Understanding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights

By Neha Tripathi

Concept of Gender Equality: Views by Wollstonecraft and Mill

What do we exactly mean by Gender Equality? Though there is no set definition but there have been various approaches and indices based on which gender equality is generally understood. These indicators are basically based on the idea of gender differences in the area of health, education, political representation and paid labour. The idea of women’s human rights is the view that women are entitled to equal rights with men because of the sexes’ shared status as human beings.[i] Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill have been heavily attributed as the primary proponents of this view. Wollstonecraft developed a rational theological justification for the idea that women held equal rights alongside men, while Mill built a secular liberal utilitarian foundation for the same argument. This discourse regarding universal definition of gender equality can be attributed to the first proclamation of women’s rights in Western Europe in the late eighteenth century. The Rights of Women was published as a companion piece to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, with equally universal aspirations: to recognize “the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of the woman,” who “is born free and lives equal to man in rights.”[ii] The idea was to promote equality in terms of applicability of laws in case of men and women. Similarly, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of the Woman (1792), promoted the idea of educational and social equality for women.[iii] Her work presented the view that the educational system of her time has been so fashioned to deliberately train women to be frivolous and incapable. She advocated that an educational system that would allow the girls same advantages as boys would result in women who would be not only exceptional wives and mothers but would also be capable workers in many professions.

Works influenced by the writings of Wollstonecraft: Emergence of other Feminist Writings

There has been early documented works by feminist writers who did make similar pleas for improved educational standards for women, but her work uniquely suggested that the betterment of women’s status be effected through such political change as the radical reform of national educational systems and such change, she concluded, would benefit all society. Various other writers in form of Mary Anne Radcliffe’s The Female Advocate or an Attempt to Recover the Rights of Women from Male Usurpation (1799), Mary Robinson’s A Letter to the Women of England (1799) and Priscilla Wakefield’s Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798) emerged after the Wollstonecraft’s writing but each of them argued for the importance of women’s education and increased opportunities for paid work for women, differentiating their approach from Wollstonecraft’s by focusing on existing individual priorities rather than promoting universal rights.[iv] Similarly, Hannah Mather Crocker (1818) in the United States, author of Observations on the Real Rights of Women, objected Wollstonecraft’s approach by offering a religious based alternative to envision women’s empowerment in a “Christian system”. A liberal Congregationalist theologian, Crocker followed Wollstonecraft in her concern with refuting the religious notion that women have inferior souls to men, or no souls at all, leaving them incapable of the same (or perhaps any) salvation.[v]

Emergence of Women Rights Movement and International Development

During the end of the 19th century, with the emergence of industrial societies in Europe and America various social movements emerged, out of which there was also a movement which gained momentum in relation to creating an awareness on gender based discrimination and injustice in virtually all aspects of society. At the turn of the twentieth century, women’s movement mobilised across the globe and emphasis was on the commonalities of interests among “women of all nations”. The International Council of Women in 1888 was thereby formed for the advancement of interests of women across the globe.[vi]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 in its preamble recognised “the equal rights of men and women”. Yet the Declaration under article 16, strongly associated the rights of women with their traditional reproductive roles within marriage and the family.[vii]  Women’s rights were not typically seen as integral to a general set of human rights to which women were entitled on the basis of their humanity but rather were seen as rights that they possessed on the basis of their gender roles and sexual functions. In her 1966 Statement of Purpose for the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan called for a renewed attention “to the proposition that women, first and foremost, are human beings, who, like all other people in our society, must have the chance to develop their fullest human potential.”[viii]

Vienna Declaration on Human Rights and Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

At the turn of the twenty-first century, universalist approaches to women’s rights began to be adopted by intergovernmental organizations, beginning with the Declaration on the Equality of Women, issued by the World Conference of the International Women’s Year in 1975, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979.[ix] Held in June 1993, the United Nations’ World Conference on Human Rights was built on the rising international view that women’s rights are a kind of human rights, the conference produced the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights.[x] The Vienna Declaration represented a milestone for women rights, the document used the term “human rights of women” in two interrelated ways. First, it meant women’s shared rights with men, such as nourishment, safety, and education. As a corollary, it entailed women’s equal access to these human rights, without gender discrimination. Second, it meant women’s rights as human beings to be free from “gender-specific abuses” such as “murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy,” as was tragically prevalent in “situations of armed conflict.”[xi]

The Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action provided that the world is determined to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity. It proclaimed that Women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace.[xii] Women rights came to be established as human rights. The Beijing Platform for Action basically imagined a world where every woman and girl can exercise her freedoms and realize her rights, such as to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for work of equal value. As a defining framework for change, the Platform for Action made comprehensive commitments under 12 critical areas of concern.

The Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 aims at achieving Gender Equality. It is based on the premise that ending all discrimination against women and girls is not only a basic human right but it’s also crucial for sustainable future.[xiii] It is imperative to note that empowering women not just helps economic growth and development but is also vital to the fulfillment of their basic rights and freedoms.

Gender Equality and Women Rights: The Way Ahead

Undoubtedly, today there are more women in public office than ever before, but encouraging more women leaders will definitely help achieve greater gender equality. However, on the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration in 2020, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, stated that “With nations around the world searching for solutions to the complex challenges of our age, the leading way for all of us to rebuild more equal, inclusive, and resilient societies, is to accelerate the implementation of women’s rights – the Beijing Platform for Action. That vision has been only partly realized. We still live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, and this simply has to change”.[xiv] No country has basically fully realised the commitments of the Beijing Declaration nor are even close to it.

Given that there is a lack of respect and support for those who are considered as different or less powerful, writers like Martha Nussbaum have showcased that how human beings would have performed if they lived in respect enhancing social-conditions.[xv]  The women theorists have therefore, developed the moral ideas for appreciation of equal dignity of human beings based on the premises of “women rights are human rights”. Hirschmann has put it simply and clearly: the differences between women are the occasion for the theoretical argumentation of their rights.[xvi] Despite countries espousing the ideas related to justice and equality, people around the world are still constrained by patriarchy, inequality, discrimination, oppression, and violence. For women generally, progress towards equality has been often met with huge backlash, undoubtedly, a combination of personal, social, community, organizational, and political change will be needed to address the various ways in which gender discrimination can be eliminated.

(The writer is an Assistant Professor (Law) at Maharashtra National Law University, Aurangabad)

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[i] Eileen Hunt Botting, Wollstonecraft, Mill & Women’s Human Rights, Yale University Press, 2016.

[ii] See, Charles Kruzman et.al., Women’s Assessment of Gender Equality, Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World Volume 5: 1–13 (2019).

[iii] See, Dr. Claire Knowles, Feminism and the Gothic: A Brief History. Available at https://library.unimelb.edu.au/exhibitions/dark-imaginings/gothicresearch/feminism-and-the-gothic-a-brief-history. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[iv] Also see, Jim Jose, Feminist Political Theory without Apology: Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson, and the Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Hypatia , Volume 34 , Issue 4 , Fall 2019 , pp. 827 – 851.

[v] Eileen Hunt Botting, Wollstonecraft, Mill & Women’s Human Rights, Yale University Press, 2016.

[vi] See, Objectives of International Council of Women. Available at http://www.icw-cif.com/01/02.php. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[vii] https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[viii] Supra n. 1

[ix] Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Available at https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[x] Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/vienna.aspx. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[xi] Supra n. 1

[xii] The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China – September 1995, Action for Equality, Development and Peace, PLATFORM FOR ACTION. Available at https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/plat1.htm#statement. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[xiii] Sustainable Development Goals; Goal 5: Gender Equality. Available at https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-5-gender-equality.html. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[xiv] See, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/9/press-release-25th-anniversary-of-the-beijing-declaration-on-womens-rights. Last accessed on Mar 05, 2021.

[xv] Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, Belknap Press, 2013.

[xvi] Nancy J. Hirschmann, Difference as an occasion for rights: A feminist rethinking of rights, liberalism, and difference, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 2:1, 27-55.

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