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  • Realizing Human Rights for Women
  • Ursula A. O’Hare (bio)

I. Introduction

For some time, feminists have critiqued international human rights law for its “gender myopia.” The core of these critiques has centered around the conceptualization of human rights as “men’s rights” and the operational “ghettoization” of the bodies responsible for women’s human rights. 1 At a conceptual level, feminists challenge human rights law for failing to recognize oppressive practices against women as human rights violations.

The issue of domestic violence soon became a focus point for feminist scholars. Occurring both within the public and private spheres, violence against women is the most brutal manifestation of women’s oppression. It violates a woman’s right to bodily integrity and liberty; to be free from [End Page 364] torture, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and in its most acute form, it violates a woman’s right to life. Yet violence against women was only formally recognized by the international community as a human rights issue after unprecedented lobbying by women’s groups at the Vienna World Conference in 1993. 2 The formal expression of this commitment can be found in the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) 3 and the 1994 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará). 4 These instruments have been widely welcomed as indicators of the shift within the human rights community toward a recognition of the need to address those issues that deny women access to their human rights.

The Vienna Conference not only marked an acceptance of the importance of asserting the indivisibility of human rights for women, but also of strengthening the enforcement mechanisms for protecting women’s human rights. 5 As a reconceptualization of human rights has begun to take place, the agenda is shifting toward the challenge of ensuring the effective enjoyment of these rights. A number of recent developments of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are designed to enhance the effectiveness of the Women’s Convention. 6 In particular, the state reporting procedure under the Women’s Convention, which is the principal means by which the CEDAW monitors implementation of the Convention, is under scrutiny and a proposal for the establishment of an individual complaints procedure is currently approaching [End Page 365] its final stages of consultation. 7 Both steps represent a serious effort to counteract the operational difficulties that have impaired the effective enjoyment of women’s human rights, and to breathe life into the embryonic right to be free from violence in the public and private sphere.

These developments illustrate how far the human rights movement has shifted toward embracing women’s issues fifty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 8 first asserted that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” 9 This article aims to describe and evaluate the progress that has ensued. Section II will briefly explain why the human rights community has been so slow to respond to women’s issues. Section III will then trace the development of the international community’s response to the issue of violence against women. Next, Section IV will explain why the international instruments dealing with violence against women mark a reconceptualization of human rights law and assess their wider significance. Section V will then set out some of the recent operational developments in enforcing women’s human rights. In conclusion, Section VI will suggest, with reference to recent jurisprudence on state responsibility, how these developments might be exploited.

II. The Limitations of Human Rights Law for Women

A number of reasons have been put forward to explain why the international human rights community has been slow to respond to women’s global disadvantage. At the heart of the problem is the exclusion of women’s voices from the public world. Modern human rights law owes much to the legacy of national pressure for civil and political rights at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As women struggled for access to the public world during this time, men’s voices were in the vanguard...

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pp. 364-402
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