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Women’s Rights: A Contemporary Look

January 31, 2022

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By Rosa Celorio

Women and gender equality issues are today deeply embedded and present in global and national human rights concerns. They find expression in many legal instruments. They are reflected at the national level in many countries in Constitutions, legislation, and national policies. They are addressed in case judgments by Supreme, Constitutional, and lower courts. There is also an international law framework designed to govern the human rights of women with direct and comprehensive obligations for states, still led by the promise of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereinafter “CEDAW”). The efforts of this global system are greatly complemented by active regional human rights protection systems in the Americas, Europe, and Africa, and emerging regional approaches in Asia and the Middle East. There are also many bodies created at the global, regional, and national levels with the objective of advancing the protection of the rights of women.

Despite these advances however, women still experience daily violations of their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted in 1995 reaffirmed women’s equality as a basic human right and the paramount nature of their rights to live free from discrimination and gender-based violence. More than twenty-five years later, women still face formidable challenges to see their human rights fully respected, protected, and fulfilled. One hundred years have passed since the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote, but the struggle continues to see their full citizenship rights respected, and for women to fully and effectively participate in public and political life.

Women and girls still constitute the vast majority of gender-based violence victims, suffering widespread domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological, and economic harm. They also experience forms of intersectional discrimination, racism, inequality, and exclusion. Women still carry most of the unpaid work at home, caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. Women are also affected by poverty, and constitute a large component of workers in the informal economy, lacking many social and employment protections. Women are still largely absent from decision-making positions in the political, civil, social, and economic affairs of their countries. Women and girls moreover face significant restrictions to access the information necessary to make autonomous decisions concerning their sexual and reproductive lives, and daunting barriers to access health services they only need due to their biological differences. Women human rights defenders still lose their lives and suffer forms of harassment and violence for voicing concerns and defying social expectations. We live in societies in which equality for women and a full protection of their human rights is still a distant dream. A gender perspective is still lacking from most decision-making.

The study of the rights of women is made more intricate in the present by the fact that many new social developments greatly impact the way women exercise their human rights. These include the COVID-19 pandemic, the MeToo movement and its aftermath, environmental degradation and climate change, unregulated business practices, and the strength and influence of non-state actors. Women in different circumstances still face structural and intersectional discrimination, racially-motivated bias and violence, hate speech, xenophobia, and violence in the internet, technology, and social media spaces. Critical advances in the area of sexual and reproductive rights face severe backlash and are under threat.  Sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics have become major elements in the way we define women and how human rights concerns impact them. The study of women’s rights today involves contemplating the present-day contexts in which these rights are limited, but also exercised. 

This makes necessary to combine and reconcile the history of the human rights of women with its modern scenarios and manifestations, and to adapt the current legal framework to the contemporary challenges that women face to see their human rights fully protected.  As we begin the year 2022, the world is still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has tested women in their resilience, stamina, and survival skills. All of their human rights have been challenged in some way during this crisis. Women, however, have also been key in addressing the pandemic. Women constitute a large component of the health workers who have been risking their lives daily to fight the disease and care for those affected. Some of the most visible country leaders fighting the pandemic have been women, and with successful results. Women also compose a large group of the journalists, human rights defenders, and researchers who have brought information daily to the public of the magnitude and spread of COVID-19. In the author’s view, this is a moment with an important legacy in the way we perceive the development and effectiveness of human rights norms concerning women, and how they are applied when our humanity is tested.  It is a moment that allowed us to see women as multi-dimensional beings, in many roles beyond victimhood, as political leaders, doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, and heads of household.

A watershed moment like the COVID-19 pandemic can end up transforming the way women work; lead; participate in education and public, political, and family life; and use technology in the future. International law can provide an important roadmap and structure for these transformations, and can evolve itself to respond to contemporary times and the challenges faced by women.

Foremost, a contemporary look of women’s rights issues requires viewing women not only as ongoing victims of gender-based violence and discrimination, but also as leaders, shapers, and influencers.  Women are key to resolve many of the most important human rights issues affecting the world, such as climate change, intersectional and racial discrimination, extreme poverty, food and water shortages, armed conflicts, ongoing violence, and barriers to access technological advances.  Many legal standards related to the rights of women have been developed considering women solely as passive subjects of rights and as victims. It is only recently that women are increasingly perceived as active participants, leaders, agents of social change, and shapers of culture.

A legal approach guided by the goals of autonomy, dignity, personal liberty, and effective participation is a precondition to see the full realization of women’s rights in the present and the future.  


Women and International Human Rights in Modern Times

By Rosa Celorio, Burnett Family Associate Dean and Professorial Lecturer for International and Comparative Legal Studies, George Washington University Law School, US

Out now, available on our website. Read Chapter 1: Discrimination against women: doctrine, practice, and the path forward, free on Elgaronline.

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How Social Capital Arises in Areas: New Studies

March 22, 2021

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Authors of ‘How social capital arises in areas’ in Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health, Tor Iversen and Tigist Woldetsadik Sommeno, summarise their chapter.

Manusing euro money to invest in a new small business
Image credit: AlexSava
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