Women's rights as human rights: Understanding the struggle for equality

- March 4, 2020

Mariana Pradini Assis, a postdoctoral fellow in Harm Reduction as Public Policy at the Health Law Institute. (Provided photo)
Mariana Pradini Assis, a postdoctoral fellow in Harm Reduction as Public Policy at the Health Law Institute. (Provided photo)

The expression "women’s rights are human rights" became a rallying cry for feminists far and wide in the early 1990s, giving renewed purpose to a long-running struggle for gender equity.

As feminists fought for these rights to be added to the international agenda, they argued that denying them meant denying rights for half of humanity,

“The recognition that women’s rights are human rights is a result of a history of struggle,” explained Mariana Pradini Assis, a postdoctoral fellow in Harm Reduction as Public Policy at the Health Law Institute, in a lecture on campus last week.

Assis — a human rights lawyer and researcher in her home country Brazil —gave a glimpse into this and other important junctures in the evolution of feminism during her lecture, which was part of the Faculty’s Mini Law School series. Launched in 2010, the Schulich School of Law series is open to everyone and intended to give the general public a glimpse into legal education and contemporary issues in law.

From women as passive subjects to gender ideology

Assis, who holds a PhD in Politics from the New School for Social Research in New York City, began her lecture by focusing on the late 1800s and moved through four phases of advancements throughout history. At the beginning of the fight (1880-1939), “men were subjects of rights, autonomous, capable of waging wars and protecting themselves, and women were seen as passive objects of protection and care in the private space,” said Assis. Women advocated for equal rights to men during this time.

The second phase, which followed the end of the Second World War until the 1980 or so, was characterized by the establishment of the United Nations and the widespread adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1975 was declared the international year for women and 1975-1985 was inaugurated as the international decade for women, a period that encompassed a third phase (1980 until the late 2000s). During this period, women’s rights activism moved into both the private and public spheres of life and feminism was adopted into the mainstream.

Each phase fought to diminish heterosexual stereotypes, to achieve political advancements and improve women’s wellbeing, despite a long-standing battle for acceptance, explained Assis. Over time, feminists continued to fight, increased discourse and questioned gender stereotypes — the socially constructed way that we view what it means to be a man or a woman (the idea that boys wear blue and girls wear pink is an example of this concept).

The struggle lives on

Eventually, LGBTQI struggles, also resorting to gender as a central category of analysis, became more visible during a fourth phase (begun in the late 2000s and continuing today) and more conservative activists fought back. To some of these groups, embracing gender meant not only undermining the traditional hierarchical division and social roles of men and women, but also questioning this very binary and heteronormativity, said Assis.

As the concept of gender was up for debate, two sides were attempting to claim gender as their own. On one side, you had the LBGTQ+ activists representing gender as a gay or trans identity and on the other women activists representing gender as an identity for women, explained Assis.

Today, both sides continue to fight and both sides continue to struggle.

“Struggling separated is not productive and taking us anywhere further,” said Assis. “In order to react to this current gender backlash, we need to work together and acknowledge that gender is a concept and a category that is relevant for both struggles.”

Mini Law School sessions are held every month. The next lecture, titled “Who gets the dog?”, with Professor Jodi Lazare will be held on March 25.


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