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Short-term Realities and Long-term Goals: Achieving Lasting Global Commitment to Women's Rights » Women's Courage

Short-term Realities and Long-term Goals: Achieving Lasting Global Commitment to Women's Rights

March 5th, 2011 by ayflores Leave a reply »

To: The United Nations General Assembly,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
From: Araceli Y. Flores, Stanford University Class of 2011


Within the last century, the international community has made significant strides in defining fundamental freedoms that should be guaranteed to every human being, regardless of their country of origin. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) asserts that all members of the human family possess inherent dignity and inalienable rights, such as life and liberty, health and wellbeing, and education and self-expression. The UDHR exhorts all governments to observe and protect these rights.

The tenets agreed upon in the UDHR express views that United Nations, the representative body of the international community, held in 1948 and wished to establish as universal norms for years to come: As former Secretary-General U Thant articulated, “The world has come to a clear realization of the fact that freedom, justice, and world peace can only be assured through the international promotion and protection of these rights and freedoms.”

As history progressed and women demanded their right to equality of opportunity and protection, the United Nations convened once again to expand the ideas enshrined within the UDHR with specific recognition of gender-based denials of basic human rights. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was convened by the United Nations. CEDAW reiterated the “truths” upheld in the UDHR, but took a step further: it underscored the urgent need to conceptualize the vision of fundamental human rights in the context of women: “[CEDAW] affirms the principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all rights and freedoms… without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex.” Years later, in a famous speech delivered to the UN 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, Hillary Rodham Clinton captured this sentiment perfectly: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Clinton’s comments highlight the feminization of human rights issues and humanitarian crises. Everywhere around the world, women—in comparison to their male counterparts—face compounded conditions of human suffering based solely on their status as women: where there are already limited opportunities to access food, water, education, and social services, women face even more circumscribed access based on their gender. Moreover, women in the developing world confront a host of impediments to their health and wellbeing that men will never face: among them, reproductive rights and complications from pregnancy.

Current Situation

The United Nations has made significant progress in galvanizing the international community and holding governments to an international standard of human and women’a rights law. The signing and ratification of the UNDR and CEDAW demonstrate the good will of hundreds of member nations to recognize these “fundamental freedoms” and work to incorporate them into their respective domestic laws. However, despite the continued efforts of the UN Office of the High Commissioner and UN Women, a tangible gap exists in the implementation and enforcement of these rights on the ground.

The current realities fall into two camps, with member nations exhibiting the following qualities to varying degrees: In the first camp, there are countries – such as Bangladesh – which have created legal frameworks that uphold women’s rights, in principle. These countries possess all the rhetoric of gender equity and equal protections/opportunities under the law, but yet, their governments are either unwilling or incapable of fully committing to proper enforcement.  In the second camp, countries – such as Iran— have built gender-based discrimination into their very legal code. Lacking even the pretense of solidarity with international conventions or efforts in creating protective internal laws, these countries blatantly defy their international obligations to respect and guarantee human and women’s rights. While the severity of the situation of women’s rights varies a great deal within each camp, the prevalence of traditions that perpetuate violence against women and deny basic human services is troubling. This memo hopes to offer tenable policies that the United Nations can pursue, in addition to its existing efforts, to bolster the rule of law and access to human dignity that all women deserve.


This memo recognizes the need for both immediate and lasting solutions to effect meaningful and enforceable women’s rights laws. In order to address both the symptoms and the sources of violations of women’s rights, this memo proposes short and a long-term mechanisms, along with the theory of action that guides them:


The creation of a monitoring committee to create an international forum for women’s rights accountability that could incentivize government behavior.

Guiding assumption: Often times, governments do not feel compelled to observe their international obligations or respect human rights, especially when no supranational organization exists to “police” or punish deviant behavior. While sanctions have been an effective tool used by UN member nations to influence government behavior in the past, this memo recognizes that part of the crisis women face is humanitarian: cutting trade ties or economic aid to these countries as an attempt to “pressure” change would only further compound the plight of women within their borders. Instead, if anything, these countries need more resources to enact the types of positive change the United Nations seeks. In this vein, this policy recommends the commissioning of a monitoring committee which would produce a yearly “women’s rights report” for every country. This committee should create meaningful indicators of progress– such as increased women’s participation in political processes or decreased government crackdowns or violence against women— that would be used to evaluate and reward progress in securing tangible advancements in women’s rights.

Theory of action: These accountability measures need to be tied to meaningful incentives in order to effect behavior change. The United Nations should publish its report and urge nations to consider country scores when distributing foreign aid, outscoring factories, or creating trade agreements. Increased awareness of the human rights realities on the ground will create opportunities for other nations to target their interactions accordingly and use economic incentives to encourage development and the rule of law in other countries. Most importantly, as previously stated, these scores should not be used to cut off aid or economic opportunities to mal-performing nations. Instead, the score reports should be used as basis of “rewarding” growth in these nations and sustaining that growth (in the short-term) through continued incentivization.


Foster endogenous belief and capacity in the protection of women’s rights as a fundamental responsibility of governments, not as an intermediary means to other government ends.

Guiding assumption: Creating palpable, material incentives to elicit government cooperation on women’s rights issues offers a short-term solution to encourage behavior change. A reporting committee would shine international attention on the actions of these governments and tie these actions to “deliverables” or concrete “carrots” that reward good behavior. This mechanism presents a realistic understanding of the crisis at hand and offers a solution to evoke the type of immediate change that is necessary to implement change in a time-sensitive manner. That being said, observance and protection of women’s rights must be valued as ends in and of themselves, not as just compliance measures or routes to boosting GDP. Only when governments and societies internalize the moral obligation and human rights aspect of women’s rights– not just development or economic benefit-based arguments– can the international community be assured of a meaningful commitment to lasting and sustainable change.

Theory of action: The United Nations should create an investment fund that works to mobilize regional actors and grassroots organization in creating system-changing reform, both top-down and bottom-up. Many times, even if governments wish to enforce gender-equity laws, a fundamental lack of resources causes conditions in which sex-selective behavior (in distributing food, sending children to school, or even aborting fetuses) becomes an unavoidable reality of life.  The investment fund should not only provide financial support to committed governments and non-governmental organizations, but it should also provide the political/human capital and technological materials to grow internal capacities.

It is this memo’s hope that these two proposed mechanisms can be jointly employed– using international influence to engage governments in the short-term, as well as creating the foundations for a self-sustained commitment to women’s rights issues in the long-term.



United Nations General Assembly, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948), http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

United Nations in Ukraine, UN Quotable, http://www.un.org.ua/en/information-centre/un-quotable

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (1979), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/

Gifts of Speech, Hilary Rodham Clinton, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” (1995), http://gos.sbc.edu/c/clinton.html

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (1979), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/WelcomePage.aspx


1 comment

  1. kheflin says:


    You do a great job of laying out the issues and the shift of feminizing human rights. I am especially impressed with the way you divide the nations into two camps–that really seems fitting. I wonder if there’s an implied third camp for countries like the U.S.–that is, a place where there is law which protects equality, it is enforced, and yet…somehow…even this isn’t enough. Indeed, these things are all on a spectrum, and the U.S., Sweden, and the UK (to give examples), may well codify and defend women’s rights but still miss the mark in a subtle way. Policemen, politicians, and doctors are all still predominantly men, and this will unfortunately still result in unequal application of the law. Similarly, but in a different vein, women’s work (nursing, teaching, raising children, caregiving) even in these countries is not given equal value.

    Finally, I feel that your two suggestions are great. The long-term solution, recognizing women’s rights as fundamental and not means to other things, is so incredibly key. I find it frustrating that it should be self-evident and that it needs to be stated at all; but the fact of the matter is that is truly is one of the essential weaknesses in the movement. Governments (usually male-lead, of course) are so quick to ask “what’s in this issue for us?”–and while economics and other things can certainly be tied in–that isn’t the point. Women are humans, and that idea needs to be more emphasized in all of this.

    Great work!!

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