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Human Rights Review

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Follow-up to the World Conference on Human Rights, New York 1998

VI. Equal status and human rights of women

40. The equal status and human rights of women has gained new momentum in the 1990s. The World Conference on Human Rights recognized the human rights of women and girls as an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of universal human rights (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, sect. I, para. 18; and sect. II, pars. 36-44), and called on Governments and the United Nations to recognize their implementation as a priority task. The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 reaffirmed, refined and expanded further the recommendations made in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

41. Many States have strengthened the ability of women to exercise their rights. Steps have been taken by Governments to better reflect these rights in national law. In addition, some countries have lifted reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Several States have embarked on national plans of action that espouse the goal of gender equality by the year 2000. Measures at the national level have also included changes in constitutional and penal laws prohibiting domestic violence, sexual assault and female genital mutilation; enactment of emancipation policies; and the establishment of governmental structures responsible for the management of gender-oriented policies. New laws have been adopted to promote the political advancement of women and support the employment of women in public service. Changes in family law have established additional protection for women against economic discrimination in cases of divorce. The creation of various female education programmes has been widely recognized to be one of the most fundamental means of increasing the overall welfare of women and thus the entire community. Education empowers women with the knowledge, skills and
resources necessary to improve their lives. Priority should be given to eliminating the social and cultural barriers that continue to exclude women and girls from regular education programmes.

42. Despite such examples of progress, women continue to be disproportionately subjected to violations of human rights. From domestic violence to brutalization in war, from harmful traditional practices to outright female infanticide, the status quo remains intolerable. Unequal access and discrimination in the allocation of economic and social resources results in the direct denial of women's economic, social and cultural rights. Those with specific needs are subject to further marginalization due to such barriers as race, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, class or status. Women are often deprived of access to paid work, which is crucial to achieving self-reliance and improving living conditions of their families. Gender violence and discrimination against women must no longer be tolerated in silence or go unpunished. To continue this degrades not only women but also all of humankind.

43. The United Nations response to these challenges is based on the programme of mainstreaming a gender dimension in all the areas of the Organization's activities, as called for by the Vienna and Beijing Conferences (see E/CN.6/1997/2). In this process, specific gender-related recommendations of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action are being implemented. In 1994, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, representing the first and to date the only investigatory procedure with a mandate specifically concerning women. The other special procedures and mechanisms are also increasingly integrating a gender perspective into their work by providing information in their reports on violations of women's human rights. For example, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the territories of former Yugoslavia dealt with the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography has examined the impact of the media on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, particularly the girl child. Developing a gender-sensitive methodology that includes fact-finding will be an essential step in this process.

44. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Division for the Advancement of Women, the Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have developed close cooperation. A revised joint work plan between the Division and the Office has been agreed. During the fifty-fourth session of the Commission on Human Rights, a special dialogue on gender and the human rights of women was held, which included the participation of the Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and Government and non-governmental organization representatives. It is hoped that such dialogues will strengthen the work of organs and bodies involved through the greater sharing of information and expertise.

45. In addition to the specific mandate of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, other human rights treaty bodies are also giving increased attention to the issue of the equal status and human rights of women. Their chairpersons are now in the process of planning a seminar that will consider how gender issues can be incorporated in the general comments, recommendations and guidelines of the treaty bodies. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has already amended its guidelines for reports from States parties to include gender-related information.

46. The calls of the World Conference on Human Rights and the Fourth World Conference on Women for the universal ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by the year 2000 have both had an impact on the acceleration of the ratification process. Nevertheless, in addition to the above-mentioned problem of widespread reservations (see para. 14 above) the current number of 161 States parties merits concern. Additional efforts are necessary if the goal of universal ratification is to be accomplished by the year 2000. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action also requested the Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to consider the preparation of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women for the right of petition (sect. II, para. 40). The Working Group of the Commission on the Status of Women established to draft this protocol has made considerable progress.

47. Further worldwide efforts to improve the situation of women are necessary. Women's human rights are the responsibility of all: Governments, international organizations and civil society. A particular contribution can be expected from non-governmental organizations involved in gender-related issues, which during the Vienna and Beijing Conferences proved that the input from civil society and its organizations are essential factors in the human rights efforts of the international community.

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