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Are women's rights, human rights?

By Kali Goldstone - posted Friday, 17 June 2011

Gender persecution is "aggression against and exploitation of women, because [they] are women, systemically and systematically." Even though women can be abused similarly to the ways in which men are abused, women are also violated in specific ways in which men are not. Notably, if men are violated in such ways, they become the exception to the rule.

Many of these "sex-specific violations are sexual and reproductive" including rape, sexual murder, battery, 'honor killings,' suttee, dowry burnings, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), prostitution, forced abortion, sterilization and motherhood and sexual violence of any kind. A 1989 UN report declares that the "risk of violence and violation within the household is one thing women, irrespective of their social position, creed, color or culture, share in common."

So this begs the question, how come the international legal order is not predicated on the need to address such crimes even though many are expressly prohibited in international law and all of them within armed conflicts? Why is the presence of this pattern of destruction of women, as women, a reality, but absent in international law?


It's a Man's World:

Perhaps some of the answers lie in the fact that violations of men are better understood within the dynamic of human rights violations, as such ideas were based upon the experience of men. Law was created by men, whose perceptions were translated into ideas that were analogous with the male orientated experience. In turn, this experience dictated national and international conceptions of the human rights dynamic.

Domestically, the state is male, in that it chose to perpetuate the pre-state civil society distribution of power and resources, whereby women were dominated by men. This dichotomy was accepted as normal, neutral and good and characterized as a state of equality.

However, these state paradigms are not neutral at all. They are a self-fulfilling prophecy in relation to men as a group. These men did not provide for those who did not have such rights, like women. This was not even contemplated. The fact that they denied rights to women, for example the right to vote, is not in their interest to acknowledge. This was the beginning of the manifestation of gender blinded law.

In reality, domestic law rarely acknowledges that women are violated in these ways. For example, 33 of 50 U.S. states regard spousal rape as a lesser crime with the perpetrator charged with related crimes such as assault, battery or spousal abuse. In some countries, women are even criminalized for the behavior perpetrated against them. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, if a married woman is raped, she will often be charged with adultery and the penalty for such a crime can be death.

As Catharine MacKinnon suggests "gender is an inequality of power, a social status based on who is permitted to do what to whom." Humankind maintains a legal way of thinking about equality which was created by Aristotle: legal equality is to treat similarly situated people alike. Therefore, 'equality' becomes the right to be treated like the white male given that white man's culture is the dominant culture.


History dictates the subordination of women to men and thus women's enforced inequality is a reality of which is mirrored in domestic and international law. "When men sit in rooms, being states, they are largely being men."

Throughout the world women have had, and still have, so little voice and influence in public debate and within their governments.

Moreover, women are routinely violated every day, in every country, in times of war and peace. Even though atrocities like rape and sexual murder are officially illegal, these practices are commonly permitted under domestic and international law. They are permissible and understood as an "excess of passion in peace," or the "spoils of victory in war," or as the "liberties . . . of their perpetrators."

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About the Author

Kali Goldstone is an international human rights lawyer and journalist with a depth of expertise in managing diverse programs working with minority and vulnerable groups, refugees, IDPs and immigrants for the last 12 years in Australia, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kenya and the U.S.

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