The issue of women’s rights, not in the sense of special kinds of human rights reserved for women, but in the sense of the equal enjoyment by women of their general human rights, remains an important one. The Universal Declaration and the human rights treaties forbid discrimination on the grounds of gender. Article 2 states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”. Article 7 states that
“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination”.
This means that the anti-discrimination rule goes beyond discrimination in the application of human rights. If everyone is entitled to equal protection by the law, then it means that there can be no law which discriminates. Every law which offers unequal protection to men and women is a violation of the Universal Declaration, whether or not this law seeks to protect human rights.
In real life, women and girls continue to suffer from gender discrimination in all parts of the world. Here are some types of gender discrimination:
1. Discrimination in family law
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration is about the equality in marriage:
“Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses”.
In many cultures, arranged or forced marriages are still very common, often resulting in sexual abuse. Women often do not have the same rights regarding divorce or inheritance. Polygamy is also a cause of discrimination.
2. Discrimination at work
Article 23 gives everyone, without any discrimination, the right to equal pay for equal work, but even in industrialized countries there is salary discrimination and there are promotion obstacles for women. In developing countries, this discrimination is even worse.
In some countries, the choice of work is restricted for women, de iure, but also de facto because of cultural mentalities or educational discrimination. Often women are not allowed to work at all and are confined to house keeping, which obviously limits their development opportunities.
3. Discrimination in education
The literacy rates and school enrollment rates for girls and women is often much lower than for boys and men. Girls are often forced to stay home and do the housekeeping, which in many countries is hard labor. In later life, when a girl is allowed to take a job, it will be a substandard one because of her low level of education. She will also be expected to continue to do the housekeeping.
4. Physical abuse
Because of the anatomy of their bodies and their relative physical weakness compared to men, women are often the victim of rape, female genital mutilation or other kinds of sexual abuses (such as the sex industry).
Some causes of gender discrimination
The causes vary widely and include:
- Religious traditions and sacred texts. It seems that especially the Muslim religion contains many discriminatory injunctions, which moreover are often interpreted very literally.
- Custom and culture. Culture shapes the way “things are done” and the thinking of people who believe that things should be done in a certain way. In many cultures we still witness male misogyny and machismo.
- Education and upbringing. Mothers (but also fathers) often perpetuate involuntarily the inferior social position of their daughters by raising them according to traditional gender roles.
- Law. The law often reinforces other causes of discrimination.
Different kinds of discrimination promote each other
In many countries, the birth of a boy is a reason to celebrate, whereas the birth of a girl is a disaster. Selective abortions of female fetuses and female infanticide are no exception, resulting in unnatural gender ratios. In some countries, such as China, the situation is made worse by government policy. In 1997, the World Health Organization declared, “more than 50 million women were estimated to be ‘missing’ in China because of the institutionalized killing and neglect of girls due to Beijing’s population control program.”
This negative attitude towards girls is not the simple result of male misogyny. The local law often stipulates that a son inherits his father’s property. Social and legal conditions may also make it easier for a man to get a job to help support the family. One kind of discrimination may therefore promote another.
The misgivings that are created by the birth of a girl are often caused by the dowry system. Dowry is goods and money a bride’s family has to pay to the husband’s family. Not only is it more difficult for a girl to bring in money into the family; when she marries she will become a financial burden. Sometimes, dowries represent years’ worth of wages.
Labeling girls as second rate from the moment they are born obviously creates feelings of low self-esteem, which will make it harder to break out of the vicious circle. When these girls grow up, they will inevitably transpose these feelings to their daughters and so on.
Another case in which one type of discrimination promotes another: women fall more frequently victim to sexual abuse than men. In some societies, the stigma attached to this kind of abuse often forces women to continue to endure their suffering. Moreover, family law can make it difficult for them to divorce their abusing husband. Even the mere fact of allowing the sexual abuse to be exposed can have harmful consequences for the woman in question. Exposure means dishonor for the family, which will then punish the victim. Some families even commit “honor killings” to salvage their reputation. In certain societies, all responsibility for sexual misconduct rests by definition with women.
A last example. A lower level of education results in a substandard job, which in turn results in poverty and dependence on men. This dependence will convince men of the inferiority of women. Women who lack education also lack the tools to improve their situation and combat discrimination.
A few facts
From the Canadian International Development Agency:
- More than 80 percent of the world’s 35 million refugees are women and children;
- More than 110 million of the world’s children, two-thirds of them girls, are not in school;
- At least one in every three women is a survivor of some form of gender-based violence, frequently inflicted by a family member;
- Women represent, on average, less than 10 percent of the seats in national parliaments; and
- In sub-Saharan Africa, 58 percent of persons infected with HIV/AIDS are women.