Women’s rights: A narrative snapshot

Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza

Posted on March 10, 2015

“WOMEN’S RIGHTS are human rights” may not be as catchy and politically radical nowadays compared to over four decades ago when it had to be claimed, demanded and acknowledged.

In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) declared 1975 as International Women’s Year (IWY) within the ambit of the Second United Nations Development Decade to push for “the encouragement of the full integration of women in the development effort.” The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was tasked to develop the program for the IWY, which included convening the first World Conference on Women in 1975.

Forty years ago, the conference was held in Mexico. It adopted the World Plan of Action, a consensus document that served as a roadmap for the international community and governments to follow in the next 10 years to address gender discrimination and achieve gender equality, integrate and ensure participation of women in development, and increase women’s contribution in strengthening world peace. Five months later, responding to the call of the conference, the UNGA declared 1976 to 1985 as the UN Decade for Women -- and within this decade, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UNGA in 1979 and two more conferences on women were held in Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985).

Twenty years ago, the fourth conference took place in Beijing. The resulting consensus document was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) which identified 12 critical areas that the international community must respond to in order to operationalize their commitments to gender equality, women’s human rights, and women’s empowerment. The BPFA institutionalized “women’s rights are human rights” in the discourse and practice of governments. Twenty years later this year, the CSW will take stock of the gains and gaps in the global realization of the BPFA when it holds its 59th Session in New York from March 9 to 20.

In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recognizes that women’s rights are “inalienable, integral and indivisible part of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Additionally, it has adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in the ASEAN Region in 2004 and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the Elimination of Violence Against Children in ASEAN in 2013. Equally important is the fact that all 10 member states of the ASEAN are parties to the CEDAW, the international bill of rights for women.

Within the ASEAN institutional infrastructure, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) is the body mandated to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples in the region. Currently, in light of women’s rights and women and girls’ protection, AICHR -- through the initiative of the Philippine Representative and with the support of UN Women Asia Pacific -- embarked on a project to explore strategies to concretize the protection mandate of the institution. Integral to this process is a regional multi-stakeholder consultation that will be held by the end of this month.

As far as the Philippines is concerned, the dialogue/consultation process was initiated by the Office of the Philippine Representative to AICHR at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). A one-day conversation, held on March 3, was convened by the DFA, hosted by Future by Design, and attended by representatives from the office of the AICHR Philippine Representative, the Philippine ASEAN Secretariat, the Commission on Human Rights, and participants from civil society organizations.

The conduct of the activity had several distinguishing features that opens the space for a more innovative dialogic and collaborative politics.

First is inter-agency conversation on human rights where the DFA-ASEAN, serving as the conduit for national-regional concerns, and the CHR, as a recognized national human rights institution in the region came together to talk on how to advance women’s rights in the region.

Second, government-civil society conversation surfaced the best practices at the national and local levels on the protection of women and girls that can be shared with our ASEAN neighbors.

Third, conversation among civil societies where representatives from various women’s groups learned from each other’s diverse advocacies, experiences and challenges and built on each other’s ideas.

Using open space technology for communication, some of the ideas that emerged were in the context of women’s access to justice, women and children in armed conflict, restorative justice, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and triad partnership between the government, civil society organizations and the private sector to combat trans-border trafficking of women.

“Women’s rights are human rights” may not be as catchy and politically radical nowadays compared to over four decades ago, but nonetheless it must be continuously claimed, demanded and acknowledged -- it must be always in the international, regional and national agenda not just as a separate issue but as integrated in the discourse and practice of upholding political, economic, social and cultural rights. In light of the ASEAN, it is hoped that AICHR will carry the torch of women’s human rights into the agenda of leaders in the region as we move toward an ASEAN community and into the human rights protective mechanisms of member states.

In the Philippines, the conversation has started -- it must continue and progress into expansive and inclusive conversations among different actors, respecting the process and space for engagement. At the end of the day, we contribute to the continuing story of women’s human rights.

Happy Women’s Month!

Ma. Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University, and is also a consultant for UN Women (Asia Pacific).