Female Troubles: Women's Rights as Human Rights


Why does the world seem to have so much trouble recognizing women's rights as human rights? It's not as if any can claim that women are an imported or foreign idea or something that doesn't occur in a particular culture. It's not as if any individual can claim to not know any women. Why do women's rights get so little attention? Why doesn't solving the problem get more energy from individuals, institutions, governments, and international bodies? How can anyone fail to recognize that the advancement and protection of women's full equality is a requisite to any future for human rights? No country nor international body has done enough to realize equality. With just over half of humankind being female, we can not wait any longer.

On December 10, 1948, the United Nations (UN) formally declared the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The whole text applies to all of humanity, but it sees women's rights meriting attention enough to include particular references to them in the preamble and again in four of the Articles (2, 7, 16, and 25). With formal declaration almost 70 years past and having been promoted around the world as a foundational document for human rights, you'd expect tremendous progress to have been made for women's equality following global recognition. Unfortunately, nowhere near enough work has been done, and today women remain devalued, dismissed, and sometimes destroyed both domestically in the United States and internationally around the globe.

Women have their voices dismissed, their experiences devalued, and their lives are often on a continuum between distressed and destroyed as a result. It seems that the self-esteem and confidence of young girls, never equal to boys even when young, is decimated at and after adolescence. Perhaps when the body changes in the journey to adulthood, perhaps then girls get a larger view of how the world will generally treat them. After seeing how the world generally discriminates against and mistreats women, it is only understandable that they have their inner foundations shaken. What is to follow is often not a mere crisis of confidence, but a series of affronts against them for the simple fact that they are female in the world. Discrimination against women is faced by our mothers, sisters, daughters, partners, friends, and co-workers and is so pervasive to often go unnoticed in all but extreme cases. If we seek a world with human rights for all, it is a must to remove the barriers to those rights for women.

Domestically in the United States, women and girls experience discrimination and harm in a variety of spheres. Economically, women are subject to unequal pay, with women earning seventy seven cents to the male dollar. With court rulings allowing employers to use their religion to dictate provision of reproductive healthcare and the failure of most companies and organizations to promote and support women with parity to men, the workplace makes it difficult for women to balance job demands with family demands. Reproductive rights at-large are under renewed assault, with abortion becoming less available geographically and states passing laws to restrict access as far as they can, in spite of the likely effects not being fewer abortions but of more negative health outcomes for women and their children. In the meantime, school districts around the country very often deny girls the ability to receive sex education about their own bodies while in school, with predictable results of decisions made without information. Partner violence remains very high for American women, with a substantial number experiencing physical and emotional abuse in relationships, often young and without sufficient knowledge nor resources to help them get safe.

With rape and sexual assault in the military itself, the number of female soldiers that report being assaulted by fellow soldiers is high and reporting is increasing. The military failed to respond sufficiently to reported incidents until publicity became too big. The military dishonored the well-being of its own women soldiers and it is shameful to have military women having to worry not only of the risks of combat but of assault by other American soldiers. Not only do we continue to see alarming levels of harassment, battery, assault, and rape committed against American women, but we fail to even reach political consensus on facing it. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed to provide tools to prevent and prosecute violence against women while offering support to survivors. When the Act needed reauthorization in 2013, the House of Representatives in particular gave significant resistance saw significant resistance. Apparently, the human rights of women is not enough of a concern to be able to even quickly pass a bill assisting victims of violence. Is that the country you want to have?

Internationally, the attitudes towards women ranges from problematic to grim. In countries around the world, women are denied the ability to vote, they are denied equal standing in court, they find reporting rapes to result in their own prosecution, they are subject to taboos and prohibitions in workplaces and education, they are vulnerable to widow-burning and honor-killings and forced marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM). They face being targeted by the use of rape as a weapon of war in conflicts. They are trafficked into forms of slavery as sexual commodities and as unpaid factory workers and in a thousand other ways, women are not given full equality nor access to the full rights of the UDHR. The United States could support equality efforts and make a serious effort to end this discrimination. Does it? The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has seen most of the world sign and/or ratify and acceede. Of the two nonmember observer states, the Holy See has not acceded to CEDAW while Palestine has. Additionally, Taiwan, without such UN status and thus not able to formally ratify/accede, has passed domestic legislation mandating enforcement of CEDAW as domestic law. Seven member states have failed to ratify or accede to the Treaty: Iran, Palau, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. Look at that list and ask yourself if there is enough being done by the United States to support women's equality internationally.

What can you do? Use your voice and wallet to enlist both political pressure and financial support for people and organizations working to make things better for women and girls around the world. Contact your representatives and senators in Congress (see here for information on how to go about doing this) and ask them to include specific support for women's equality with a stronger agenda to achieve it domestically and ask them to count women's rights in other countries as a strong national interest of the United States in international fora. If you wish to make a donation, we'd ask that you consider a donation to the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), which is run by an old colleague of mine, Curt Goering. The work they're doing is sensitive and necessary and currently involves victims and survivors of the civil war in Syria, including women, who are largely underserved in efforts to help them recover as they best can. Your voice does matter and together we can be listened to, so tell Congress. CVT does excellent work, so donate if you can. But the most basic and imperative support, and one that you should repeat constantly, is to constantly ask yourself what can be done to better support full equality for women and have this conversation in offices and grocery stores and homes nationwide. We deserve to live in a world where the UDHR is more than a dream, but one of full equality, where our mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, co-workers, partners and the whole of humankind enjoys full equality. It's overdue that we get started in doing more. Let's start now.