(WOMENSENEWS)–Eleanor Roosevelt was one of only 17 female delegates from 11 countries at the U.N.’s founding in London in 1946, but supported by a robust nongovernmental community of activists, they immediately issued a statement calling for women to engage in public affairs—to come forward and share in the work of peace and reconstruction, as they had done in the war itself. They created an independent Commission on the Status of Women and then prevailed upon the Human Rights Commission to guarantee explicit rights to “all human beings” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not just to men.

The UDHR thus stakes a landmark claim that discrimination against women be viewed as a necessary and appropriate matter of international concern, not as a category privileged and protected by local sovereignty or by local customary or religious practices governing marriage and family relations. It also recognizes that women oppressed in private places cannot realistically claim their legitimate rights as human beings. The state must be obligated to extend rights to women and eliminate everyday forms of discrimination.

Off the radar screen of Cold War warriors skeptical of human rights, the Commission on the Status of Women then managed to draft and negotiate the adoption of binding treaties governing women’s political rights, nationality rights, consent and minimum age of marriage, property rights, educational opportunities and labor standards. Path breaking studies were also conducted documenting continued challenges and leading to a new emphasis on the responsibility to provide women not just legal protections, but also greater benefits of development assistance. This work belies the common accusation that this agenda was a Western invention.

Rare Agreement

In 1967, a formal Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was written, and the following year the U.N. marked the 20th anniversary of the UHDR with a special conference in Tehran, Iran, where women’s rights provided a rare arena of agreement between Russians, eager to call attention to the educational and employment opportunities their government had granted women, and Americans, for whom these issues were gaining momentum as a result of an emerging second wave of feminism. The conference adopted resolutions encouraging support for a legal rights project to address gender discrimination and development assistance targeted to women, especially in largely agricultural economies based on women’s labor. Most significantly, it identified family planning as a basic human right and paved the way for the establishment of a U.N. fund for population.

Between 1975 and 1995, the U.N. sponsored four international conferences on women that produced wildly optimistic blueprints for the achievement of concrete gains. They have since been dismissed by some as lacking both focus and practical strategies for implementation, while others insist that however often they may still be unrealized or violated, these programs for action have raised awareness, shaped aspirations and in countless significant and concrete ways helped change laws and alter behaviors.


In 1979, following two decades of documentation and deliberation, the UN Declaration on Women was codified as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, commonly known as CEDAW. This visionary international women’s bill of rights cautiously acknowledges the importance of traditional obligations to the family but also establishes new norms for participation by women in all dimensions of life. It gives precise definition and actionable protection to a broad range of women’s rights in marriage and family relations, including property and inheritance and access to health care, with an explicit mention of family planning. It establishes the principle of equal protection for women as citizens in their own right entitled to suffrage, political representation and other legal benefits; to education, including elementary and secondary education that provides professional and vocational training free of gender stereotypes and segregation; and to formal employment, deserving of equal pay, social security benefits and protection from sexual harassment and workplace discrimination on the grounds of marriage or maternity.

One hundred and eighty-eight U.N. member states have now ratified CEDAW—giving it the active participation of more U.N. member states than any other treaty—with the stunning exception of the United States, which continues to reside in the unlikely company of Iran, Sudan, Somalia and a few Pacific Island nations in having failed to ratify. President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1979 and sent it to the Senate, where it has languished ever since because of the high bar of 67 votes necessary for ratification and the fierce opposition of conservatives to international entanglements and women’s rights.

In 1992, CEDAW was expanded so that gender-based violence is also formally identified as a fundamental violation of human rights, and governments are encouraged to take action. This breakthrough drew on claims by feminists of evidence of demonstrable abuses of women “including torture, starvation, terrorism and even murder” that continue to be routinely accepted without legal recourse in many places. “Crimes such as these against any group other than women would be recognized as a civil and political emergency as well as a gross violation of the victim’s humanity,” Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, and one of our distinguished contributors, wrote in a path breaking 1990 article in Human Rights Quarterly. In 1993, at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights, drawing on a slogan that originated with a grassroots coalition of Philippine women, Bunch first made the claim that “women’s rights are human rights,” which Hillary Rodham Clinton, another prominent contributor to this volume, then memorably incorporated into her remarks at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and made a global mantra.

Rights Today

We now approach the 20th anniversary of the Beijing summit with growing interest of policymakers in the issues raised there, but with public support compromised by increasing politicization—too often verging on demonization—of the women and girls’ agenda. The U.N.—where women have long gathered with big dreams and secured historic legal and institutional changes to achieve them—has itself come under renewed and relentless attack as it seeks to build on the accomplishments and address the failures of its much heralded Millennium Development Goals with a new and refined set of aspirations for sustainable development post 2015. Criticism comes not only from conservatives opposed to multi-lateral alliances and to the universal standards for human rights and social justice the U.N. has long promoted, but also from many progressives understandably troubled by the institution’s structural weaknesses, inefficiencies and frequent failure to deliver on the promises it makes. Still, our contributors—many of whom have spent decades working within or lobbying around the U.N.—remain committed to holding the institution accountable, along with its member states.

This volume reminds us that we still need independent women’s rights organizations to tackle inextricable, cultural  and  legal  discrimination and deeply embedded structural

inequalities. Long-term success in shifting practices that harm women and girls will require continued support for instrumental, ground-based strategies at work alongside strong, sustainable advocacy movements. This is what policymakers often refer to as an “enabling environment.”

This book excerpt has been reprinted with permission from “Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World,” edited by Ellen Chesler and Terry McGovern, Routledge, 2016.