Let’s talk of women as humans, this Human Rights Day

17th December 2015
"Let’s talk of women as humans, this Human Rights Day", called Dr N. Hamsa, Policy Lead, IPE Global and Divashri Mathur, Senior Research Associate, IPE Global, New Delhi.

The world has once again turned its spotlight on Human Rights, as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence finished on December 10th, coinciding as it did with Human Rights Day. This is a time we talked of refugees, capital punishment, war crimes and try and focus on rights which are inherent, inalienable and indivisible to ALL humans. Nevertheless, despite decades of emphasis and reiteration on life without fear, discrimination and the right to take control of ones’ own life, nearly half the world’s population - women and girls - are deprived of even basic human rights.

Not taking away from the blatant violations that prisoners of war or displaced populations or other vulnerable groups face on a daily basis, the brutality that women face by virtue of being both women and a part of these groups is much worse. As highlighted, “Women are in double jeopardy. Discriminated against as women, they are also as likely as men, if not more so, to become victims of human rights violations... ”

What marks out Violence against Women (VAW) as a form of violence is that it is deliberate, structured and often targets women simply because of their gender and no other basis. As observed by the then UN Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan on International Women’s Day, 1999, “Violence against women is perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. And, it is perhaps the most pervasive. It knows no boundaries of geography, culture or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making progress towards equality, development and peace. ”

Fifteen years later, while the world has made progress in several spheres, the story of women remains unchanged. Women and girls are at risk of different forms of violence at all ages, sexual exploitation, sexual trafficking, and harmful practices like genital mutilation to not having reproductive rights over one’s own body. If we examine the life cycle of a woman, where is she safe? As a fetus, not in the womb, as a girl not at home or school, as a women, she has no right to decide when or to whom she will get married, whether she will have children or if she can work. Her income, status, caste and religion are all decided by the men in her life. With the threat to life itself, what other rights can girls or women claim?

The International Women’s Human Rights Treaty-CEDAW (1979) identified that gender discrimination must be eliminated in a range of fields and measures in the public sphere. However, it failed to address the violence faced within the domestic sphere such as violence at homes and by family members though later this found a place in the agenda of World Conference of Human Rights in 1993. Further, adoption of the Declaration of Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) brought the issue of VAW within the ambit of Human rights and included the domestic sphere as well. It was agreed that VAW in all spheres is a violation of human rights and a matter which concerns the society at large and therefore should not be segregated into separate spheres.

As per UN Women data available for countries, 15-70 percent of women worldwide are subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In India large number of dowry deaths occur and are often reported as ‘suicide’ or ‘accidents’ despite there being a strong dowry law which was enacted way back in the 80s. Of late, there seems to be an epidemic of rapes in India, despite strong public reaction and stringent laws being enacted in the aftermath of the gruesome gang rape in Delhi (2012). In Australia, Canada, Israel and South Africa, between 40 and 70 percent of female murder victims were killed by intimate partners. In the Mexico in one of the states, 66 percent of murders of women were committed by intimate partners, friends or family members .

Going forward, all global and national efforts need to have a dimension that focuses on women. For instance, engendering the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals is imperative to bridge the yawning gender gap across sectors. Unless VAW is addressed, women will not be able access any benefit that the state may offer. Domestically, India is on the threshold of a growth trajectory. While we have identified 100 gender critical districts, what we need is an inclusive programme with a holistic life cycle approach to engender each of these districts. Starting with awareness of rights and responsibilities, we need to enforce law and create an enabling environment. Breaking the barrier of patriarchy is non- negotiable as is making men and boys the torch bearers of change.

A life without violence and fear is the first right that humanity owes women. This cannot be ensured just by adopting conventions at the international level or by passing progressive legislation. There needs to be a concerted effort from all sections of the society and polity. This effort has to be proactive and not reactive. This December 10 marked the conclusion of the 16 days of Activism against Gender Based Violence merely lighting candles, shouting slogans or conducting rallies will not help. Creating a violence free world for women needs to be a priority.

In the bid to make India and the world safe for women, the time to act is NOW.