Thursday, 11 November 2010

Women's rights vs human rights in development

The distinction between women's rights and human rights has always bothered me. It bothers me that any society feels the need to treat women differently - and establishing special protections for women necessarily means treating them differently. It bothers me that it is necessary. But it is. It is necessary because women are more vulnerable in many societies because they are denied access to the law, because they are denied access to education, because they are denied a voice on the grounds of culture or religion or tradition.

UN Women is such a body. UN Women defines itself as "the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women". The body will be headed by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and aims to bring together all the UN's efforts to promote gender equality and ensure the position of half of the world's population in their policies and activities.

The executive board of UN Women was elected yesterday (see this post from Global Memo). There has been some concern over the past few weeks about the candidacy of Iran for this board. Turns out, Iran was bumped at the last minute by Timor L'este, so Iran will not be serving on the executive. Of course, Saudi Arabia still gets a seat as an uncontested donor-representative candidate. The concern is whether countries that deny women basic rights and voice should be allowed to have a voice on the controlling body of the UN's organisation for women's rights. It is not a small concern.

The issue goes beyond Saudi Arabia. There are 10 African countries represented on the board: Angola, Cape Verde, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, DRC, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Libya, Nigeria, Tanzania. Angolan women do not have equal access to property and inheritance (although things may be improving). Cote d'Ivoire has a high rate of early marriage for women - as many as 44% of 15-19 year old women married, widowed or divorced. The DRC is well-known for rampant sexual violence. Lesotho upholds customary law (as well as civil law) that considers women to be legal minors. In Libya, it is illegal to establish women's rights groups independent of the government. In Nigeria, several northern states practice Sharia law which dramatically limits the freedom of women.

The reality is that women face real limits on their freedoms and real threats to their lives and bodily integrity in so many countries that any geographically representative body will have countries on their board that have poor records of human rights. This isn't an excuse. It doesn't make it acceptable that those who support the violation of women's rights are mandated to protect them. Development, eliminating poverty and making the world a better place need women. They need women who have a voice, are active citizens and are in control of their own future, not passive victims. UN Women might help to do this. The board election perhaps illustrates how great their challenge really is.

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