Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Written as part of the global campaign for the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, this article includes contributions from members of the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) research team: Megha Amrith, Inés Crosas, Jane Freedman, Cecilia Gordano, Marta Guasp, Yu Kojima, Parvati Nair, Marija Obradovic, and Aishih Webhe-Herrera.

Women’s rights are human rights. It may seem obvious, but it bears repeating today on Human Rights Day.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence is an international campaign symbolically linking 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. The team at the UNU Institute for Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM), building on our current research program on female agency, mobility and socio-cultural change, has participated in the 16 Days of Activism with a campaign on our Facebook and Twitter highlighting issues including the importance of language, women with disabilities, migrant women and refugees, and art as activism.

We are using our research to raise awareness on these pressing concerns facing women today, and particularly applying our research to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality. SDG 5 seeks to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere, with a particular focus on eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

UN Commemoration

UN special meeting in observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Photo: © UN Photo/Cia Pak.

Language, hate speech and cyber violence

“Language is not neutral: it has an active role in our understanding of diverse realities, our practices and behaviours,” says Cecilia Gordano. She draws attention to a situation when local news reports referred to various “passion killings” that left several women “dead”, arguing that “it’s high time we improved the vocabulary to name gender-based crimes and leave behind the passive voice: women do not just ‘die’, they are ‘killed’, mostly by intimate partners, so they are victims of ‘intimate femicides’.” Media framing, which differs across contexts, plays a critical role in how we perceive gender-based violence.

While the internet provides new opportunities for women’s rights activism, it is also a space where new forms of violence are performed. Aishih Webhe-Herrera explains that “the terms ‘Feminazi’ and ‘Gal-Quaeda’ are gaining visibility in current lingo to refer to feminists who denounce everyday sexism, gender stereotyping, and gender discrimination. They are used to shun and silence feminists by delegitimizing their claims, harassing them verbally, publicly and privately. They also promote a misleading understanding of feminism(s) and the collective project of gender equality, which are viewed as an attack on the universalist and degendered ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ of what Michael Kimmel calls ‘Angry White Men’. With striking parallelisms with far right discourses, the popularisation of this terminology in the media and even everyday conversations are clear examples of hate speech against women, and more precisely, gender-based violence against women and girls.”

Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, points out that “hate speech against women is a long-standing, though underreported problem in Europe”. Not only are these words an attack on women’s right to freedom of expression, but they also violate women’s human rights to privacy, dignity, non-discrimination and life free from violence.

These virtual forms of violence have concrete consequences, as Webhe-Herrera explains that “the spread of this terminology also incites to discrimination, violence and gender hatred against feminist and women’s human rights campaigners, which has forced several feminist bloggers either to adopt a pseudonym to remain safe in the blogosphere or to abandon their virtual platforms and public activism altogether.”

Women with disabilities

Certain groups of women are more vulnerable to violence due to social marginalization. On 3 December for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities Inés Crosas drew attention to women with disabilities, who suffer from among the highest levels of gender-based violence. Nearly 80% of women with a disability are victims of violence, and they are three times more likely to experience abuse compared with “non-disabled women”.

Crosas argues that “this reality seems to be overlooked and these subjects totally misrepresented, since many institutions lack the necessary means to deal with this specific type of violence and data and statistics are often hard to find. As activist groups and scholars point out, the roots of this ‘normalization’ of violence come from prevailing stereotypes and prejudices against women with disabilities, which are sustained through persistent patriarchal and ableist [ableism is discrimination in favour of able-bodied people] notions. It is the hegemonic social construction of ‘woman’ and ‘disability’ which makes this collective particularly vulnerable and imposes deep communicational, attitudinal and structural barriers upon them in their daily life. Therefore, in order to change this situation, social cooperation and awareness is the first, and most important, step.”

The research book Gènere i Diversitat Funcional: una Violència Invisible (Functional Diversity and Gender: An Invisible Violence) provides an in-depth examination of the main causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women with disabilities and exposes good practices for dealing with it.

Migrant women and refugees

Migrant women are another group that is socially marginalized, rendering them even more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Domestic violence poses a particular challenge for migrant women. As we explained in a previous article, any woman suffering from domestic abuse struggles with how to handle the situation. The problem is doubly difficult for immigrant women, who face additional barriers to reporting violence and accessing services. Migrant women must be empowered to denounce domestic violence and access appropriate support without fear of losing their legal residency status. Violence that takes place in the private sphere is a public issue: it is a violation of women’s human rights that the State has the responsibility to prevent.

Parvati Nair adds that “gender-based violence in domestic contexts is not a one-off event. Even if sporadic, it is the symptom of a power relation where intimacy becomes confused with violence. In the film Te doy mis ojos (Take My Eyes) (directed by Icíar Bollaín, 2003), we see how Pilar constantly scans her partner’s moods, trying to pre-empt the moment when his mood will turn. As such, gender-based violence turns the home into a place of fear and dread. It is, therefore, a form of violence that is as much psychological as it is physical.”

chad refugee women

Sudanese refugees in Iridimi Camp in Chad. Photo: © UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

The gender-based violence that migrant women experience is not confined to the domestic sphere. “Migrant women are vulnerable to violence at all stages of their journey due to gendered inequalities and relations of domination,” explains Jane Freedman. “Current EU policies restricting migration exacerbate migrant women’s vulnerability. The only way to improve these women’s security is through a genuine commitment to providing safe and legal routes for migration and/or claiming asylum.”

Armed conflict puts women in a particularly vulnerable situation, and protecting female refugees against sexual and gender-based violence in camps remains a major challenge. “Staying in a refugee camp within the country of origin or seeking protection elsewhere brings serious threats to women’s security, freedom and health,” explains Marija Obradovic.

“The international community has long resolved to end this scourge. Yet, despite declarations and resolutions, current reports show that protecting female refugees from gender based violence remains a complex problem. This challenge is solvable, however, as it largely a matter of policy not adequately implemented, and world events prove that implementation should be prioritized.”

The precarity of female refugees often goes unnoticed, and this is especially true in the case of minority groups, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar. “Given their status as women, stateless and part of an ethno-religious minority, Rohingya women (and girls) are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence that can affect not only their physical and psychological development but can restrict the socio-economic opportunities available to them both within Myanmar and in their new country of residence,” notes Yu Kojima.

She emphasizes that “it is clear that improved and more coordinated policy efforts are needed among key government agencies and between women’s rights and pro-migrants groups and international agencies in order to begin combating the wider scope of sexual and gender-based violence that Rohingya refugee and migrant women are at risk of during flight and in the country of asylum. Because of the magnitude and seriousness of this challenge, the issue of sexual and gender based violence involving Rohingya women deserves more serious international attention.”

Human trafficking frequently involves the forced movement of people across borders, and it is a form of violence that disproportionately targets women. The UN has made trafficking a focus of the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which falls during the 16 Days Campaign on 2 December. Human trafficking should not be conflated with slavery, but action is needed in order to advance policies that prevent trafficking, rescue victims and provide for reintegration and prosecute traffickers. A holistic human rights approach is critical to respect the dignity of all victims of trafficking while working toward its eradication.

Art as activism

Across the world, activists are finding creative strategies to bring attention to women’s human rights. “Literature, music, performance, and the arts are powerful tools that reach wide sectors of society, appealing to their sensitivities, interests and worlds in languages far removed from the realm of international human rights law, but intimately connected to it,” argues Webhe-Herrera.

She discusses “writers, artists, musicians, performers: all of them are raising their voices to denounce femicides or feminicidios, the consistent and massive murder of women in Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua, México) and worldwide. With more than 400 women assassinated in this city since 1994, and thousands disappeared, writers and artists engage with this feminicidal reality in their works to render it visible, and to claim state accountability for this violation of women’s human right to life and to a life free from violence, as enshrined in the 1994 Convention Belém do Pará and the 2011 Istanbul Convention.”

Webhe-Herrera continues, “good examples of human rights ’artvocay’ can be found in the works of Chicana writer Ana Castillo, who has published several poems, a novel and a play about it, and London visual artist Tamsyn Challenger, whose art installation 400 Women consists of 175 portraits of different women killed as a result of gender-based violence in the Mexican-American borderland.”

Gordano gives another example of Mexican artist Elina Chauvet, who collected 33 pairs of women shoes painted red in Ciudad Juárez and arranged them on the public space in 2009. She called it ‘Zapatos Rojos’ [Red Shoes] and conceived it as “a meeting of art and collective memory” to rise awareness on feminicides, the most extreme materialization of gender-based violence. “It is through the ethics and aesthetics, through absence and visibility [that] red shoes show the void left by the daughters, sisters, mothers and wives.” Her artistic intervention has been replicated in various cities in Latin and North America and Europe.

UN-SG art

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the opening of “The Transformative Power of Art” Exhibition. Photo: © UN Photo/Evan Schneider.

Photography is another powerful medium for advocacy. Megha Amrith tells the story of Xyza Cruz Bacani, a Filipina domestic worker turned photographer. “Her photographs, documenting migrant domestic workers in a Hong Kong shelter who escaped physical and mental abuse, won her a photography scholarship for raising awareness about the grave situations that migrant domestic workers live through. In this new series of photographs, she demonstrates how gender-based violence and labour abuses are common experiences among migrant women across countries and continents,” explains Amrith.

Nair also suggests that “this is an apt time to reflect on the work of the Indian-American photographer Fazal Sheikh, who, in his photo-essays Ladli and Moksha, focuses on the social structures in contemporary India that relegate women to disempowerment within severely patriarchal structures. Through conversations and photographs, Sheikh portrays the untapped potential and the resilience of these women and girls.”

Webhe-Herrera says that “these works represent a global cry for gender and social justice in the face of personal, collective and state violence against women. They also open a creative and political space from which to raise awareness about global violations of women’s human rights, and compel (inter)national actors to take responsibility for the massacre of the female population across the globe.”

The way forward

The UN took a major step in recognizing women’s rights as human rights in the 1993 Vienna Declaration. Campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism draw attention to the challenges that we still face so that we can continue making the necessary policies and changing attitudes to fulfill women’s human rights.

This year, the focus of the 16 Days Campaign is on the relationship between militarism and the right to education. As such, it is essential to consider the impact of ongoing conflicts across the world on education, particularly for young girls who are living in situations of conflict or who have been displaced.

In Syria, Marta Guasp explains that “[the] ongoing crisis has left almost 3 million Syrian children out of school and puts their future at risk”. Guasp argues that “given the mobility of families, active conflict and limited humanitarian access, the international community will need to look at ways to find more suitable and effective solutions to a long term education response to address the needs of out of school children, boys and girls, in Syria.”

Alongside all these stories of the violence women face, there is optimism to be found in stories of empowerment. UNU-GCM’s Women of the World project tells the stories of 16 immigrant women in Barcelona, and these are examples of agency and empowerment. While 16 Days of Activism alone cannot put an end to gender-based violence, it is a critical platform for raising awareness and demanding action.

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Women’s Rights are Human Rights by Janina Pescinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Janina Pescinski is a Junior Research Fellow at the United Nations University Institute on Globalization, Culture and Mobility (UNU-GCM) contributing to the program on Female Agency, Mobility and Sociocultural Change. She holds a master’s degree in human rights and humanitarian action from the Institute d´études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). Her research interests include migration, human rights, diaspora networks, and civil society, using an interdisciplinary approach.