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close this bookWomen's Rights are Human Rights - A review of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR, 2000, 36 p.)
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View the documentGender Mainstreaming and Human Rights of Women: OHCHR Policy Statement
View the documentTrafficking and the Global Sex Industry: A Human Rights Framework
View the documentOHCHR's Anti-trafficking programme
View the documentWomen's enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights
View the documentTraditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl-child
View the documentReproductive rights and human rights

Gender Mainstreaming and Human Rights of Women: OHCHR Policy Statement

The Human Rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.


The core mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is to contribute to the realization of all human rights for all people without distinction of any kind, including race, colour, language, religion, sexual preference, political or other opinion, national or social origin, or other status. Accordingly, non-discrimination on the basis of sex is a fundamental principle of international human rights law first recognized by the United Nations in its Charter (1945) and subsequently in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Recent world conferences, including Vienna (1993), Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995) have confirmed the strong link between the gendered nature of violations of human rights, and the actual advancement of women's rights. Discrimination against women violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity. It is also an obstacle to the participation of women on equal terms with men in all spheres of society.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights endorses the United Nations policy on gender mainstreaming, by making gender mainstreaming an organizational imperative. In so doing, the Office reinforces the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of sex as a means of ensuring gender equality in the enjoyment of human rights.

Gender Integration in the Human Rights System

A workshop on gender integration into the human rights' system was convened, in May 1999, by OHCHR, DAW and UNIFEM. All Special Rapporteurs and Chairpersons of human rights' treaty bodies were invited to participate. The workshop was organized as a follow-up to the 1995 expert group meeting on the development of guidelines for the integration of a gender perspective into UN human rights activities and programmes. The workshop sought to assess progress made and obstacles encountered, to identify opportunities for strengthening attention to gender issues, and to develop strategies and recommendations for further action. It endeavoured to identify when, where and how experts had opportunities to integrate gender concerns in their work, and when, how, and what type of input experts should receive in the implementation of their mandates (E/CN.4/2000/INFORMAL/3).

OHCHR's Technical Cooperation Programme

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights coordinates the United Nations programme of advisory services and technical cooperation in the field of human rights. In accordance with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the Office of the High Commissioner has instructed those conducting assessment missions for technical assistance to take particular account of the status of women in the country concerned and to aim to improve the situation of women's rights through their recommendations.

The incorporation of gender into programmes of technical assistance takes the form of providing the advisory services of experts, human rights seminars, training courses and workshops, as well as fellowships and scholarships. A project on the integration of a gender perspective into technical cooperation practices and procedures, to which the Division for the Advancement of Women has contributed, is now being implemented. The project specifically aims to produce guidelines on integrating “gender” into typical areas of technical cooperation activities in the project cycle, namely, needs assessment missions, project formulation missions, project evaluation missions and training activities. To date, draft guidelines have been produced in three of the fours areas. Once finalized, the guidelines will be harmonized and integrated with similar guidelines on economic, social and cultural rights.


The approach of the OHCHR to mainstreaming gender in its policies, programmes and operational procedures is as follows:

· Gender concerns will be reflected in the conceptualization, implementation and evaluation of human rights policies, strategic planning and the setting of priorities and objectives.

· The impact of activities, protocols and procedures aimed at advancing human rights will be examined on the basis of gender.

· Having a special responsibility to make the link between gender and human rights, OHCHR will undertake training and sensitization programmes aimed at integrating gender and building capacity for gender analysis from a human rights perspective for staff, human rights bodies and consultants.

· OHCHR will actively support the development and implementation of specific programmes, projects and activities aimed at improving the enjoyment by women and girl-children of their fundamental human rights. As far as possible this work will be undertaken in consultation and collaboration with other UN agencies and programmes.

· OHCHR is giving specific priority to the issue of trafficking in persons. OHCHR's work in this area is based on the principle that human rights must be at the core of any anti-trafficking strategy. The key objective of OHCHR is to integrate human rights into international, regional and national anti-trafficking initiatives - particularly at the legal and policy levels. As far as possible, OHCHR seeks to act as a catalyst and support for the work of others.

· Specific strategies and benchmarks to measure progress will be developed and implemented to oversee the integration of a gender approach to the advancement of human rights for all.

· OHCHR encourages Member States to ensure the active and broad participation of women in all fields of United Nations human rights activities. They include treaty bodies, Special Mechanisms, the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

· As the lead United Nations organization for the follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Programme of Action, OHCHR is fully committed to maintaining a policy dialogue on human rights and gender mainstreaming with its UN partners (particularly UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNIFEM, UNFPA and the Division for the Advancement of Women), as well as with governments, development banks, bilateral aid agencies, NGOs and civil society. The objective is to build common understanding of the fundamental link between gender issues and the human rights of women and girl-children.

· In operationalizing its commitment, OHCHR recognizes the primary responsibility of Senior Management to provide active leadership in the gender mainstreaming process. OHCHR is committed to achieving internal gender parity - particularly in management positions and field posts. Specific budgetary and staff allocations will be made to ensure a steady increase in the gender mainstreaming process until gender is routinely taken into account in all placements and disbursements.

Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry: A Human Rights Framework

The following is an edited extract from an address delivered by the High Commissioner to an NGO/IGO Consultation on trafficking, Geneva, June 21 1999

Everywhere I travel I see evidence of the growing problem of trafficking and its links to the global sex industry. Invariably, the picture presented by the victims of trafficking is of money being made at the expense of human dignity and freedom. During a visit to Cambodia in January 1998 I heard first-hand accounts of the brutality inflicted on women and girls who had been trafficked into prostitution. When I went to the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and neighbouring States in May of this year I found that the growing problem of trafficking was adding to the miseries of the refugee population in that part of the world. I have just returned from Russia where I heard stories of huge numbers of Russian and Ukrainian women being tricked or coerced into situations of danger and exploitation. Poverty, inequality and discrimination seem to be the unifying factors in each of these sad situations.

The sheer scope of the worldwide trade in human beings and the misery it generates can appear overwhelming. In the face of such odds. I am encouraged by the energy and determination that I have witnessed in the nongovernmental community. That is what struck me while visiting the makeshift women's shelter in Cambodia. It is largely thanks to the nongovernmental community - particularly those working so tirelessly in the field - that trafficking is on the international political agenda. We must continue the fight in order to ensure that this attention results in the kind of policy and attitudinal changes that are so necessary.

While congratulating ourselves on certain successes we must remain aware of the fact that ideological and conceptual differences have prevented significant progress. I refer in particular to the debate over prostitution which has both energized and polarized the anti-trafficking community. We must accept the fact that opinions will differ on certain key issues. Differences of opinion are to be expected and can even be a positive force. Such differences should not, however, be allowed to take over. The resulting paralysis does a great disservice to the women, children and men who most need our help. I encourage all those engaged in the fight against trafficking to identify the many commonalities that should allow us all to work productively together.

My own position and that of my Office is based on two fundamental principles:

- First: that human rights must be at the core of any credible anti-trafficking strategy; and
- Second: that we must work from the perspective of those who most need their human rights protected and promoted.

These two principles are, of course, interrelated. By placing human rights at the centre of our analysis, we are forced to consider the needs of the trafficked person - and thereby to confront the poverty, inequality and discrimination which is at the root of this phenomenon. What does it mean to make human rights the core of our anti-trafficking work? For me it means first and foremost, acknowledging that trafficking and related practices such as debt bondage and forced prostitution and false marriage are themselves a violation of the basic human rights to which all persons are entitled. The right to life; the right to dignity and security; the right to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to health; the right to be recognized as a person before the law. These are rights which we all possess - irrespective of our sex, our nationality, our social status, our occupation or any other difference.

A human rights approach also demands that we acknowledge the responsibility of governments to protect and promote the rights of all persons within their jurisdiction. This responsibility translates into a legal obligation on governments to work towards eliminating trafficking and related exploitation. Passivity and inaction are insufficient. Tolerance or complicity are inexcusable.

Finally, for me, as High Commissioner, a human rights approach to trafficking means that all parts of the United Nations, not just my Office, should integrate human rights into their analysis of the problem and into their responses. This is the only way to retain a focus on the trafficked person: to ensure that trafficking is not simply reduced to a problem of migration, a problem of public order; or a problem of organized crime.

That brings me to the work of my Office. Very soon after my appointment I decided that trafficking must become a priority area of our work. The recent allocation of financial and human resources has enabled me to set up a modest Anti-Trafficking Programme. The basic objective of the Programme is to work towards the integration of human rights into international, regional and national anti-trafficking initiatives. Our emphasis is on legal and policy development. We do not aim to undertake large-scale projects or to otherwise duplicate the excellent initiatives that are being undertaken elsewhere. Instead, as far as possible, we try to act as a catalyst and a support for the work of others. In the following paragraphs I will give some examples of our work.

At the international level my Office has been closely following the development of two important Protocols to the draft Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. One of these protocols concerns illegal migration. The other deals with trafficking of persons. We have analysed both draft instruments from a human rights perspective and submitted this analysis - together with specific recommendations to the Ad-Hoc Working Group responsible for the drafting process. I need not remind those working in the trafficking field that this process represents the first legislative consideration of the trafficking issue in over half a century. It is very important to ensure that the end result represents a step forward in eliminating trafficking and securing the rights of trafficked persons. At a very minimum we must ensure that there is no retreat from earlier legal commitments.

It is equally important for us to make the link between illegal migration on the one hand, and trafficking in persons on the other. These are rightly being considered as two separate issues. However, the crossover potential is enormous. Today's illegal migrant may well be yesterday's - or tomorrow's - trafficking victim. Both situations present a grave threat to the protection of human rights and both therefore deserve our closest attention.

My Office is increasingly directing its anti-trafficking activities to the regional and sub-regional levels. In Central and Eastern Europe we are cooperating with the Council of Europe and IOM on a project which initially targeted refugees from Kosovo and is now more broadly focused on trafficking trouble-spots of Central and Southern Europe. Our Office in Sarajevo is also undertaking significant preventive and assistance work throughout the territory of the Former Yugoslavia.

In the Asian region our attention is focusing on the draft Convention on Trafficking in Women and Girls which is being elaborated under the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. My concerns here are identical to those I expressed earlier in connection with the Vienna Protocols. The SAARC Governments are to be congratulated for taking up this complex and problematic issue. At the same time it is essential that all efforts be made to ensure that the end result represents an advance for trafficked persons and their human rights.

In Nepal, my Office is currently developing a project, along with the local UNDP Office, that will pilot a rights-based approach to the trafficking problem. The pilot will initially be implemented in two districts in Nepal. We are relying very heavily on the local NGO community to ensure the success of this important endeavour. Other activities in Asia include a dialogue between my office and ASEAN States on the issue of trafficking and transnational organized crime. We are also working closely with the National Human Rights Commissions of the Asia-Pacific region in order to assist them in taking up the issue of trafficking.

Finally, but importantly, recent and significant contributions to the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery have enabled us to provide a number of travel and project grants to NGOs working on behalf of victims of trafficking.

We all agree on the enormity of the problem at hand and on the difficulty of developing credible solutions. We should not allow differences of emphasis to turn into divisions that prevent us from realizing our common goal - to stand up for the rights of victims of trafficking wherever and whoever they are. We will only succeed if we harness our collective endeavours. I urge you to work together in a constructive, cooperative spirit. I urge you to take up the tools of human rights in your fight against trafficking and to focus on the needs of trafficked persons. That is the way forward and I am proud to be part of this journey.

OHCHR's Anti-trafficking programme

1. Background

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has become actively involved in the issue of trafficking in persons with a special focus on trafficking in women and children. OHCHR's action takes place through continued support for international mechanisms to deal with trafficking and related issues, and through an anti-trafficking programme which has been developed by OHCHR.

In developing detailed responses to each stage of the trafficking cycle it is essential that certain basic policy principles guide and inform any anti-trafficking initiative. These principles must ensure a uniform adherence to a human rights-based approach and can also provide a means of measuring the success of anti-trafficking measures:

- First: The protection of human rights and the dignity of trafficked persons must be given the highest priority.

- Second: Governments must accept responsibility for the problem of trafficking and for the development and implementation of appropriate responses. Trafficking is not a private wrong - this is an injustice that involves and implicates us all.

- Third: The definition of the term - trafficking - in laws, policies and programmes should not be restricted to sexual exploitation. It should be broad enough to cover other identified purposes without ambiguity, such as bonded or forced labour and other slavery-like practices. It should use child and gender sensitive language to signal that children and women are the ones most vulnerable to trafficking.

- Fourth: Traffickers and their collaborators must be prosecuted and adequately penalized - paying full attention to due process rights and without compromising the rights of victims.

- Fifth: Trafficked persons should not be criminalized for the involuntary illegality of their entry or residence in countries of transit and destination, or for the involuntary activities they perform as a consequence of their being trafficked.

- Sixth: Victims of trafficking, including those with “irregular” immigration status, should be granted protection and necessary physical and mental care by the authorities of receiving countries.

- Seventh: Victims of trafficking should be provided legal and other assistance in the course of any criminal, civil and other actions against traffickers. Governments should be encouraged to provide temporary or permanent residence permits, safe shelter and adequate witness protection during legal proceedings.

- Eight: The safe and, as far as possible, voluntary return of victims, instead of automatic repatriation, should be ensured, particularly in cases of organized criminal involvement.

- Ninth: Children should not be treated the same way as adults in the identification, rescue and repatriation process. Children have special rights and special needs that must be recognized and protected.

Finally: efforts must be made to address the root causes of trafficking such as poverty, inequality, discrimination and racism.

2. The Programme

The OHCHR Anti-Trafficking Programme was established in March 1999. Its objective is to work towards the integration of human rights into international, regional and national anti-trafficking initiatives. Emphasis is on the development and promotion of legal standards and on providing policy leadership. The Programme does not aim to undertake large projects or to otherwise duplicate the excellent initiatives that are being undertaken elsewhere. Instead, as far as possible, OHCHR aims to act as a catalyst and a support for the work of others.

At the international level OHCHR has focused its attention on the negotiation of two Protocols to the draft Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The first Protocol deals with Trafficking in Persons -Particularly Women and Children. The second Protocol concerns Smuggling of Migrants. An Informal Note from the High Commissioner was prepared in May 1999 and submitted to the drafting group (Ad-Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of a Convention against Transnational Organized Crime). The Note analyses both instruments from a human rights perspective and makes specific recommendations for improvement to the draft texts. The Note formed part of the official documentation of the next meeting of the Ad-Hoc Committee which took place in Vienna on 28 June - 9 July 1999 (A/AC/254/16). The High Commissioner's call for increased attention to human rights in Vienna protocols had been accepted not only by Governments involved in the drafting process, but also by other agencies including UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, and ILO. This resulted in a recent joint interagency note by these five agencies on incorporating a human rights perspective into both Vienna protocols, which was submitted to the 8th session of the Ad-Hoc Committee held in Vienna on 21 February-3 March 2000.

At the regional and sub-regional levels, OHCHR is undertaking a number of different activities:


· A joint OHCHR/Council of Europe Trafficking Prevention Programme has been established for Eastern and Central Europe. The Programme comprises a series of awareness-raising and training activities. Emphasis is on preventive measures - particularly sensitization of vulnerable groups and those with whom they come into contact. In its first phase, the Programme focused on the situation of refugee and displaced Kosovar women and girls. During the current phase, an international seminar on Coordinated Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in South Eastern Europe: Towards a Regional Action Plan will be held in Athens on 29 June-1 July 2000. OHCHR and the Council of Europe are jointly funding and implementing the Programme and will conduct a joint evaluation at its completion.

· In addition, OHCHR, the Council of Europe and OSCE/ODIHR are currently exploring the possibility of developing a joint anti-trafficking programme within the context of the South Eastern Europe Stabilization Process.

· The OHCHR Field Office in Sarajevo is undertaking a number of anti-trafficking activities in conjunction with local NGOs, the United Nations Mission (UNMIBH) and other international organizations, including IOM. These activities aim to assist victims of trafficking; to facilitate the prosecution of traffickers; and to promote law reform and governmental responsibility. In September 1999, OHCHR Sarajevo coordinated a round-table discussion on the issue of trafficking in Kosovo. The aim of the round table was to provide recommendations which will assist the international community in dealing with the issue of trafficking in the context of the reconstruction of Kosovo.


· In March 1999, OHCHR organized two workshops in Nepal as part of its ongoing programme of assistance. The first Workshop focused on criminal procedure and the second on the human rights of women. Both activities dealt with the specific issue of trafficking and formulated recommendations to the Government, civil society and the United Nations system on dealing with the trafficking problem. A major output of the second Nepal workshop was the development of a pilot human rights-based anti-trafficking project, which will form part of the larger UN system response to the trafficking problem in Nepal.

· The project will focus specifically on strengthening the capacity of police and judicial bodies to address the problem of trafficking. It will also promote closer cooperation between Nepalese and Indian law enforcement and border authorities on this issue. OHCHR is also administering an NGO grants programme in Nepal which provides funds to local NGOs working on the trafficking issue.

· At the sub-regional level OHCHR has undertaken a human rights-based analysis of the draft South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) convention against trafficking in women and girls. The High Commissioner communicated her views on the draft to all Heads of SAARC Governments, emphasizing the need to ensure that a human rights perspective was fully integrated into the final text.

· OHCHR has encouraged the National Human Rights Commissions of the Asia-Pacific region to take up the issue of trafficking. This possibility was first discussed at an OHCHR-sponsored Workshop on National Institutions and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Philippines, May 1999). OHCHR subsequently continued these discussions with the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF). A working paper on the subject was presented to the Fourth Annual Meeting of the APF that was held in Manila on 6-8 September 1999. APF subsequently recommended that all its member-institutions appoint a focal point on this issue. The High Commissioner has followed up on this recommendation with Heads of all member-institutions.

· In view of the seriousness of the trafficking phenomenon in Asia, in December 1999 the High Commissioner appointed a Special Representative on this issue. The Special Representative, based in Cambodia, will have a key role in supporting national and regional anti-trafficking initiatives.

3. Contacts with IGOs/NGOs

OHCHR is building alliances on the trafficking issue with the key UN/IGO agencies and programmes dealing with trafficking (including IOM, ILO, UNICEF and UNHCR as well as with relevant regional intergovernmental organizations) in order to: (i) further the OHCHR goal of integrating a human rights perspective into international anti-trafficking initiatives; and (ii) identify areas for potential collaboration. Contacts have also been established with the international NGO community active in the trafficking issue. The NGO/IGO Consultation on Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry (Geneva, June 1999) provided an opportunity for OHCHR to expand and build upon these contacts.

Anne Gallagher

Women's enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights

“We must at long last achieve a “critical mass” of women's leaders, for without more gender- balanced and participatory governance, without more sharing of power and resources, neither sustainable development nor lasting peace can be achieved”.

Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations

“Fighting for women's rights is a positive struggle which recognizes the quality of women's contribution to every aspect of the community. I therefore invite all to renew their energies in undertaking practical and creative initiatives to achieve full respect of the human rights of women”.

Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

The 1993 Vienna Conference emphasized the need for governments and the United Nations to make the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex, a priority of their policies.

Women are entitled to the enjoyment of all human rights, including those relating to sustainable human development. However, women's gender roles have an impact on their ability to access rights, resources and opportunities, and to be treated on an equal basis with men. Not only is the enjoyment of rights - including the right to access resources on an equal basis - an end in itself, it is an essential ingredient in achieving the empowerment of women, social justice and overall social and economic development.

Women's equal access to resources and opportunities and equal treatment in economic and social life are, in turn, necessary for the full realization of their human rights. Lack of equal access to resources and opportunity is a denial of rights, which results in the perpetuation of poverty for many women.

In many countries throughout the world, women are denied their rights to equal access to resources and opportunities. This is reflected in the overall unequal economic and social situation of women as compared to men. Access to economic resources is essential for people's well-being. Therefore, ensuring women's full enjoyment of their human rights is a crucial strategy for the empowerment of women and for overcoming the economic, political and social disadvantages they continue to face.

Countries' achievements in human development (that is, whether people are educated, enjoy a decent standard of living and lead long and healthy lives) change noticeably when inequality in achievement between women and men is taken into account. The majority of the world's 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women, a situation caused by a number of factors. Their unequal access to land, property, credit and other economic resources, is one aspect. Another is their treatment under social welfare systems and their status and power in the family. Research has shown that, although gender inequality is strongly associated with human poverty, it is not necessarily associated with income poverty. Even when a country is very poor in terms of income poverty, it can still achieve a relative level of gender equality according to basic indicators for human development. Progress in gender equality can be achieved at different income levels and stages of development. And it can be found across a range of cultures and political ideologies.


Statistical profiles provide a means of documenting differences and identifying factors that account for unequal outcomes for women in the enjoyment of human rights. The persistence of unequal outcomes suggests that women's as well as men's experiences require explicit attention in terms of the protection and promotion of human rights. While great progress has been made in recent years in the collection of data disaggregated by sex, such data are not yet consistently used as a basis for legal and policy measures in promoting the enjoyment of human rights.

Access to, and control of, productive resources, particularly land, are key factors in addressing women's poverty. In rural areas, lack of access to, and control of, productive resources have particular consequences for women. Although women's right to own land is often legally established, gender asymmetry in access to and control over land is one of the main obstacles to the full participation of women in rural development. Because of continuing exclusion of women from, and discrimination against women in, acquiring land, security of tenure and inheritance rights to land and property, women also face particular constraints in securing and maintaining their right to housing. The continued discrimination women face in all matters relating to land and property has been identified as the single most critical factor in the perpetuation of gender inequality and poverty.

Education is also a prerequisite for effective economic participation. Education and training for women and girls yields high social and economic returns, and is a precondition for the empowerment of women. While enrolment ratios for boys and girls at the primary level are approaching equality everywhere, differences persist at the regional level and for different age groups and levels of schooling, especially at higher levels. Two thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women, with illiteracy highest among older women who never had the opportunity to go to school.

Although women's participation in various aspects of economic and community life has increased, it remains lower than that of men. The female economic activity rate is now nearly 70 per cent of the male rate in developing countries, ranging from 86 per cent in East Asia to 50 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. A large part of women's work is in low-paid or unpaid occupations. In agriculture, family enterprises and the informal sector, women have little possibility for savings, credit or investment, and limited security. Women's work is poorly measured in official statistics in spite of its tremendous importance for the well-being of families.

Women work in different jobs and occupations than men, almost always with lower status and pay. In the industrialized countries, unemployment is higher among women than men, and women account for 75 per cent of unpaid family workers. In many parts of the world, women who are poor remain unable to exercise their right to loans and credit, even though this right is established under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and is considered to be a powerful tool in overcoming poverty and economic dependence.

Analysis of the content and nature of human rights, as well as of measures to ensure their enjoyment, should be informed by gender-based considerations. There are many processes at the domestic and international levels through which the content of human rights is clarified and their implementation occurs. The systematic integration of gender factors into these processes, into measures for implementation and into domestic and international monitoring, remains to be achieved.

In the enjoyment of rights, women face constraints and vulnerabilities which differ from those that affect men and which are of significant relevance to the enjoyment of these rights. At the same time, these variables mean that women may be affected by violations of rights in ways that are different from men. Women are disproportionately affected by poverty and social marginalization. Women suffer systemic and systematic discrimination, which results in deep patterns of inequality and disadvantage. The overall level of development and of resources available to countries, women's literacy levels and women's access to information and to legal remedies also have an impact on women's enjoyment of their rights. The gender-based division of labour, with women being primarily responsible for reproductive work and work related to the family, and men for productive work, also contributes to the perpetuation of gender-based inequalities.

Many women experience multiple barriers in gaining access to rights such as employment, housing, land, food and social security. These barriers include the disproportionate burden of reproductive and care-giving work performed by women; the sexual division of labour and segregated employment practices; discriminatory traditional and cultural laws and practices; unequal representation by women in political and other decision-making structures at all levels; and the widespread violence perpetrated against women. Women's social position, marital status, class, or membership in particularly vulnerable groups, such as refugee or migrant women, rural or urban poor women, are often linked to de facto, and sometimes also to de jure, discrimination.

When laws, customs, traditional roles, family responsibilities or attitudes and stereotypes provide women with fewer opportunities or place them at a disadvantage as they seek to access opportunities, remedial measures are needed to eliminate such disadvantages, and to prevent them from recurring. When policies are designed in the context of respect for, and promotion and protection of, human rights, then unequal outcomes for women in the economic and social spheres oblige governments to design items in a way that reduces inequalities.

Women's full enjoyment of their human rights, including those relating to economic development and resources, is essential to any strategy aimed at poverty eradication and sustainable development. International human rights instruments, the Beijing Platform for Action and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action provide a solid basis for promoting women's enjoyment of their human rights, including those related to economic development and resources, and the alleviation of women's poverty. The Platform for Action recognizes the impact of gender on the enjoyment of human rights, including access to rights, opportunities and resources, and with regard to treatment in many areas. Together with international human rights instruments, the Platform for Action emphasizes that such gender-based inequalities and disadvantage need to be addressed explicitly in all actions of governments and of other actors entrusted with their implementation.

Myriam Tebourbi

Traditional practices affecting the health of women and the girl-child

The problem of traditional practices dangerous to the health of women and the girl-child has been reviewed by several United Nations world conferences. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 expanded the scope of the international programme on human rights, emphasizing that “gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person and must be eliminated”. The Conference urged Governments to take steps to combat harmful traditional or customary practices, including female infanticide.

Special Rapporteur on Harmful Traditional Practices

“The importance attached to certain traditional practices in some communities must be taken into account. I firmly and unequivocally condemn all practices that violate individuals' physical integrity. Nevertheless, punishments and sentences based on value judgements could sometimes be counter-productive and encourage communities to close ranks and cling to practices which, although harmful and for the most part clandestine, are nonetheless the only means they have of expressing their cultural identity. Such practices should not be condemned in the courts except as a last resort when education, information and the proposal of alternative rites that do not injure women and girls have not been successful. Training, information and education, especially in countries with high levels of immigration and appropriate physical and financial means, are the best means of combating harmful traditional practices effectively and freeing women and girls from obscurantism and violence.”

“It is essential to act with tact and patience, bringing the communities concerned to understand that their cultural values are not to be confused with cultural practices, and that the practices can be changed without adversely affecting the values as such.”

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 deal with harmful traditional practices under a number of the key areas. Consistent with the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly in 1993, they define violence against women as encompassing dowry-related violence, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, female infanticide and prenatal sex selection. They emphasize the harmful effects of certain traditional and customary practices affecting women and the girl-child, and call on governments to take legislative steps to eliminate these practices and acts of violence against women.

The Platform for Action states that the reasons why men outnumber women in certain parts of the world include harmful attitudes and practices such as female genital mutilation, son preference (which results in female infanticide and prenatal sex selection), early marriage, including child marriage, “honour killings” and discrimination against girls in food allocation. The Platform suggests concrete steps for governments to eradicate cultural attitudes and practices that are harmful to girls.

The Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development called on governments to take action to stamp out female sexual mutilation and protect women and the girl-child against such unnecessary and dangerous practices.

Reproductive rights and human rights

The Programme of Action of the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) set out the context and content of reproductive rights. “Reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights documents and other relevant United Nations consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence as expressed in human rights documents.”

The Beijing Conference incorporated much of the ICPD language on reproductive rights directly into the Platform for Action. The Platform states: “Good health is essential to leading a productive and fulfilling life, and the right of all women to control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility, is basic to their empowerment.” Further: “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

In 1999, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women interpreted Article 12 of the Convention, which requires states to eliminate discrimination against women in access to health services throughout the life cycle, particularly in the areas of family planning, pregnancy and confinement and during the post-natal period. The Committee affirmed that access to health care, including reproductive health, is a basic right under the Convention, stating, inter alia:

“States parties should implement a comprehensive national strategy to promote women's health throughout their lifespan. This will include interventions aimed at both the prevention and treatment of diseases and conditions affecting women, as well as responding to violence against women, and will ensure universal access for all women to a full range of high-quality and affordable health care, including sexual and reproductive health services.

States parties should allocate adequate budgetary, human and administrative resources to ensure that women's health receives a share of the overall health budget comparable with that for men's health, taking into account their different health needs.”

The legal foundations of reproductive rights

As affirmed at both the Cairo and Beijing conferences, reproductive rights embrace certain human rights already recognised in international human rights treaties:

The right to liberty and security of the person: Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 3; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 9(1).

The right to health: International Covenant in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Article 12.

The right to non-discrimination in the provision of health care and in the family: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Articles 12(1), 16(1).

The right to marry and found a family: UDHR, Article 16(1); CEDAW Article 16(1); ICCPR, Article 23(2).

The right to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family and home: ICCPR, Article 17(1).

The right to enjoy scientific progress and consent to experimentation: ICESCR, Article 15(1).

The right of sexual non-discrimination: CEDAW, Articles 1-2; UDHR, Article 2; ICCPR, Article 2(1); ICESCR, Article 2(2).

The right of men and women to have on a basis of equality access to family planning: CEDAW, Article 12(1).

The right to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including sexual and reproductive health: ICESCR, Article 12.

The right to only enter into marriage with full consent: ICESCR, Article 10; CEDAW, Article 16.

The right to access to information, counselling and services in family planning: CEDAW, Article 14.

The right to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of children and to have access to the information, education and means to be enabled to exercise these rights: CEDAW, Article 16.

The right to enjoy and exercise the above rights without discrimination of any kind: ICESCR, Article 2; CEDAW, Article 1.