The Conditions of Women’s Human Rights

“My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you.”

Audre Lorde had it right when she said that women have been taught to respect fear more than their own need for language. Every time she spoke up for women rights, she asked herself one question, “ What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?” She knew that her speaking out would irritate some people, she would be termed “irritable” or hypersensitive and her truth would disrupt some dinner parties. But every time a woman spoke up for a cause, she knew that more and more women would follow suit: “Until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.”

Audre Lorde was right when she said that the law and the world had to change; and indeed it did change. The world changed and became a global community bound together by the United Nations and once that happened, the law changed. What was once oppressive and discriminatory now became a liberating force and the flag bearer of justice. The marginalized got a voice, the persecuted finally had a savior and the weak had a knight in the shining armor, in the form of international human rights law. Treaties were drafted, committees were set up and work began with full force. The women were definitely given their share of representation in this system. In fact that is how a separate charter for women i.e. CEDAW came into being. The conditions in the world changed. Where women were once oppressed, they now had a voice. Where they were once seen as “property”, they were now thought of as human beings with their own set of rights. Where once it was considered that a woman’s only job was to please her husband, it now became understood that women were a major part of a country’s political set up and hence they were granted equal civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights along with men. Now while all of this is well and good, yet the reality is that women still suffer-they, even in the 21st century, undergo torture, physical abuse, and are a victim of discrimination and marginalization. Even now, they are considered to be the weaker sex.

International law has done wonders for the world, no doubt. We are much better off now than we were before. With treaties like ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, CAT, CRC- the world is a better place definitely, but then again, countries have signed these treaties and then flouted their precepts with impunity. This just goes to show that there is still a long way to go before things actually change for the weaker sections of the community. CEDAW remains one of the most commonly violated human rights treaties-one only has to look at the horrendous condition of women in most of the countries of the world to know that this statement is true.

Let’s take a look at the Indonesian example where they have decided to impose virginity tests on female recruits and fiancés of military officers in the Indonesian armed forces. This test is conducted on all female recruits for all branches of the military- air force, army and navy. The only women who were exempted from this were those who had powerful connections or who could bribe the military doctors who administered the tests. The test includes the two-finger test to determine whether the applicants’ hymens are intact. The test occurs in military hospitals with female military applicants being tested in a large hall divided into curtains-separated examination rooms. Fiancés of military officials have to undergo this test too, in a similar manner. Apparently, Indonesian military believes that these tests are crucial in preserving the “dignity and honor of the nation.” They defend it by saying things like, “It ensures high moral standards,” and they further argue that if they cannot defend their honor, how can they defend the honor of their nation.

Indonesia has not only signed but has also ratified CEDAW. CEDAW’s main purpose was to put an end to discriminatory behavior towards women. These virginity tests violate the prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under ICCPR article 7 and Article 16 of the Convention against torture, both of which Indonesia has ratified. This is a form of gender based violence. The test has no scientific validity because the tear in the hymen or variations in the size of the hymen may be due to any reason, which might not even be related to sex at all. This practice violates article 2(e) of CEDAW which states that state parties must take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise. Despite criticisms from the international community, Indonesia has not taken any step to put an end to this degrading practice.

Marital rape is another recurring practice being followed in many countries around the world. The common notion is that a wife cannot possibly be raped by her husband. It seems that people believe that if a woman has agreed to marry a man she has simultaneously agreed to fulfill all of his demands, regardless of whether she wants to do it or not. But, recently there has been a global recourse over this issue and fortunately for the women, marital rape has been recognized as a crime under which the abusive spouse must be punished. Bills have been drafted and certain states around the world have criminalized marital rape, but that doesn’t mean it has stopped. Take for example, the Indian Domestic Violence Act of 2005 which recognized sexual abuse as marital rape but it only offers a civil recourse which means that they can’t actually imprison the abusive spouse. This again results in violation of basic human rights which are granted under the international covenants and treaties like CEDAW. Marital rape is rape; a mere piece of paper acknowledging a marriage doesn’t change its definition. The world needs to move out of this ideology that “what happens between a husband and a wife behind closed doors is their private matter”, that doesn’t hold ground anymore because if behind those closed doors a woman is being tortured, beaten up or if she is being forced to sleep with her husband, that’s not private. That’s a full out public issue which must be addressed as soon as possible.

As for Pakistan, yes the women have become more vocal in asking for their rights and changes in the law but the facts remain that around two thirds of Pakistani women are illiterate ad more than a 1,000 women and girls are victims of honor killings each year. About 70 to 90% women have faced domestic violence. Pakistan ranks at 135th position in the world in terms of gender equality, as mentioned in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. Of course there are laws and courts and yes, Pakistan is a part of the global community but much like its counterparts such as India and Indonesia, Pakistani women are still subjected to incredible horrors of domestic violence, discrimination and gender inequality.

In the words of Saddam Hussein, “Women make up one half of society. Our society will remain backward and in chains unless its women are liberated, enlightened and educated. What’s being done is good enough but there is still room for much more improvement in this regard. Existing laws must be amended and new laws must be created to make sure that women are provided the rights that must be granted to all human beings by virtue of their being human. There is no more room for fear, hesitation or silence. It is only through a global effort can these conditions be changed and the world can turn from being a “man’s world” to a world that is more favorable for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, culture or religion.

Saadia Farooq

Author: Saadia Farooq

The writer is a student at Kinnaird College for Women University, Lahore. She has also interned for CourtingTheLaw and is a scholar under CourtingtheLaw’s National Scholarship Program.