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Human Rights Developments

Fifty years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights promised respect for human rights to all people, women’s human rights activists have forced governments to acknowledge the pervasive nature of violations of women’s rights and their own duty to stop them. Despite the unprecedented visibility of the women’s rights movement and governments’ articulation of policies supporting women’s rights, many governments failed to reform laws that overtly discriminated against women and practices that denied women’s rights. Women’s rights advocates countered these failings with activism.

There were some milestones in 1998 that reflected women’s struggle to bring human rights protections to bear in their own lives. In 1998 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu of sexual violence in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, showing that there can be justice for women raped in conflict. In three African countries, Nigeria, Uganda, and Malawi, women’s rights activists pushed their governments to prove their commitment to women’s rights by granting women property and inheritance rights. In Mexico, women workers successfully petitioned a body established by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to recognize and remedy workplace sex discrimination. In these and other cases, change occurred as a direct consequence of women’s activism: its development locally and strength internationally.

Yet in 1998 women still saw their ability to enjoy basic human rights challenged at every turn. Governments both proclaimed their commitment to women’s rights and pursued policies that undermined them. At least fourteen countries that have sworn to combat sex discrimination by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women continued to deny women full citizenship—Algeria, the Bahamas, Cyprus, Egypt, Fiji, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Morocco, Republic of Korea, Turkey, and Tunisia—and reserved the right to do so when they ratified. Other governments openly challenged the notion that universal human rights extend to women. Taliban authorities in Afghanistan, for example, confined women to their homes, cut off their access to education and health care, and beat them on the streets.

Progress in 1998 resulted directly from increasing visibility and strength of the international women’s rights movement during the decade. Years ago women’s rights activists in communities around the world began challenging the notion that human rights protections did not apply to the violence and discrimination in their lives. Women embraced the universality of human rights as a guarantee of respect for their dignity and the equality that, as human beings, they, too, should enjoy. Women’s rights activists captured the attention of the international community at the 1993 U.N. World Conference on Human Rights and won recognition that women’s rights are human rights. At the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing, governments agreed that respect for women’s rights must be the cornerstone of efforts to improve women’s political, economic, and social status. Despite this change in the rhetorical climate, in 1998 women were frustrated in their efforts to make the structures of government live up to the Universal Declaration. Implementation of women’s rights remained slow and inconsistent, reflecting the unwillingness of international actors to change the structures that accommodate and encourage daily abuses of women’s rights.

Even the claim on human rights protections that women did assert remained tenuous. Universality was under siege in 1998 when it came to extending human rights protections to women. Governments did little to remedy violence and discrimination against women, two significant indicators of women’s secondary status in societies around the world. Governments in countries such as Pakistan, Russia, and Peru did little to counter high levels of violence against women and failed to remove the barriers that block women victims’ access to justice and needed services. The fact of impunity for violence against women in peacetime only reinforced the longstanding problem of impunity for such acts in times of conflict or civil unrest. Ethnic Chinese women in Indonesia saw their reports of rape during and after May 1998 riots denied by government officials. In Algeria, authorities used reports of violence against women by armed extremists to discredit these groups but did little for women survivors of kidnapping and rape. Many governments refused to recognize, let alone remedy, discriminatory laws and practices that have cemented women’s inequality. Morocco and Guatemala, among others, did not repeal legislation that robs women of their right to make basic decisions about their lives—whom to marry, whether to have children, when to work outside the home, and whether to seek divorce.

Signs of progress recorded in 1998 thus remained isolated incidents rather than indices of meaningful change. For example, the single conviction for sexual violence in Rwanda set a precedent but changed little for thousands of women awaiting justice from ad hoc U.N. tribunals in Rwanda and Bosnia. The slow progress of governments in responding to violence against women was tragically evident in Indonesia. Rather than setting up a credible investigation to determine what happened and guaranteeing the security of rape victims who came forward, the government denied not only its own involvement but also that rapes had occurred.

Gains for women’s rights occurred in an isolated fashion in part because they came primarily where the cost was least; that is, women’s rights were respected only when no competing interests dictated otherwise. Governments and other international actors showed their willingness to abandon women’s rights when other pressures came to bear. This was particularly evident in 1998 with the economic downturn in parts of Asia and Eastern Europe. In countries facing economic crises, women workers were forced out of the workforce or, in some instances, tracked into low-skill, low-paying jobs. Adverse socioeconomic conditions in many regions also increased the likelihood that women and girls would be lured into forced prostitution, involuntary marriage, or other forms of forced labor. In Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, for example, women were barred from job opportunities simply because of their sex. The lack of local opportunities enhanced the appeal of even dubious job offers from other countries.

Governments also acted inconsistently to ensure accountability for violence against women in conflict or refugee situations. For example, governments turned in a mixed record in the Rome negotiations to establish an international criminal court, on the one hand specifying that crimes against women be handled by the court and, on the other, limiting the power of the prosecutor to hold perpetrators accountable. Moreover, the precedents of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda did not translate into international condemnation of sexual violence against women in other conflicts such as in Sierra Leone, where women reported being raped and sexually assaulted as civil war raged, or in Tanzania, where refugee women seeking shelter instead experienced high rates of assault.

The following section provides an overview of the state of women’s human rights in 1998. Our investigations and monitoring during the year showed that violence and discrimination against women as committed and tolerated by the states remained the norm in countries in which we worked. Reports from activists and press in other countries confirmed the pattern of abuse of women’s rights and underscored the need for urgent attention to and remedy of the problems.



Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch