Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Reflections from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women

Report from IPJ Editor Kaitlin Barker Davis


Child marriage and female infanticide. Rape. Domestic violence. Honor killings and acid attacks. Female genital mutilation. Sexual harassment and extortion.


All of these acts of violence against women are predominantly marginalized, sometimes unintentionally, as women’s issues. But they are not women’s issues. They are human rights issues that affect the well-being of a society — including the care of its young and old, its democratic vibrancy and economic prosperity.


U.N. Headquarters, New York

Though the theme at the 56th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was empowerment of rural women, the topic of violence against women came up again and again during the parallel sessions that Dee Aker, Jennifer Freeman and I attended in New York last week.


Violence against women was such a pervasive topic because it continues to be pervasive around the world — on every continent, in every culture and religion, in urban and rural areas, and across age and class. At least one in three women worldwide have been victims of gender-based violence, according to the new film From Fear to Freedom: Ending Violence Against Women, whose screening we attended last week and is being launched online today, International Women’s Day, at www.learningpartnership.org/vaw-film.


Women are often only portrayed as victims, but the film, which enrages and inspires, highlights both the atrocities and the courageous women leaders and activists taking action into their own hands, combating violence with vigilance. Culture is one of the most frequently referenced excuses for gender-based violence, but as Mahnaz Afkhami, founder of the Women’s Learning Partnership (which made the film), said, “People make culture, and people can change culture.”


The international community is largely timid when it comes to violence against women, not wanting to step on the toes of culture. But no culture, or religion, fundamentally condones violence against women. “Women are literally the battlefield,” post-film panelist Sanam Anderlini said. “And we have to do something before we lose.” Another panelist, from Lebanon, noted the silent oppression and brutalization of women in Bahrain, ominously highlighting the absence of the Bahraini woman portrayed in the film who was supposed to be one of the panelists.


"Women, Media, Revolution" panelists Jackee Batanda, Jina Moore and Jennifer Pozner (l-r)

"Women, Media, Revolution" panelists (l-r) Jackee Batanda, Jina Moore and Jennifer Pozner

Building on the IPJ’s 2011 “Women, Media, Revolution” forum, the IPJ’s own parallel session continued the forum’s discussion of how women and media can encourage alternative, inclusive solutions to democratic peacebuilding, with a panel of women in media and a crowded room of nearly 100 people. Our panel was given a poignant prelude the day before when a Bahraini woman in a session on the Arab Spring insisted that there was no unrest in her country, that women were happy and making great progress. When questioned with references to Al Jazeera and other media coverage, she answered dismissively that the media simply wanted us to believe there were stirrings of revolution in her country. Why, she asked, did we need media when we had a Bahraini right in front of us? One wonders what the absentee film panelist from Bahrain would have said in response.


As CSW participants discussed the status of women worldwide, the United States did not escape scrutiny. The current U.S. contraception debate came up in multiple CSW sessions, as our government is on the verge of curbing women’s rights to healthcare and control of their own bodies. And to add insult to injury, women are being excluded from the official conversations.


As we mark International Women’s Day today, let us celebrate the vital force of the global women’s movement in the progress toward true equality. Let us also remember that the challenges are still many, but so are the men and women working to solve them. May we be invigorated to continue upholding and demanding the dignity and human rights of women everywhere.


Join the IPJ for our annual International Women’s Day Breakfast next Wednesday, March 14, as we hear from filmmaker Maria Luisa Gambale on her recent film “Sarabah,” the story of a Senegalese rapper and activist working to eradicate gender-based violence in her home country. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.