Sunday 28 October 2007

Women's rights can't be watered down by claims of cultural difference

In today's Observer Cherie Booth argues that the fight for women's rights should not simply be subsumed into 'the bigger battle for human rights for everyone.' She accepts that 'the denial of human rights hits both men and women':

But while both sexes suffer, it's still women who suffer most. Two out of three children denied education are girls. Women own just 1 per cent of the world's titled land, a fact that makes it very difficult for women entrepreneurs to get bank loans, because they have no collateral. Even in the UK, where there has been huge progress, women in full-time work still take home 83p for every pound that men get paid and the glass ceiling at the top is as unbreakable as ever.

And, importantly, these barriers and discrimination are not an accidental byproduct of gender. They exist simply because of it.

They rest on the idea, spoken or unspoken, that women are somehow not the equal of men, that their rights, views and interests don't carry the same weight. It is this assumption that underpins and links the pay gap in developed countries, the denial in some developing countries of a woman's right to own property, the practice of abortion or infanticide because the child is a girl, and that allows rape or honour killings to go unpunished. It is the belief that women are worth less than men.

Booth has no time for those who maintain that women's rights, or human rights generally, are a western construct:

There are those who, while appalled at such prejudice in our societies, attempt to excuse it elsewhere as a result of different cultures. They argue that it is wrong to impose our standards across the world, casting doubt on the concept of universal human rights in a world of diverse cultural and religious standards.

I believe this is both wrong and patronising. As Rosalyn Higgins, the first female judge on the International Court of Justice, noted, it's an argument advanced by states or by liberal scholars but rarely by the oppressed groups themselves. It's often based, too, on a false belief that the idea of universal human rights, and the UN declaration that made them concrete, is a construct of a few Western democracies foisted on a reluctant world.

The declaration was drafted, in fact, by experts from every background and improved by contributions from all the UN's founding members from across the world. It was an express statement that the same human rights belong to each and every one of us, whatever our race, gender, religion or background.

They are a recognition of our essential dignity as human beings, something that, I would argue, has its roots deep in all our great faiths. As such, they can't be ignored or watered down simply because of claims of cultural difference.

She strikes a hopeful note, drawing attention to the advances in women's political and economic equality that are being made, often in the unlikeliest of places:

Across the Gulf, women, with the support of men, are winning the right to vote and are increasingly filling important ministerial positions. They are also taking a bigger role in the economy.

In Tanzania and across the developing world, innovative credit schemes are springing up to tackle the reluctance of the banks to lend to women despite their better record of repaying loans than men. In Bangladesh, micro-credit schemes are also educating women about their rights and training women in the fundamentals of the Muslim law of property to help them argue their case. Economic empowerment and education are making a difference.

As Booth concludes, this is not the time to retreat from the fight for women's equality: 'It's the time, with sensitivity but also firmness, to step it up wherever we find prejudice. The prize is not just a better world for women. It is a better world for all.'

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