The Issues Associated with Women’s Human Rights-A View
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The issues related to women remain insoluble and require attention. The gender inequalities, since ages, are obstinate. Women’s human rights constitute the right to education, the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to work, the right to inherit, the right for equal pay for equal work etc. to name a few. The much sought after right across the globe is the right to protest against sexual and domestic violence. History dovetails that women, in ancient and medieval times, were treated equals to men, socially and culturally, ably supported by the religious texts like the Bible, the Quran and the Hindu scriptures as well. But the orthodox laws and practices imposed inhuman sanctions against women and tilted towards men. These canons of convention made men dominate the womenfolk in the proceeds of domestic and social spheres as well to such an extent that women were reckoned either as dependents, feeble or as the sole properties of men. Women were denied the basic human rights as right to expression, freedom, inheritance, possession etc. With marriage, self-determination and freedom of all sorts are greatly bridled. With the rise of Reformation movement in Europe in 16th century, the English and the American ‘Quakers’ questioned the prejudice against women. They upheld the notion of equality in marriage among the sexes. The advocacy of the philosophers like Jane Anger, Lanyer, Trapnell, John Locke et al, has paved the way for what has come to be known as feminist movement. Consequent to this phenomenon, women’s rights agitation has acquired socio-economic, political, religious, cultural and legal dimensions and swept all the counties in its wake. The present paper tries to take a glance at the women’s rights status in general.
Key words: gender, inequalities, violence, rights, Quakers.
The Issues Associated with Women’s Human Rights-A View
Lecturer in English,
Mail.ID: [email protected],
The women’s rights movement of the 19th century and the feminist movement of 20th century are the resultant derivative developments of the women’s rights proclamations made for and by the women universally. Some countries guaranteed and entitled the women’s rights, while in some countries, women were denied of their primary human rights. The deep-rooted and indigenous traditions and customs emulated in some ancient societies, put the women’s rights on hold and heinously barred. The issues of women’s rights are, indeed, difficult to address and at times remain intractable, eluding passable solutions, blistering and simmering in the society for ages. The greater gender disparities flaunted between men and women are too indocile to be ignored. It is sheer prejudice meted out to the major cross section in the society to disallow the women of their human rights such as the right to education, to vote, to inherit property etc., to name a few. It is inhuman to subject them to sexual exploitation and domestic violence in myriad ways. Even among the academic and professional circles too, this biased outlook towards women is conspicuous to overlook. Turning a blind eye to their woes is startling. The much touted tenets in the patriarchal society have been drawing a insurmountable demarcating line in the status accorded to men and women in public and private domains. The unfair treatment given to the fair sex and second rate status conceded upon them, have eventually led to the rise of women’s human rights agitations far and wide.
A historic perspective of women’s rights
Women were entitled to exercise equal rights as men used to globally from the documented times of history. In ancient Babylonia (the present day Iraq), women enjoyed the right to buy, sell and inherit property. Nevertheless, the paradox, prevailing during those times, was that husbands could give divorce to their wives for minor infringements, a right which was denied to wives that they could not opt for divorce from their husbands. In Egypt, women used to enjoy the same legal rights as men used to, but these entitlements were subjected to the social status of women. During the Vedic times in India, women enjoyed the right to education and the right to choose their husbands through the practice known as ‘Swayamvara’. In Greece, where the ‘city states’ used to exist, women had the liberty to move freely. After ‘Archaic Ages’, the laws, which advocated the gender discriminations, were considerably abetted. Similarly, the patriarchal society in Rome was obstinate in favor of men, where women were declined the legal, political and property rights. The Byzantine laws, following the suit of the ‘paterfamilias’ laws of Rome, opposed the legal and religious rights to women. In China, women were not permitted for inheritance of property of fathers. In marriage too, women were subjected to inordinate subaltern status and sale of women into slavery was in vogue.
During the postclassical and modern times, women were approved of all legal, social and personal rights by the religious scriptures such as the Bible, the Quran as well. The orthodox laws which stood as stumbling blocks to the women’s human rights in European, American, Asian and Arab countries were eased and reformed. To put it in the words of Noboro Nilda, “Men and women are equal; everyone is worth his (her) salt”. Women have begun registering their protests against the strenuous laws centered round marriage, property, inheritance and personal liberty, legal and political issues of women. The Reformation Movement, which swept the European continent in its sway in the 12th century, gave a clarion call for the amelioration of women’s plight. The British and the American ‘Quakers’ and the writers like Jane Anger, Lanyer, Trapnell et al; the philosophers like John Locke vehemently condemned the inequalities in marriage, the exploitation and the stingy regard about women. Thomas Paine, a 19th century American philosopher, felt, “If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women, almost without exception … adored and oppressed … robbed of freedom of will by the laws … is the lot of women over the whole earth”. The Enlightenment Movement (also known as the Age of Reason), which dominated Europe in 18th century, gave voice to ideas of women against the discrimination of women. Women began demanding justice, equal status and treatment. Their demands, for democratic principles of equality, freedom from slavery and universal suffrage for women, gained momentum. A French political and women’s rights activist de Gouges, in her book, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen questioned the authority of men over women, and the male-female inequality. She felt, “All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents”. Mary Wollstonecraft, British women’s rights advocate; John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, held that women should be allowed to exercise their right to vote. Though this notion was ridiculed, it served as basis for such demands as right to inherit, freedom in marriage for women. This campaign for women’s rights heralded the feminist movement in Europe. In the male-chauvinistic Russian society too, women were subjected to great discrimination and subjugation. Under the regime of the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution, the restrictions on women were alleviated. In Canada and America also similar developments took place to improve the condition of women. During the second half of the 20th century, attempts were made to provide legal authenticity to the rights of women in the conservative society of Japan through the promulgation of its Constitution in 1947. Many central Asian countries like Mongolia, Kazakhstan etc. have altered their perspective of women’s rights in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. In Australia, the feminist movement led to achieve the right to vote and the right to hold office in the second half the 19th century.\
Women’s Rights and Related Aspects
According to the theory of natural rights in 17th century, women were not eligible to enjoy equal status with men on account of their ‘inner nature’. The supporters of this philosophy argued that women were inferior to men ‘as a matter of nature’ and they fostered the system of slavery and low status for women. These views were opposed by the 18th and 19th century activists. The modern thinkers motivated by Aristotle’s word that “man was a rational animal”, fought for the annihilation of the system of slavery and equal status for women. This led to the contention that all men and women should have equal natural rights, irrespective of gender, identity, nationality, origin or race. The Convention against Discrimination in Education emphasizes on the right to education of women. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights specifies that the human rights education to be imparted to children with focus on creating awareness about the importance of gender equality. The modern women’s rights activists claimed employment rights, which include equal pay for equal work for women. This initiative was taken by the Chinese Civil Servants Association in Hong Kong. It not only fought for equal pay rights but also for the protection of the married women’s job protection, pension benefits, maternity rights and reproductive rights of women. Europe, Australia and EU saw huge protests by women for the rights of suffrage and for due representation in law making and execution. During the 20th century, many Nordic countries sanctioned right to vote. In India, the right to vote to women was sanctioned during the British rule in 1935. The African and the Middle East countries had to allow women the right to vote after the World War II. The right to property for women was another issue, which caught the attention globally. In19th century, in the US and the UK, women were at the mercy of their husbands after marriage due to the doctrine of ‘Coverture’ which sanctioned complete monopoly over the property of a wife. As a result of enormous protest by womenfolk, statutes were passed allowing women the property rights. The right to freedom of movement was another contentious issue, which was denied to women in many countries. Women either had to be accompanied by a guardian or to take permission from their husbands. Various social and religious practices like ‘purdah’ in Arab countries, ‘foot binding ‘in China restricted the movement of women greatly. These practices symbolized the social stigma, harassment and violence against women in some regions of the world. Varnika Kundu incident in 2017, gave rise to “Aint No Cindrella Movement” in India and women in whole world supported it. In many countries, women were unable to realize their rights due to lack of knowledge about the laws which were meant to safeguard their rights. The United Nations development Programme distinctly declares that women should be aware of the laws about their rights to achieve gender equality. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women announces that the states should create a wide range of awareness among women about the mechanisms which are there to protect women’s rights. It also stipulates that gender neutral laws and policies ought to be designed to lower the differences between men and women.
The women’s rights movements worldwide, the laws passed by the states and the legal frameworks brought out by the UN, aim at reducing the discrimination against women. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as Istanbul Convention, states, ‘violence against women’ is a ‘form of discrimination against women’ and it is an offence against women’s human rights. It also urges the states to come out with rigid and relevant measures to protect women’s health with regard to their reproductive health, pregnancy,, child birth. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that neglecting the health of women and imposing sanctions on the investment on women’s health is another breach of women’s human rights. According to WHO, women’s right to health should be given top priority by providing required medical services so that the maternal death rate of women could be brought down considerably. The Cairo Programme of Action adopted at International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in1994, The Beijing Declaration in 1995, unequivocally, endorsed the reproductive rights of women. The feminist activists demand for the for safe abortion, controlling one’s own reproductive functions, birth control, bodily autonomy, freedom against forced sterilization and female genital mutilation etc. The ‘Human Watch’, a New York based international non-governmental organization, puts it, “Abortion is highly emotional subject … the denial of a pregnant woman’s right to make an independent decision regarding abortion, violates or poses a threat to a wide range of human rights”. Abuse of women during child birth, child marriage, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, neglecting the pre-natal-care also amount to violation of women’s rights. Child marriages are perpetrated due to poverty and gender inequality. This absurd practice badly affects the reproductive health, pregnancy related complications and death of girls. Forced marriage, bride kidnapping, bride price are the other issues to be addressed seriously.
Women’s Rights – Indian Context
The movement against domestic violence in India has stemmed from the deep rooted inhuman treatment given to women in society and family relationships. This has led to frame legal provisions to check this. The movement against domestic violence began in the 1920s itself. Such associations as ‘Bharat Stree Mahamandal’ and ‘Arya Mahila Samaj’ were the earliest known organizations which fought for women’s rights in India. But they were not political in nature. They used to train women in gender related issues only. Women’s rights agitations acquired political color with the advent of such associations as ‘National Council for Indian Women’ and the ‘All-India Women’s Conference’, which fought for the right to vote and child marriage abolition. After Independence, the leftist women’s organization like the ‘National Federation of Indian Women’ demanded for proper wages for women working in industries. It was during the 1970s that the women’s rights agitation took a serious turn with the demand for appropriate political delegation for women. In 1974, the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare brought out a report titled “Towards Equality”, which includes right to inheritance and reforms in marriage. The Dowry Prohibition Act (1961) was a failure as per the findings of the report. Later, the women’s rights agitations acquired a socialist outlook as expressed by S. Sen, “the women’s movement in the 1970s was one of “self-conscious commitment to feminist politics” (qtd. in Kaamila ). The irony of the dowry deaths is that the malice is not acknowledged when a woman becomes a martyr at the stake of dowry practice. The fact that all those who, give and take dowry, are party to this evil practice cannot be negated. Madhu Kishwar makes a scathing attack when she comments, “Are they not helping perpetuate a vicious custom which reduces women to articles of sale and barter?” (10) Another atrocity perpetrated against women in India was wife-burning or the modern ‘sati’. On September 4, 1987, an eighteen year old woman named Roop Kunwar, was burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband, with the consent of both parents and in-laws in Rajasthan. The burning of Roop Kanwar is symbolic of the deaths of thousands of women who are burnt alive in their own houses. Her death stands as glaring example to the monstrous custom of self-immolation of women with the approval and sanctity of the community.
The issues related to dowry violence and acts of rape in police custodies occupied the prime focus of the movement. The ‘Mathura Rape’ case in 1975 led to a nationwide protest for the reforms in rape laws. Another women’s issue that hogged limelight was the killing of married women on kitchen fires. These deaths, termed as ‘dowry deaths’, were associated with many other violent acts against brides for want of more dowry, assets and property litigations in the families. The controversies of Shah Bano case and Uniform Civil Code added fuel to the women’s rights movement in 1980s. In 2005, the term ‘domestic violence’ was appended to the legal terminology. The ‘bold ‘ IPC sections 498A and 304B were enacted to address various issues related with the domestic violence and harassment against women in 1983. Cruelty towards women and dowry related deaths are proclaimed non-bail able crimes as stipulated by these sections respectively. However, the section 498A was considered a failure as no convictions were pronounced in any of the registered cases. With this, a more inclusive law towards addressing various issues faced by women “in their marital as well as natal homes” (Kaamila Patherya, 2017). An organization called ‘Lawyer’s Collective’ prepared a draft, which was contemplated as a milestone of all the laws in its approach to the issues of women, and submitted, to the National Commission for Women in 1994. It sought for appropriate position for women in the society. The NCW convened a national symposium on domestic violence against women. After thorough deliberations for many years, the civil law, “Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, was passed and came in to force in October 2006. It was considered a benchmark and historical enactment in women’s fight against domestic violence since it seeks to provide assistance to the victimized women in physical, economic, psychological and legal aspects in a comprehensive way. S. Sen puts it, “the PWDVA is a balanced mix of formal law and social reality” (qtd. in Kaamila). But during the times of Emergency, the roles of NGOs were under curb and state used to exert many restrictions on their activities. During the post Liberalization times, efforts of the NGOs got a new fillip financially and socially, which in turn, supported the cause of women’s rights. The role of NGOs was too obvious to be ignored. Accordingly, the NGOs involvement in getting the Domestic Violence Act passed in 2005 is indeed commendable.
The issues of women have remained obscure and mystifying despite various legal provisions and untiring attempts by different non-governmental organizations and women’s rights agitations in India and elsewhere as well. The greater inequalities and discrimination persist still. Many studies have revealed that demand for more representation of women in academic, economic, professional, personal and cultural domains is snowballing. It is argued that the brazen injustice and abuse of women on account of their biological nature is highly condemnable. It is felt that the women should be provided with awareness, mentoring about their rights and the legal measures to tide over domestic violence, sexual atrocities, property inheritance, freedom of movement etc. The patriarchal criteria which hinder the women’s rights should be moderated. Unless the apprehensions about difference between the public and private lives of people in general and women in particular are addressed, the cognitive understanding about the legal arrangements about protecting women from domestic violence and gender disparities are made known, one cannot expect betterment in the lives of womenfolk.
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