HUMAN RIGHTS FORUM: Critical Tools for Significant Change

By Taina Bien-Aimé*

In rural Ethiopia, girls are married through abduction and rape as a cultural practice. Sexual violence against schoolgirls by teachers is rampant in southern Africa. In the US, girls are being trafficked into the sex trade and into domestic servitude in Pakistan. Domestic violence is a public health concern in most, if not all, countries. Some say the most dangerous place for a girl is in her home; she is at the highest risk of facing violence between 10 and 18 years old. Before entering womanhood, the threat of incest, rape, female genital mutilation, marriage, removal from school, maternal mortality, trafficking for prostitution or domestic servitude, murdered in the name of “family honor” is a global pandemic we must address.

Eleanor Roosevelt believed that human rights begin in the “smallest places…closest to home.” Violence and discrimination against women have no territorial boundaries and too often culture or religion masquerade as unacceptable excuses to violate their fundamental human rights, but the solutions are at our fingertips.

Governments have repeatedly pledged within and beyond the United Nations to protect the rights of women and girls. They have signed international covenants, issued resolutions and passed laws nationally that often form clear blueprints to implement policies to secure the human rights and empowerment of women and girls. The trick is to maintain intense pressure on governments to do so.

And so, with our partners, collective efforts have led to small, but significant, victories promising systemic impact on women’s lives, including

  • the repeal of the Ethiopian law that exempted rapists from punishment when they married their victims;
  • a landmark case that mandated the Zambian government to award damages to a 13 year old survivor of “teacher rape;”
  • and to the enactment of the New York State Human Trafficking Act the strongest state law of its kind.

Equality Now is still campaigning for the repeal of discriminatory laws as called for by the Beijing Platform for Action and whose only cost to governments is political will, so we were thrilled when the Human Rights Council finally decided this October to form a working group to accelerate an end to sex discriminatory laws.

While laws are not the panacea, they remain critical tools for women’s rights advocates and echo the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming that every woman and girl is entitled by birth to a life free of violence and discrimination wherever she lives.

*Taina Bien-Aimé is Executive Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization dedicated to action for the civil, political, economic and social rights of girls and women.

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