Mary Robinson, U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights

(WOMENSENEWS)–The ink is drying on the final document produced at the controversy-plagued World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance that ended in the wee hours Saturday.

Many women around the globe were discouraged by the scant attention given to the intersection of race and gender at the conference.

However, one significant document detailing the complex interaction between race and gender was issued prior to the beginning of the conference: a special report from Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the World Conference Against Racism. Below are excerpts.

Gender Dimension of Racism Calls for Close Attention

A gender analysis of racial discrimination recognizes that racial discrimination does not affect men and women equally, or in the same way.

To promote and protect the rights of all persons to be free from racial discrimination, it is necessary to ensure the rights of women when they are similarly situated to men and when they are not. There are circumstances in which women suffer racial discrimination of a different kind or to a different degree than men, or in which discrimination primarily affects women. …

–The form: One can ask what is the nature of the particular injury, infringement or obstacle experienced by a victim of race, gender and race and gender? For example, women of a particular racial or ethnic group may be the victims of trafficking in sexual slavery. Or, as we have seen in many recent conflicts, women of particular ethnic or religious groups may be targeted for sexual abuse.

–The context: In what legal or practical situation or context does gender-based racial discrimination or race-based gender discrimination or sexual abuse occur? For example, a particular racial or ethnic group of women may face added discrimination where there are inadequate labor laws and safety standards to protect them.

–The consequences of violation: What are the particular consequences or impact of violations experienced by victims due to their gender or race? In racial and ethnic conflicts, women who are sexually abused due to their ethnicity or race often become pregnant as a result. In many countries, there are social or legal barriers to women who seek redress for rape or sexual abuse, thus adding to their suffering.

–The availability and accessibility of recourse procedures and remedies: To what extent does race and gender limit or act as a barrier to recourse procedures and remedies? Illiteracy, lack of resources, restriction on access to public places and lack of legal standing, amongst other barriers, may act as limits to women members of particular racial or ethnic groups. …

Racism and Gender Discrimination Treated as Two Distinct Problems

In some circumstances, women belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group may face dual or multiple forms of racial discrimination based on race, gender, religion, nationality, social class, caste, age and other social status.

Racism is frequently linked to hatred and intolerance of other facets of identity, including sexual orientation. These factors are differences that make a difference to the ways in which particular women experience discrimination. Yet the United Nations, governments, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations have often addressed racial and gender discrimination as two separate problems, leaving women faced by multiple forms of discrimination unsure of where to turn to for redress. …

Intersection of Gender and Racial Discrimination

–Gender-based violence: Women tend to face higher rates of violence because discrimination on the basis of gender renders them among the most powerless members of society. Racial discrimination often results in violence. Women who face discrimination based on both race and gender are thus doubly at risk of violence. …

Few countries recognize gender-based violence as a ground for asylum. Women migrants subjected to domestic violence may not report the abuse they suffer for fear of losing their legal status in their new country, especially where this status is dependent on that of their spouse.

Some countries grant immigration privileges to women who can prove domestic violence, but the level of proof is often very high, sometimes requiring a police conviction, caution or court order. Because of language difficulties, immigrant women may also have limited access to lawyers or legal aid or may fear reporting abuses to the police.

–Women and poverty: The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women. Women of disadvantaged racial groups are even more adversely affected by poverty, particularly because of their lack of access to education and training programs, and limited employment opportunities. …

Government cuts in social spending, including unemployment insurance, tend to affect women from certain racial or ethnic groups more than others, especially single mothers or female heads-of-households.

The combined effects of gender and racial discrimination may also limit women’s access to economic resources, such as loans and credit, or to land and property, and can determine their treatment under the social welfare system. These limitations can increase the risk of falling into poverty. …

–Women and education: Figures disaggregated by sex, but not by race, show that the literacy rate for women, worldwide is 71.48 percent compared to 83.71 percent for men. In developing countries, the literacy rate for men is 59.19 percent, while for women it is only 39.3 percent. Of the 130 million school-age children who do not receive an education, 73 million are girls. Of the 960 million illiterate adults, two-thirds are women. Although these statistics are not disaggregated by race, other evidence suggests that women and girls of disadvantaged racial, ethnic, immigrant and indigenous groups have fewer educational resources. …

There are emerging innovative programs that challenge racial and gender stereotypes, by encouraging education and training for women of disadvantaged groups, particularly for fields formerly closed to them, such as science and mathematics. Because education and training are closely linked to employment opportunities and economic success, addressing race and gender inequalities is a significant key to securing women’s rights in other areas.

Women in the labor market: Discriminatory and exploitive labor practices disproportionately affect women of disadvantaged communities and limit their employment opportunities. Women from particular racial groups, indigenous women and other minority women seeking employment may have to resort to working in free trade zones, the underground economy, or informal sectors because of their sex, race, ethnicity and language limitations.

In these sectors, women are increasingly subjected to poor working environments, minimal or no social protection and low wages. Wage disparities among workers of different racial groups combine with wage disparities between women and men to leave minority women at the bottom of the labor market.

It is mainly women from the South who constitute the cheap and flexible labor force, where labor laws are often lacking, unionization is weak and unemployment is high. These women tend to work in domestic service and other service and entertainment sectors where the potential for abuse is high and discrimination, based on sexist and racist attitudes, is common.

In many countries migrant workers may be bound to a particular type of employment or to a particular employer. For example, migrant domestic workers are usually contracted to a particular employer. It is not unusual for such workers to lose their residence status on termination of their contract and to become illegal immigrants in their country of migration if they do not repatriate.

–Women and trafficking: Trafficking is usually perceived as an issue of gender discrimination and the racial dimension of the practice is usually overlooked. However, race and ethnicity can be a push or pull factor in trafficking because of the limited avenues for legal migration, which are affected by their lower education and employment opportunities, and because of social inequalities and economic disparities within and between states.

Women from certain racial and ethnic groups, indigenous women and migrant women are more vulnerable to trafficking, forced labor or slavery-like practices because existing economic, political and social structures fail to provide equal opportunities for these women, and because their rights are frequently violated in their countries of origin.

Racial discrimination may not only constitute a risk factor for trafficking, it may also determine the treatment that such women receive at their destination.

For example, 80 percent of women who have been trafficked to the west come from Central and Eastern Europe. These women, many of whom become prostitutes, have faced triple discrimination: as women, as foreigners, and as prostitutes. …

–Women and health: A number of factors, including racial discrimination, can prevent women from receiving adequate health care. In many countries, for example, women from certain racially disadvantaged groups show disproportionately higher rates of HIV-AIDS than women from other ethnic groups. In numerous societies, women not only lack power over their bodies and sexual lives, but those with HIV infection may also be blamed for spreading HIV-AIDS.

Forced sterilization and other coercive birth control measures frequently target women of particular racial groups. In some countries, financial or other incentives have been offered to such women to undergo sterilization.

Women of some racial communities have been (mis)informed and encouraged to participate in the use of experimental reproductive technologies. Differences in rates of maternal and child mortality also exist among races, with indigenous and minority women showing higher rates of maternal mortality than women of other groups. …

–Women and armed conflict: During situations of armed conflict, ethnic or race-based violence, systematic rape, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, sexual abuse, sexual slavery and other grave human rights violations against women of a particular racial group are common.

In such circumstances, women are specifically targeted for these forms of abuse, not only because of their race and sex, but also because they may be perceived as representing the honor of the persecuted ethnic group. Violence against women is frequently part of the war strategy to undermine the morale of a community. …

In some cases, women were deliberately impregnated to dishonor an ethnic group; in other cases, women were sexually mutilated to make them incapable of reproducing. Rape and other forms of sexual violence have also been used as instruments of persecution against particular racial or ethnic groups.

During the post-conflict period, women who had been subjected to sexual violence faced additional problems such as pregnancy, guilt, community stigma and social ostracism. Remedies for rape and sexual abuse may be inaccessible in some societies because of social and legal barriers.

–Women and decision-making: Despite the fact that women constitute half of the world’s population, in no country of the world are women represented in the same numbers as men in decision-making positions. In general, women comprise only 12 percent of all legislative bodies in the world, and an even smaller percentage of women (0 percent in some countries) hold ministerial and sub-ministerial positions. …

–Women in the criminal justice system: In countries where mandatory sentencing policies have an adverse impact on race and gender, women constitute the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. Laws limiting prisoners’ access to the courts restrict remedies for women bringing challenges to dual and multiple forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Abuse of women in prison is a common occurrence. Most are low income, and, unlike racial minority men who may be convicted of violent crimes, many have been incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

Women are also more likely than men to be subjected to rape by law enforcement officials and also run the risk of gender discrimination during the judicial process.

Foreign domestic workers and women who enter a country illegally may be at a great risk of detention and sexual and physical abuse. Moreover, foreign domestic workers who have been subjected to sexual violence or rape in the course of their work may find themselves incarcerated when seeking redress for such abuses, since some societies perceived them as offenders rather than victims.

–Women’s access to complaint mechanisms: When seeking redress, mechanisms for reporting and remedying discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, social class, caste, age and other status may be inaccessible to many women because of their lack of legal standing, restrictions on their access to public places, bias in the judicial system, cultural insensitivity and illiteracy.

Immigrant women may not wish to report cases of domestic violence or labor rights violations for fear of compromising their legal status in their host country. …

Immigrant women from certain societies are often denied their rights to divorce, custody or protection from domestic violence because law enforcement officials believe that these women would lack redress for such claims in their own culture.

Mary Robinson is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former president of Ireland.

For more information:

World Conference Against Racism:

The complete report: “Gender Dimensions of Racial Discrimination”: (PDF format, 136K)