Women to Lead the Human Rights Revolution

An address by Shulamith Koenig given at a post-Beijing conference in Vienna

Looking at the history of social movements in the 20th Century, one realizes that increasingly women service the various social and economic movements mostly as workers and volunteers but not as its leaders. In the next phase which, I believe, is the human rights revolution, women must lead and set the agenda of this movement. Women must lead the revolution with a new holistic vision of the universality and indivisibility of human rights for all. Men must realize that they are narrowing the agenda and inhibiting true social change toward peace and democratization when they keep women out of leadership positions. On the way to assuming leadership, human rights education is one of the imperatives that women must adopt. To learning about human rights, men must join women in promoting and protecting women's human rights as part of the larger agenda of social change. As leaders, women need to adopt the notion of human rights as fully comprehensive. The understanding that social, economic, environmental, medical, and cultural injustices are human rights violations and that the promotion of human rights is at the heart of what human rights education can offer to these new leaders, by which they can be setting the political agenda of human rights, and thus the future of humanity.

The two years of preparation for the 4WCW evoked a difficult, yet revolutionary dialogue worldwide. Even though not fully acknowledged as such, the hard questions and the many debates that lead to closing and opening brackets, to rejecting and accepting ideas, issues and concerns, the agreements, contradictions and even the co-optation were all about human rights of women and thus about human rights of humanity. Beijing and the vibrant discussions at the NGO Forum and between governments made it very clear that women must understand that all injustices to women are human rights violations, and that the presence of justice is human rights in action.

The Vienna Conference on Human Rights, in 1993, underscored that women's rights are human rights and more important that human rights are universal, indivisible and interconnected; by itself a revolutionary special agreement. Unfortunately the Beijing "Process" did not go further to the necessary understanding that "human rights is the right to be human" as said so eloquently by Professor Upendra Baxi, the Indian philosopher. Understanding that Human rights is a value system by which we need to live with one another is recognizing that women working to prevent injustice are working to eradicate and prevent human rights violations against humanity as a whole.

The challenge is now to find a place, carve a space for humanity to enjoys human rights as the right to be human, regardless of whether we are women, men or children, young or old, and of whatever color, religious belief, culture, or historic memories and commitments. The sanctity of life, the basis of all human solidarity, needs to be affirmed and reaffirmed by all. In Professor Baxi's word: "no single phrase in recent human history has been privileged to bear the mission of human destiny than human rights..." as developed in the last fifty years.

When finally, we know that "we were all born equal in dignity", to use Eleanor Roosevelt's words, then the revolution will get its momentum and our demands for equality will become meaningful to women and men alike.

The time has come for women to demand: Equality Now!! Women must organize to declare in tandem, no matter what their immediate concern, that human rights are universal and indivisible, and that the violation of even one single human right of women is a violation against humanity.

We can no longer allow men to patronize us by being "good" to us and thus obscuring the real issue of equality and dignity. Their "kindness" in setting quotas, creating ministries to attend to our issues, allowing special conditions and concessions, these are not good enough, and in the long run neither are they in the interest of men. Women must themselves lead the discussions. Sadly, some men want us to wait patiently till we achieve full equality, as proclaimed in the recent court decision on affirmative action for women. This court was a court of 16 men. They have the "wisdom' and the power while we women must carry the burden of inequality and be grateful for their "Charity."

While we need to acknowledge that serious dialogue is taking place on women's human rights, this will only be meaningful and productive when we develop the arguments that equality of women is in the interests of men as well and therefore of society as a whole.

This means to grant all of humanity its human rights -- to let the energy of women flow throughout society, join the energy of men and take part in the struggle against globalization, poverty, war and arms dealing, nuclear proliferation and the obscure future of our children.

We need to recognize that there are three basic constituencies in the world today playing a crucial historic role as social justice movements on major global issues. These are: women, the human rights professionals, and the development workers; and all concerned with bettering the human condition.

However, the great tragedy is that these various groups are not working together as full partners in order to achieve without compromise the integration of gender, human rights and development challenges, as their common goal.

The task ahead is full collaboration, enhancing and strengthening the international movement for social justice of women and men alike. We believe that human rights education is the process by which this can be achieved.

Lets examine the differences and commonalities of these three constituencies:

Women. Women as full participants in repairing the world. Yet, there are many women's movements, -- the feminist movement, the women's health movement, the movements: to protect the girl child, to fight for a better work place, to save women sold in the market place; to mention just a few of them.

Women's groups exist to fight every injustice against women. Some of these groups have identified their issues as human rights issues, but many have not yet responded to the call from Vienna. Human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible. The refusal by many groups to recognize their issues as human rights issues is for fear that it will weaken their arguments, confine them to the issues of violence, deem them confrontational, narrow their mandate, or box them into the legal paradigm. But, until all women's groups, whether they are fighting against hunger, poverty, violence or for education, clean water or healthcare, for example, must realize their connectedness through human rights and become indivisible in their pursuit for social justice.

Let's remember: women are the largest and most powerful force in the world today. And let's face it, men are tired. The labor movement, largely a men's movement, is almost dead, being killed by trade agreements and consumerism. Women, moving out of various forms of oppression are the energy of today, and the promise of the social revolution of tomorrow.

The second important constituency is the excellent and devoted group of human rights professionals. These are advocates for human rights who define human rights abuses, develop international laws to protect humanity against human rights violations, regulate, set and interpret standards and norms and call attention to the potential human rights infringements.

However, rarely do they take into account the suffering of women as the suffering of people. Those who do are usually women. Yes, we have CEDAW, which demands all of women's needs, but, as long as the issues of gender are not fully integrated as a matter of fact in the totality of human rights, then, what we call the "human rights of women" in many cases becomes what is known as gender issues.

I find the approach of many human rights experts extremely patriarchal with very little sensitivity to women as full members of society. These men contribute to the rich thinking about human rights but have relegated women to a separate Convention that keeps our concerns apart. They speak of a "Men's" world and then tell us that the word "women" is included in the word "men." The tragedy is compounded by human rights experts which are not gender sensitive, not realizing that if you do not integrate holistically women's human rights into human rights in general, one cannot begin to address the real challenges of human rights for humanity. It is perfectly legitimate for the experts to focus on a specific human rights concern. But, whatever the human rights concern, both men and women must are always be part of it.

I do not mean to say that there are no differences between men and women. But, despite these differences the experts must learn that in international law men and women should not be dealt with as separate entities.

Last but not least, the third constituency: the many groups active with development concerns. For the most part they take actions that will determine how we will live in the 21st century. What is typical of these group's policies is "growth for the sake of growth." They advocate multi disciplinary, multi national theories of "trickling" --"up" or "down" depending on their greed or sentimental ideologies, micro enterprise and the development of a middle class, market economies and trade agreements... in short, globalization "to meet the needs of humanity" unfortunately with little compassion and care.

These groups in the most part disregard women and human rights. They posit their position with full conviction while neglecting the issue of human dignity. They believe that as long as people have more income people's lives will be improved. Certainly more income is important, but it will not make people's lives and their children's lives better. These groups must accept the conditionalities of human rights and the understanding that women must be equal partners in the development of their communities based on a human rights civil, cultural, economic, political and social contract. Human rights violations will increase; clinics will not be built, children will not be educated, women will not become major participants sharing the economic power as long as there is no commitment to a human rights culture.

However, both human rights experts and women's groups must acknowledge "development as a human right", as proclaimed in the Vienna Declaration and in many international documents. But we must stress again that without a holistic understanding of human rights, which maintains the parameters of development within a human rights framework, the "growth for the sake of growth" approach may raise economic indicators higher, but will not better people's lives.

If these three powerful constituencies pursue their agendas without a humble appreciation for the need of cooperation with each other, women, men, girl child, boy child, will not realize their full human potential and the gap of dignity will be widened.

Development must be gender sensitive, law must fully include women, and women must understand human rights as relevant to their daily lives and their family's daily lives. Women must move from the private to the public sphere and participate in weaving a viable economic future for their communities in which they have full say. This is imperative!

The Beijing conference was a women's conference and a human rights conference. The resultant Platform for Action is a blueprint for human rights education as it points out all the concerns of human rights of women and of humanity as a whole. The Platform maps out all the injustices, human rights violations that affect women in their daily lives and the strategies eradicate human rights violations which are specifically perpetrated against women because they are women.

Women must lead the human rights revolution! We women have the energy and insight for changing the world with the men who wish to join us as equals.

Right here in Vienna, in 1993, the obstacles to accept women's human rights were conceptually removed when the world recognized women's rights as human rights. We all worked for Vienna, for Cairo, for Copenhagen and for Beijing. We have pushed ourselves and our governments to work hard on these issues. We cannot stop now.

We have studied the platform of action again and again. We all know what is written in it by heart. We know its few strengths and many faults ... and by now we can write our own platform of action to transcend co-optation and the politics of "equity" and "equality." But, we must go further and deeper within the richness of our energy. Our task now is to educate and infuse our movements with the understanding that all social justice work is human rights work and that human rights are indivisible and for all!

Furthermore, there are no human rights without economic rights and economic development must be within the human rights conditionalities. And lastly, women are central to development and must be fully included in all the decision making processes.

Each of us must become a human rights educator... We women need to recognize that our issues are indeed political issues. Thus, human rights education must include political education. We must introduce our human rights goals into the political discussion of our communities. We must make it an imperative for the politicians we elect to deal with these issues. This is what politics are all about. We will be able to do so if we all become human rights literate, learning to speak the human rights language which informs our aspiration and hopes. We cannot leave this language to the academicians or the developers. We must deeply understand how human rights are relevant to our lives, and ensure that politicians make our concerns their concerns.

Human rights education will give us the language to remove political dogma and empower us with a viable human rights analysis.

It is us women who must lead this human rights revolution for the benefit of society as a whole, claiming our human rights to be human and to be women.


Shulamith Koenig. Executive Director. The People's Decade for Human Rights Education. 526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025. Tel: (212) 749-3156 Fax: (212) 666-6325 e-mail: pdhre@igc.org