By Mia Hasenson-Gross, Executive Director of René Cassin
When Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Hansa Mehta from India and Shaista Ikramullah from Pakistan, joined Eleanor Roosevelt to ensure that the idea of women’s right to equality – “equal rights of men and women” – was rightfully incorporated into the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this was supposed to be the beginning of an era where women’s rights were finally recognised, promoted and protected.
However, 70 years since signing the Declaration, the level of violence and discrimination experienced by millions of women around the world is a far cry from that hoped for by these incredible women. In fact, violence and discrimination against women is one of the gravest human rights violations that has persisted, and in the words of the UN’s Secretary General, António Guterres, “gender equality is the unfinished business of our time”.
Discrimination does not only mean a lack of equality; it actually perpetuates harm. When the state dismisses violence against women as a private or domestic matter, when it endorses systems and frameworks that continue to discriminate against women, and when it absolves its responsibility to individuals or communities it sends a clear message that violence against women is condoned.
Discrimination against women is entrenched worldwide …
According to the World Health Organisation, one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime. In many countries, laws and policies continue to deny women their rights to equal access to land, property, sexual and reproductive health, and housing. Globally, estimates suggest that men still earn on average three times more in wages than women, indirectly perpetuating women’s vulnerability to exploitation. More than 70% of the world’s victims of slavery and human trafficking are women, and women make up more than half of the world’s 68.5 million forcibly displaced people.
… and persists here in the UK
Despite great progress achieved for women’s rights in the UK, women here too continue to be a vulnerable group affected by discrimination and violence. Many women continue to suffer from inequality at home, at work and in state institutions. According to Women’s Aid, domestic abuse affects one in four women in her lifetime, and one in five women experiences sexual violence. Sexual harassment, the most common form of violence against women, affects the lives of nearly every woman in the UK at some point in her life, even in childhood. The current UK immigration system routinely detains vulnerable women – often those who were victims of torture or trafficking and slavery in their home countries. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller women, pregnant migrant women, victims of trafficking and survivors of gender-based violence, are still being refused access to basic health services on a regular basis. Across most employment sectors, a gender pay gap persists, with an average of 18% more paid to men over women in the same jobs.
Human rights begin at home – but, too often, so do discrimination and violence
In 1958, marking the tenth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt reflected on progress made:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.
Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere”.
Discrimination and violence against women mean that human rights still have little meaning for women, as it is in their home, their workplace and their communities where women still experience most inequality.
Some progress, but much more to do
It is true that much progress has been made for women and women’s rights. But rights must be fought for and conserved. And while it is the state’s responsibility to change this reality for women, it is not enough. It is our role as individuals and human rights advocates, to ensure that ‘home’ is a safe place for women and that discriminatory gender attitudes, stereotypes and behaviours are replaced by a narrative that promotes basic values of equality and justice. This is the only way to achieve progress in women’s rights, and the only way to achieve progress in human rights.