Let’s remember women’s rights are human rights


This International Woman’s Day BIHR’s volunteer Charlotte is writing about the importance of remembering that women’s rights are human rights.IWD

This Saturday, the 8 March, is International Women’s Day and although it is a time to celebrate the great achievements of women throughout history it is also time to remember the work that still needs to be done to make sure women’s rights are being upheld. Ban Ki-Moon, in his United Nations Secretary General’s message this year said “realizing human rights and equality is not a dream, it is a duty of governments, the United Nations and every human being.” So we should use this opportunity to remind ourselves and those in power that violence against and injustice towards women is a human rights issue, and our law – the Human Rights Act (HRA) – has real potential to protect women from violence and to ensure accountability and justice when women fall through the gaps.

Violence against women here at home

Violence against women remains one of the most widespread human rights violations worldwide and is not restricted by country borders, cultures, ages or social status. The UK is not exempt from this devastating abuse of human rights. Just this week the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a survey on violence against women which revealed the extensive abuse experienced by women and girls across Europe. The FRA Director Morten Kjaerum said the survey “shows that physical, sexual and psychological violence against women is an extensive human rights abuse in all EU Member States,” and that, “the enormity of the problem is proof that violence against women does not just impact a few women only – it impacts on society every day.”

The UK came joint fifth highest for incidence of physical and sexual violence (44%). Even taking into account measures which have increased reporting within the UK, it is still the case that almost half of British women surveyed stated they had been assaulted. These statistics highlight how important it is women know about their human rights and how they are relevant to the investigation of violence against women, and making sure that public officials do not undermine basic rights.

The Human Rights Act – getting justice for women

Just this week we have seen how important the Human Rights Act has been for helping women to hold the Metropolitan Police accountable for serious failures in the investigation of sexual violence. The two women, known as DSD and NBV, were both raped by John Worby the so-called ‘black cab rapist’. John Worboy was eventually prosecuted and jailed for life in 2009. However, this happened after numerous women reported attacks which were not taken seriously, enabling John Worboy to remain at large. DSD was attacked Worboy in 2003 and NBV in 2007, both under similar circumstances. Both women reported their attacks to the police but neither were believed and their cases were dropped. In 2008 a routine computer check linked 4 assaults with similar circumstance and Worboy was arrested. But by then the police had 105 allegations against Worboy.

Whilst Worboy was eventually investigated and convicted under the criminal law, there still remained serious questions about the accountability of the police for their failures to act. DSD and NBV took a legal case against the police. The High Court ruled that the prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment, in Article 3 of the Human Right Act included a positive duty on the Metropolitan Police to investigate particularly serious crimes such as rape and sexual assault. It was found that the assaults on the women, and the subsequent ordeal caused by the failure of the police to take the allegations seriously, amounted to inhumane or degrading treatment and breached Article 3 of the HRA. The judge found that systemic failures throughout the police investigation breached the duty to investigate and also found “tangible evidence of both DSD and NHR handsBV not being supported or believed.”

Speaking up for women’s rights, speaking up for human right

This case highlights the importance of the UK’s human rights laws and how the HRA can help us secure justice and redress when our rights have been breached by those with power and responsibility to protect our rights. The DSD and NBV case is a good reminder of why the Human Rights Act is important and the potential it has as a tool for change is realised through action. There are many economic and political challenges in the current climate, so now is the time to use the laws and levers we have to make real changes for women experiencing injustice.

Women’s rights in the UK: we must keep moving forward

The 8 March, International Women’s Day, is a cause for celebration. It is an opportunity to mark the progress on our journey towards the realisation of women’s rights around the globe. Whilst there is much to celebrate, this year our march feels less like a journey and more like a standstill.

This week the international community gathers in New York to examine the advancement of women’s rights around the world as part of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The UK is also preparing to appear before the UN Committee tasked with monitoring the Government’s progress on the promises we have made under the international law on women’s human rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

The Government’s engagement with CEDAW is certainly welcome. As a State which prides itself on international human rights leadership it is important that we too step into the global spotlight and are accountable for action to guarantee basic rights here at home as well as abroad. Less heartening is what this spotlight reveals. The Government’s interim response to the UN Committee ahead of July’s full examination reveals a worrying picture which, in some instances, risks regression rather than progress for women’s rights in the UK.

For example, in relation to employment tribunals the report highlights that, as women are more likely to be low paid they are more likely to benefit from the remission scheme that will allow for some government subsidy of the very poorest people who cannot pay their legal fees.

In another section the report outlines how probation services are ensuring that women who are serving community sentences will be able to serve their sentences in appropriate settings that avoid situations where it is likely for there to be a lone female in a work group.

Are these the mark of a government taking active steps to achieve a more gender equal society? The fact that women continue to make up the poorest people in society, or that women are at risk of violence simply because they are a woman are not signs of progress. More worrying is that these examples reflect a worrying lack of ambition at the heart of government about what is needed to achieve gender equality in the UK.

As Eleanor Roosevelt stated shortly after drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights begin in small places close to home. The Government’s commitment to engaging with international human rights mechanisms is commendable, however it is important to remember that the point of human rights, including women’s human rights, is that they must be made real here at home.

CEDAW and Ethnic Minority Women in Northern Ireland: ‘From local issues to international solutions’

Mark Caffrey at the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) is one of the British Institute of Human Rights’ Human Rights Champions, a group of people across the UK supporting human rights awareness in their local communities. Here one of his colleagues, Ana McCready, an intern at NICEM, blogs about a recent NICEM event to raise awareness of the human rights of ethnic minority women in Northern Ireland and how they can use international human rights to seek positive change. (Please note this blog does not necessarily represent BIHR’s views)

NICEM photo 1Held on 2nd February 2013 at the Belfast City Hall and organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), the conference “Ethnic Minority Women in Northern Ireland: from local issues to international solutions” was a successful event. Attended by over 50 women from various ethnic backgrounds, the event was co-chaired by Helena Macormac (Head of Strategic Advocacy at NICEM) and Mimi Unamoyo (Vice-Chair of Congo Support Project UK). The Chairs welcomed the participation of Hannana Siddiqui (Joint Coordinator for Southall Black Sisters, London), Marie-Thérèse N’Landu (Congo Pax, London) and Aleksandra Lojek (Bilingual Community Safety Advocate in Belfast). The theme of the event allowed speakers to share their experiences and views on the rights of black ethnic minority (BME) women, with a specific focus on violence against women.

The event highlighted the importance of using international human rights instruments to address violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). NICEM intends to submit a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee prior to the examination of the UK government in July 2013. The organisation is very keen to ensure that the rights of ethnic minority women living in Northern Ireland are addressed during the Convention monitoring process. NICEM participated in the last CEDAW Committee hearing back in 2008 and raised issues such as access to healthcare, the rights of Irish Traveller women and the rights of women unable to access public funds. This year, we want to build upon that experience and involve as many women as possible in the CEDAW process.

With this in mind the event was designed to specifically look at issues of violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women. The term ‘violence’ was understood in its broadest sense to include issues of human trafficking, harmful traditional practices and domestic violence.

Initiating the discussion, Hannana Siddiqui commented on the leading and pioneering work Southall Black Sisters have carried out since 1979 challenging domestic violence locally and nationally. She eloquently argued that multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness, noting how some culturally accepted practices (such as forced marriages and female circumcision) can be highly damaging to women’s rights. Hannana added that these practices are aggravated by the collusion between State and community leaders. This relationship is guided by a culturally relativist approach, based on a hierarchy of oppression where women’s human rights are constantly disregarded.

Mimi Unamoyo and Marie-Thérèse N’Landu, both human rights activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo currently living in the UK, gave poignant accounts of the ordeal of Congolese women. In Mimi’s worNICEM photo 2ds, women in her country have been experiencing the devastating effects of violence for too long. A hideous consequence of the war in Congo has been the systematic rape of women and young girls, used as a weapon of war because of its destructive impact on whole communities. Significantly, Marie-Thérèse added that  lack of international concern for the plight of women in her country contributes to the severity of the situation.

Finally, Aleksandra Lojek shared her experiences working alongside Polish and other minority ethnic communities in Belfast to reduce the fear of crime and to support victims of hate crime and abuse. As she pointed out, one serious problem faced by victims of domestic violence is the lack of understanding and support from women in their own community. The inability to access services in their native language also prevents some women from receiving the help they need, as domestic abuse is too sensitive an issue to be discussed in the presence of an interpreter.

The presentations were followed by workshops in which participants enthusiastically shared their own experiences, providing valuable information on the real situation of BME women in Northern Ireland and the impact and progress of current anti-discrimination policies. Some of the important points raised in the discussion groups include:

  • The need to empower and capacitate the still quite underdeveloped BME women’s sector in Northern Ireland.
  • The importance of educating BME women and the society in general on how to recognise and combat cultural traditions which hold back women’s rights.
  • How women’s experiences in their countries impact on their lives in the UK.

The conference is expected to be the beginning of a fruitful debate on how to address these very important issues. There will be  follow up  research and events designed to encourage participation of community members in the CEDAW monitoring process so that the voices of BME women in Northern Ireland will be heard by government representatives in a way that might not be possible otherwise. Only then can women help transform the Convention into a truly living document while contributing to setting high standards for women’s human rights.

NICEM have a blog dedicated to their work on the CEDAW process, which is updated regularly, please do check it out!

Women here have neither control nor voice

This week BIHR attended the launch of ‘State of the Estate’ Women in Prison’s report on the women’s custodial estate. The report is significant because it offers the first examination of the UK government’s progress on meeting international human rights standards on the treatment of women offenders, commonly known as the Bangkok rules. The UK, along with other UN member states, voted for the Bangkok rules in December 2010. In doing so ‘all UN member states acknowledged the gender specific characteristics of women in the criminal justice system and agreed to respect and meet the particular needs arising from these characteristics.’ Put simply, women have different needs, their experience of the criminal justice system is different, and if we are to treat our women prisoners fairly and humanely we must develop a system that works for them.

So what kind of differences are we talking about? There are many factors that make women’s experience of the criminal justice system distinct from that of male offenders. Pregnancy, maternity, and the fact that the majority of women prisoners are primary carers for children are some of the most obvious differences. However there are a multitude of other complex issues to address when looking at the needs of women prisoners. High levels of mental health problems, substance misuse, self-harm, and experiences of violence against women are just some of the challenges facing our female prison population.

Rachel Brett from the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva gave an interesting insight into the negotiations behind the Bangkok Rules. She told us how many European countries came to the discussions expecting their standards for the treatment of women prisoners to be better than those in poorer countries. In reality this wasn’t always the case. There were many poorer countries who are treating incarcerated women much better than western counterparts, showing that the treatment of prisoners is not simply a resource issue. The case has been made time and time again, in the Corston Report and elsewhere, that reforming the way we treat women In the criminal justice system doesn’t actually need to cost anything, and if some of the more bold reforms were implemented, they may actually be cost saving.

Leah Thorn, a poet and writer with a wealth of experience of running creative workshops in women’s prisons in the UK, told us about her recent experience of travelling to a number of correctional institutions in the USA. There practices such as shackling women in labour, and the strip searching of women prisoners by male guards still occur. She spoke eloquently about some of the experiences of degrading treatment women had shared with her, both in the US and the UK, and the need to push for these practices to be stopped using human rights standards.

That is what State of the Estate highlights so brilliantly, the links between individual women’s experiences and international human rights standards. We know from our work at BIHR that it can be difficult to make this link, to understand how rules and regulations made at a UN level actually have relevance to our lives. State of the Estate illustrates that this doesn’t need to be the case. It shows how international human rights standards can help us identify practical changes in policy and practice that can make a real, tangible difference to the lives of vulnerable and marginalised people in institutional settings such as prisons. How human rights standards can make a difference in places where rights are often most at risk.

Don’t teach me what to wear, tell your sons not to rape

This week the London School of Economics Gender Institute  in collaboration with Imkaan and the South Asia Solidarity Group organised an open meeting in solidarity with India’s anti-rape protests and to confront gender violence in Britain.

The highlight of the meeting, attended by women’s organisations, academics, activists and interested individuals, was the input from Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. Kavita joined the meeting from India via Skype and spoke eloquently about the situation in India and how the brutal gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a bus in Delhi has led to protests on an unprecedented scale, and prompted a rare opportunity for debate and discussion about violence against women and girls (VAWG) in India, and all over the world.

Much of the meeting focused on how we challenge a culture of acceptance towards VAWG, both in India and the UK. Kavita told us about the victim blaming attitudes that plagued the commentary in India immediately after the attack, calling for further restrictions on women in the name of their safety, and in the process subliminally blaming women for the violence that happens to them.

Blaming women for the violence they experience is not a problem unique to India. Marai Larasi, director of Imkaan, spoke of the recent revelations involving Jimmy Savile, and the culture of acceptance that allowed Savile to perpetrate abuse, unimpeded, for so long. Marai also highlighted the need to not ‘other’ VAWG by exoticising it; it isn’t a problem unique to other countries or other cultures, it is prevalent here in the UK, and many of the root causes are the same.

Internationally, violence against women is widely recognised as a human rights issue. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon identified VAWG as one of the most ‘heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world.’ The European Court of Human Rights has made a number of recent rulings against countries that fail to protect women from violence.

The UK Government has been outspoken about VAWG as a human rights issue in the developing world, however when it comes to recognising VAWG here in the UK as a human rights abuse that urgently needs addressing, Government ministers tend to be less vocal.

The Savile case is a prime example of the state failing in it’s duty to protect women from violence. Various public authorities, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Police, and the BBC were all in the firing line when news of the scandal broke and details emerged, however what has been largely absent from the commentary is any recognition that violence against women perpetrated on this scale is a serious human rights abuse.

The Savile case, and others before it, have shown time and time again that there are problems with the ‘systems’ responsible for dealing with violence against women in the UK, and coupled with a culture that normalises violence towards women, we are left living in a society where violence against women is not challenged. Human rights, and the Human Rights Act in particular, have a key role in helping to fix this broken system, however the first step is to recognise VAWG as a human rights abuse that urgently needs addressing in the first place.

Human Rights: shining a light on violence against women

The 25th November marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of 16 Days of Activism on gender violence which leads up to global Human Rights Day on 10 December. The link between the two days is important; reminding us that violence against women and girls is an abuse of human rights.

What do we mean by VAWG?

In 1993 the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defined violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

VAWG as a human rights issue

Violence against women and girls (VAWG) remains one of the most widespread human rights violations worldwide. The international system recognises that VAWG threatens the fundamental rights of women and girls including the rights to life, not to be treated in cruel, inhuman or degrading ways, to liberty and security of person, equal protection under the law, to equality in the family and to physical and mental health.

“Violence against women continues to persist as one of the most heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world. It is a threat to all women, and an obstacle to all our efforts for development, peace, and gender equality in all societies. Violence against women is always a violation of human rights; it is always a crime; and it is always unacceptable. Let us take this issue with the deadly seriousness that it deserves.” Ban Ki moon, United Nations Secretary General, who launched the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign in 2008.


VAWG is not restricted by country borders, cultures, ages or social status. The UK is not exempt from this devastating abuse of human rights, the consequences of which exact a heavy toll on its victims and survivors, their families and society as a whole. For example, research suggests that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence during their lifetime and between 6 – 10% of women experience domestic violence in any given year, with domestic violence accounting for 16% of homelessness acceptances. At least 750,000 children a year witness domestic violence. Nearly three quarters of children on the ‘at risk’ register live in households where domestic violence occurs. There have been no convictions for female genital mutilation (FGM) since it was outlawed in 1985 in the UK, yet it is estimated that 23,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM. Approximately 85% of forced marriage cases dealt with by the Government Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) involve women and girls; the FMU deals with around 300 cases per annum. Research also suggests that each year 55,117 women aged 16-59 are raped, and 1 in 3 victims are subject to repeat victimisation. (All figures sourced from AVA Project)

Using human rights to take action

Under international law such as the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women the UK has concrete and clear obligations to address VAWG.  These obligations create important tools for lobbying and campaigning work. They are a measure which can be used to hold the UK to account.

The UK’s women’s sector is increasingly active is using the international framework to address VAWG issues. The UK is about to be scrutinised by the international committee that monitors compliance with CEDAW. There has been much work in the sector to capitalise on the opportunity to use this international human rights mechanism to raise violence against women issues, including the shadow reporting and lobbying work undertaken by the UK CEDAW working group.

Sadly the obligations in CEDAW and similar international agreements aren’t part of UK law, which means individual women cannot rely on them when seeking protection inside and outside the courts. However, we do have the Human Rights Act and this contains a range of domestically enforceable rights which are relevant to VAWG. Our rights under the HRA include the right not to be treated in an inhuman and degrading way; the right to respect for private and family life (including the right to physical and psychological integrity); the right to life; the right to be free from slavery and forced labour and the right to non-discrimination.

The HRA says that public authorities like social services, the police, and health professionals should not take action which violates our rights. Importantly, it also places specific positive obligations on public bodies to take proactive steps to prevent and address rights violations. For example, the Courts have said there are duties to investigate credible allegations of a breach the right to life, the prohibition on inhuman or degrading treatment, and the prohibition on slavery and forced labour. Decisions not to prosecute perpetrators of crime can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment where such decisions impact on a person’s sense of vulnerability. Similarly failure to conduct a proper investigation may amount to inhuman or degrading treatment.

At BIHR we have seen both public officials and advocacy groups use the HRA to help secure access to services for survivors of violence, without having to go to court. For example, when a woman and her children were denied housing, a social worker argued that the local authority had overriding positive obligations to protect the family’s rights to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, and successfully secured safe accommodation. In another example a women’s group used the HRA to help a woman challenge a decision to remove her children because she was in temporary accommodation after escaping an abusive father. The local authority subsequently found the family stable accommodation.

Speaking up for our rights

Examples like these show how using the HRA in advocacy can secure important and sometimes life changing outcomes. These real life, but so often untold, stories remind us why the Human Rights Act is important for all of us, how it is a vital safety net that can protect us at moments of vulnerability.

As the 16 days of activism kicks off, let’s use the opportunity to remind ourselves and those in power that violence against women is a human rights issue and just as we speak out against abuse we will also speak up for the Human Rights Act and the laws that protect us. Now is the time to Act.

To keep your Human Rights, Act.