Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

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The personal and political continuum in the lives of women’s rights activists

Edna Aquino 

Today marks the UN International Women Human Rights Defenders Day.

I honor all human rights activists in the world - those still struggling and those who are no longer with us.

A landmark resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly yesterday aimed at strengthening the protection and promotion of the rights of women human right defenders but not without the expected backlash by the 'usual suspects'. 'Culture' was once again at the centre of debates and political negotiations between States that led to the scrapping of any reference to 'culture' being used as a justification for violence against women (VAW) in the final text. Reference to women's reproductive rights was also blocked by the Vatican mission and allies. Universality of human rights remains elusive for women.  

For a long time, international human rights law has either been silent or complacent about women’s rights.  VAW is a case in point. States’ human rights obligations were traditionally conceived around the notion that laws and their application are confined to  individuals’ conduct and activities in the "public" sphere. What takes place in the "private" sphere - including personal relationships and interactions between individuals - are beyond the reach of government scrutiny and therefore of its accountability. The "public" arena defines the relationship between the individuals as “rights holders” and the State as “duty bearers”. When the draft Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – commonly known as women’s international bill of rights – was being negotiated, an agreement could not be reached to include VAW within its provisions. The issue was considered a private family matter by the majority of the delegates representing their States.  After the adoption of CEDAW in 1979, it took another 13 years of women’s activism to bridge the gap in this only legal instrument on women’s rights.  

The treaty body (CEDAW Committee) responsible for monitoring the Convention adopted General Recommendation 19, mandating states parties to include VAW in their periodic reporting.  Still it was seen inadequate by the global women’s movements campaigning for the integration of women’s rights in the human rights system. In 1993, again with the persistence of women lobbyists,  the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna officially declared VAW a human rights violation. This was followed by  the adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW) by the UN General Assembly - the first international human rights instrument explicitly addressing violence against women and providing a  framework for national and international action.  There is now a growing list of developments of norms and standards in international human rights for addressing VAW.  This ruptures the rigid public/private dichotomy by clearly defining State accountability for abuses by private actors for acts of violence in the so-called ‘private sphere’.  All these would not have been possible without the persistence of several generations of women activists struggling for women’s rights on all fronts.        

Women activists continue to play a pivotal role in making human rights evolve and realising them for women and girls on all fronts.  They continue to lead in the resistance against violence and discrimination; in the survival and sustaining of their communities in times of relative ‘peace’; and in their communities’ reconstruction following conflict and major disasters.  

But their role and presence in their communities and their persistence for gender equality are still marked by deeply –embedded patriarchal norms that not only discriminate against them but render them as easy targets for backlash.  The intensified social control of women underpinned by these unjust norms hinders these women’s self-definition and often stifles most of the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under international human rights law. Women activists are prone to defamation and outright attacks on their life and liberty because of their gender and their visible presence in the public domain, perceived as defying traditions.   

Women activists are always at risks too of stress-related illnesses, chronic  fatigue, or “burn-out”.  Prolonged periods of work characterized by unrelenting pressures and stress and the daunting tasks of sustaining their communities and organizations are taking their toll on women activists’ lives.  With the growing consciousness of the values of sustainable activism, many are now framing and embedding their personal security issues and well-being strategies in their advocacies for gender equality and social justice. Through this, women activists are once again pioneers - in bringing about a new culture of activism that challenges the typical tendency of many activists to draw a line between their private/personal and political/public spheres.  

Women in the forefront of this “cultural revolution” are invoking the principle that being mindful of one’s wellbeing  and security is not anathema to one’s activism. How we look after ourselves has a bearing on the lives of others – not only of our loved ones but the individuals and communities we work with.  In fact these ideas are expressions of a number of articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which each human rights defender, human rights organization,  and social movement  should commit itself to.       

Article 3:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.       

Article 22:  

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his/her dignity and the free development of his/ her personality. 

Article 23.

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for oneself and one’s  family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of one’s interests. 

Article 24.

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. 

Article 25.

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection. Let us take today to remember the important work of women human rights defenders throughout the world.  

And if we count ourselves among such defenders, to remember the importance of caring for ourselves, as part of the caring we do for others.