- Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives, and: Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law
As preparations proceed for the 1995 World Conference on Women, feminist human rights scholars and activists face a historical moment of great opportunity and serious challenge. Two recently published collections of papers on “women’s rights as human rights” provide excellent support for the project of developing the theoretical and practical underpinnings of feminist human rights. 1 Neither Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives nor Reconceiving Reality: Women and International Law claims to survey definitively the full range of issues that face women with respect to the international law of human rights; no single book could do so. Both books do address challenges to feminist analysis of international law by traditionalists who reject the reformation, reconceptualization, or [End Page 576] replacement of sacrosanct concepts and institutions. Ironically, however, the most important challenges facing feminist human rights scholars and activists are internal ones as we attempt to define, and make effective, human rights for women. Papers that address these internal struggles make up the bulk of both collections.
The contributors to the more comprehensive work, Human Rights of Women, address three major themes: 1) the legitimacy and strategic relevance for women of human rights concepts; 2) questions about the cultural or ideological universality of women’s human rights concerns; and 3) the effective implementation of human rights approaches in improving the status of women. The book includes contributions by 22 scholars, organized into five sections. It begins with an impressive introduction by Rebecca Cook titled “Women’s International Human Rights Law: The Way Forward,” that includes aspects of Cook’s own significant contributions to feminist analysis and that ties together the major themes of the conference proceedings on which the book was based. The articles in the second section elaborate general theoretical concerns, while the third and fourth sections discuss selected international, regional, and national approaches. In the final section, contributors discuss specific human rights violations of particular significance to women and strategies to address them.
The first challenge for feminist human rights scholars is to explore and legitimate the basis for a separate focus on “women’s rights as human rights.” Human Rights of Women builds on earlier work, primarily in law review articles, that has attempted to elaborate theoretical foundations for feminist analysis of human rights. 2 The collection alerts us again to the enormous scope and serious nature of the harms endured by women throughout the world, including domestic violence, violations of reproductive rights, and various forms of gender-based discrimination under both secular and religious legal systems. Most contributors to the book argue that the traditional international human rights regime has failed either to recognize these harms as violations of human rights or, if they are recognized, to adequately address them.
Given its previous failures therefore, many contributors express discomfort with the use of rights discourse. Hilary Charlesworth, for example, provides an excellent discussion of the fundamental critiques of rights discourse that have been posed by critical legal studies, feminist, and cultural identity scholars. She notes that “recourse to the language of rights may give a rhetorical flourish to an argument, but provides only an ephemeral polemic advantage, often obscuring the need for political and social change.” 3 The mere recognition of “women’s human rights” means little without an understanding of the contexts in which such recognition occurs.
An equally powerful evaluation is offered by Adetoun Ilumoka: [End Page 577]
The discourse of rights has had little resonance for the majority of African women, and the national and international rules and procedures for enforcement of rights have rarely been their arenas of struggle. The language of freedom, justice, and fair play has had greater resonance among the “masses” in Africa than has the language of “rights,” especially in relation to struggles against social and cultural practices. This may be partly because women have generally...