For too long, say advocates, the international community has not given women's rights the priority attention they deserve.
Existing UN conventions, however, are very clear: all women have the right to an education, adequate health care and equality with men in the legal and political spheres. They also have the right to protection against violence, forced prostitution and discrimination. But turning those words into reality has proven difficult.
The search for ways to strengthen the protection of women's rights will be a major emphasis of the World Conference on Human Rights. Among other things, the gathering will discuss ways to enhance the effectiveness of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the primary legal instrument protecting women's rights, now ratified by 118 States. It will also examine how to deal with violence against women as a human rights issue.
"Many violations of women's human rights are distinctly connected to being female ... that is, women are discriminated against and abused on the basis of gender", observes Charlotte Bunch, Director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the United States.
Consequently, say women's rights experts, certain human rights questions need to be considered from a gender perspective.
The 1979 Convention describes constitutional, legislative and other measures to promote equality through affirmative action, maternity protection, equal employment opportunities and equality before the law. It includes articles on economic, social and cultural aspects of women's lives.
A 23-member Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors implementation of the Convention. These independent experts question States parties on women's participation in Governments and parliaments, percentages of female enrolment at all levels of education, protection of maternity, equal conditions of employment, family law, and conditions of female migrant workers.
Widespread violence against women, much of it inflicted by husbands, lovers or fathers, demands particular attention as a human rights issue. Since most of this violence takes place in private, it is difficult to assist the victims.
A draft declaration on violence against women under UN consideration condemns what it tentatively defines as "any act, omission, controlling behaviour or threat in any sphere that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological injury to women". …