Human rights of women and children under international law - an introduction.

AuthorNanda, Ved P.

    The idea of human rights, a powerful idea indeed, has stirred the imagination of people all over the world; it has revolutionized the status of individuals and groups under international law. This is especially evident in the case of women and children, as specific treaties--the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ("CEDAW") (1) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child ("CRC") (2)--are aimed at transforming the status of women and children respectively. These treaties have been widely ratified by states, (3) and thus states have accepted binding obligations to comply with the treaties implementing the rights enumerated in these treaties. Notwithstanding the wider ratification and the broad scope of the rights under these treaties, women and children still suffer severe violations of basic human rights.


    To test the veracity of this statement, a reliable yardstick is to measure achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs") concerning women and children. It may be recalled that in September 2000, U.N. Member States adopted the Millennium Declaration, (4) in which they resolved that by the year 2015 "children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling and that girls and boys will have equal access to all levels of education." (5) By the same date, they resolved, "to have reduced maternal mortality by three quarters, and under-five child mortality by two thirds, of their current rates." (6) Also, by then they undertook to have "halted, and begun to reverse, the spread of HIV/AIDS, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases that afflict humanity." (7) They also resolved "[t]o promote gender equality and the empowerment of women as effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable." (8)

    The following summer, a group of staff members from the U.N., World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development drafted a set of goals highlighting key commitments in the Millennium Declaration. The selection criteria included existing established indicators and reasonable data for those indicators. The process resulted in a framework. Aimed at reducing extreme poverty in its many dimensions, this framework, which contained eight human development goals to be reached by the end of 2015, with eighteen targets and forty-eight indicators, became the Millennium Development Goals framework. (9) Although the role of women and children is significant in the achievement of all eight goals, the goals specifically referring to them are:

    Goal 2--Achieve universal primary education

    Goal 3--Promote gender equality and empower women

    Goal 4--Reduce child mortality

    Goal 5--Improve maternal health

    Goal 6--Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases' (10)

    With a year and a half to go till the end of 2015, the scorecard shows that, while several MDGs have already been met or are within close reach, many for women and children have not. (11) Three recent reports and studies--by the Commission on the Status of Women (March 2014), (12) the Millennium Development Goals Report 2014, (13) and the Human Development Report 2014 (14)--provide ample evidence. It seems appropriate to discuss them in detail.

    The Commission on the Status of Women reported at its 58th session in March 2014 "that almost 15 years after the Millennium Development Goals were adopted, no country has achieved equality for women and girls and significant levels of inequality between women and men persist, although the Goals are important in efforts to eradicate poverty and of key importance to the international community." (15) With regard to Goal 2--achieving universal primary education-- the Commission noted

    the lack of progress in closing gender gaps in access to, retention in and completion of secondary education, which has been shown to contribute more strongly than primary school attendance to the achievement of gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls and several positive social and economic outcomes. (16) Regarding Goal 3--promoting gender equality and empowering women--the Commission noted that

    progress has been slow, with persistent gender disparities in some regions in secondary and tertiary education enrolment; the lack of economic empowerment, autonomy and independence for women, including a lack of integration into the formal economy, unequal access to full and productive employment and decent work, ... overrepresentation in low-paid jobs and gender-stereotyped jobs such as domestic and care work, and the lack of equal pay for equal work or work of equal value.... (17) As to Goal 4--reducing child mortality--the Commission noted that "targets are likely to be missed." (18) It further noted

    with deep concern that increasingly, child deaths are concentrated in the poorest regions and in the first month of life, and further expresse[d] concern that children are at greater risk of dying before the age of 5 if they are born in rural and remote areas or to poor households. (19) Regarding Goal 5--improving maternal health--the Commission noted that "progress towards its two targets, reducing maternal mortality and achieving universal access to reproductive health, has been particularly slow and uneven, especially for the poorest and rural sectors of the population, within and across countries." (20)

    With regards to Goal 6--combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases--the Commission said "progress has been limited, with the number of women living with HIV increasing globally since 2001." (21) It also noted "the particular vulnerability to HIV infection of adolescent girls and young women, as well as other women and girls who are at a higher risk," and stressed "that structural gender inequalities and violence against women and girls undermine effective HIV responses and the need to give full attention to increasing the capacity of women and adolescent girls to protect themselves from the risk of HIV infection." (22) It further noted "the challenges faced by women and girls living with HIV and AIDS, including stigma, discrimination and violence." (23) In the Commission's view, "despite increased global and national investments in malaria control, ... malaria prevention and control efforts, particularly for pregnant women, must rapidly increase in order to achieve the Goals." (24)

    While the Commission observed "that the lack of adequate sanitation facilities disproportionately affects women and girls, including their participation rates in the labour force and school, and increases their vulnerability to violence," (25) it found "the development resources ... [supporting] gender equality and women's empowerment ... inadequate to the task." (26) It expressed concern that the MDGs did not adequately address critical issues such as

    violence against women and girls; child, early and forced marriage; women's and girls' disproportionate share of unpaid work, ... women's access to decent work, the gender wage gap, employment in the informal sector, low-paid and gender-stereotyped work such as domestic and care work; women's equal access to, control and ownership of assets and productive resources, including land, energy and fuel, and women's inheritance rights; women's sexual and reproductive health, and reproductive rights.... (27) The Commission also recognized "that progress on the [MDGs] for women and girls ha[d] been limited owing to the lack of systematic gender mainstreaming and integration of a gender perspective in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the Goals." (28)

    The Commission made several recommendations regarding the realization of women's and girls' full enjoyment of all human rights: strengthening the enabling environment for gender equality and the empowerment of women, maximizing investment in gender equality and the empowerment of women and strengthening the evidence base for that, ensuring women's participation and leadership at all levels, and strengthening accountability. (29)

    In a public statement on the Commission's recommendations, Amnesty International especially welcomed the Commission's call "for a standalone goal on gender equality" for inclusion in the set of development goals to follow the MDGs in the post-2015 development agenda. (30) In its 2013 report, entitled Rights Should Be Central to Post-2015 Development Agenda, Human Rights Watch specifically proposed that:

    The post-2015 agenda should promote gender equality and women's rights, including through a requirement on governments to work to end gender discrimination and promote equality in their laws, policies, and practices. It should also require governments to prevent and punish violence against women and ensure adequate services for victims of abuse. (31) The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014 examined the latest progress toward achieving the MDGs and also pointed to significant gaps and disparities. For example, one in four children under five years of age in the world suffers from inadequate height for her/his age. (32) On the goal of achieving universal primary education, the report concludes that although impressive strides forward were made at the start of the decade, "progress in reducing the number of children out of school has slackened considerably," (33) and that "[c]hildren in conflict-affected areas, girls from poor rural households and children with disabilities are more likely to be out of school." (34)

    As regards the goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women, the report found that gender disparity in the labor market still exists. (35) On the goal of reducing child mortality the report found that although substantial progress has been made, "the...

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