The Liz Library presents Irene Stuber's Women of Achievement - Women's History Month

Episode #WHM-16 for Day 16
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Compiled and Written by Irene Stuber
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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 Riksdag.

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 said.

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 life...
   "[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 so far!"

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 statement.

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 years."

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 important positions.

(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 worldwide:

    *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 and work).

    * 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.

Mary RobinsonAnnan 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!

Gro Harlen BrundtlandNorwegian 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 female ambassadors)."  
            -- 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 the work.


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).

"...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).

© 1990-2006 Irene Stuber, Hot Springs National Park, AR 71902. Originally web-published at We are indebted to Irene Stuber for compiling this collection and for granting us permission to make it available again. The text of the documents may be freely copied for nonprofit educational use. Except as otherwise noted, all contents in this collection are © 1998-2009 the liz library.  All rights reserved. This site is hosted and maintained by the liz library.