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Equality Belongs on the Agenda


THE Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, provides that "all are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."

The Declaration also enumerates the following as fundamental human rights: freedom of movement, the right to own property, free choice of employment, education, participation in the political process, and the right to marry of one's own choosing. These rights have been recognized and acknowledged, but they are systematically denied to many of the world's women.

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Unlike human rights violations, such as torture, that are carried out secretly in an effort to avert international censure, many violations against women take place in full public view. We know that 10-year-old girls are being trafficked in Bangkok for prostitution. We know that more than 100 million girls and women have been subjected to genital mutilation. We know that girls are forced into marriage, denied equal access to education and employment, and in some cases rendered virtual prisoners in their own homes.

These violations have not made it onto the real international human rights agenda. They may be noted in the annual reports on human rights issued by the State Department, but when human rights in China becomes a foreign-policy issue for the United States government, it is political prisoners we hear about, not trafficking in women, female infanticide, or forced sterilization. When human rights in Kenya becomes an issue, it is freedom of expression we hear about, not female genital mutilation. When human rights in Kuwait comes up, it is democracy we hear about, notwithstanding the fact that Kuwaiti women are not allowed to vote.

Violence against women and other human rights violations raise fundamental issues of discrimination that must be addressed in US foreign policy, if it is to be a policy for the promotion of human rights. Many laws around the world explicitly discriminate against women. Here are some examples: the evidence of women is weighted less than the evidence of men in a court of law; widows are prohibited from inheriting property and may themselves be inherited; wives and daughters cannot travel, or even leave the home, unaccompanied by a man.

Discrimination in law enforcement, as well as in the law itself, denies women protection from rape; domestic violence; and harmful, often deadly, cultural practices such as bride burning and genital mutilation.

Last September, the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, reaffirmed the fundamental right to equality. At the same time, as Equality Now subsequently discovered, certain agencies of the UN itself were succumbing to pressure from Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan to suspend the employment of all female staff. Action speaks louder than words. Too often the message is that women's rights are expendable.

Today is International Women's Day. We should look again at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dates back to the first days of the UN, and at the Platform for Action that was adopted at the Beijing conference. We should ask how much progress has really been made. We should ask our governments, and the UN itself, how serious they are about these commitments. And, in honor of the girls and women who have been raped, beaten, mutilated, killed, and denied the fundamental right to equality, we should demand accountability.

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