Humanizing Women’s Rights

by Caroline Savello:

In late January, pro-choice supporters celebrated the 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade at Yale by raising awareness on campus of reproductive rights. Featuring panels and film screenings, the campaign highlighted the momentous 1973 Supreme Court decision as an incontrovertible advancement for women in the United States. Yet by emphasizing the benefits that the decision had for women’s rights, the week’s events strayed from current trends in the approaches and vernacular of the modern women’s rights movement. In the wake of 1970s-style feminism and its post-feminist backlash in the ensuing decades, women’s rights activism has changed the language it invokes, moving toward a vocabulary that highlights universal, rather than exclusively female, human rights.

The website of the Women’s Rights division of the organization Human Rights Watch spells out this new conception of women’s rights in its mission statement. “Millions of women throughout the world live in conditions of abject deprivation of, and attacks against, their fundamental human rights for no other reason than that they are women,” it reads. The realization that women suffer systematically and specifically because of their gender is nothing new, but the reclassification of their grievances as a part of the human’s rights agenda certainly is.

The distinction is important to U.S. activists because human rights are more legally compelling. Numerous United Nations (UN) conventions have issued human rights resolutions that have the internationally binding force of legislation. In the end, the campaign for human rights can claim a more entrenched legal and judicial system than the women’s rights movement can, particularly considering that the United States has refused to ratify some of the most important treaties relating to women’s rights, including the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“For girls to be denied access to an education, it’s a human rights abuse,” said Amy Richards of The Third Wave Foundation, a U.S. women’s rights activist organization. “We’ve learned from advances that international organizations have made using this model, and, even though Third Wave will never work globally, we can pick up this trend from international events.”

Richards said that the language behind her organization’s activist framework has come specifically from recent reproductive rights successes in Ireland and Chile. Both countries have reversed restrictive abortion rights policies by appealing to their government’s sense of the sanctity of human rights. According to Richards, gender discrimination is no longer just sexism but is now recognized as a violation of human rights.

The fact that U.S.-based women’s rights advocates have changed the way they articulate the importance of women’s rights is commonly acknowledged. Kate Nielson, a campus organizer for the U.S.-based activist organization Feminist Majority, agrees that work within the U.S. has changed its approach from one of women- centric rhetoric to demands for basic human decency. “We definitely try and frame women’s rights as human rights,” Nielson told The Yale Globalist.

Women’s rights activists in the U.S. are increasingly putting effort into drawing connections between American women and the abuses suffered by women internationally. This internationalization of domestic women’s human rights activism was driven in part by a 2001 political decision that dramatically hindered reproductive rights worldwide. On his first day in office, President George Bush decreed a global “gag rule” that has since denied all U.S. funding from any international healthcare organization that counsels on abortion as a method of family planning. And as government infringement concurrently threatens abortion rights in the U.S., the connection between international and domestic activism becomes stronger.

“The things that women internationally are struggling with are mirror images of things that women are struggling with in the United States,” said Yifat Susskind, communications director at the international women’s rights activist organization MADRE. MADRE has since acted against the gag rule as a human rights violation, arguing that illegal abortions, unwanted pregnancies, and lack of access to condoms kill thousands of women each year.

The women’s human rights framework has redefined the way in which activists worldwide gain support and influence decision-makers. The human rights claim carries much greater political weight than female-centric critiques of maltreatment. Ultimately, the ability to define shortcomings in international healthcare policy, abortion restrictions, or lack of female education, as human rights abuses may bring new and unexpected successes to the women’s rights movement.

But at the same time, the movement away from feminist rhetoric may signal even greater challenges facing modern women’s rights. As these activists adapt to prevailing opinions that feminism is passé and women’s needs cannot be addressed transparently, one can wonder whether gender neutralization actually reflects a setback rather than an advancement for female-specific causes worldwide.