Women’s rights and equalities

The issue of women’s rights and equalities gained a lot of momentum due to the attention it gained from the United Nations and other international organizations, together with the efforts of feminist groups all over the world, governments, states and the press. Despite the fact that equality is still a remote goal, it cannot be denied that major achievements have been made so far, practically in all fields. One field that has been treated as a taboo, however, is violence against women. Violence against women takes many forms, all in which discrimination is a crucial constituent. Violence is a problem that inflicts a lot of harm on women in every society of the world and it has several  major forms, such as: domestic violence, homicide in the family, sexual assault and rape, sexual harassment, and slavery. All these practices are considered to be forms of discrimination against and abuse of women because they impose limitations on the ability of women to develop, and because they constitute part of the global tradition of subordinating women by society and its norms, and by man.

The participation of the United Nations Organization in developing the status of women involved as a preliminary step the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, announcing that all human beings are equal regardless of their gender, religion or any other differences. This Declaration was then followed by a Convention on Women’s Rights in 1975, and the period between 1975 and 1985 was announced by the United Nations as the Women’s Decade. During this period, the United Nations committed itself to enacting articles and laws that were signed by member states. During the period between 1975 and 1999, women have achieved many rights and developments in many countries all over the world. Although women have achieved many rights, they are still an oppressed group in society, and they are still suffering from inequality to men.

Among the most important rights that the United Nations has emphasized during the Women’s Decade was the equality of women to get equal pay and to enjoy equal opportunities to get a job. These rights, however, are not respected by member nations. Even a country such as the US which claims itself to be a leading democratic country, witnesses major differences in treating men and women at work. For example, in 1993, a national survey proved that women received 30% less in payment than men did, even at the top level jobs. This was despite the fact that women were as educated and competent as men. In addition to this, working women in the US are frequently victims of sexual harassment which makes the working place unbearable and unfair for them. Although American law is strict with these problems, the fact is that there is a long way before working women in the US can claim that they enjoy equality to men. In other countries, especially in Third World countries, the situation is even worse. In Lebanon, for example, women do not receive family benefits, and in many other Arab countries women are not allowed to work or practice trade or even travel abroad if they are not given a written permission by their fathers or husbands. This means that the rights of women are only written on paper and recognized by governments, but they are not actually achieved.

According to the Convention on Women’s Rights, prostitution is to be prohibited by law and the conditions of poor women are to be improved by governments. All world nations have formally recognized this article, but almost none of them has applied it. One reason is that prostitution is a source of revenue to many countries, even in Europe and the US where prostitution is regulated but not prohibited by the law. Prostitution is by all means one of the most humiliating problems facing the development and equality of women. Its presence, whether public or hidden in any country shows that governments have not honored their obligations towards women, and that the condition of women has not improved much.

As women have been invading the working place for decades now, and while they have been earning many rights at work, their most important right is not yet recognized, namely their work as housekeepers. A woman, whether working or not, is responsible for her home. She does the cooking, the cleaning, managing the household, in addition to raising the children and helping them with their education. All these activities require a lot a effort and time, and yet, there is not one country in the world that considers this to be equal to labor. In other words, housekeeping is considered to be a free labor. Raising children for example, is one of the most important activities in any society. Yet, women neither get payment nor recognition for these activities.

In fact, despite the many applications of the Women’s Convention and the conventions that followed, there remain a large number of areas where the rights of women need to be emphasized, particularly the field of violence that is still considered to be one of the areas where women are dehumanized and victimized.

The definition of violence against women has been best developed by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against women in 1979, whereby violence is defined as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Violence is common in all world societies, although significant discrepancies appear between the forms and degrees of violence from one society to another. The relationship of violence is one in which there is a perpetrator and a victim. Victimization is imposed as a result of social, political, or physical weakness which the perpetrator exploits in order to impose control or harm on the other party. Due to the historical subordination, the stereotyped perceived weakness of women, and traditional domination by men, it happens that women are primary victims of violence and that men are primary perpetrators. This is only natural since violence in itself is a social behavior that is applied in conformity with the traditions, perceptions, and beliefs of society. Apparently, both men and women are victims of violence. However, violence is crucial to the issues of discrimination and women’s development for at least three reasons. First of all, it happens that the extreme majority of violent incidents against women are perpetrated by men, which implies a clear discrimination against women. Secondly, in certain forms of violence, women tend to constitute the extreme majority of victims while perpetrators are generally men (eg sexual harassment and domestic violence). Thirdly, it is the male-dominated institutions and traditions that often cast shadows on the issue of violence against women, thus, treating the matter as a taboo, thus turning violence into a hidden instrument of domination and of human rights violation.

While the division of the society into distinct structures has helped constitute the integrity of its institutions, it has also imposed limitations that limit the shedding of lights on the serious issue of domestic violence. Domestic violence, that is, the continuous abuse (eg, beating up, verbal and physical abuse, deprivation of basic needs and sexual molestation) of women by men. Domestic violence appears in all societies and cultures, and in more than 90% of all cases, it is women are often classified as victims and men as perpetrators. Numerous studies have been conducted on this issue, and yet, very little is actually known. The reason is that social traditions do not allow intrusion into the family. This, however, gives man the right to commit his violent acts against his wife, sister or daughter within the household without being held responsible since taboos prevent these women from complaining and restrict the ability of social and governmental institutions from intervening to the behalf of the victims. It is these social relations that provide man the ability to dominate women inside the family through violence, taking advantage of the physical weakness of women, and their social disadvantage of being restricted by social and traditional taboos.

Awareness of domestic violence has been growing extensively, but only because the number of victims (especially of murdered victims in the course of domestic violence). In the US, where women are believed to enjoy more rights than in most other countries of the world, the husband turns out to be the culprit in 20% of all female homicide cases. In Colombia, 94% of hospitalized women are battered women and the majority tend to be regularly victimized, mostly by their husbands. In many countries of the world, the figures are not as a high, but only because reporting is extremely low or even ignored. Over the years, awareness of these realities has intrigued the development of services of institutions that deal with domestic violence, either actively or passively. Passivity relates to the avoidance of violence through providing housing assistance and shelters for women are victimized by males inside their households and who are unable to gain legal or other help.

Financial support is usually made available by institutions which provide these services in order to provide the woman with the sufficient financial independence that can help her start a life in a violence-free environment. Active actions on the other hand include legal involvement (such as suing in courts), the intervention of the police (usually restricted by social norms and traditions), and the intervention of non-governmental organizations. Both forms of intervention and prevention have succeeded in shedding more light on the issue of domestic violence as a major source of discrimination against women in society. Although domestic violence continues in all societies all over the world, active measures continue to be made under the auspices of governments and international organizations (especially the UN).

Sexual assault and rape remain the most humiliating assaults against women all over the world. Not only is rape an act of violence against women, but it is also an act of violence that aims at imposing domination through inflicting unwanted sexual assault on women. Throughout history, rape of women has been considered as the ultimate method of domination. Rape or sexual assault do not only deprive women of their liberty over their bodies, but it also causes them a lot of humiliation as victims of rape become socially branded as raped women, a status that is characterized by shame and lack of dignity. Throughout history, victorious armies raped the women of defeated communities as a sign of victory, domination and conquest. While this is still a practice that has not been eradicated in wars, rape still continues to be a major problem in many countries of the world. Victims of rape suffer physically, psychologically and socially, and although they are victims, they are often burdened with guilt imposed on them by social perceptions and stereotyping.

The majority of world countries have now developed stricter laws to deal with rape. In some countries such as Egypt, a rapist may be sentenced for life. This, however, has restricted rape and rapists, especially that in the traditional and conservative societies of the world, victims are reluctant to report for fear of social branding, and instead, they suffer in silence and fear. Apparently, there is a drastic need for changing social norms and stereotypes towards the victims of rape, especially that these constitute the single major factor that prevent women from reporting, and consequently, encourage rapists to seek more victims.

The invasion of the workplace by women in the twentieth century has been the single most important achievement by women in their struggle for liberty and emancipation. Work enables women to seek financial independence which is considered to be the most important aspect of freedom and liberty. In the past, the workplace was a man’s world just as the household was the woman’s world (only in terms of serving the household). Apart from lack of equality of payment and treatment (eg promotion and reaching senior positions), sexual harassment is considered to be the major problem that is faced by women at the workplace, and by all means, it is a form of psychological and physical violence that is directed against them by men.

Sexual harassment includes numerous kinds of behaviors. It could be a joke, a word, graffiti, a poster, or even the unwanted touching or rubbing of the body, by a male co-worker, customer or supervisor. Sexual harassment could take place at the workplace itself or outside where the female worker is on duty. The major impact of sexual harassment is that it destroys working conditions, making the workplace unbearable, unfriendly, and unpleasant to women. As a result, the morale of sexually harassed women tends to fall, and with it falls their productivity, thus threatening their careers at work. More seriously, sexual harassment imposes limitations on the ability of women to develop, since in many cases, women are not allowed to develop their positions in organizations unless they offer sexual favors to their supervisors. Those who refuse are either harassed more until they are forced to leave the organization, or are ignored and deprived their right to promotion and higher pay. During the 1990s, a lot of attention was bestowed on the issue of sexual harassment, especially after a number of scandals that rocked the corporate world in the US. Mitsubishi Corporation and Astra Pharmaceuticals were both involved in these scandals as it turned out that more than 90% of the female workers in the two companies have been victimized by sexual harassment. Since then, thousands of cases have been reported. In developing countries, the situation is certainly much worse, especially that the laws in these countries do not provide harassed women with any support (the law in the US does not require women to prove that they were sexually harassed). Hence, these women continue to be harassed until they either leave their jobs, are fired, or retired early. Sexual harassment has frequently involved cases of rape, but the major reason for identifying it as a type of violence is that it a forceful behavior that attempts to take advantage of the weakness and vulnerability of women at the workplace.

Prostitution is often ignored as a women’s issue due to its immoral aspects that make it a weak case for the development of women. However, the facts that the majority of prostitutes are female, that the majority of customers are men, and that considerable violence is attempted against this community, make it inevitable to study the situation of prostitutes with respect to violence. Prostitution takes place in all world countries, even in those countries which legally and socially prohibit prostitution. Prostitution is the product of poverty in the first place, but throughout history and even today, prostitution has been part of slavery imposed on women. Slavery has been abolished by international law more than five decades ago. However, women are still enslaved in many countries of the world, and forced to work in brothels, even when they are minors under the age of sixteen. Police reports show that a number of countries have become slavery and prostitution-trade centers that export and import women from and to all over the world. Among these centers are Thailand, Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. Reports of females who have been sold by their parents or spouses have not been infrequent. The majority of enslaved women are not able to report or escape for several reasons. First of all, their economic need is overwhelming such that they remain in slavery to survive. More importantly, however, is that the slave traders are often politically powerful individuals who do not hesitate to kill or torture their victims who try to escape, protected by the law.[i]

It is in the light of these needs that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was initiated in 1979. Efforts to establish the Convention started as early as 1967 when the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Between 1967 and 1972, efforts were made to define the locus of the Declaration, and accordingly, in 1972, the Secretary General asked the Commission on the Status of Women to gather opinions and points of views of the member states with respect to forming an instrument specialized in the human rights of women.[ii] The World Conference of the International Women’s Year in 1975 which declared the Women’s Decade (1975-1985) boosted the efforts of the United Nations which culminated in the birth of the Convention.

Evidently, the United Nations had already dealt with the issue of discrimination against women, an issue which also includes the problem of violence against women. Yet, the nature of the obstacles facing the development of women, and the nature of the limitations imposed on them, all necessitated the formation of a specialized instrument or agency that would follow up the issue and the implementation of the enacted laws.

The role played by the Convention to the development of the status of women and the elimination of violence against them can be understood through studying the obligations that were imposed on the member states that ratified the Convention. The ratification of the Convention is in itself a major achievement since the Convention takes the form of an international multi-party treaty that obliges its signatory parties to carry out the procedures they are committed to.

Accordingly, signatory parties do not only condemn discrimination against women, violence being one aspect of it, but also requires member states to take clear actions in this respect. Member states are expected and obliged to act “through law and other appropriate means” in order to meet their commitments towards the Convention. Appropriate means do not only include the enactment of laws and regulations, but also the imposition of sanctions to ensure the protection of women’s rights. More importantly, the Convention requires member states “to establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination.”

This means that the Convention simply requires member states to mobilize their public institutions, legal structures and procedures in order to protect the rights of women, and to prevent all forms of discrimination against them. Prevention of the forms of violence against women requires changing social perceptions and stereotypes, but this can only be achieved through legal enactment in such a way that women will be able to break through the limitations imposed on them, while at the same time, they enjoy the protection and the support of the law and the state. The state’s commitment is very obviously stated in the provisions of the Convention as all states are required “to refrain from engaging in any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation.”

The more specific but latent forms of violence against women, particularly committed at the domestic or organizational levels are dealt with through a special provision which requires the state to “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise.” This provision casts no doubt on the obligation of the state to interfere through legal and other means to implement the protection of women’s rights to equality, and at the same time, to impose the necessary actions or sanctions against individuals or organizations that do not confirm with the Convention.

Although the Convention was by its own right the most important development in the history of struggle for women’s rights and equality, it did not, nevertheless, deal with the issue of violence against women as a form of discrimination in an emphasized manner. In fact, the Convention was overwhelmed with the need to earn a recognized commitment by the member states to the general provisions and requirements. The issue of violence, although not ignored, required further efforts, particularly that in many ways and due to social restrictions, remained outside the focus of the law (especially domestic violence).

Yet, millions of women all over the world are still subjected to violence, by their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, relatives, colleagues, supervisors and even strangers. Violence against women is a recognized form of discrimination against their rights to equality, and an impediment to their social, economic, and psychological development. Accordingly, it is among the missions of the United Nations as an international organization that seeks the development of humanity under the banners of equality and freedom to eliminate this form of discrimination. Violence as a gender-based form of discrimination against women takes place in many ways including rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, slavery and many others. This form of violence has traditionally been encouraged or protected by male-sponsored or-made traditions or norms that deprive women of their rights to respond or to protect themselves. The United Nations and its various agencies, especially the UNICEF and the UNIFEM, together with its international legislative conventions have been concerned with this major problem as part of their concern for the overall development of women worldwide. The enactment of laws and the commitment of world nations to these laws have never been sufficient. Implementation of the law and following up development in social norms, traditions, stereotyping and perceptions are also necessary, and member states are necessarily responsible on these levels. The last three decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a lot of development and improvement in the status of women, but figures show that violence still constitutes a major impediment to the equality of women and a violation of their human rights. Whatever rights women have achieved worldwide, and whatever improvement their status has witnessed, under the auspices of the United Nations, the struggle still continues.

“Prostitution.” Women’s Rights Online, www.yahoo.com

                United Nations High Commisioner for Human Rights. Fact Sheet 22, The Convention & The Committee,    online. www.unhchr.ch/html/menu2/10/c/women/wom.cam.htm

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