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Femicides and Human Rights: Why Institutions Fall Short When it Comes to Women’s Rights

Guest writer Victoria Shaw on recent violations of women’s rights in the international community and the limitations of institutions in upholding women’s rights. 

2022 saw the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran, the revocation of the right to abortion by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Each of these incidents took place during the year #MeToo celebrated its fifth anniversary. What then can we say about what this movement is catalysing internationally on the protection of women’s rights after these violations against women? If civil society has been a central actor in advancing the fight against gender-based and sexual violence, can we say the same for international human rights institutions?

While the protection of human rights continues to grow under the auspices of the European Commission and the UN (e.g. support for Ukrainians against the repressive government of Vladimir Putin and the law for the duty of vigilance of companies against the exploitation of Uyghurs), it appears that the protection of women’s rights at the international level does not seem to be sufficiently resonant to see a real change. In 2017, #MeToo fuelled a surge of hope for feminist struggles across borders; how can we still see women’s rights being rolled back, unsupported by the institutions in charge of protecting the safety of every individual?

On June 24 2022, the Supreme Court set the United States back 50 years by overturning Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed abortion rights throughout the country. The decision does not make abortions illegal, but returns the US to the situation before the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, when each state was free to allow them or not. Today, it is now illegal to have an abortion in 14 states across the country, according to federal law. When the US hides behind its national ‘democratic’ system to justify this move, the Supreme Court’s decision heralds an unprecedented turning point in the history of women’s rights protection and implies a violation of women’s right to freedom.

This raises the question of the role of international commissions in protecting women where their host countries have failed. If the country has been exempted from sanction by the UN Human Rights Council – the main intergovernmental body of the UN for all human rights issues – in the context of no punishment or conviction after the abolition of the right to abortion, are international human rights commissions in a position to sanction countries when it comes to protecting the right to abortion? Both philosophically and politically, it is questionable why the High Council on Human Rights did not issue a warning when it was necessary to put pressure on the United States to ensure that this fundamental right was not jeopardised, especially when we know the risks of clandestine abortions on women’s lives.

When Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman of Iranian origin, died in hospital after being detained in a police station for not wearing a headscarf in the street, serious attention should have been paid by the UN, which claims to be the main guarantor of freedom and peace. Yet a year earlier, at a session of ECOSOC, Iran was elected to join for a four-year term the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the main global intergovernmental body dedicated exclusively to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. Following the Iranian regime’s repressive response to the emancipation of women in their country, US Vice President Kamala Harris spoke out on November 2 to finally suggest the country’s exclusion from the UN Commission on the Status of Women after nearly two months of silence. But if some welcome this decision, was it not necessary and logical, or even somewhat overdue in view of the situation? Moreover, Iran’s election had been a very controversial choice by non-governmental organisations. Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, stated in 2019 that “electing the Islamic Republic of Iran to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist into the town fire chief“. Iran only reaps what it sows, so removing it from this commission seems to make sense. Why not push the political sanction further rather than remove them from a committee where they did not even belong?

In Afghanistan, since the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021, they have violated women and girls’ right to education, work, and freedom of movement. While some were peacefully demonstrating in the streets of Kabul, the bloody repercussions have been irreparable, with no international policy concern to ensure the essential defense of these women’s lives. On January 13 2023, the UN Security Council was to focus on ways to reverse the Taliban’s strict ban on women and girls’ access to work, education, sport and public places. However, no concrete program of action to lift women out of their condition has been set up, apart from statements issued around emergency humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, supported by WILPF Afghanistan and Afghanistan Peace House, called on the international community to be “unconsciously passive in the face of this tragic and dramatic worsening of the situation”. They deplored the fact that humanitarian aid is not reaching women and girls in Afghanistan, and that there is not enough monitoring, accountability, or gender sensitivity in the delivery of aid. They also expressed that support should not be limited to humanitarian aid, and that support and funding is needed in other areas to restore the rights of women and girls and increase their societal and political participation.

Hence, all point to the dismaying reality that there is no international mobilisation to protect women and very little humanitarian aid being deployed to countries in need. In these three cases, we observe that international commissions committed to human rights is suddenly ineffective. To some extent, we can assume that the absence of an international institutional position is evidence of a real consortium that prevents the judiciary from acting when it comes to the status of women. So, is it a lack of means to achieve women’s liberation at the level of their host country or is it the globally accepted status quo? In 1948, the 56 member countries of the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its constitution, Article 3 states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. In the global context of 2023, can we be sure that this declaration applies to all, or is it only partially respected when it comes to women?

As a French citizen, I have heard about the ‘Universal Declaration of Man and Citizen’ (la declaration universelle de l’homme et du citoyen) since my earliest history classes without ever questioning what it meant for me to conceive that there was only one gender to which this injunction applied. Inherited from an old and outdated language, for all that my ears heard that I was being pushed away from a form of freedom, which seemed to be promised only to men. Unconsciously, I think I built up this idea that women could be left out of the package, and that we had to live with that. What these three events reveal to us is that they result from the same systemic pattern: the appropriation by men of women’s bodies. Worse still, the permission to bring death to women.

This paradigm is not new, in fact it has been ingrained in the collective imagination for hundreds of years – “women are subordinate to men”. If there is no real punishment for these criminal acts, those of committing violence against women with impunity, it is because the victim’s fate is accepted, insofar as the crime is not deemed unforgivable enough to merit punishment. The response of international commissions to uphold women’s rights, however, suggests the permission of women’s deaths in a common sense of lack of protection for women everywhere. Hence, no sentence severe enough to overturn this status quo is made possible. The feminist sociologist Christelle Taraud, in her new book “Feminicides”, analyses the male privilege can be explained on the basis of a system of domination whose trivialization of violence against women engenders impunity when it comes to crimes perpetrated against women. In her book, she proposes a different reading of world history than the one we know and recognises that the first crime against humanity was indeed that of men against women. It would also seem that this crime is the most widespread as well as the most hidden by the norms of our patriarchal societies.

Men kill women, by their action and their inaction.

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