions such as markets, state systems, family forms, educational systems, and the media. One outcome has been the proliferation of women’s studies or gender studies departments, programs, centers, and institutes across the world, initially in the developed countries but now throughout the Global South. In some parts of the world, acknowledgement of the salience of gender at macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis has led to gender mainstreaming across the academic disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, political science, history, psychology, literature) and in interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies and media studies. International organizations, including the United Nations system (e.g., UNDP, the ILO, UNFPA, the World Bank), have adopted many of the findings of academic research on gender, commissioned further studies, and translated theoretical and empirical research into policy frameworks and commitments to gender equality and gender mainstreaming.
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