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Women’s Human Rights


The year 2000 marked the fifth anniversary of the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, an event that heralded respect for women's human rights as a central part of any and all efforts to improve women's status around the globe. Five years later, what gains did women see in government efforts to protect their rights? Activists welcomed important signs of progress, including greater awareness of abuses of women's human rights; stronger international standards for prosecuting violence against women, particularly in conflict situations; and some initial efforts by governments and international actors to implement programs to support women's rights. Still, these steps forward seemed few and far between, especially when contrasted with the scale and scope of ongoing violations of women's most fundamental human rights.

One of the most striking developments in the past year-evident in June 2000 in the negotiations at the special sessions of the U.N. General Assembly for the Beijing + 5 Review (Beijing + 5) to assess progress in improving women's status-was how actively some governments were willing to work to thwart recent gains in protecting women's human rights. They set out to master the language of women's human rights while they at the same time sought to undermine the power of the idea and the movement. Perhaps a sign that they had started taking women's rights activists seriously, governments' resistance to further progress on women's human rights took several forms, although most of the obstructionist tactics at the U.N. meeting and elsewhere relied on the age-old strategy of divide and conquer.

First, and perhaps most threatening, was the refusal of governments to accept that for women to truly enjoy their human rights, they must be treated with dignity in all aspects of their lives. Instead, government actions reflected the belief that women are not entitled to full enjoyment of their human rights. Hence, while governments condemned some forms of violence against women, they readily excused others and defended laws

that denied women their legal rights. In Morocco, for example, a reformist government pledged to pursue programs to measure and respond to violence against women, but allowed proposed reforms to the country's family code-which continues to subject female decision-making to male authority-to languish. In other countries, laws that recognized men as the legal heads of households remained in place, denying women's rights to decide for themselves, freely, whether and whom to marry, whether to work outside the home, or even when to seek medical attention. Laws requiring female obedience or subservience were often key to making women dependent on men and tied to abusive relationships.

Some governments failed to attack not only certain forms of violence, but also the many laws and practices that either rendered women vulnerable to attacks or made it difficult for them to escape or redress abuse. A government survey in Japan showed that 15.4 percent of women polled had been physically assaulted at least once by their husbands, but police remained reluctant to intervene in such cases and some women reported that police tried to dissuade them from pursuing their claims. In Khartoum, Sudan, a senior government official tried to enforce women's dependency by banning them from jobs in restaurants, gas stations, and similar institutions. When women demonstrated in protest, police set upon them, using tear gas and batons, and arresting over twenty of the demonstrators.

Certain governments also acted to deny rights that might protect women's autonomy in their sexual and reproductive decision-making. In the negotiations at Beijing + 5, some governments argued that women do not-and should not-enjoy rights in this fundamentally personal part of their lives, the right, for example, to make decisions about whether and with whom to have intimate relations free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. They further claimed that such rights were not universal, and defended practices such as those that discriminated against single women or resulted in forced marriage for reasons of culture or tradition. Rather than tackling those problems as violations of women's human rights, some governments asserted that concern with women's reproductive and sexual autonomy represented the "radical" agenda of "Western" activists and did not merit further attention. They preferred instead to limit the debate to addressing women's reproductive and sexual health needs, and to avoid discussion of government obligations to respect women's rights. Even those governments that claimed the mantle of leadership in promoting women's rights-Canada, the United States, and some European countries-failed to challenge this onslaught at Beijing + 5.

By suggesting that some of women's human rights are not universal, some governments raised the prospect that certain violations could be excused as culturally specific practices and, indeed, that situations of profound inequality could be found acceptable internationally. This was particularly the case with regard to women's enjoyment of their rights in the context of the family. Thus, many governments in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, appeared content to leave unchallenged the assumption that men have the right to discipline their wives as they see fit. In Pakistan, for example, women accused by their husbands of "inappropriate" or "immoral" behavior could be assaulted, maimed, or killed with effective impunity in the name of family honor. Activists maintained that such violence-over eight hundred women died in 1999 in such attacks-would persist so long as the country's laws enshrine male superiority. Activists in India, where on average reportedly fourteen women are murdered each day by their husbands' relatives, also called for a stronger government response to violence against women in the family.

Governments often used the cultural-specificity argument to justify using a separate standard to evaluate their performance in promoting the human rights of women. For example, in Saudi Arabia, press reports in April 2000 indicated that the Interior Minister refused to even discuss lifting a discriminatory ban on women's driving until "after society accepts the idea."

The wide-ranging resistance to protecting women's human rights could be attributed in part to a desire to curb women's effectiveness in joining forces across national borders and turning the attention of the human rights system to abuses of women's human rights and government obligations to prevent and remedy such problems. Despite obstacles, women's human rights activists set new international standards for how women should be treated, and sometimes changed the situation in their local communities. In Jordan, for example, local activists successfully pushed their governments to introduce legislation to improve women's rights. In Russia, crisis centers mounted a national campaign against domestic violence and helped women bring cases to court. In Tanzania, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) implemented programs to protect women from sexual and domestic violence. In two cases brought in U.S. courts, fugitive former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was ordered to pay billions of dollars for atrocities, including rape and other sexual violence, committed by his soldiers. And, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (cedaw) was set to enter into force in December 2000, after Italy became the tenth country to ratify the instrument, thus creating a new mechanism for enforcing women's human rights.

The following section provides an overview of key developments, positive and negative, for women's human rights in 2000. Our investigations and monitoring throughout the year showed that violence and discrimination against women as committed and tolerated by states remained the norm in the countries in which we worked. Reports from activists and the news media in other countries confirmed the pattern of abuse of women's rights and underscored the need for urgent attention to the problem.

Human Rights Developments

In 2000, governments further mastered the rhetoric of respect for women's human rights. Often, however this rhetoric was unmatched by meaningful action. When they took steps to support women's rights, those steps were often cursory and uncoordinated. Although governments committed themselves to protecting women's human rights, in practice they were generally unwilling to protect all women's human rights in all spheres of women's lives. (Emphasis added.) Thus, the South African government, for example, could proudly declare its commitment to women's rights at Beijing + 5, yet thousands of South African women farmworkers had no ability to establish work contracts independently of their husbands. Similarly, the government of Peru condemned violence against women, while obliging domestic violence victims to undergo mandatory conciliation sessions with their abusers; the Uzbekistan government maintained constitutional guarantees of women's equality but women wishing to divorce their husbands faced major, gender-specific obstacles; the Taliban administration in Afghanistan shrouded its denial of women's rights in the rhetoric of protection but its forces raped ethnic Hazara and Tajik women with impunity; and Japan's government treated trafficked women not as victims of abuse but as criminals.

As the cases below illustrate, in most cases governments committed themselves to protecting only some rights, in only some instances, and only when funds were readily available to do so, and, most important, only when minimal political or social capital would be expended. The stark consequence of this for millions of women was that they lived with daily violence and discrimination from infancy to old age. The universality of women's rights, and the indivisibility of those rights, for all practical purposes, was for most women little more than a dream.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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