Women’s Rights are Human Rights.


Dr Rekha M Shangpliang


Twenty six years have passed since Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady of the United States of America made usage of these famous lines as she gave her speech on September 5th 1995, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Consequently, numerous international and regional instruments have drawn attention to gender-related dimensions of human rights issues, the most important one being the UN Convention on the Discrimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979 .That ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ has since then been proclaimed without doubt by the UN World Conference held in Vienna in 1993.

When one looks back to history ,one finds that women’s rights as human rights  have always been  a common phrase profusely used by the feminist movement that has a long history of oppression. One of the earliest was the remarkable essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, written by the 18th century British proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 ,which still resonates the type of human rights issues of women today.She called for a worldwide radical reform of national educational systems which would empower women and make them useful contributors to the society at large.In her own words “If women are left out of the intellectual arena,the progress of society would stop.” Today we see girls’ education having a more promising future worldwide, assuming that with the newly launched ‘Beti bachao, Beti padhao’ campaign. gross enrolment ratio for girls is improving. However it says little about the empowerment of young girls their drop-out rates and the overall statistics are not very satisfying. What’s more when one examines the New Education Policy through a gender lens despite some progressive provisions in the policy which promises an overhaul of the education system, such as the Gender Inclusion Fund towards equitable education for girls etc., there are growing concerns about one aspect of the Policy which talks about many schools going to be privatized soon and will no longer be freely accessible to all. This may have a serious impact on girls from marginalized communities.

The latest  UNESCO report says that there is an estimated 132 million girls out of school including 34.3 million of primary school age, 30 million of lower -secondary school age and 67.4 million of upper-secondary school age who have not had the privilege to continue their schooling due to a number of factors such as poverty, cultural norms and practices, poor infrastructure, violence and fragility to name a few.The picture is not as good in our own NorthEast, where against the national drop-out average of 6.35% in primary level the percentage of drop-out rate in Arunachal Pradesh is the highest in the country at 23.25% followed by Nagaland at 20.95% and Meghalaya at 17.69%.

But what does it mean to educate girls? Girls’ education goes beyond getting girls into school. It is also about ensuring that girls learn and feel safe while at school; have the opportunity to complete all levels of education acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate and adapt to a changing world and ability to build up healthy families, make decisions about their own lives and contribute to their communities and the world at large. Gender disparity in the sphere of education is thus a key issue of human rights which needs to be seriously addressed.

Maternal Health has also been identified as another basic human right of every woman. Following the fifth Millennium Development Goal(MDG) strategy of applying a Human Rights -based approach to the reduction of Maternal Deaths across the world, it still remains a big challenge to developing countries. Maternal Health refers to the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the post-natal period. Each stage should be a positive experience ,ensuring women and their babies reach their full potential for health and well-being. The World Health Organization has neatly summed up some of the challenges that face Maternal and Child Health (MCH) such as malnutrition, infection, anaemia, unregulated fertility low birth weight in babies etc. India still accounts for one-fifth of global maternal deaths annually (WHO-2015). A high maternal mortality rate along with persistent inequality in maternal healthcare service utilization is today one of the most serious concerns in India.

It is indeed sad that even after a decade of implementation of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) launched in 2005 which is aimed at eradicating persistent inequalities in maternal healthcare by providing good quality and affordable services to all especially to the economically weaker sections of the community, the health outcomes of both mother and child are yet to reach the targets set by international conventions. .Meghalaya is one of the high-focus states amongst 18 others entitled to receive financial support to women from rural areas undergoing hospital deliveries. However, the recent Covid-Pandemic situation unveiled a number of discrepancies in utilizing such services. A news item that appeared in the August 30th 2020 issue of The Shillong Times states that at least 61 pregnant women and 877 newborns have died in Meghalaya from April to July 2020  for want of admission to hospitals and also due to lack of medical attention because of diversion of the health machinery to concentrate on Covid cases. There is therefore an urgent need to apply a human rights – based approach to reduce maternal mortality and it is the duty of health agencies and fore-runners of health departments to ensure that transparency and accountability is maintained in such a crucial issue as health.

         As a particularly vulnerable group, women have become victims of various forms of violence and discrimination. There are innumerable forms of sexual violence that are reported every day in the news, not to speak of those that remain untold. In addition to all this, new barriers have emerged with the Covid -19 pandemic.Across the world women are facing increased domestic violence, unpaid care duties, unemployment and poverty. Women make up a majority of front-line workers, but there is inadequate representation of women in national and global Covid-19 policy spaces.

Indeed, the famous speech by Hillary Clinton certainly strikes an alarm to humanity that “It is time we wake up ! “ In her own words, “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. It is violation of human rights when women and girls are sold in the slavery of prostitution. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries seem too small. It is a violation of human rights when women are victims of rape. It is a violation of human rights when women are denied the right to plan their own families and enjoy their reproductive rights.  It is a violation of human rights when women in rural areas are denied access to sustainable livelihoods in poor economies.”

Women’s Rights around the world are an important indicator to understand global well-being. Impossible as it may sound, it is indeed a challenge to achieve a gender-just world, but the task is laid out for us to firmly make concerted efforts at local and national levels to bring women to parity with men. An attitudinal shift  is also essential to break the ice-ceiling where the woman can connect her home to the broader society. As the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day goes – Let us “Choose to Challenge”-for with challenge comes a change to break the barriers of gender discrimination.

 (The writer teaches Sociology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Email: [email protected])

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