Women, gender, and human rights : a global perspective
The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses the credo that all human beings are created free and equal. But not until 1995 did the United Nations declare that women’s rights to be human rights, and bring gender issues into the global arena for the first time. The subordination of indigenous and minority women, ethnic cleansing, and the struggle for reproductive rights are some of the most pressing issues facing women worldwide. Women, Gender, and Human Rights is the first collection of essays that encompass a global perspective on women and a wide range of issues, including political and domestic violence, education, literacy, and reproductive rights. Most of the articles were written expressly for this volume by internationally known experts in the fields of government, bioethics, medicine, public affairs, literature, history, anthropology, law, and psychology. Comprised of essays contributed by authors of diverse backgrounds, from human rights activists and scholars to artists and United Nations committee members, this edited work is presented as an anthology created in what Professor of Spanish, Marjorie Agosin, deems "a spirit of inclusiveness" (3). Although the collection is international in scope, the authors, nevertheless, emphasize the broad themes of universality and commonality of women's experiences. That human rights violations against women, either in the context of war or in the home, generally occur to their bodies in ways unique to their gender is a prevalent theme throughout this work. Agosin seeks to bring to light the invisibility and transgressions of women's human rights, as well as the ways in which we might participate in an international human rights movement for all members of humanity.
Divided into four sections, "Theoretical Visions," "Women and Health," "Women, Activism and Social Change," and "Women and the Cultures of Displacement," the volume contains a total of sixteen essays, although the second and third sections are under-weighted and over-weighted, respectively. Several of the contributions in the first section offer the reader an historical narrative of the defining, delineating, and protecting of human rights that are unique to women since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The selections in this section draw attention to the fluidity and changing nature of conceptions of human rights, as well as the expansion of means through which to monitor and enforce them. For example, Felice D. Gaer praises the United Nations for its inclusion of women on the Commission on Human Rights, yet laments the lack of progress in mainstreaming gender considerations into U.N. reports, papers, and field-based programs.
Themes that emerge in the second section, "Women and Health," include how unequal power relations between men and women impact women's physical well being, and the assertion that access to the highest degree of available health care is a human right, not a privilege. Health topics of these three essays include HIV/AIDS, mental and physical abuse, rape, female genital mutilation, and girls' rights. Surprisingly, women's reproductive health and rights regarding decisions about the number, timing, and spacing of births receives little attention. Given the world's population of six billion people, the international scope of this anthology, and the prevalence of reproductive health issues in contemporary women's studies research, this omission warrants serious concern. A discussion [End Page 225] of the lack of autonomy and decision-making power with regard to their own bodies among women in various geographic, social, cultural, and economic contexts is both germane and integral to any review of women's health issues.
The final two sections, "Women, Activism, and Social Change" and "Women and the Cultures of Displacement," address several themes in feminist writing, including political activism, domestic violence, and the blaming of victims. Temma Kaplan espouses the role of grassroots organizations and non-government organizations (NGOs) in forcing governments to transcend the boundaries between public and private, thus making gender-based violence a human rights issue. In addition, Jane Stapleton draws attention to similarities in occurrences of male violence against women across economic and cultural divides, contexts that Westerners tend to ignore. Mahnaz Afkhami's repudiation of appeals to cultural relativism to justify the treatment of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies highlights their misrepresentation of patriarchal power structures as religion and culture. Afkhami concludes that Muslim women possess rights to organize and live their lives that are not defined or interpreted within Islamic structures or contexts, but stand on their own moral foundations. Marjorie Agosin has compiled a multifarious group of essays written by contributors with diverse backgrounds from a wide array of perspectives on women and human rights. This well-organized anthology provides Women's Studies students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels with a starting point for...
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