International UNESCO Education Server for
Civic, Peace and Human Rights Education

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Women's Rights


I. Facts and Figures

II. Setting limits to violence against women

UN: Instraw
Amnesty: Women


Setting limits to violence against women

Women’s rights are violated right across the world. Regardless of nationality, culture, religion and social standing, women are discriminated against, subjected to violence, tortured and, in the most extreme cases, executed by their own fathers, sons, brothers and husbands. Human rights violations against women are universal. A large number of the world's women are victims of male violence. Violence against women is a characteristic shared by all patriarchal societies.

Violence against women knows no boundaries. Women are traded across the world as cheap labour, catalogue brides and forced prostitutes. More than two million girls aged between five and 15 are sold as prostitutes every year.

The bodies of women and girls are being mutilated and sold because of new reproduction technologies. Prenatal determination of a baby's sex through ultrasound or Amnioszenthese has led to a situation in which female foetuses are aborted one after the other in countries such as the People’s Republic of China and India in order to secure male offspring. Based on the birth statistics and the numerical relationship between men and women there should be 100 million more women alive on the earth today. In addition to this, girls are systematically neglected. They are breast fed for a shorter period, less likely to be inoculated, receive less to eat and have to work much harder. 1.5 million children die every year because they are girls.

Girls and women are abused and raped on a daily basis. 75 percent of rapes are carried out by offenders that know their victims socially. Only between 10 and 30 percent of these crimes are reported to the police. 40,000 women are forced to flee their violent men to a refuge for battered women every year in Germany. The persecution of women because of their gender is not recognized for asylum purposes. Women and girls are refused the right of self-determination over their own bodies. In many countries, women are refused the right to contraception. The genitals of 150 million women and girls have been mutilated. Each year, this number increases by two million. Women and girls are refused the right to take part in public life by law, be it legal or religious. In career terms, women and girls are at a disadvantage in every nation on earth. In Germany, a mere seven percent of women command management positions in business, the state sector and science, but are employed in 94 percent of all part-time positions.

Women in Afghanistan

Of course, the form and degree of human rights violations against women varies from nation to nation. Some states violate almost all internationally recognized human rights standards as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Afghanistan offers the clearest example of this: Following the victory of the radical Islamic Taliban in 1996, women have been completely banned from any playing any role in public life and completely deprived of their rights.1

The policies of the new rulers drastically restrict the lives of Afghan women and girls: Women are only allowed to leave the home provided they are accompanied by a close male relation. They have to wear a Burqa outside the home, a veil that covers the entire body and which only has a grid at eye height for vision. Women are no longer allowed to have a job. All female teachers, office workers etc. were forced to quit their jobs. Indeed, several attempts were made at stopping medical personnel from doing their work. For the women of Afghanistan this means being refused medical attention, since women are only allowed to be treated by women.

Women and girls are refused an education. Schools for girls have been closed and women are not allowed to attend university. Women are no longer allowed to wash their clothes in streams or at public water facilities. The public baths, the traditional Hamam, have been closed for women. Women have been forbidden from listening to music, singing, dancing, taking pictures, watching television and, incredibly, even from playing chess! Windows at ground level and the 1st floor have to be blacked in. Women are allowed neither to make any noises with their heels when walking nor to wear white stockings.

The Taliban is ruthless and brutally violent in the enforcement of its gender apartheid system. There are numerous reports of women being attacked, hit and badly abused after violating one of the rules. According to reports, a young woman's finger was chopped off simply for wearing nail varnish. At the very worse, women are threatened with death by stoning: There is evidence of several cases in which women have been stoned to death because of alleged adultery.

War, which has ravaged the country for almost 20 years, has brought women much suffering. As part of the civilian population, they were hit particularly hard by the armed conflict. All of the warring factions have been responsible for human rights violations against women on a massive scale: Women have been driven from their homes, killed, raped, kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

The long and winding institutional road to women's rights

Public awareness of the specific kind of violence being inflicted upon women and girls was still lacking until into the eighties. Cruelty such as genital mutilation, dowry murder, the trade in women, forced prostitution, abortion of female foetuses etc. were all accepted as cultural peculiarities.

While it might be tempting to think that tortures such as these only happen in the so-called "Third World, this is not true. Here at home, too, women and girls are abused, humiliated, and robbed of their bodily, mental and emotional integrity. While these practices might be more subtle than the kind of violence already mentioned their effect is just as enduring. Even the most independent and confident woman will break and suffer for the rest of her life is she is raped.

The decision by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1972 to make 1975 the International Year of Women provided a signal to all women’s initiatives and organisations across the world to network and to be more active at an international level. The UN provided them with the framework. Because of its great success, the International Year of Women was extended to the UN’s International Women’s Decade from 1975 to 1985. Three large World Conferences on Women were held during this period: the first in 1975 in Mexico, the second in 1980 in Copenhagen and the third in 1985 in Nairobi.

The numerous forms of social exclusion and discrimination against women and girls from across the world were recorded and documented during the Women’s Decade and at these conferences. Action plans and women’s policy targets for governments were passed. Yet because these initial action plans took the form of recommendations, which had been negotiated by government representatives, in the early years they tended to be very guarded and unspecific. Clear statements criticising violence against women, for instance, were rare. The job of these UN conferences was to get conservative, fundamentalist, dictatorial and democratic governments, as well as various religious institutions to agree.

But the UN Conference in 1975 did represent the birth of the international women’s movement at an NGO level. NGO means nongovernmental organisations and these include all independent social movements that get their support from the grassroots. So-called NGO forums were held alongside the official government conferences. These NGO forums offered a platform on which women's groups of all persuasion from across the world could meet and exchange views and experiences. This coming together proved to be difficult and conflict-ridden especially between women from the north and south.

These arguments were also influenced by political ideologies and especially by the Cold War between East and West. Yet for all this, the NGOs still managed to put pressure on governments. If the UN conferences served in strengthening the action being taken by women's organisations, the reverse was also true. This interplay at a nongovernmental, governmental and UN level led to discrimination against women being put on the political agenda. The real breakthrough came at the 1985 NGO forum in Nairobi when, for the first time, women from both sides of the ideological divide realized that they had "more in common than apart". United against patriarchal structures and violence against women and girls, women were now able to take action in solidarity.

An international movement against violence on women and for the recognition of women's rights was born out of the daily experiences of women from across the world. This universality created close ties between women and demonstrated the necessity of a united battle: Women’s rights were officially recognized as human rights for the first time in 1993 at the UN World Conference for Human Rights in Vienna.

The international women’s rights movement was successful in its efforts to get the UN to define violence against women both in public and private as a violation of human rights and, therefore, to recognize universally the right of women to a life free of violence. This was a great success. The human rights concept that had existed to this point, that is, a concept which had been limited to classifying and condemning state (public) violence as a violation of human rights, was expanded: Until this point, private (domestic) violence had had no place. Those involved in the women's rights movement regarded this turning a blind eye to private violence as a large deficit for human rights as an instrument as a whole.

The movement had faced its greatest opposition in the West because of the prevailing discussion based on a premise that norms varied from culture to culture. According to this premise, terrible human rights violations such as genital mutilation were acceptable as culture-specific characteristics. But the World Conference for Human Rights was successful in beginning a process in which women’s rights would become accepted as human rights and in which a new international standard was set. Structural oppression of women in all its forms was no longer seen as discrimination against women, but as a violation of human rights. This is a new dimension providing women with a far more effective instrument for putting pressure on governments in their fight to achieve equal rights.


This achievement has led to a growth in public awareness about violence against women and has led to numerous improvements in the legal systems of countries across the world. Here’s just one example: Since 1993, German sex tourists that sexually abuse foreign children, most of whom are girls, can be prosecuted under German law. Rape in marriage has been a prosecutable offence in Germany since May 1997. It took the German Parliament and Bundesrat 25 years to make rape in marriage legally equivalent to rape outside marriage. Until these changes, sexual violence within marriage could only be prosecuted as grievous bodily harm or coercion. Rape inside marriage was regarded more as a private affair than as a crime.

In addition to this, it took the women’s movement a long time to make it clear that rape had nothing to do with sexuality and was actually a crime of violence. Those perpetrating the crime are less interested in satisfying sexual desire than they are subjugating and humiliating women. Indeed, the minds of judges are still filled with the idea that they are dealing with sex offenders ("sexually frustrated"). And these same judges are far too willing to hand down lenient sentences and let offenders get away with being called adequately into account for their crimes.

Lobby and publicity for women’s rights

Women and girls should be able to lead a free, equal and self-determining life in every corner of the world. This is the basis and the objective of the work being carried out by TERRE DES FEMMES. The greatest obstacle on the road to achieving this vision is the specific violence carried out against women simply because they are women. Nafis Sadik, the steadfast Executive Director of the UN’s Population Fund makes the following clear: "We should not allow ourselves to be bent by the weight of pseudo-arguments that draw on cultural or traditional values. Anything that suppresses or enslaves women cannot be regarded as being culturally valuable. The job of culture and tradition is to establish a framework for human well-being. If it's used against us, we have to reject it." It is essential that women and girls have a strong lobby of their own, which works to ensure that they are valued more highly by politics, business and society. Based in Tübingen, Germany, the women’s rights organisation TERRE DES FEMMES e.V. wants to contribute to this cause.

Indeed, as far as equality for women and girls is concerned, lobbying has to be improved in general. This means making sure that protests and public awareness campaigns are carried out on a regular basis. Urgent action can save the lives of women in some cases, which means that intervention has to be made more acceptable to society. A continual action network on a worldwide scale is absolutely essential. We are in need of professional working and organisational structures in order to make our influence felt. The UN institutions, the International Court of Justice and supranational associations have to be strengthened and made to champion women’s rights. It is also important that they work together.

This includes working together with committed men and men's groups. Men have to be won over to the women's rights cause and made to shoulder responsibility. Indeed, TERRE DES FEMMES developed its first campaign with men for men. On the 25th of November 1999, the International "No to Violence against Women" Day, TERRE DES FEMMES presented a poster and brochure directed specifically at men who use the services of prostitutes; this was done as part of its two-year "Trading in Women Is Showing Contempt for Women" campaign. This campaign focuses on men rather than women and the role they play in fuelling the trade in women and girls for prostitution purposes. Without customers, the trade in women would not exist. In starting the campaign we are taking up a social taboo: The aim of the campaign is to highlight the responsibilities that men have as customers of the sex industry. The idea is to get men to think seriously about the consequences of their action and encourage them to show solidarity for the women affected. As difficult as it might be, women have to get used to the idea of welcoming men as allies in the fight against violence and the trade in women.

Working together with men’s advisory centres, researchers into male behaviour and an agency, TERRE DES FEMMES developed a poster campaign entitled "Men Pointing the Way Ahead", which was displayed on large advertising hoardings and pillars. A supplementary brochure was to provide men with background information, with details about our political demands and with addresses of advice centres. Many male customers don't realize the precarious legal status of foreign prostitutes (no right of residence, work or insurance). A telephone hotline was set up for a three week period and men were encouraged to make an anonymous call. Answering their calls were men from the "Pfunzkerle" men’s advisory centre in Tübingen. The hotline received a total of 100 calls. Most of the callers were interested in knowing more about the campaign and offering their support to its political objectives. Other men, however, provided some important details about their own visits to prostitutes. Indeed, we received three important leads on the illegal trade in women.

It is also important that we provide support to each other and network. Women and girls have to prepare for the international community and sharpen their outlook. This includes showing mutual recognition for the commitment shown by other groups in other areas of the same fight and, indeed, respect.

Our vision is to give all women and girls the chance to live a self-determined, independent and free life on earth, a life free of religious and cultural rules.

  This article was written during the reign of the Taliban.

[Christa Stolle, TERRE DES FEMMES, Tübingen; taken from: Forum, Paper from the UNESCO School’s Project, Issue 3/2002: "Frauen und Mädchen der Welt" ("The World’s Women and Girls"), hrsg. v. Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission e.V., Bonn]