Women Claim Place on Agenda at UN Human Rights Meeting

Article excerpt

FLORENCE BUTEGWA doesn't stop to ponder when asked about the key human rights abuses in Africa: "One of the major issues is violence against women," says the regional coordinator of Women in Law and Development in Africa, a Zimbabwe-based women's rights organization. "It is really widespread, increasing in terms of the systemic nature and the injuries."

Ms. Butegwa lists other violations against women that occur in many countries: female infanticide, coerced abortion, and mass rape amid armed conflict. She contends that women suffer disproportionately under economic structural adjustment programs that cut spending on health, education, and employment.

These abuses have never received much attention by the governments of most countries or by the United Nations, activists say. But on June 14 that could change as Butegwa and hundreds of other women from around the world converge in Vienna for the UN World Conference on Human Rights. The activists say they will try to force the UN to place abuses against women on the global human rights agenda.

The coalition of women that has organized for the conference "represents the emergence of a global women's human rights movement that didn't exist five years ago," says Dorothy Thomas, director of the Women's Rights Project at Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Women activists agree that the 1985 UN Women's Conference in Nairobi was a catalyst in generating the momentum among women's groups to organize on a global scale. Since that conference, scores of women's groups have sprung up, especially in third-world countries. For the first time they began using the framework of human rights to spotlight the abuses of women.

The network of women has so far gathered more than 250,000 signatures in 121 countries in a petition campaign to pressure the UN to recognize women's human rights. They are calling for:

* An appointment of a special UN rapporteur on violence against women and discrimination.

* A special study of violence against women at the human rights level.

* Training for all UN human rights professionals in gender-specific rights abuses.

Many abuses against women have not been recognized as human rights abuses because they are considered private matters, says Susana Fried of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey. …