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Women’s rights are human rights

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eavesFor an abuse to be recognised in law as a human rights abuse the State has to be responsible for the abuse.

Guest post by Heather Harvey of Eaves.

“Women’s rights are human rights” is an old, old slogan and one that I and many might think seems so stark-staringly obvious as to be redundant.

I have noticed, however, that it is reappearing on twitter, in articles and on placards recently.

And what exactly are ‘human rights’?

It is a truism that all too often we [feminists] talk too much to ourselves, and in doing so assume a far greater shared belief, knowledge and history than is the case.

That may explain why on the one hand it is great that we all think this slogan is so obvious but it may also explain why a significant number of feminists actually are not aware of the struggle women activists have fought  for this slogan to seem so obvious.

Not everyone knows that there was, and in some quarters still exists, a strongly held view that violence against women is not a human rights abuse.

Indeed such a view still feeds some of our perspectives, responses and struggles when confronting violence against women today.

So this is a recap. And apologies in advance to those who know it inside out.

For an abuse to be recognised in law as a “Human Rights Abuse” the State [the Government] needs to be responsible for the abuse.

Traditionally this was interpreted very narrowly to mean that the perpetrator had to be a “State actor” – that is an agent of the state exercising their public function – when they committed the abuse such as a police, prison or immigration officer, member of the recognised armed forces, civil servant, public sector employee etc.

In the same, equally narrow and artificial way; an abuse committed by a “non-state actor” [private individual] such as a mugging, a racially motivated attack between individuals in the street or domestic violence etc was not in law seen as a human rights abuse but as a crime between individuals.

This may be due to the fact that much of human rights legislation was drafted in the post world wars context in a response to the persecution and abuses of the time.

Inevitably therefore much of the focus of these international standards was the actions and powers of States attempting to consolidate their power or engaged in traditional conflict.

The “victims” in mind, therefore, were commonly opposition or dissenters challenging a state for over-reaching its powers, those persecuted, tortured and arbitrarily imprisoned for opposing the state, those persecuted by the state as a threat to the status quo or to the vision of the state, those fleeing the persecution of the state, prisoners of war and civilians mistreated by a state over-reaching itself or by the State’s conduct of war.

This State or public v. private distinction was always, but now more than ever, far too simplistic and artificial.

We live in a climate of private companies delivering government functions at home and abroad, complex real-time media, freedom fighters, guerrillas or terrorists, irregular armies and militia, counter terrorism, “pre-emptive” strikes, drones, robots etc.

We see states acting out their self interest and ideologies of choice in who they promote and protect and who they ignore and demonise.

States are choosing to intervene in different ways in some crises and not in others and we see a huge growth in the power of big business interests merging with security and foreign policy at local, regional, national and international level.

There is a definite blurring of the edges between public and private and indeed human rights commentators have been grappling with State Accountability in these traditional conflict scenarios for some time.

Women’s rights activists found that issues like violence against women were always treated as isolated, fragmented, individual crimes.

At the same time, however, violence against women was happening on an epidemic scale and was acknowledged as a pattern of discriminatory behaviour arising from women’s unequal and traditionally inferior status.

There were few shelters or women’s services, no education and awareness campaigns, police were not investigating, and rape and domestic violence was seen as a normal hazard of a woman’s life for which she was often partially or wholly responsible and so on.

Women’s rights activists in the 80s and 90s in particular, therefore, highlighted that even if the perpetrator was not a  “State actor”, the state’s inadequate action in the face of such violence rendered them complicit and engaged state responsibility.

Consequently violence against women (inadequately addressed) could be defined as “human rights abuse” in the strictest sense of the term.

This is sometimes expressed as “Due Diligence” whereby the State has to take all necessary measures to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights.

This includes legal and non-legal measures including investing in women’s support services, education and awareness campaigns, training for public sector workers as well as legislation and measures to ensure investigation, prosecution, compensation and access to justice etc.

The activists were at pains to stress that this was always implicit in the human rights legislation just that it had not always been interpreted in this way and perhaps also reflects the need for women’s rights activists to be engaged in drafting, interpreting and applying legislation.

This construct applies to other marginalised, unpopular or minority groups and individuals who are also more likely to suffer abuse, often discriminatory violence, at the hands of their family, community or private individuals.

If the State is not taking adequate steps to protect against, for instance, racial and homophobic abuse that may be committed by private individuals then the state is complicit and so responsible hence it becomes an issue of “human rights”.

This is why civil liberties legislation, which is about limiting the reach of the state, is not nearly so threatening to the state as human rights legislation.

Human rights legislation requires the state to reach out and be seen to proactively protect and enforce the individual rights of each of us – even those of us who are unpopular or lacking in influence or voice and who otherwise may not come into much contact with the state but suffer “in private”.

So next time you hear an expression like “It’s just a domestic” or you read about the latest mediation and “restorative justice” proposals to respond to domestic and sexual violence without engaging the criminal justice system, or hear government slating human rights legislation or indeed read a placard bearing “women’s rights are human rights” you might like to ponder the weight of the history that has gone before and the implications for what is to come.

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