The UN's Role in Advancing
the Human Rights of Women
Kersten Hesselgren (b. 04-01-1872), Swedish
sociologist, was the first woman elected to both houses of the Swedish
She was one of Sweden's delegates to the League
of Nations where in 1931 when she introduced the subject of the legal status
of women in the League of Nations. "[It]
caused no little amusement among the men,"
She prevailed, however, and a committee was formed
that studied such things as women's right to vote, education, access to
professions and well as the state of a married woman's right to their earnings,
a separate name, ability to sign contracts.
After the study was made, it was filed and ignored.
But women remembered. . .
"It is all well for us to talk about raising
the status of women; but so many of them live in homes so ill-equipped,
kitchens so meagerly planned and furnished, that it is practically impossible
for them to find time or energy to take any sort of part in public or community
"[I]f we want the women of the world to take an
active part in the affairs of the world and of their communities, we must
do more than give them equal status with men and urge them on to active
public life - we must make it possible for them to accept their responsibilities
as citizens, to freely, and without anxiety or strain, take their place
with men in order to accomplish, jointly, with the men of the world, those
great tasks that must be fulfilled if thinking and living on this earth
are to transcend to any degree at all the thinking and living it has known
These words were spoken in 1946 by Bodil Begtrup
(born 11-12-1903), Danish delegate to United Nations and chair of the UN
Status of Women subcommission. It was under her urging that the first international
statement for the Human Rights of Women was adopted in 1946.
Instead of merely writing the usual report coached
in vague terms, Begtrup's subcommission prepared a 2,000 word, detailed
The report was revised to a few summarizing paragraphs
because the male delegates on the Human Rights Commission (nine men and
Eleanor Roosevelt) believed the call for rights for women infringed
on the sovereign rights of individual countries.
ER disagreed and with the pressure she and Begtrup
exerted, the report was published in its entirety.
Among the rights the report demanded were an office
on women's affairs and an international women's conference, equal rights
with men in all nations and in all fields including civil, education, economics,
political and social, the abolition of prostitution, and the right to divorce.
|The report also referred to "women
as human beings," something some nations
disagreed with on religious grounds.
Begtrup said of the progress expected on the report,
"It will move slowly. See me in a thousand
Since then, there have been four UN World Conferences
on Women, the last was held in 1995 in Beijing, China, to which Sec. General
Boutros Boutros-Ghali SENT a statement that contained the line:
"There is a deplorable trend towards the
organized humiliation of women."
Boutros-Boutros only talked but did not walk the
walk about women's human rights. His administration featured no women in
(Ed. note: Boutros-Ghali's full speech, although
self-serving, does contain an excellent review of the fight for women's
human rights and can be found in the WiiN library.)
When Madeline Albright left her post as U.S. Ambassador
to the United Nations to become President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State,
she became a world power-broker only second to the U.S. president himself.
Boutros-Boutros got the boot and the new Secretary-General
Kofi Annan was named. Madeline Albright was instrumental in the choice.
- Some facts from the United Nations about women
*Women account for half the food production in
developing countries. In some African countries, they have to walk 10 kilometers
or more to fetch water and fuel.
* Much of the soil conservation in East Africa
over the past decade as been carried out by women (since they do the farming
* In India, women provide 75% of the labor for
transplanting and weeding rice, 60% for harvesting, and 33% for threshing.
* In Kenya, men sit in groups under the shade
trees so they can protect their women working in the fields from lions.
That there are no lions in that part of Kenya is unimportant.
- * Women constitute half the world's population,
perform nearly two-thirds of its work hours, receive one-tenth of the world's
income, and own less than one-hundredth of the world's property.
showed his strong feminist leanings almost immediately by appointed Mary
Robinson (who was then president of Ireland) as the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights. The position is only one tier below
the Secretary General.
MR is noted for her blistering condemnation of
developed countries for ignoring the genocide and starvation in Somalia
and for her opinion that internal human rights violations are not protected
by the sovereignty of a nation.
She is firmly committed to taking up the struggle
against widespread gender discrimination as a matter of priority. Her Office
is seeking to strengthen the human rights of women and integrate them into
the broader human rights framework.
Opposition to her reforms by repressive nations
such as some African nations as well as most in the Arabic world has been
unrelenting. At times it reached nit-picking lengths that prevented her
from moving the commission offices into an area with parking!
She finally won that battle and she is expected
to win others although, she says, "I
thought when I asked something be done, it actually would be done; I had
no idea (of the complex internal politics)."
She is heading a revolution to bring human and
women's rights to the forefront. Thousands of years of opposition by the
powerful has only been dented thus far - BUT IT HAS BEEN DENTED!
Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, another woman who speaks her
mind, had soundly lashed out at the Vatican and Muslim fundamentalists
(and other religions) for their opposition to abortion rights and sex education
in a 1994 conference. Her side won!
In January 1998, she was named head of the World
Health Organization, strongly supported by the United States administration
of Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright.
"We created our own little women's caucus
(in the United Nations) and that terrified everybody. There were those
from larger countries who complained about the fact that the ambassador
from Liechtenstein had unfair access to the American ambassador, and I
said there clearly was an easy way to rectify that. (That is, appoint more
-- Madeleine Albright
In just a few years, after thousands of years
of talk-talk, a handful of women working within the political structures
of their nations to earn leadership positions are now redrawing the map
of what is important to governments worldwide.
"Health, population and the environment --
these are not, as some might suggest, peripheral issues. They are central.
They relate directly to the long-term security and well-being of our people
and of all people. They will become increasingly important as we enter
the 21st century."
-- Madeleine Albright
Harlem Gro Brundtland, Mary Robinson, and Madeline
Albright are powerful but they need help. It's time to get involved in
the realpolitics of your nation where things actually get done - such as
nominating and electing national leaders. Grassroots organizations are
great but they alwaysdepend on some other group of people to actually do
QUOTES DU JOUR
ALBRIGHT, MADELINE - U.S. Secretary of State:
"And just as
an example of what has happened, Secretary-General Annan has named a woman
as Deputy Secretary General - one of the women that had been part of the
original group (of women at the UN when Albright was U.S. Ambassador),
the Canadian permanent representative. He has a woman High Commissioner
for Refugees, and a woman who is his High Commissioner for Human Rights
(Mary Robinson). So it's moving through the system...
"There are 11 (women foreign ministers) in
the world (in 1998) and a lot of them in this hemisphere. . .Mexico now
has a woman foreign minister, Rosario Green, who happens to be part of
my original friend group in New York (at the United Nations when MA was
US ambassador to the UN). So we have our network of women foreign ministers
who are pursuing also within their country some of the women's issues,
and it's what we talk about when we - in addition to all the other subjects
we talk about when we have conversations...
"We have found that when women gain the knowledge
and power to make our own choices, women are often able to break out of
the cycle of poverty in which so many societies remain entrapped and birth
rates stabilize and environmental awareness increases and the spread of
sexually transmitted diseases slows and socially constructive values are
more likely to be passed on to the next generation...
"More broadly, in our development and refugee
assistance programs, we're taking into account more and more the special
needs of women. Partly this is to keep women and children from being exploited
or abused, and obviously we know that they are especially vulnerable in
refugee situations; and it's partly because, to a great extent, development
depends on women.
"As the representative of the United States
and as a woman, I have been greeted in all countries with the highest respect.
And I think that having a woman represent the most powerful country in
the world is a message in itself that they react to."
-- Madeline Albright (statements
made in 1998).
CLINTON, HILLARY, U.S. FIRST LADY:
"...Making the advancement
of women a part of our foreign policy is not only the right thing to do,
but I think it's the smart thing to do. And I can tell you that as you
think about the next century and what it will be like, the movement to
recognize the rights of women, to empower them economically and politically
and to curb violence and exploitation, I think is going to be one of the
most powerful forces for shaping the globe...
"You can see now how the momentum is building
on every continent. Everywhere there are ripples from Beijing. The countries
have developed their own systems for following up on Beijing, and we keep
in touch with them; and it has just created a whole growth in terms of
how women deal with their own societies and how we deal with each other.
And I think that for us it's been important because we have put women's
issues into the mainstream of foreign policy."
-- U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton
(statements made in 1998)
CAMPBELL, BONNIE, director of the Justice Department's
Office of Violence Against Women:
"I could not at
that time have imagined how passage of the Violence Against Women Act and
the obvious support of this Administration would resonate around the world.
"I did not anticipate it... having a First
Lady who has framed around the world and for us (that) women's rights as
human rights, which seems so basic, and a Secretary of State who quite
literally shines a very bright light on these issues of violence against
women is the main reason that these issues have resonated.
"But there is also this notion of critical
mass happening around the world. My job, of course, is to focus on fighting
violence against women at home. And I find that there are so many intersections
with what happens globally. We very vigorously, every day, work hard to
address domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking here at home. When
the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law, it was the first time
the federal government had ever spoken to these issues of violence against
women. It is a partnership arrangements that we have with the states, where
most of these cases are investigated and prosecuted and heard...
"It's not ever acceptable to be violent toward
women and children or to traffic women for sexual exploitation or slave
labor - not ever, under anyone's cultural history or scheme."
-- Bonnie Campbell, director
of the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women (Statements
made in 1998).