Women’s Human Rights: 20 years after Vienna

by Charlotte Bunch

© Makers

Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, and one of the NGO leaders of the “Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights at Vienna" in 1993. Currently she is on the Board of the Global Fund for Women, the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch Women’s Division, and the Global Civil Society Advisory Group for UN Women.

The recognition that “women’s rights are human rights” at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 opened doors for women and feminist analysis of human rights in ways that changed both the women’s movement and human rights practice profoundly. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) affirmation of women's rights as full universal rights and identification of violence against women as a key issue initiated a process of integration of women and gender based abuses into human rights theory and practice that is still on-going. For feminists who had sought this recognition and often been dismissed, it was a moment of empowerment that led to new political and intellectual challenges as well as opportunities to translate these words into reality. 
The campaign to get women on the agenda in Vienna grew out of the global feminist movement’s efforts to make women’s voices heard not only at UN women’s conferences but also as part of other global agendas for peace, development, and human rights. A 1991 petition to the UN Conference asserting, “Violence against women violates human rights,” and calling on it “to comprehensively address women’s human rights at every level of its proceedings” touched a nerve in a movement ready to happen. Pre-internet, it was translated into 25 languages and quickly circulated in some 124 countries, arousing feminist interest in the upcoming conference and sparking debate over why women’s rights were not already considered human rights.


Press conference, Vienna 1993

Women in the global South and North demonstrated that gender based abuses were human rights issues through regional and global actions, including lobbying at regional preparatory meetings and holding satellite events and local hearings where women testified and analyzed how such abuses built on a human rights paradigm. This culminated in the day long Global Tribunal on Violations of Women's Human Rights which gave voice to the lived reality of daily abuses in the lives of women in every region and in every area, from violence in war and at home, to freedom of movement and the right to shelter.
“Women’s rights are human rights” was rapidly employed by those working to affirm reproductive and health rights in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, to reinforce women’s socio-economic rights at the Copenhagen Summit on Social Development in 1995, to produce a Platform for Action framed around human rights at the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. These ideas also took hold at the local and national level where activists held hearings on abuses of women’s human rights in many areas from armed conflict to poverty and climate change. Addressing issues from honor killings in Pakistan to reproductive rights in Peru, or welfare and housing in the USA, feminists have sought to hold governments accountable through human rights instruments. Vienna also inspired greater interest in the CEDAW women’s convention with women’s groups writing shadow reports about their governments’ implementation (or lack thereof) and demanding better national legislation as part of their compliance. Laws on violence against women improved dramatically in this time in most areas of the world. 
Soon after Vienna, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration Against Violence Against Women and the Human Rights Commission appointed the first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (VAW), its causes and consequences, which led to a rich field of work on human rights standards regarding VAW. In 1994, the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted its first resolution on gender integration, which has evolved into regular sessions at the Human Rights Council as well as a wide range of efforts to bring women’s perspectives more fully into work on human rights in all areas. For example, inclusion of gender based persecution and a gender quota for judges in the founding statute of the International Criminal Court broke new ground as did the first Security Council resolution (1325) on women. Many advances in human rights over the last two decades reflect growing gender awareness in areas like sexual violence in conflict, maternal mortality, and sexual orientation and gender identity.


Charlotte Bunch at the Vienna Tribunal, 1993

Advancing women's human rights was on an upward curve after Vienna, but the forces of backlash against such deep changes have also been strong, and many challenges remain in implementation. Few governments pay no more than lip service to these obligations, and with economic austerity on the rise, resources needed to bring about substantive equality for women are sorely lacking. Action on socio-economic aspects of sex discrimination languishes as does realization of most socio-economic rights. Most troubling is the growing gap between women whose economic and personal status has improved and those who have been left behind as the gap between rich and poor, connected and powerless, has widened in these 20 years.
The legitimation in Vienna of the urgency of combatting violence against women contributed to growing recognition of this concern. Nevertheless, impunity for violence against women still rages. The VDPA strongly affirmed that all human rights are universal and indivisible and the responsibility of the international community to protect.  Yet fundamentalist backlash against women's claims to equality, and especially to sexual and reproductive rights, has seized on national sovereignty, culture and religion as excuses for perpetuating patriarchal discrimination and violence. Pregs Govendar of South Africa has described patriarchy as “the one truly globally shared culture that expresses itself differently in local contexts” yet uses so called local practices as its justification. Growing violence and backlash against women's human rights defenders has brought some feminists and human rights groups into closer alliances, but it badly needs more attention and resources for progress toward gender justice to continue.
The world has changed considerably as women's rights are taken more seriously as human rights. More women all over the world today are standing up for their rights, speaking out on violations they endure and playing key roles in the public sphere. The Vienna conference and VDPA played a key role in advancing this human rights revolution. Vienna+20 needs to highlight both the progress and the continuing obstacles to realization of these rights. (14 June 2013)

Further reading

Minky Worden (Ed.) (2012) The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights, Human Rights Watch, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012.

Bunch, Charlotte (2012) How Women’s Rights Became Human Rights (First Chapter in the abovementioned book)

Charlotte Bunch and Niamh Reilly (1994) Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights, Center for Women's Global Leadership, UNIFEM: 1994.