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February 7, 2008

Are women covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document endorsed by the United Nations that lays out human rights standards for people worldwide.

But some world governments, including the U.S. government, apparently didn’t get the memo, especially as the declaration applies to women, according to three local experts.

At a panel discussion held Jan. 24 in Posvar Hall, the experts cited social science research data and personal experience to explore the topic, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Does That Include Women Too?”

Panelists included Janice Auth, Global Solutions Pittsburgh board member and retired executive director of Pennsylvania Peace Links; Allyson Lowe, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, which is housed at Chatham, and Donna DiLeonardo, a member of Pennsylvania Women Work and former member of the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission.

The panel discussion was sponsored by Pitt’s global studies program and Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development, and the Global Solutions Education Fund, part of Global Solutions Pittsburgh.

Janice Auth

The role of the United Nations

Auth said that the struggle for women’s rights as part of the United Nations’ agenda began in 1947 based on recommendations from the Commission on the Status of Women, which was the brainchild of Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Women’s issues have always been on the United Nations radar as separate and distinct from human rights in general,” Auth said. “Obviously, you start with the premise that women are human. Unfortunately, that wasn’t universally held thinking then and probably isn’t even today.”

The United Nations held four international conferences focusing on women’s rights (Auth was a delegate at the fourth conference held in 1995 in Beijing), designated an International Women’s Year and, later, named an International Women’s Decade.

In 1975, the U.N. International Women’s Year, a conference in Mexico City centered on three themes: equality, development and peace.

“A large majority of the 2,000 delegates to the first conference were men, and the number of non-governmental organizations represented was very small,” Auth noted. “The conference was looking specifically to identify problems, and the things that were different from human rights in general. That was a small beginning.”

In 1980, the United Nations sponsored a world conference in Copenhagen on women’s issues, with the same themes of equality, development and peace. “But this time they added three other themes: education, employment and health, and the goal was to assess the progress that had been made since the first world [1975] conference,” Auth said.

Then the U.N. declared a decade for women, 1985-1995, with a third conference on women held in Nairobi in 1985. At the end of that decade, the U.N. held a fourth world conference in Beijing. This time, the vast majority of delegates were women, Auth noted.

The document that came out of the 1995 conference, based on the input of representatives from governments and non-governmental organizations around the world, was called the “Platform for Action.” It identified 12 areas that impact women’s lives no matter where they live:

• Poverty. “The number of women living in poverty has increased disproportionately to the number of men, especially in developing countries,” Auth noted.

• Education and training. As of 1995, she said, “approximately 100 million children, including at least 60 million girls, were without access to primary schooling, and more than two-thirds of the world’s 950 million illiterate adults are women.”

• Health. “Women have different and unequal access to health care resources and unequal opportunity for legal protections,” Auth pointed out.

• Violence against women.

• Armed conflicts.

•Economic structure. “Women, including U.S. women, are poorly represented in economic decision-making, including financial, monetary, commercial and economic policies,” Auth maintained.

• Power-sharing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all people have the right to take part in the government of their country, but there are many countries where that right is denied to women, Auth said.

• Institutional/governmental mechanisms. Auth said the mechanisms refer to those that ensure the monitoring of U.N. member states’ national committees, conferences, departments or offices that support policies leading to women’s advancement.

• Human rights. “A major goal expressed in the U.N. charter is the promotion and protection of human rights without regard to race, sex, nationality or religion,” she said.

• Media. “Gender-stereotyping in the media continues to project negative and degrading images of women and does not provide a balanced picture of women’s lives or their contributions to society — one of the areas the United States remains very backwards on,” Auth said.

• Environment. “The environment suffers when women are shut out of public policy regarding the management of national resources that affect women and their families and the community,” Auth said.

• Girl-child. “Girl-child is a term the U.N. uses to define the concept that in many countries available indicators show that the girl-child is discriminated against from the earliest stages in life,” she said. “We still see this in countries that abort girls when boys are preferred, all the way up to countries that deny girls an education, the right to drive, to hold property or hold a job, up to the issue of female genital mutilation, which is still happening in some countries.”

Auth’s experience at the Beijing conference led her to editing a book titled, “To Beijing and Beyond: Pittsburgh and the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women” (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).

“There were nearly 50 people from the Pittsburgh area who attended, mostly women and a handful of men,” Auth said. “When we got back I asked everybody for their impressions. I just did the grunt work of editing the book. The real heart and soul of the book are the stories and articles, poems and photographs.”

Auth cited one young woman’s essay about the concept of power.

“She said power was not something she had thought very much about or defined before the conference,” Auth recounted. “She concluded that power in the traditional sense — who has the bigger sword or weapon — was not a relevant definition for this emerging global society.”

Auth read an excerpt from the essay:

“We each need to alter the definition of power for ourselves, and as we live our lives with the new definition it will benefit all segments of society. I define power as ‘the empowerment of others.’ I believe the empowerment of others begins when each and every person on the globe has food, shelter and clothing, and access to education.

“If I empower others, that makes others equal to myself, and there’d be no room for discrimination against them. I found I had to make a conscious effort to maintain this definition in my life, but the more I practiced it the more it becomes a natural thing to do.”

Auth said, “I think she hit the heart of a lot of problems that we see around the world now stemming from the idea that one person thinks of himself or herself as not the equal of the other. Inequality is what allows us to do all kinds of horrible things like kill somebody else if we don’t think they’re as good as we are. So if we could just redefine power as the ability to empower others, we would be well on our way to becoming equals.”


Allyson Lowe

Why do women matter in politics?

Lowe presented some sobering figures on women in elected government, including that the United States is only in the middle of the pack worldwide in percentage of elected women in governing bodies.

“The average around the world is 17 percent women in legislatures, which is about right where this country is — No. 65 at 16 percent,” Lowe said. “Countries where women do well in politics include the Nordic states, India and Sri Lanka. Rwanda is No. 1 at almost 50 percent. Why? Their legislature has a quota for women, and they lost a large number of their men due to genocide.”

The governments with the fewest women representatives are in the Middle East, where in some cases women are banned from holding elected office, Lowe pointed out. “It might surprise you that Iraq is No. 30, with 25 percent women,” Lowe said. “After we made ourselves quite present in Iraq and deconstructed their parliament, the U.S. required Iraq to have a 25 percent quota for women representatives — somewhat larger than the percentage in this country.”

In the United States, Pennsylvania currently is 44th with 14.6 percent women in the state legislature. Vermont has the highest proportion, 38 percent; South Carolina has the lowest, 8 percent.

“Does it even matter?” Lowe asked. “My answer is yes. There’s some good research that shows more women in political office does matter, that it’s good for democracy and it’s good for women in particular.”

In general, she said, research indicates that the inclusion of a higher proportion of women in government:

• Expands the range of the agenda, of what is discussed, and it advances the range of solutions being offered.

• Leads to greater transparency.

• Creates a more bipartisan atmosphere. “Women are more willing than men to work across party lines,” Lowe said, “and the kinds of issues advocated by the Declaration of Human Rights need more bipartisanship to advance.”

• Focuses more attention on women’s issues leading to policy. “If you look at the presidential campaign, those issues formerly seen as ‘women’s issues’ — health care, education, social security, No Child Left Behind — those are in the policy vanguard. We know that women are more likely to pay attention to these issues than men are, so having women in positions of power, such as on education committees or health care committees, brings the issues into the policy realm.”

• Emphasizes problems as systemic. “Women slightly more than men are more likely to see problems as systemic, rather than the fault of individuals,” she said. “Male legislators of both parties have a tendency to say, ‘You committed a crime, you should go to jail. You are the problem.’ Women are more likely to say, ‘You committed a crime, but what drove you to that crime? Were you poor? Were you hungry? Did you have a drug addiction? What was going on? You committed a crime, but we need to work on the social milieu that contributed to that event. Maybe we need to work on poverty alleviation, on drug rehab services, on educational systems.’”

Lowe recounted two recent anecdotes about the effect of women getting involved in politics.

“Remember the studies that came out and said: People should take an aspirin or red wine for their heart? Well, it turned out the healthy amount or levels of aspirin or red wine are quite different for men and women. They didn’t know that until women members of the U.S. Senate — all three of them at the time — required the National Institutes of Health to include women in their studies. Why weren’t they already doing that? Women are inconvenient. Their bodies function a little differently. It makes research a little messier. But the NIH no longer can exclude half the population from their drug studies.”

Lowe said an organized campaign by the South Carolina Commission for Women called attention to the problem of violence against women. The commission posted billboards around the state that read: “Welcome to South Carolina: First in violence against women and 50th in the number of women in elected office.”

“I’m not arguing violence against women would stop if you put a lot of women in government, but I am saying that the issue would get much more political attention,” Lowe said.

Lowe concluded by asking: Does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights benefit women? “It should, but are these rights equally realized? No. The lives of women are not equal, as you can see from the 12 points that Janice discussed. Women are not equal in education, political representation, a whole host of areas. Part of the solution is to get more women into government. But part of it also is to get more women engaged in political dialogue.”


Donna DiLeonardo

Economic justice & equality

“While things were happening at an international level with the first conference in Mexico in 1975, what was going on in the United States was parallel, with women becoming more aware of issues,” DiLeonardo said.

She cited her investigation of employment discrimination as a member of the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission (HRC) in the 1970s and ’80s. “The laws were different. There was no Family Medical Leave Act, no Pregnancy Protection Act, for instance,” she said. “Employers got away with discrimination.”

One case before the HRC involved allegations of gender discrimination in a high-end men’s clothing store, which employed workers to do suit alterations.

“The men were tailors and the women were seamstresses. The men were paid $1-$2 an hour more even though they were doing exactly the same job. ‘What’s the difference?’ we asked. They couldn’t come up with an answer. We corrected that.”

On the national level, in 1976 a 55-year-old widow unable to find work decided she was not going to agonize over it any more, that instead she was going to organize and do something about it, DiLeonardo said.

“On a grassroots level she found other displaced homemakers who for one reason or another were in the same boat, whether it was due to divorce or widowhood or whatever,” she said. “After being home raising a family, they got ‘fired’ from that job and needed to go out and make a living. What they were finding was a lot of discrimination in the area of employment.”

The women organized a national conference with 500 attendees, and in 1978 founded the Displaced Homemakers Network. In 1993 the network changed its name to Women Work — the non-partisan, non-profit organization where DiLeonardo now is employed — to recognize the range of economic transitions throughout women’s lives.

“My interest is in economic justice,” DiLeonardo said. “We stress economic equality for women through education, training, advocacy and organizing. Since 1978, the network has helped over 10 million women to successfully enter the workforce.”

With more legislation on the books to protect the rights of women against discrimination, is there still a need for the network?

“There are still over 14 million adult women living below the federal poverty line compared to 9.5 million adult men. So women represent 60 percent of poor adults and only 51 percent of the population,” she said. “The poverty rate for women also has increased by 9 percent since 2000.”

The workforce itself has moved toward a more technology-oriented society, which penalizes women without technical training, DiLeonardo maintained. “They start behind and may never catch up.”

The other gap that persists in the workforce despite advances in legal protections is gender occupation segregation. “So while more women have entered the workforce, they are still not getting all kinds of jobs, especially blue-collar jobs like manufacturing, construction, the building trades,” DiLeonardo said.

“In the work I do, I believe economics is the basis: If you have a job, and you have a livable income and can afford the health insurance you need to take care of you and your children, and you can afford to live wherever you want to live, that will open doors for housing, health, education and what I consider to be true family values,” she concluded.

—Peter Hart

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