By Maria Riley, O.P.
February 1996

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Human rights is one of the few moral visions subscribed to globally. I say subscribed to globally, not necessarily practiced globally. It is subscribed to globally in terms of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And although the scope of human rights is not totally agreed upon across all nations due to cultural differences, the concept itself strikes deep chords of response among peoples all over the world; particularly people whose human rights are consistently being diminished or abused.

Human Rights Defined
The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights was defined in 1945. Through the work of a small coterie of women led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was at that time the United States delegate to the founding of the United Nations, it was insisted that gender be written into the universal code of human rights.

However, it was really not until 1993, at the last U.N. conference on human rights held in Vienna, that women from around the world explicitly moved the idea of women's human rights into the human rights thinking. In other words, instead of saying that no human rights should be abridged on the basis of gender, religion, race, class and so forth, women as subjects of human rights were actually taken as a serious item.

The focus of the women gathered there was on violence against women as an abuse of their human rights. It wasn't their only focus but their primary focus.

As women, we know ways in which our human rights are abridged both by law and/or by custom. For example in the state of New York, a study was done of the state's judicial system in terms of how it dealt with women and with men. The findings of the study were pretty devastating. One was that, consistently, the word of men was accepted as valid, true and rational, almost universally, over the word of women. This becomes a serious problem in cases of domestic violence, in cases of separation and divorce, in cases of rights of children. As well, male lawyers were taken much more seriously, by both women and men jurors, in terms of the presentation of their arguments. This is an example of the social abridgement of women's human rights.

I have even heard women say, "The reason I don't want women to be ordained priest is I will never go to a woman for confession. They can't keep their mouth closed". Of course, I who grew up in a house full of men said, "Have you ever heard men gossip?" The tradition, the social given, is that women gossip – but so do men. We have socially built-in restraints that are not based on truths, but are constantly going on in women's lives.

Individual Rights and Communal Rights
Human rights tradition itself is rooted in the western human rights tradition coming through the French revolution, the U.S. revolution and the Magna Carta of Great Britain. This human rights tradition is built on individual rights.

However, for many nations, communal rights have at least as much weight as individual rights. What we have lost in the west is any sense of the common good and of communal rights. So our human rights tradition in the west has its own limitations.

Human rights tradition has been based on the natural law that rights of human individuals are inherent in the very nature of persons. In most legal traditions the normative person has been the male, and so even though – for example in the earliest U.S. constitution – all citizens had voter rights, the only people who could be citizens were white land owning males. There was a whole group of people denied their rights because either they were not white, were not male, or they were not land owners. As we look deeper, we begin to see it is the male experience which is considered the normative experience. It's the same thing with the church and Catholic social teaching; the male experience is considered the normative so they have to talk about women in their special natures. As if our nature is something different from the normative human nature.

The great contribution of the Catholic tradition to the human rights concept has been the common good. Yet, it is sad to say that we as Catholic citizens continue to vote against movements that really would be for the common good of our people.

The church has certainly enriched the human rights tradition particularly by the reflection on the concept of rights as rooted in ourselves as brothers and sisters, children of God. Coming out of all Christian-Judeo thought is the dignity of the human person, rooted in the creation concept that we are created male and female in the image of God. There is also the Incarnation and Redemption, and the recognition out of the Christian dynamic that we exist for a transcendent purpose; that our existence is not bound by human history but that we exist for beyond human history.

The Primary Focus
Historically, the primary focus of human rights was the movement away from the sovereignty of the state over human rights – such as the divine right of kings – toward the sovereignty of the human person. And that's been a very important historical move. But traditionally that evolution has focused on what is essentially a male world, because the early human rights struggles were about men struggling to define and achieve their rights over against the state. Human rights at that point made the presumption that the male experience is normative for everybody. Women were not considered, or played an insignificant role. The only place women have played a significant role in human rights is as great defenders of human rights. All across the world women have put their lives on the line for the cause of human rights.

The "first generation" or first level of human rights is political-civil. Most of the major human rights activities have concentrated on political civil rights. Whether we are looking at Amnesty International or Americas Watch, all of the great civil rights-human rights institutions have really looked at political civil rights.

The "second generation" was written later and is the social, economic and cultural rights of people. In the United States we do not admit to economic rights. We admit to economic opportunity, but economic rights is not written into the U.S. constitution. This means that the citizens of the United States do not have rights to basic human needs.

Peoples' basic economic rights is a big issue facing us today. I think it's a huge issue for women because women carry the greatest burdens of poverty in the world, because their economic rights are not recognized. The gendered nature of social structures is that women will be economically dependent on their husbands. And of course that doesn't do much for women who are not married. It's a very narrow perception of who women are.

There's a "third generation" of rights that is really beginning at this point called "global solidarity" or the right to development. The United States is absolutely against it because it really is another form of trying to provide economic rights. The U.S. is willing to concede the opportunity for development, but does nothing about the fact that trade and financial flows, and debt, deny many countries of the world this very right to development.

Finally, what will be coming down the line I'm sure are the rights of the earth, or "cosmic solidarity". I don't think we have evolved into a sense of what are the rights of creation over and against the incessant over use, abuse and sometimes even rape of our natural resources in the name of profit.

Are Human Rights Women's Rights?
In reviewing this evolution of human rights, the question we can ask today is: Are human rights women's rights? Let's look at some of the facts.

Significant numbers of the world's population are routinely subject to torture, starvation, terror, humiliation, mutilation and even murder simply because they are women. In some places of the world it is quite dangerous to be born a girl because of lack of access to basic human needs and basic human rights. There are crimes such as bride burning in India, female circumcision in Africa, female infanticide in India and China.

In India, where to have a male child is much more important than a female child, 99 percent of those aborted in a Bombay hospital were female. So amniocentesis is used as a form of destroying potential female children. There's a whole study done about the missing million girls in Asia. According to all demographic statistics, there should be a million more living girls in Asia than there are. In cultures that demand sons, young girls are faced with female infanticide. They face diminished nourishment and malnutrition where food is a shortage; lack of medical attention where health care is a shortage; and lack of educational opportunity, which is one of the reasons women make up two-thirds of the illiterate people in the world today.

When a family is short of resources, has several children and is looking to the future to determine which of the children is going to have the potential for earning money, the family is going to educate and care for the sons first because all of the indicators of gender preference point to the fact that boys have greater potential to be economically successful than girls. In some cultures daughters are a liability because there is dowry for brides, and thus daughters will cost the families money. When they're married, daughters will be of benefit to the families that they're married into, but not to their own birth families. Statistics in terms of literacy, nutrition and so on, show huge differences between those statistics for girl children and boy children.

In adulthood we have the unhappy listing of rape, domestic violence, incest, repression, harassment, lack of opportunity, denial of full participation in civil and political life, double work burdens, intimidation, and on and on and on.

Then there are the abuses of women's economic rights – unequal pay for work of equal value; sexual and psychological harassment, in all the forms and all the places that that takes place; lack of opportunity, which can now be charted consistently where men of lesser talent are promoted over women of greater talent simply on the basis of the old boys' network or gender preference; denial of full participation in civil and political life; and the double work burden.

Not only are these crimes generally ignored, they are often crimes without social remorse. The attitude is, What can you do about any of this?

There is the famous story about the debate in the Bangkok parliament about at what age it should be considered a crime for a male to have forced sex with a girl. They had to go younger than age 13 because most of the parliamentarians admitted that otherwise they would be guilty of the crime! So the crimes are committed without social remorse.

Because these abuses are rooted in cultural, religious, and social systems, it can be said that the individual male is only responding to what is acceptable within the culture. I'm not trying to let him off the hook; the point is, because these crimes do not have any social remorse against them, they seem to be accepted culturally, and so are carried on culturally.

A Profoundly Political Act
I want to say explicitly that violence against women and the abuse of women's human rights is a profoundly political act. The purpose being to maintain patriarchal control; not only in the home but also everywhere else. Why do we as people, we as legal structures and we as governments, continue to ignore the abuse of women's human rights? There are several reasons that you will hear.

One is that sex discrimination is too trivial and not important, that it will interfere with the big issues. Sex discrimination is just not important enough.

Another reason you will hear is that abuse of women, while regrettable, is a cultural, private, individual issue and not a political matter requiring any state action. Another argument is that these issues are not really human rights issues. The last one is that the abuse of women is inevitable or so pervasive that consideration of it is futile, or will overwhelm other human rights questions, so we can't really take it up as a key human rights issue. The violation of women's rights kills women daily around the world. Either kills them outright and quickly, or drains them slowly of all kinds of life.

It is to the advantage of the patriarchal state and the patriarchal church, not to do anything about the abuse of women's human rights. Women's subordination all around the world runs so deep that it is viewed as inevitable and natural rather than seen as a politically constructed and maintained system in order to keep women in their place. I would argue that assuming that the abuse of women is inevitable and natural carries an extremely pessimistic view of men which I simply do not agree with. If we began to change the institutions and the social givens then the behaviours would also change.

The subordination of women – politically, economically, socially, culturally and religiously – is politically constructed and therefore can be politically reconstructed. God did not create man and woman for the purpose of the subordination and the abuse of women. Of course the degree of this subordination and abuse differs culturally around the world. But I think that in terms of solidarity with women, when any of us are subject to this kind of abuse, all of us are.

Human rights is a very explosive issue because it aims right at the heart of systems of control. It is one of the ways for us to continue to work towards the change of systems because the concept of human rights, as I started off by saying, is one of the few moral visions that is generally accepted around the world – except that it is a moral vision accepted for men. We have to make sure it's a moral vision equally accepted for women and particularly young girls, because it is in the area of abuse of human rights that young girls are mostly affected.

We are living in very mean times. Mean times in which the continuing abuse of people's human rights and women's human rights are going to be more and more tolerated for economic reasons. Some of us have to raise our voices against it. If the churches do not raise their voices against it, who will? This whole question of human rights and the abuse of human rights is a very important, relatively recent agenda in the global feminist movement.

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