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date: 21 April 2024

Women’s Rights as Human Rightsfree

Women’s Rights as Human Rightsfree

  • Jutta JoachimJutta JoachimInstitute for Political Science, Leibniz University


For centuries, women have been struggling for the recognition of their rights. Women’s rights are still being dismissed by United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and even governments, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex. It was not until the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria that states began to recognize women’s rights as human rights. However, this institutional change cannot solely be credited to the UN, but more importantly to the work of international women’s organizations. According to the social movement theory, these organizations have been permeating intergovernmental structures and, with the help of their constituents and experienced leaders, framing women’s rights as human rights in different ways throughout time. It is through mobilizing resources and seizing political opportunities that women’s rights activists rationalize how discrimination and exclusion resulted from gendered traditions, and that societal change is crucial in accepting women’s rights as fully human. But seeing as there are still oppositions to the issue of women’s rights as human rights, further research still needs to be conducted. Some possible venues for research include how well women’s rights as human rights travel across different institutions, violence against women, how and in what way women’s rights enhance human rights, and the changes that have taken place in mainstream human rights and specialized women’s rights institutions since the late 1980s as well as their impact.


  • Human Rights
  • Politics and Sexuality and Gender


Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, women’s rights violations were until recently ignored by both governments and United Nations (UN) human rights bodies. It took until the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, in 1993 for states to recognize women’s rights as human rights. In the Vienna Declaration and the Program of Action adopted at the end of the conference, governments agreed on the following text:

The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community. Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated

(UN General Assembly 1993: Article 18).

Since then, a number of institutional changes have occurred: the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence against Women which condemns gender-based violence as human rights violations, appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and most recently, the Security Council adopted two resolutions on “Women and Peace and Security” – 1325 and 1820 – that recognize women’s rights in the protection of international peace.

Drawing on social movement theory, this essay attributes these outcomes to the work of international women’s organizations, which engaged in frame extension and frame bridging, seizing political opportunities, and mobilizing their own resources. Working through intergovernmental structures and relying on both their constituents as well as their experienced leaders, these organizations have framed women’s rights as human rights in different ways throughout time. While at the turn of the century, women’s organizations demanded equal political rights and opportunities with men (equal treatment frame), they called for special treatment and (affirmative) action starting in the 1960s based on the assumption that the neglect of women’s rights is structural in nature and that international human rights law is male-biased (the woman’s frame). And since the 1990s, many activists are of the conviction that discrimination and exclusion are the result of gendered institutions and that societal change is needed for women’s rights to be respected as fully human (the gender frame).

This state of the art essay is divided into four parts. The first elaborates on the theoretical concepts of framing, political opportunity structure, and mobilizing resources. The second section then turns to the different frames which women’s rights activists employed at the international level across time, illustrating how they differ in what they identify as being the source for women’s rights’ exclusion from international human rights law, suggest as remedies, and offer as justifications for the proposed changes. The third section provides a genealogy of the international women’s rights movement using the analytical constructs. It shows how the international context and the composition of the international women’s movement determined how women’s rights as human rights were defined at a specific point in time, and contributed to framing contests, the privileging of certain frames, and the marginalization of others. Concluding with the assertion that women’s rights as human rights continues to be a contested proposition, the essay closes by suggesting future venues for research.

Frames, Political Opportunities, and Mobilizing Resources

Given the state-centric character of conventional international relations theories, feminists have often borrowed heuristic devices and methods from other disciplines to study the role of women and gender in global politics. In the case of the international women’s rights movement, quite a number of scholars (e.g. Friedman 1995; 2003; Clark et al. 1998; Joachim 2003; 2007) have drawn on social movement theory to explain the successes and challenges women’s rights activists and organizations face. Three concepts appear particularly useful in this respect: framing, political opportunity structure, and mobilizing resources.

Frames capture the “conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action” (McAdam et al. 1996:6). In this respect, frames have a diagnostic, a prognostic, and a motivational dimension (Snow and Benford 1988). They “provide a perspective from which an amorphous, ill-defined and problematic situation can be made sense of and acted upon” (Rein and Schön 1991:263).

Framing is not an easy task, particularly at the international level – not only because new frames frequently challenge existing frames or compete with other frames, but also because they need to “resonate” with people from diverse cultural and political backgrounds. According to social movement scholars, activists frequently engage in what Snow et al. refer to as “frame alignment,” and define as the linking of different frames so that their ideas, beliefs, and interpretations are compatible (Snow et al. 1986:464). This can take either the form of “frame bridging,” which involves the linkage of two or more ideologically congruent but structurally unconnected frames regarding a particular problem (p. 467), or “frame extension,” referring to the enlargement of a frame’s boundaries so that it encompasses interests or points of view that are incidental to the frame’s primary objectives, but are of considerable salience to potential adherents (p. 472). Women’s rights activists have engaged in both strategies. They have linked women’s concerns to broader already accepted themes, such as human rights, development, or peace, and by doing so have often pushed the boundaries of already accepted frames.

Frames that resonate with a large number of actors and across different contexts are employed by other NGOs. They become so-called “master frames,” which provide the ideational and interpretative anchoring for subsequent struggles (Tarrow 1994). “Women’s rights as human rights” can be considered such a master frame today. While women’s activists employed the human rights discourse to delegitimize violence against women, it is now applied widely by other movements to gain acceptance for their otherwise contested concerns. Whether activists can mobilize support for their frames depends on the political opportunity structure in which they are embedded as well as the mobilizing resources they possess.

The political opportunity structure refers to the broader institutional context that provides opportunities for or imposes constraints on NGOs engaged in framing processes (McAdam et al. 1996:2–3). For the women’s movement, but also for other movement groups, international organizations, the venues of multilateral negations, international agencies, as well as national ones, and governments are important in this respect. They provide, according to Tarrow, a “coral reef” where transnational activists “lobby and protest, encounter others like themselves, identify friendly states, and from time to time, put together successful global–national coalitions” (Tarrow 2005:19). Reflecting on the contemporary transnational women’s movement, Friedman identifies the UN conferences as a major element of the political opportunity structure which “conditioned women’s rights organizing, whether in establishing the agenda for global discussion or the rules through which non-governmental representatives can participate” (Friedman 2003:315). While institutions and the actors comprising them are an important part of the political opportunity structure, it is not limited to them. A number of scholars have also stressed that noninstitutional elements can present a window for activists to make their voices heard, such as, for example, symbolic events like the end of the Cold War.

Mobilizing resources, by comparison, are “the collective vehicles, informal as well as formal, through which people mobilize and engage in collective action” (McAdam et al. 1996:315). In the case of the international women’s movement, so-called organizational entrepreneurs have contributed to its success. These are individuals and organizations that bring with them a wealth of organizing experiences, are well connected, and have vision and charisma. Furthermore, the building and extension of networks that support and lend credibility to the movement has been a critical factor as has the accumulation of expertise, both with respect to the issues promoted and to the norms and rules that prevail in the international institutions in which they were active (Joachim 2007).

Women’s Rights as Human Rights

Women have been struggling for the recognition of their rights for centuries. Throughout this time they have employed primarily three different frames to justify women’s rights as human rights: the equal treatment frame, the women’s frame, and the gender frame. While all of these frames contest the exclusion of women’s rights from human rights discourse, they differ as to what they consider to be the source of this neglect, how it can be remedied, and on what grounds the linkage of women’s rights and human rights is justified.

The Equal Treatment Frame

The equal treatment frame is premised on the idea of equal access and opportunity. It identifies the unequal treatment between men and women to be the main source of discrimination. Compared to men, women are granted fewer human rights and opportunities. According to equal treatment proponents, this is less a problem of international human rights law itself, which they view as authoritative, than the failure of states and nonstate actors in the past to apply and enforce these rights (Reanda 1981:11–12; Cook 1993).

Disadvantages suffered by women can be redressed by a simple requirement of equal treatment. In practice this means that laws need to be adopted and legal barriers dismantled to bring about women’s legal equality with men in the public sphere and to create a level playing field. Proponents of the equal rights perspective perceive the integration of women’s rights into human rights law as rather unproblematic, because it will neither disrupt nor change the existing structures. Quite the contrary, according to Rebecca Cook, it is only through such recognition that “international law [can] unfold its full potential and fulfill its promise to respect the human rights of all without sexual discrimination” (Cook 1994:128).

The equal rights approach has been criticized because women’s rights are merely integrated and added in, without challenging existing structures and policies that are considered the real sources of discrimination. According to Teresa Rees, the equal treatment approach, or what she refers to as “tinkering” (Rees 1998:42), is flawed because it is rooted:

in a narrow distributive conception of justice, and focuses the debate upon the allocation of positions within a hierarchy which is given. It ignores the impact of patriarchy in the home and its interactions with capital to produce gendered organizations which systematically disadvantage women. It discounts the impact of other forms of unequal power relations, for example, those which accrue as a result of class or racial oppression and discrimination. (pp. 29–30)

Although the equal treatment frame might stand a better chance of being accepted by policy makers, its impact is, in the eyes of Walby, most likely to be less substantial (Walby 2005:324).

The Women’s Frame

In contrast to the equal treatment frame, the women’s frame identifies international human rights law as highly problematic. “Reduced to its simplest and most basic term, the underlying problem […],” according to Riane Eisler is, “that the yardstick that has been developed for defining and measuring human rights has been based on the male as the norm” (Eisler 1987:33). Put differently, international human rights law reflects a male view of the universe (Charlesworth 1994:65). “[T]he prototypic ‘human rights’ case is an individual [male] political activist imprisoned for the expression of his views or political organizing” (Binion 1995:509) with the state directly or indirectly implicated in the rights violations that are brought on to him. All other cases that do not match this “Bill of Rights model of liberty” seldom receive international attention, including issues related to marriage, procreation, labor, property ownership, sexual repression, and other manifestations of unequal citizenship, which are argued to be private, nongovernmental, and reflective of cultural difference.

The women’s frame is predicated on the idea that women’s voices and experiences are distinctive and need to be accounted for in international human rights law. Proponents of this frame call, therefore, for separate conventions, institutions, and positive (affirmative) action. They emphasize strategies and initiatives that “recognize women as a disadvantaged group in society, who deserve and require particular treatment and specialist provision in order to rectify their past discrimination” (Booth and Bennett 2002).

According to Hillary Charlesworth, the value of the women’s frame, or what she refers to as “cultural feminism,” is that it “responds more accurately to the reality of most women’s lives” (Charlesworth 1994:66), “highlight[s] the almost comprehensive exclusion of women’s experiences from the development of the law, and challenge[s] its claim of neutrality and objectivity” (p. 65). However, it too has problems. Similar to the equality frame, “it is concerned with the distribution of positions within hierarchies rather than with challenging the structural status quo which reinforces systems of oppression in those hierarchies” (Rees 1998:35). This is why Rees refers to the frame as “tailoring.” Although it allows “for ‘add-on’, supplementary measures to take account of women’s ‘special’ position [they are only] ‘nips and tucks’ to accommodate their different shape” (p. 44). Moreover, the adoption of specific women’s rights conventions and the establishment of women’s rights institutions can result in the marginalization of women’s rights in the human rights system and the creation of what Reanda (1992:267) and others (e.g. Bunch 1995) have called a “women’s ghetto.”

The Gender Frame

The gender frame differs from the equal treatment and the women’s frames in several respects. Rather than speaking of women and men, gender is introduced to highlight the social construction of alleged differences between men and women. Injustices and inequalities exist, according to this perspective, because relations and institutions are gendered. Women are neither viewed as a monolithic group nor are men exclusively perceived as deliberate oppressors. Instead, the gender frame takes into consideration not only the ways in which class, culture, or race contributes to and compounds differences, but also that men, like women, can be (dis-)empowered by social arrangements.

With respect to the sources of women’s exclusion from international human rights law, proponents of the gender approach consider the distinction between, first, public and private, and, second, that between political and civil rights, on the one hand, and social, economic, and cultural rights, on the other hand, as fundamental. With respect to the former, Eisler points out that the private sphere, traditionally conceived of as women’s domain, is an artificial construct, that is “applied in a selective manner” and serves important “systems maintenance functions in male-dominated or patriarchical societies.” First, it perpetuates “the idea that the rights of women are of a different – or lower – order than the rights of ‘man,’” thereby making it possible “to justify practices that do not accord women full and equal status” (Eisler 1987:28; see also Romany 1994:93). Consequently, women in international human rights law become, according to Romany, “paradigmatic aliens – the outsider, the foreigner, the stateless subject” (Romany 1994:102). Second, the exclusion of the private sphere from international human rights law “serves as a hidden but effective obstacle to fundamental systems change by preventing […] the creation of a social system where the human rights of all persons are fully recognized and respected” (Eisler 1987). Finally, the assumption of privacy is misleading because the family is highly political. The violence that occurs within the family (Bunch 1990:490–91; Sullivan 1995:127), invades women’s “basic human right to bodily and sexual integrity” (Eisler 1987:31).

The distinction between civil and political rights, on the one hand, and social, economic, and cultural rights, on the other hand, is equally problematic. Especially the privileging of the former in international human rights law, impedes, according to Bunch, the consideration of women’s rights since much of the abuse against them is part of the larger socioeconomic web in which they are entrapped and can neither be delineated as exclusively political or solely caused by the state (Bunch 1990:488; see also Romany 1994:87; Charlesworth 1995).

The gender frame is transformative, calling for a just and fair distribution of resources. It involves what Rees refers to as a “paradigm shift” (Rees 1998:46). According to Hillary Charlesworth, a gender frame suggests “transforming the masculine world of rights, masquerading as ‘human,’ by extending it to include protection against all forms of subordination on the basis of gender.” In practice this means “identify[ing] policies and practices that contribute to women’s inferior position in different societies and insist[ing] that the structure of human rights law offer protection against them” (Charlesworth 1994:67). Hence, rather than establishing a separate body of law as the women’s perspective suggests, the gender perspective is premised on the assumption that inequalities can only be eliminated, through societal change. Gender needs to be recognized within all areas, including human rights.

Like the other frames, so too has that concerning gender mainstreaming been subject to criticism (e.g. Woodward 2003; Hankivsky 2005; Rees 2005). Just as in the case of the women’s frame, some fear the marginalization of women’s concerns, albeit not by separating them from but, instead, linking them to broader concerns. If no specific institution is tasked with taking gender into consideration, so the argument goes, nobody will take responsibility for it. Others are skeptical about its transformative potential in light of the fact that new gender norms have “to fight their way into institutional thinking,” contradict traditional norms, and may have to compete with other goals (Elgstrom 2000). What follows might come, according to Walby, closer to “negotiation […] than simple adoption of new policies” (Walby 2005:322).

Although the gender, women’s, and equal treatment frames emphasize different reasons for the exclusion of women’s rights from international human rights law, and propose different solutions and justifications for how this problem can be remedied, they should not be viewed as entirely separate or exclusive. According to Booth and Bennett, they are part of what they call the “three-legged equality stool” (Booth and Bennett 2002:434). Each of the frames plays and played a role in mainstreaming women’s rights. As Charlesworth illustrates:

[t]he model of nondiscrimination can change the formal language and offer[s] particular individuals limited remedies against inequality. Attempting to balance the thoroughly gendered nature of the international human rights system by defining the category of women’s rights can alter a monolithic conception of inequality. And understanding the relations of power and subordination endorsed by the law can suggest methods of reform that will not fall into the same trap.

(Charlesworth 1994:68)

In the following historical section, I will show how the different frames have been interacting within the specific circumstances of different contexts, been subject to conflicts, and have either been privileged or marginalized depending on how compatible they were with other already accepted frames.

Women’s Rights as Human Rights: A Historical Perspective

Women’s activism at both the national and international level is generally divided into three historically specific phases and analyzed in terms of first, second, and third wave feminism (Booth and Bennett 2002:433). The first covers the years between 1900 and 1950, when women’s rights activists were primarily concerned with obtaining equal political rights within newly emerging international institutions, such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. The second wave stretches from the 1960s to the late 1980s, with the UN Decade for Women (1976–85) and the three World Conferences held in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985, constituting important focal points. Contrary to the first wave, when the equal treatment frame was particularly prevalent, the women’s frame gained in popularity during this phase of women’s international activism. Since the early 1990s, we can witness a third wave of women’s international activism and a shift to the gender frame.

Women’s Rights as Equal Rights (1900–1950s)

During the first wave of women’s international organizing, campaigns were limited, for the most part, to political and civil rights, including suffrage, labor, and equal nationality rights. They reflected the views of mostly upper class North American and European women comprising the international movement. International conferences organized by either women themselves or by intergovernmental organizations, such as the League of Nations and later the United Nations, provided opportunities for women to mobilize governmental support for their concerns. Quite a number of international women’s rights conventions were adopted and international institutions established to promote and protect women’s rights. Although the equal treatment frame appeared to be the most predominant during this time, the women’s frame mattered as well.

Women’s concern for equal political and civil rights at the turn of the century was, according to Stienstra, no coincidence. Instead, it was spurred by “the contradictions in their lives between the increased ability to obtain education and paid labor and their lack of participation in politics and government, especially in the basic right to vote” (Stienstra 1994:47). While women had been focusing their efforts on the national level and only communicating with women in other countries through letters, the Seneca Falls conventions held in the United States in 1848 constituted an important symbolic event regarding the formation of an international women’s movement. Over 300 women gathered and adopted the Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others. Resembling the US Declaration of Independence in structure and language, the declaration identified all men as responsible for women’s oppression and compiled a list of grievances about the ways in which women were denied their rights.

The convention also sparked the formation of the first international networks and organizations. In 1888, for example, the International Congress of Women (ICW) was established in Washington, DC. Since this was not a suffrage organization per se (Stienstra 1994:48), Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt (all from the US) founded the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in 1904, which aimed more specifically at “secur[ing] the enfranchisement of the women of all the nations,” but was turned into the International Alliance of Women (IAW) when suffrage was achieved. These organizations were heavily Euro-American. As Rupp and Taylor point out, “[w]omen from the United States, Great Britain, western and northern Europe constituted the original membership of international [women’s] organizations and also dominated their leadership” (Rupp and Taylor 1999:367; see also Rupp 1994). Moreover, apart from the Socialist Women’s International (SWI) founded by Clara Zetkin in 1907, the members of most international women’s organizations at the time were often of bourgeois or aristocratic decent, “with leisure time and sufficient resources to engage in international travel and communication” (Stienstra 1994:48). In addition, many of the women were experienced activists and had been at the forefront of social reform movements at the national level, such as, for example, the temperance, antislavery, prostitution, and penal reform movements in the US. Their thinking was inspired by liberal feminist thinkers, such as Olympe de Gouges and her Dèclaration des droites de la femme et de la citoyenne published already in 1791, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869).

Convinced that “the advancement of women in different countries required governmental policies and democratic opportunities for women to influence” (Pietilä 2007:1), women’s rights activists at the international level placed great importance on intergovernmental cooperation from early on. Shocked by the destructiveness of World War I, women from both warring and neutral countries gathered in The Hague in 1915 for their first International Women’s Congress, pleading not only for world peace and for women to be given political representation at both the national and international level (Costin 1982; Wiltsher 1985), but also traveling around European capitals subsequently to muster support among governments for their international peace proposal, namely a conference of neutrals (Joachim 2007:47–52).

Women were also present at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where the League of Nations and the International Labor Organization (ILO) were founded, asking governments, among other things, to promote universal suffrage and to work for both the abolishment of trafficking in women as well as state-supported prostitution (Pietilä 2007). According to Miller, women’s engagement with the League of Nations was not only key to women’s equality, but it also engendered international politics in two important respects. First, women demanded access to intergovernmental meetings, which until then had been the exclusive realm of heads of states, foreign ministers, and diplomats, and second, through their well-prepared proposals, they placed on the international agenda what had previously been perceived as exclusively domestic issues (Miller 1994).

Women’s rights organizations, such as the IAW and the ICW, also took advantage of the International Conference for the Codification of International Law conducted by the League of Nations in The Hague in the summer of 1930 to lobby for equal nationality rights with men since it was then, and in some countries still is today, common practice that women would lose their nationality when entering into marriage (Bredbenner 1998; Joachim 2007). While initially unsuccessful at the international level, women’s rights activists placed the issue squarely on the agenda of the so-called Pan-American Conferences (Waltz 1937). In 1933, government delegates adopted the Convention on the Nationality of Women in Montevideo, which provided a blueprint for the international Convention on the Nationality of Married Women adopted in 1957 within the framework of the United Nations.

The campaign about equal nationality rights is interesting because it highlights the conflictual nature of framing processes. Women’s organizations were divided about how far-reaching the quest for equal rights should be. According to Rupp and Taylor “[i]n fighting for suffrage, labor legislation, and nationality laws for married women, the international women’s movement divided between those who evaluated laws solely on the basis of whether they treated women identically to men and those who had a vision of just laws for both men and women” (Rupp and Taylor 1999:375). While the first group, the so-called reformers, aimed for equal treatment only in certain areas, such as nationality rights, but special and protective legislation in all other areas, the other group, the so-called equalitarians, called for equality across the board. While the former included organizations, such as the ICW, the IAW, the International Federation of Women, and the World Union of Women for International Concord among others, the equalitarians were comprised of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the All-Asian Conference on Women, which called on the League of Nations to “ensure that all future codification […] shall be free from inequalities based on sex” (Stienstra 1994:66) as well as the World Women’s Party (WWP), whose aim it was “to defeat any proposed world treaties that would impose special restrictions on women” (Pfeffer 1985:467; see also Rupp and Taylor 1999:372–3).

Women’s engagement at the international level was not without risk. Quite frequently they were met with opposition, ridicule, or even outright hostility. To justify their entitlement to political and civil rights, women’s rights activists at the turn of the century invoked the women’s frame. Studying women’s international organizing between 1899 and 1945, Leila Rupp finds that protagonists commonly referred to themselves as “Mothers of the Human Race,” “carriers of life,” “Mothers of the Nations,” or “guardians of the new generations” (Rupp 1994:1583). Women were entitled to rights because of the distinct contribution they made to the welfare of their respective societies. As Nitza Berkovitch notes:

The campaign for suffrage was predicated on the construction of women as being essentially different from men and as having higher ethical standards and superior characteristics. This would make women’s contributions, once they were politically equal with men, essential for making a morally better society. Women’s suffrage would purify politics, help pass prohibition laws, help abolish state regulation of prostitution, help eliminate wars, and secure peace.

(Berkovitch 2003:145)

If the scope of equal treatment was still contested at the outset of the nineteenth century, the frame became firmly rooted in the United Nations. The UN Charter affirms not only “the dignity and worth of the human person,” but also “the equal rights of men and women” (Pietilä 2007). Thanks to the unyielding efforts of women’s organizations and the commitment of Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, who had chaired the drafting committee, Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” instead of “All men” and following an extensive debate, phrases such as “every man” or “no man” were replaced with “everyone” and “no one” throughout the text (Glendon 2001; Pietilä 2007:18). Moreover, UN Member States adopted a series of international conventions whose rationale it is “to place women in the same position as men in the public sphere” (Charlesworth 1994:64). They include, among others, the Political Rights of Women adopted in 1952, which recognized at least on paper that “the achievement of full status for women as citizens was the key to acceptance of women as equal participants in the life of the community” (McDougal et al. 1975:514), and the Conventions against Discrimination in Education (1962) and on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age of Marriage, and Registration of Marriages (1964). But even the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights are reflective of the equal rights frame.

In addition to the equal treatment frame, the women’s frame, however, was also still prevalent. Debates about the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), established in 1946, help to illustrate this point. While many women’s organizations welcomed the establishment of the Commission to promote equal rights between men and women, they were opposed to what had been the initial plan, granting it only the status of a sub-commission under the umbrella of the then still existing Commission on Human Rights (CHR). Fearing that such an arrangement would result in a peripheral treatment and invisibility of women’s issues, Bodil Begtrup, the first chair of the sub-commission, supported by accredited women’s organizations, successfully pushed a resolution through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a result of which CSW became an autonomous entity (Stienstra 1994:83–4). The institutional separation concerning women’s rights and human rights that appeared to be the best solution at the time, became, as is shown later, contested at the end of the decade.

Evidence for the women’s frame can also be found in the first conventions that were adopted within the UN framework. According to Kaufman Hevener, they contained, for the most part, protective or corrective provisions which reflected a societal concept of women as a group which needed special treatment (Kaufman Hevener 1986). This is particularly true for conventions adopted within the ILO, such as the Convention Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value (1951), the Convention Concerning Maternity Protection (1952), or that on Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation (1960) (Whitworth 1994; Berkovitch 2003).

Women’s Rights as Separate Rights (1960s–1980s)

With respect to the second wave of the women’s movement, the UN Decade for Women (1976–85) and more precisely the three world conferences on women convened during it – the first in Mexico City in 1975, the second in Copenhagen in 1980, and the final one in Nairobi in 1985 – constituted a watershed (for broader reviews, see, e.g. Fraser 1987; Wetzel 1993; Chen 1995; Friedman 1995; 2003; Winslow 1995; Zinsser 2002; Antrobus 2004; Fraser and Tinker 2004; Jain 2005). Not only did they inspire the formation of international and national women’s organizations as well as networks, but they also resulted in, first, the broadening of the movement to include women from developing countries as well as other classes, and, second, the inclusion of a wider set of women’s issues on the global agenda. While the equal treatment frame still played an important role, the women’s frame became more prevalent during this phase.

The UN women’s conferences took place against the backdrop of the ongoing Cold War and decolonialization. Women’s concerns and issues were quite frequently sidelined as a result of what Jaquette refers to as “bloc politics”; that is, the prevailing conflicts between North and South, on the one hand, and East and West, on the other (Jaquette 1995). This was particularly true for the conferences in Mexico City and Copenhagen, with delegates from developing countries tabling resolutions that called for a new international economic order or condemning apartheid, racism, imperialism, and Zionism and Northern governments voting against them (see also Fraser 1987). Moreover, contrary to other special conferences taking place at the time, the women’s conferences had fewer resources and staff (e.g. Fraser 1987:21; Pietilä and Vickers 1994:78; Stienstra 1994:124; Allan et al. 1995:32). In contrast to the UN Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974, for example, which had a three million dollar budget, that of the first Women’s Conference in Mexico City in 1975 was only $350,000 (Teltsch 1975), with many of the activities around the meeting being funded almost exclusively through voluntary contributions (Stienstra 1994:124).

The conflicts around the UN conferences and the rejection of patriarchal, governmental structures prompted some women to organize outside of intergovernmental structures. In 1976 a small group of mostly Northern women organized the International Tribunal on Crimes against Women in Brussels as a “counteraction” to the first UN World Conference in Mexico City, of which they were highly distrustful. Bringing together more than two thousand women from over forty countries and modeled after the war tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo, the tribunal saw participants testifying about the male violence they had suffered from and condemned all human forms of oppression as a crime against women (Russell and Van de Ven 1984; see also Joachim 2007). Almost a decade later, women organized the International Tribunal and Meeting on Reproductive Rights in Amsterdam in July 1974 parallel to the UN Population Conference in Bucharest, where four hundred women from sixty-five countries spoke out against international population policies which treated women as objects or “targets” rather than individuals with rights and needs (Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights 1986; see also Joachim 2007). The tribunal became a master frame of organizing in the 1990s for the campaign on women’s rights as human rights.

Compared to the women’s meetings in Brussels and Amsterdam, which defined women’s issues broadly, the range of issues that made it onto the governmental agenda of the UN women’s conferences was much more confined, including health, family, political participation, and employment (Stienstra 1994:125). Nevertheless, they were reflective of a differently constituted international women’s movement. Through the UN women conferences and the financial assistance of both foundations and the UN, the international women’s movement had grown not only bigger in size, but it had also become more diversified. Southern women had joined what had until the late 1970s been a Northern movement. They brought with them different concerns, including survival, the provision of basic needs, and racism (Berkovitch 2003:158), and had a different understanding of the sources of women’s oppression. It is therefore not surprising that the NGO meetings that took place in conjunction with the UN women’s conferences were equally conflictual as were the meetings of governments. Contrary to Northern women, who focused on discrimination and attributed women’s subordination to unequal treatment on the basis of sex or to sexism, “Southern advocates saw women’s inequality as part of a larger ‘inequality between nations’ or ‘dependency’ frame, in which Southern peoples were seen as victims of a historical process of Northern exploitation of Southern countries to advance development in the North” (Friedman 2003:318).

That the meaning of women’s rights had become broader was also reflected in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereafter the Women’s Convention) adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1979, which was heralded by both women’s organizations and observers at the time as the most comprehensive document of international law pertaining to women’s rights. It “touches every aspect of women’s lives, in the political, social, economic, legal, health, and family spheres” (Tinker 1981:42), and “expressly addresses the traditional justification of denying human rights to women on the basis of ethnic customs and practices” (McIntosh 1981; Eisler 1987).

The Women’s Convention also highlights once again the interconnectedness of the various frames. While most of its statues had been written in nondiscriminatory language emphasizing equal treatment between men and women (Kaufman Hevener 1986:87), Kaufman Hevener notes that it contains protective and corrective provisions as well (e.g. with respect to maternity). However, contrary to earlier treaties, the Women’s Convention “clearly legitimates temporary programs to redress imbalances or eliminate wrongs which have developed due to discriminatory practices (p. 87).

In contrast to the pre- and immediate postwar years, women activists by the time of the Decade no longer referred to their reproductive capabilities or their moral superiority to justify their claims. Instead, they began to link their concerns and demands to already accepted mainstream discourses. The major frame of reference to demand women’s equality with men was “development” (Fraser and Tinker 2004). The final document adopted at the end of the UN World Conference in Mexico City in 1975, for example, stated that “[t]he full and complete development of any country requires the maximum participation of women as well as of men in all fields: the under-utilization of the potential of approximately half of the world’s population is a serious obstacle to social and economic development” (United Nations 1975: para. 15). Women “were constructed as ‘workers’ and ‘resources’ who differ from men only in their level of training” (Berkovitch 2003:145). However, and as Zinsser points out, traditional images of women had still not entirely vanished. Examining the final documents of the UN women’s conferences, she finds that especially those adopted in Mexico City:

defined women according to traditional patriarchal images and within patriarchical ideologies and structures of national and international relations. Women were either victims of forces beyond their understanding and control, or so marginal to the implicit model of the world that the Declaration and Plan of Action asked only that women be given “access” to training, be “integrated” into development programs, and allowed to “participate” in the political life of their country.

(Zinsser 2002:143–4)

It took until the 1980s and the Nairobi conference for such images to disappear and for women to take, as Zinsser puts it, “control of the language […] [to] use international phrases and procedures confidently and aggressively […] [to] demand […] the end to sexual stereotypes and gender discrimination […] [to speak] with new assurance and [to] assert their rights, opportunities, and responsibilities as ‘equal partners with men’” (p. 144).

From Special Rights to Gender Mainstreaming (1990s–Present)

If there had been a consensus among second wave women’s rights activists that women’s rights needed to be treated separately to prevent their marginalization, their isolated treatment became increasingly contested throughout time. Starting in the late 1980s, many women’s rights advocates began to question the ideational and institutional separation of women’s rights and human rights manifested in the existence of special treaties and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. This “ghettoization,” as some called it (Bunch 1995:11), had not only resulted in less powerful and less resourced institutions (see, for example, Galey 1984; Coliver 1987; Zearfoss 1991), but was also no longer in line with women’s reality, since women’s rights violations, or more precisely, their specific manifestations, were often directly linked and compounded by class and race, a result of socioeconomic structures (Bunch 1990:488), and had to be understood within the context of both culture and religion (Moller Okin 1999).

Women took advantage of the series of special conferences on environment, population, human rights, social, and women’s issues that the UN had organized in the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War. As one observer notes, activists “shaped global understandings of issues from human rights to population growth, simultaneously mainstreaming gender analysis into areas formerly considered ‘gender-neutral’ and prioritizing women’s rights as integral to the achievement of conference goals” (Friedman 2003). At the UN Conference on Climate and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, women’s organizations, for example, were able to extend the initial occasional mentioning of women in Agenda 21, the final document, into an entire chapter entitled “Global Action for Women towards Sustainable and Equitable Development” and numerous references throughout the text (Commission on the Status of Women 1995; Pearl 2002). At the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994, women’s organizations provoked a shift in the UN’s approach to population from “counting to consciousness” of women’s reproductive rights and health despite severe opposition from conservative forces (Higer 1999:123; see also Joachim 2007).

The World Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993 deserves particular mention here, because women’s organizations “regender[ed]” human rights (Friedman 2003), by focusing on violence against women. Under the leadership of the Center of Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), they organized a global campaign comprised of “16 days of activism against violence against women,” circulated a global petition which had been translated from an initial six into twenty-four languages and was sponsored by over a thousand groups that gathered almost half a million signatures from 124 countries, and conducted an 18-hour Tribunal on Violations of Women’s Human Rights at the conference in Vienna, giving victims of gender-based violence the opportunity to testify (Bunch and Reilly 1994).

Women’s rights activists challenged the traditional framing of human rights in two respects. They demanded not only that state responsibility for human rights violations be extended from the exclusive focus on violations in the public sphere to that perpetrated by private actors in the family, but also that rather than being treated as separate, political and civil rights, on the one hand, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other hand, are indivisible (Friedman 2003:320–21; see also Bunch 1990).

The acceptance of women’s rights as human rights provoked institutional changes. Following the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the then still Commission on Human Rights and now Council on Human Rights committed itself to integrating women’s human rights into its work. To this end, a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was appointed in March 1994, who “seeks and receives information on the problem, its causes and consequences, recommends measures to eliminate violence against women, works closely with other special rapporteurs, special representatives, working groups and independent experts […], transmits urgent appeals and communications to States regarding alleged causes of violence against women, undertakes fact-finding missions, and submits thematic reports” (see In addition, since the mid-1990s the High Commissioner on Human Rights, on the one hand, and the UN Division for the Advancement of Women and CSW, on the other hand, cooperate and coordinate their work more closely (UN Commission on Human Rights 1998). Furthermore, major nongovernmental human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International (see, for example, Amnesty International 1991) and Human Rights Watch began to investigate gender-based violations and/or established a women’s rights program.

In addition to “gendering mainstream agendas,” the meaning of women’s rights became once again broadened so that by the 1990s, according to one author, “all issues [were] women’s issue” (Pietilä 2007). This was particularly apparent at the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, China in 1995. Building upon previous achievements, the final document called for strategic action in twelve areas, including poverty on women, education, health care, violence against women, the effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, inequality between men and women in sharing power and decision making, access to and participation in communication systems, inequalities in the management of natural resources and safeguarding the environment, and the rights of the child.

Finally, during the 1990s, women’s organizations made inroads into what had been considered until then the most insulated policy domain, namely security. Following the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, governments at the UN condemned the massive, organized, and systematic detention and rape of women in 1992. “[M]assive, organized and systematic detention and rape of women” was included as part of the mandates of both the International War Crimes Tribunals of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1993 as well as the Rome Statute establishing the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. Furthermore, the UN Security Council adopted the resolutions 1325 (S/RES/1325) and 1820 (S/RES/1820) on “Women and Peace and Security” on Oct. 31, 2000 and Jun. 19, 2008, respectively. Resolution 1325 calls for the integration of women in all conflict resolution processes as well as actions for resettlement, rehabilitation, and post-conflict construction. It also recommends special training for all peacekeeping personnel on the protection, special needs, and human rights of women and children in conflict situations (UN Security Council 2000). Resolution 1820 states that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” Moreover, it urges Council members to consider imposing “targeted and graduated” measures against warring factions who committed rape and other forms of violence against women and girls when establishing and renewing state-specific sanction regimes (UN Security Council 2008).

If women’s groups have been successful in obtaining international legitimacy for women’s rights as human rights and contributed to institutional changes, the rights of women continue to nevertheless be contested. Evidence for this can be found at the ICPD in Cairo, where women’s demands for reproductive rights and health were met with fierce opposition from Catholic and fundamentalist Islamic countries, which entered into an unprecedented alliance to prevent the issue’s inclusion in the Platform of Action. In the eyes of representatives from the Vatican, reproductive rights and health “was coercive and demeaning to women” and constituted “a most grave threat to human dignity and liberty” (John Paul II 1994). Furthermore, at the Beijing conference, the term “gender” itself became a lightning rod and was the most heavily bracketed term in the Platform of Action (Friedman 2003:325). In the preparatory conference, representatives of the Vatican opposed the term on the basis that it “challenges Catholic doctrine […] and opens the door to acknowledging different sexual orientations.” Others argued that the goal of the Beijing Conference was “to force society to accept five types of gender: masculine, feminine, lesbian, homosexual and transsexual” (Franco 1998:282; see also Friedman et al. 2001:28). And conservative NGOs opposed the platform on the grounds that it was not only promoting homosexuality and abortion, but that it called into question what they considered the “natural family” and equated with “the fundamental societal unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered on the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.” In the eyes of these organizations, “Western powers” tried to impose a radical” “feminist” “angry, leftist world agenda” on “beleaguered developing nations” (Jalsevac 2000). Although the term gender was eventually kept, over twenty governments issued reservations with the final document (Friedman 2003:326).

There also continues to be disagreement and debate among women’s organizations as to how women’s rights can be best ensured and whether women should work inside and with established institutions or rather outside of them. At the NGO forum held parallel to the Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993, participants, according to one observer, “fiercely debated as to whether human rights law, or legal solutions in general, were the appropriate solutions to entrenched social problems, and whether the often-abusive State could be turned to as an agent of protection for women” (Friedman 2003:321). Similarly, in the lead up to the ICPD, women were divided over the women’s declaration on population policies entitled Women’s Voices ’94, which had been prepared as a lobbying document by the Women’s Alliance and circulated among women’s groups around the world. Critics felt that (1) the perspectives of the alliance were not representative of the entire women’s movement, but rather of its more pragmatic wing; (2) that women’s ability to control their fertility had been defined in a narrow fashion, emphasizing almost exclusively rights and ignoring the issue of development; and (3) it was too accepting of population policies and institutions (see Joachim 2007:151–5).

Future Venues for Research

Although women’s rights are now internationally recognized as human rights, the relationship remains, as the historical section illustrates, an ambivalent one. The remainder of this essay, therefore, proposes four venues for future research.

First, more studies are needed on how well women’s rights as human rights travel across different institutions. Because scholars have focused most of their attention on the UN, we know rather little to what extent human rights constitutes an equally powerful frame to mobilize support for women’s rights issues in other settings. Does it provide women’s organizations leverage in, for example, international economic institutions, such as the World Trade Organization or the World Bank, where they are starting to make inroads? Are women’s rights accepted as human rights in regional organizations, such as the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the African Union? And is the discourse of human rights helpful for addressing women’s rights violations, especially in countries where these are excused as cultural or religious practices? Answering these questions would help us to determine not only the power and scope of the “women’s rights as human rights” frame, but also its limitations.

Second, to demonstrate the exclusion of women from human rights law, women’s rights activists organized their global campaign, as illustrated above, around violence against women. The choice of the issue was no coincidence. It offered a unifying agenda for women across the globe (Mertus and Goldberg 1994:209–10) and demonstrated in a compelling fashion the gendered nature of abuse (Bunch 1995:15). However, the narrow focus on sex-based harm also raises questions. Would other issues also of grave concern to women have been accepted as human rights, as for example, literacy, poverty, or discriminatory divorce (Mertus and Goldberg 1994:210) or been subject to conflict and been rejected? Furthermore, was it the nature of the issue that made gender-based violence acceptable for the human rights community, as some suggest (Keck and Sikkink 1998), or did it reaffirm traditional beliefs about women as being in need of protection, as others claim (Miller 2004:40), or was it both, resonating with women as subjects and with audiences thinking of women as objects? Inquiries are needed that help us to evaluate the alleged success of the international women’s rights movement, whether and to what extent women’s rights were and are truly accepted as human rights.

Third, legal scholars have voiced concern about integrating women’s rights and human rights in the past. Some expressed worries that the human rights frame might suffer in its ideational integrity and credibility, if too many special rights are taken into consideration. Others fear that the frame will loose its effectiveness when it comes to implementation given the limited resources, on the one hand, and the broader set of rights that require attention, on the other hand. While these are indeed important concerns, it also appears necessary to approach the problem from a different angle. Instead of asking what might be lost from integrating women’s rights into human rights, we should also examine how and in what way women’s rights enhance human rights. To this end, scholars might study how the work of human rights organizations, for example, has changed since they started to investigate women’s rights violations or, drawing on human rights and women’s rights indexes, analyze whether and to what extent the overall human rights situations in countries changes in response to improvements concerning women’s rights.

Finally, we need to investigate both the changes that have taken place in mainstream human rights and specialized women’s rights institutions since the late 1980s as well as their impact. How far has the integration of women’s rights into the work of mainstream human rights institutions progressed and what obstacles have been encountered along the way? While feminist scholars have started to assess the merits of gender mainstreaming in different policy areas (e.g. Verloo 2001; Booth and Bennett 2002; Daly 2005; Rees 2005; Walby 2005; Woodward 2008) and NGOs such as the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) are monitoring the implementation of global commitments (e.g. Women’s Environment and Development Organization 2005), we need more research on how well women’s rights are accounted for by human rights institutions. What role do women’s rights play in the newly established Council on Human Rights, which is equipped with more authority than its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights? What impact has the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women had since the office was established? Is the enforcement record still dismal or has it improved in response to the reports issued or the fact-finding missions conducted by the Rapporteur? Entertaining these and other questions will reveal more about whether women have been fully integrated into the activities of international human rights institutions or whether their concerns continue to be marginalized and treated in an isolated fashion.


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Links to Digital Materials

Amnesty International: Stop Violence Against Women. At, accessed May 8, 2009. Provides information on AI’s work on the issue of violence against women, ongoing and past campaigns, events, reports on individual countries, publications, and resources.

Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China, 1995, Declaration and Platform of Action. At, accessed May 8, 2009. Official Fourth World Conference on Women website set up by the conference secretariat. It contains official documents (the Beijing Declaration and the Plan of Action), statements by governments, UN, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations as well as a photo gallery.

Bibliography on the International Women’s Human Rights Movement. At, accessed May 8, 2009. A bibliography put together by the American Anthropological Association listing books and articles grouped according to different subjects.

Human Rights Watch: Women’s Rights Division. At's-rights, accessed May 8, 2009. Site of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, providing information on different women’s rights issues and different countries as well as alerts for upcoming campaigns and events.

Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. At, accessed May 8, 2009. The site provides a list of women’s rights conventions and links to their texts; it contains the annual reports that have been issued by the rapporteur as well as information about country visits, issues in focus, and consultations with civil society.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Women Rights Are Human Rights. At, accessed May 8, 2009. Provides an overview of conventions pertaining to women’s rights as well as information on what has been done to mainstream women’s rights into human rights.

Project Diana: Human Rights Cases. At, accessed May 8, 2009. An online human rights case archive at the Lilian Gold Law Library at Yale University.

UN Division for the Advancement of Women. At, accessed May 8, 2009. This site provides links to CSW and CEDAW. It informs about upcoming events related to women and has a special site devoted to violence against women. It also connects to NGOs working on women’s rights issues.

University of Toronto’s Bora Laskin Library: Women’s Human Rights Resources Programme. At, accessed May 8, 2009. The Women’s Human Rights Resources Programme (WHRR) collects, organizes, and disseminates information on women’s human rights law to facilitate research, teaching, and cooperation. The information introduces women’s human rights law in general, emphasizes selected international and Canadian topics, and explores the interconnections between domestic and international human rights law.

UN World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, Austria, 1993, Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. At, accessed May 8, 2009. The full text of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action from the World Conference on Human Rights held Jun. 14–25, 1993.


I would like to thank my two research assistants, Daniel Steffens and Alexa Brase, for their invaluable help and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.