Women's Rights within the Inter-American System

By Goncalves, Tamara Amoroso | Americas (English Edition), January-February 2012 | Go to article overview

Women's Rights within the Inter-American System


Goncalves, Tamara Amoroso, Americas (English Edition)


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The study, Women's Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: An Analysis of Cases Admitted between 1970 and 2008, systematically examined 1,141 documents published by the Commission. These were documents related to individual complaints and they included decisions on admissibility, decisions on the merits of the cases, and friendly settlement agreements.

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Beginning with the jurisprudence created by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the study analyzed the status of litigation on women's human rights in Latin America. In looking at how these cases are litigated internationally, one also sees how various movements, social groups, and civil society organizations define and propose a human rights agenda for the region.

Looking at all of the 1,141 cases submitted in the period analyzed, we find that 63.7% (727) pertain solely to male victims and 12.2% (139) solely to female victims. Of these cases, 55 involved violations of women's right to equal treatment. The study considered as "cases specifically on women's human rights" those in which violations or violence were directly related to the woman's gender, i.e., in which being a woman in some way contributed to the occurrence of the Violations or put the Victim at greater risk. This was a methodological choice to demonstrate women's greater vulnerability in certain areas. The cases were organized under three themes: violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights of women, and other forms of discrimination.

Debate on women's human rights within the IACHR revealed conflicts between the public and the private spheres and, in particular, questions involving the scope of the state's capacity to intervene in the lives of individuals. Actions taken by states to guarantee human rights in private relationships raised new discussion of how human rights are defined and protected.

For states, this debate highlighted the challenge of balancing individual and state actions and measures in both private and public spaces in order to guarantee and promote human rights. Where gender issues are concerned, states are often called on to intervene in private spaces, challenging the way in which human rights are perceived, defended, and exercised.

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Of the 38 cases related to sexual and reproductive rights examined in the study, 28 involved sexual violence, five involved problems in exercising maternity rights. Of these, four cases involved abortion rights, two involved involuntary sterilization, two involved freedom of sexual orientation, and one involved assisted reproduction. Of the 753 cases involving physical assault, only six had to do with violence against women in the home, and thirteen were related to violence against women in the public sphere. Of 1,129 cases relating to the due process of law, fifteen involved discrimination against women in the application of the law. In cases having to do with violations of property rights, three involved female victims and seventeen involved male victims, highlighting the fact that land titles are still held predominantly by men.

The differences between these cases, particularly the discrepancy in male and female victims, can be understood from three perspectives:

* Access to justice: The scenario at the international level reflects the absence, inadequacy, or non-application of national legal mechanisms; women's insufficient access to justice; and the fact that male privilege permeates the interpretation and application of the law. Beyond legal reform, there is a need to address deeply-rooted values and preconceptions of male dominance in order to promote radical change in the reading of the law.

* Incorporation and recognition of new cases as human rights topics: Certain issues, especially those addressed by feminist movements, were not at first treated as human rights violations, and complaints to the IACHR on those issues took time to emerge.

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