Between Their Stories and Our Realities -- Introduction


I. Introduction, by Susana Chiarotti

In this introduction we will briefly present the history of women's participation in the development and articulation of human rights. Then, we will look at some of the challenges raised by women in relation to human rights discourse. Finally, we will discuss the process of creating the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and summarize its provisions.

The origin of the concept of human rights protections dates from the "Great Letter" of England, the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France. Following the Second World War, the national focus of human rights became international. After the horrors of the Holocaust, governments around the world recognized that to maintain world peace, human rights must be respected and must be the concern of the international community. In 1946, the United Nations was formed.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by UN Member States. It is considered to be this century's document of ethics and a general guide for governments in terms of fundamental human rights and freedoms.

Beginning with the Universal Declaration, a number of international treaties were created to define human rights, along with mechanisms to ensure the effective protection of these rights. In 1956, for example, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was approved. Efforts to eliminate racial discrimination served as a basis to sanction discrimination based on sex as well. In both cases, repression of a particular group of people based on biological characteristics and birth (race and sex) was prohibited.

Women's Participation in Human Rights History

How did the connection between the women's movement and the human rights movement occur? Initially, efforts to tie women's rights and human rights focused on including women in already defined human rights categories. The first time that women organized themselves as a collective subject and raised the human rights flag in the name of women was at the Women's Club of Paris, in the early 1790s. Etta Palm, Theroigne de Mericourt, Pauline León, Claire Lacombe, and Olympe de Gouges dared to demand equality of rights.

In September 1791, Olympe wrote a Declaration of Women's and Citizens' Rights, which demanded women's right to vote, education, equality in marriage, divorce rights and the right to enlist in the army.

Women participated actively in the revolutionary efforts of that time. French revolutionaries, including the Jacobins, however, supported women's re-integration into domestic life. In November 1793, an ordinance was dictated which prohibited Women's Clubs. Olympe de Gouges was prosecuted and convicted to the guillotine for "betrayal of the duties of her sex". "So many struggles, so many hopes," said de Gouges, "only to end up, after all, with the mere displacement of tyranny rather than its elimination." Olympe demonstrated the false universality of proclaimed rights and showed that while "human rights" supposedly applied to all of humanity, they really applied only to men. She paid for these efforts with her life, while other supporters were sent to prison or exile.

The women's movement was brought to a halt for several years. In 1801, a member of the Club of the Equal, Sylvain Marechal, presented a proposal to prohibit women from learning how to read. In this way, he said, it could be possible definitively to seal the terms of a peace treaty between the sexes.

In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft of England wrote "Recovery of Women's Rights," in which she made a statement against political exclusion of women during the French Revolution. Years later, in England and the United States, many women who initiated a debate about women's rights also participated in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. In 1840, London hosted the International Convention Against Slavery. None of the female delegates was allowed to speak at the Convention; they were forced to sit on a balcony, behind a curtain. Elisabeth Cady Stanton and other North Americans had made the long trip across the ocean to attend the Convention. Many of these women, including Lucrecia Mott, had already confronted authorities and their own families over giving refuge to slaves. Exchanges among women delegates were very fruitful. They agreed to start working to guarantee their civil rights and to improve women's living conditions.

In 1848, Elisabeth Stanton and Lucrecia Mott organized a Women's Conference in Seneca Falls, New York. Several men also attended the meeting, sympathizing with the women's claims and supporting them in their struggle. At this moment, Stanton read a Declaration of Feelings, based on the Declaration of Independence, where it was claimed that women and men should be treated equally. It also demanded the right to vote, gained finally in 1920 in the United States, and years later in other regions of the world.

In 1948 government delegates met at the United Nations to study the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt worked actively with the group. One of her contributions was to change the document's title, which would have had only "man" in the title. Eleanor argued that it would be better to call it a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, since the term human is more inclusive of the whole of humanity.

Thus, in the beginning of the women's human rights movement, women demanded the right to civil and political freedoms, to be able to vote, possess goods, etc., just as men did. They did not, however, question the content of those rights.

Conceptual Changes

Many women have since argued that the existing human rights discourse is masculine, does not reflect women's experiences, and should be questioned. This process began at the end of the 1970s and reached a culminating point at the International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, in 1993. Hundreds of women from all regions of the world participated in the Vienna conference, and achieved important goals toward an equitable human rights discourse. At the conference delegates proclaimed that women's and girls' human rights are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. This is both an advance toward increased visibility of a wide spectrum of women's human rights, sexual and reproductive rights, for example, and a step toward the revision of all human rights from a gender perspective.

In Vienna another crucial change took place within human rights theory. Due to women's initiatives, it was recognized that human rights are to be enjoyed in private environments as much as in public ones, and therefore their violation in both environments must be addressed. It was also recognized that violence against women represents a human rights violation. This is a revolutionary change, since before this time the human rights system was based on violations made only by governments, and exclusively in public spaces. Since the Vienna conference, for the first time individual events -- including domestic violence -- occurring in private spaces can be considered human rights violations, and governments can be held responsible for failing to prevent or address them. Moreover, ethnic cleansing, forced pregnancies and systematic sexual violations of women in situations of armed conflict were condemned as human rights violations.

Two years later, these ideas were supported and reinforced at the Fourth International Women's Conference in Beijing, China. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, prepared and approved by delegates of all the governments present at the conference, is the most complete document produced by a United Nations Conference in relations to women's rights. It reinforces and builds upon what was achieved in previous conferences like Vienna, and treaties like the Universal Declaration and CEDAW.

The Beijing Platform for Action describes and seeks to improve the situation of women around the world. It outlines and analyses twelve principal areas of concern: poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, human rights, the media, the environment, problems specific to girls, and the issue of women in power and decision-making.

It outlines a series of measures that governments, civil societies, and international organizations should take in order to eliminate causes of discrimination against women in all societies, and to progress toward equality.

This is only a brief history. Human rights struggles and demands for women's dignity have taken place in all parts of the world, and have been led by women from many different countries and cultures, at times, with men. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, thousands of women have dared to challenge the limits imposed on them. They have demanded equality of rights and treatment with dignity. These struggles have been diverse, often expressed as resistance movements, reflecting the needs and desires of women all over the world.

This manual would, and should, be enriched by the sharing of workshop experiences and efforts and struggles for equality between women and men. Tell us your stories. Contact us by e-mail: .

Questions to begin the discussion:

  • Do you know of people or groups who work for equality in your community?
  • Who are they and what do they do?


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Between Their Stories and Our Realities