Women in Law. Inspiring Women

March 6, 2019

academic law, Author Articles


“The entire human rights system we have is built on the foundation of human dignity, the idea that every person has equal worth”

Erin Daly is a Professor of Law at Delaware Law School, Dignity Rights Project, Delaware Law School (US)

The women who have inspired me most are women I don’t know.

Some are famous, like Malala Yousafzai or Leymah Gbowee or Wangari Maathai or Rigoberta Menchu, who have been recognized by millions and awarded Nobel Prizes for their efforts to improve living conditions for others. But most are not famous. They are the woman who sits by the side of the road and rests for a moment after a long day of trying to sell a mango or two, to ready herself for the evening’s toil ahead. They are the twenty-somethings who have no money, no family history of education, no reason to think they will earn their way out of poverty, but still dream of being human rights defenders, international diplomats, and surgeons. They are the women who charge into the streets to demand adequate pay and decent working conditions and an end to impunity and corruption.

Yes, these women spend most of their lives working and caring for others – children, parents, men who may come and go. But they are inspiring to me not for what they do for others but for what they do for themselves. They understand – instinctively and irrevocably – their own worth, even if they live in a world that does not recognize the worth in them. Because that is where it starts. The feeling of one’s own dignity starts deep inside, where no one can contradict you or take it away from you. That feeling that as a person, you have worth. And that worth is the same as everyone else’s – no more but certainly no less – regardless of gender, race, status, class, education, skills, or anything else one may give or take away from you.

And the recognition of one’s own dignity is important because human dignity is a human right. There is a human right to have that worth respected and protected. In fact, the entire human rights system we have is built on the foundation of human dignity, the idea that every person has equal worth: we have human rights because our dignity endows us with the moral or existential right to claim legal rights. And it is also the very meaning of rights: we claim rights in order to protect our own sense of dignity and to enhance our capacity to live lives of dignity. As I have said elsewhere, it is the alpha and the omega of rights: their source and their purpose.

At its root, human dignity requires the recognition of the equal and inherent worth of every “member of the human family,” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, in notably non-gendered language. Human dignity is the quality that each of us has from birth that allows us to become who we are – allows us to develop our interests, our passions, our skills, our goals as we go through life. Because it is inherent in every person, we can never lose it and it cannot be taken away. We are born with the same dignity we have when we die, no matter what happens in between. And because it recognizes the equal worth of every person, it is the great unifier: it is in our dignity that human beings are all absolutely equal. Women and men, girls and boys.

The idea of human dignity as a legal right – a right that, in a court of law, a person can claim protection for – is gaining ground. It is now recognized in some form in the constitutions of nearly 160 of the 193 countries of the world. And courts in countries as diverse as Argentina, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Israel, Latvia, Pakistan, Mexico, South Africa, the United States, and elsewhere are listening to arguments about human dignity. They are responding to claims that government actions (and sometimes private actions) violate not only equality and property rights and other long-established rights, but also just basic human dignity.

Dignity is relevant in court almost any time a person feels injured, because the feeling of injury is almost always a feeling of injury to one’s dignity. Sometimes, courts have said that well-recognized harms are better thought of as harms to dignity. Thus, a court in Peru recognized that the real harm of rape is the violation of a person’s dignity. Courts in many countries have decided that limitations on individual choices — whom one can marry, whether and when to have children, what work to engage in, etc. – are violations of dignity. They have recognized that access to education, to water, to food, to health care, and to shelter all implicate our ability to live with dignity. And, increasingly, they are recognizing that environmental degradation can be a violation of dignity and that there is a dignity-based right to protection against climate change.

While these rights can be protected under other constitutional theories, the important point is that courts are now choosing to treat these claims as violations of the right to dignity. This is a welcome development in the law because it brings the law closer to people. It bridges how people feel – how they experience their lives – with how the law can help them live with dignity. And this is a welcome development for the women of the world, the women who inspire me. Because they know that they have dignity. They have just been waiting for the rest of the world to know it too

Erin Daly

Erin Daly has co-edited a book titled ‘Human Rights and the Environment: Legality, Invisibility, Dignity and Geography’ which is due for publication in April 2019. More information can be found here.

Erin Daly also has a forthcoming book titled ‘Advanced Introduction to Human Dignity’ which is due for publication in 2020

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