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Women’s Rights Are Human Rights

By: Claire Armstrong

Last week, as part of my Art, Architecture, and Human Rights class, I attended a lecture by law professor Karima Bennoune. Professor Bennoune is the Homer G. Angelo and Ann Berryhill Endowed Chair at the UC Davis School of Law and the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. Professor Bennoune discussed gender in the field of human rights, and past and current obstacles to human rights, particularly the usage of the concept of family values as justification to deny women their rights. 

Professor Bennoune spent a lot of time discussing the United Nations’ progress towards protecting the rights of women. First, she noted that while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does make some special protections for women, there is also a lot of sexist language within it. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the document at the core of international human rights policy, and contains thirty articles listing rights that all humans are entitled to simply by virtue of being human. The first article of the UDHR states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Professor Bennoune noted that the document says “human beings” rather than “men” because Hansa Mehta, a female delegate from India, fought for gender neutral language. Article Two of the UDHR states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” which clearly discourages discrimination on that basis of sex. However, Professor Bennoune pointed out that the UDHR also places great value on the concept of the family unit, potentially at the risk of women in families. She noted that the family can often be a violent, abusive, and ambiguous site for women, and questioned whether the UDHR protects the concept of family more than it protects women.

Professor Bennoune also discussed the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which she called the most powerful tool for women’s rights in international law. CEDAW was adopted in 1979 and entered into force in 1981. CEDAW aims to eradicate discrimination against women and change the patriarchal structure of societies. Article Five of the convention deals with the elimination of prejudices and the modification of social and cultural patterns so that no gender is considered inferior. This article was used as justification for a 2018 ruling by the Indian Supreme Court, which stated that women of menstruating age could no longer be banned from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple. The convention has been ratified by 189 states, but unfortunately, the United States is not one of them. The main reason for this, according to Professor Bennoune, is pressure on Congress from Christian Fundamentalist groups who perceive the document as anti-family. The article that attracts the most criticism from these groups is Article Sixteen, which states that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.” While the article does not specifically mention reproductive rights, nor does any other part of the convention, it does state that women have the right to “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights,” which is often attacked with “family values” rhetoric.

Despite having discussed many obstacles to women’s rights, Professor Bennoune ended her lecture on an auspicious note. She said that if women in Ireland, India, Argentina, and so many other countries have the courage and determination to continue to fight for their rights, we must take inspiration from them and do the same. Echoing the sentiment of neurologist Tali Sharot, she urged us to remain hopeful, reminding us that “optimism is the key to survival.”