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Women’s Rights

In 1995, First Lady of the United States Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the United Nations Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing and declared that “Women’s rights are human rights.” This is the most famous use of the phrase, but not the first and certainly not the last. Unfortunately, years later, the rights of women and girls are still being abused and go unpunished in many areas all over the world. Many governments boast about their records on human rights, but unless women’s rights are honored, their talk rings hollow.

A brief history of women’s rights

In 1792, English philosopher and writer Mary Wollstonecraft released A Vindication on the Rights of Women. Against the prevailing belief of her time, she stated that women are not by nature inferior to men. They aren’t given the opportunity to be equal because they aren’t given a good education. She argued that when women do receive an equal education, it would improve society as a whole. Over a century later, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland observed the first International Women’s Day on March, 1911. Over a million men and women rallied in support of women’s rights to vote, work, hold public office, and fully participate in society without discrimination.

In 1920 and 1938, respectively, the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, while the Fair Labor Standards Act established a federal minimum wage that didn’t discriminate based on sex. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that everyone was entitled to the rights in the document without discrimination based on traits like sex, race, religion, and so on. In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It would eventually become the second most ratified UN treaty on human rights.

In 1995, the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing, and Hillary Clinton declared that women’s rights are human rights. At the conference, 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Every five years, the platform is evaluated and appraised.

The current state of women’s rights

It may seem obvious to most people that women’s rights are human rights, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that reality doesn’t reflect this seemingly-simple phrase. All over the world, the rights of women and girls are violated and neglected in every area of life, including education, employment, property and health. Despite landmarks like the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the world is far from achieving gender equality. According to UN Women, a UN entity devoted to women’s empowerment:

  • 7 billion women don’t have the same employment choices as men.
  • Globally, the gender wage gap is 23%.
  • Women and girls are most affected by the lack of safe and affordable energy.
  • Women and children suffer the most from environmental issues.
  • Women and girls account for 71% of all human trafficking victims globally.
  • 650 million women are married before age 18.
  • On a global level, 80% of women can read compared to 89% of men.

From data like this, it’s clear that women’s rights are not truly being respected as human’s rights. Though progress is happening, it’s slow. According to a recent study by the World Economic Forum, closing the global gender gap will take 108 years. Achieving economic gender parity will take 202 years. These numbers were identified by comparing attitudes of gender equality on a global scale, and looking at factors such as access to education; the number of women in power and in professional positions; life expectancy; and literacy rates.

Why women’s rights matter

When women do better, everyone does better. This makes women’s rights important not just for women, but for an entire society. Education is crucial, and when women are given access to education, it has a positive effect on the rest of their lives. They are more likely to get better employment, marry older, and escape the cycle of poverty and its negative impacts. To put that education to use, however, countries need to give women equal employment opportunities. When that happens and more women work,  a nation’s wealth and productivity increase. Studies show there’s even a positive effect on a nation’s overall health when women’s rights are strong. This remains true even for countries with limited resources.

The health and growth of countries depends on women’s rights being prioritized as human rights. There are many landmarks events on women’s rights throughout history, and while the world has made impressive strides, a lot of work remains to be done. Significant, lasting changes requires both systematic transformations and perspective shifting within a society.

Free online courses in Women’s Rights

Learn more about Women’s Rights in these free online courses offered by the world’s most renowned universities for free.

Stanford University
University of Strathclyde
Case Western Reserve University
Royal Holloway University of London

Organizations working for  Women’s Rights

Learn more about the organizations advocating for women’s rights around the world.

With Humanity Towards Peace
A South African human rights organization with 39 years experience in human rights activism and public interest litigation.
Campaigning fThe Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, Democracy, the Rule of Law and International Justice
The Voice of The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Around the Globe
One woman can change anything, many women can change everything.
AWID is an international, feminist, membership organisation committed to achieving gender equality, sustainable development and women’s human rights.
Championing the human rights of women and girls around the world.
Human rights start with you
We respond to the world’s worst humanitarian crises & help people to survive, recover, and gain control of their future.
We work around the globe to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice.
Using the law to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world since 1992.
Step it up for gender equality

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.