Resources on the WAO Training on Human Rights of Women

Posted on 18 April 2001

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) Training on Human Rights of Women

Topics Women's Realities - Understanding Some Concepts
  Law & The Legal System
  Rights as a Tool for Change
  The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
  Addressing Violence Against Women As A Human Rights Violation


 WAO conducted a three-day training for various NGOs on the human rights of women in collaboration with The International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWARAW) Asia Pacific.

Broad Objectives:

  • To create a conceptual clarity on:
    Sex and Gender
    Institutions and In Equality
    Human Rights of Women;

  • To develop an understanding of the law in promoting or hindering women's rights;

  • To provide a conceptual understanding of the barriers to establishing women's rights as human rights;

  • To raise awareness on the significance of the Convention in promoting women's development within a rights framework and to develop skills in using the Convention to advance women's rights in the local context through law and policy reform;

  • To understand that Violence Against Women (VAW) is a Violation of Human Rights;

  • To understand that VAW is a manifestation of discrimination and a denial of wide range of rights.

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Summary of Topics:



    Social Construction of Gender - Part I: Sex & Gender
    Sex is the biological attributes of male and female, and gender is the socially constructed attributes of being male or female, or femininity and masculinity. The gender differences between males and females are usually based on sex differences. The magnification of biological differences, known as the representation of the ideology of sex difference, is used to justify unequal treatment of women and men. The power of this ideology lies in the way it encompasses fundamental cultural and social values concerning its relations between men and women, as well as the force of history underlying its evolution. History and cultural variations in the construction of gender relations has proven that these can be changed.

    The ideology of gender determines:

    • What is expected of us
    • What is allowed of us
    • What is valued in us

    The ideology of gender also determines the nature and extent of:
    • Disadvantage
    • Disparity
    • Discrimination

    The manifestation of gender difference can be found in the construction of:
    • Roles - what women and men do
    • Relations - how women and men relate to each other
    • Identity - how women and men perceive themselves

    The ideology of gender thus contains norms and rules regarding appropriate behaviour and determines attributes; it also reproduces a range of beliefs and customs to support these norms and social rules. Norms and social rules have fundamental significance in the way rights, responsibilities and resources are allocated to women and men. Asymmetries and inequalities thus grow to represent "conflicts" of interests that challenges the way social rules are constructed, thereby challenging the entire organisation of society. There are four coping strategies which women use to negotiate these changes, depending on the ability or capacity of the women to risk the way their lives have been led:

    • Acceptance
    • Accommodation
    • Adaptation (involving negotiation and bargaining
    • Resistance

    Social Construction of Gender - Part II: Institutions& Insecurities

    Unpacking Institutions: The Official Picture Social norms or rules are "ways of doing things" or patterns that become routine over a period of time. These patterns are so socially legitimized that they become reproduced with the economy, because of the intricate ways in which identity and roles are intertwined. The power of social rules lies in the fact that they appear to be consensual and non-negotiable, while in fact they are based on inequality and power equations.

    Women's relationship to rights are not unilinear or simple. We need to unpack the interlinkages between discrimination against women and the structural basis of inequality by looking at the way social rules are structured in different institutions of society.

    Looking at the ways in which institutions reproduce inequality will thus have serious implications on the way we demand rights. This will also enable us to consider the nature of relationships that need to be addressed.


    Unpacking Institutions: The Unofficial Picture

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    Towards Substantive Equality - Part I: Formal vs. Substantive Equality
    The concept of equality has been problematic because the term equality of women is conventionally understood to mean "the right to be equal to men". The basis for this understanding rose from the fact that women faced gross inequalities in relation to employment opportunities, wages, access to and enjoyment of health, rights within the family, citizenship etc. At this level of argument, being equal to men is understood to mean having equal rights to men.

    There are two sets of differences between men and women: sex/biological differences and gender differences (refer to above).

    Ever since women have been laying a claim to equality, there have been several approaches to equality.


    • The formal model of equality
      This model regards men and women as being the same and therefore sets out to women the same as men. The implication of this is that women must be treated according to male standards. The problem with this model is that it does not take into consideration the biological and gender differences between women and men. Women cannot have access to or benefit from opportunities in the same manner as men when there is so much difference between the conditions of women and men. Or if they do, it will be at a great expense to themselves. If rules or procedure, expected behaviour, processes by which a task is carried out, institutional arrangements etc. are the same for women and men, then women would be disadvantaged because of the differences between them. The formal model of equality adopts what can be called single standard rules.

    • The protectionist approach
      This approach would require the women to be barred from doing certain things in their own interest. Protectionist approaches see the differences between women and men but constitute these differences as weakness or inferiority in women.

    • The substantive model of equality
      The Convention promotes the substantive model of equality. This model adopts the corrective approach. This approach recognises difference. The recognition of difference in the Convention is based on the premise that women are in unequal position because they face current discrimination, or they come bearing the effects of past discrimination, or that the environment, at the family and public levels, is hostile to women's autonomy. This approach assesses specific provisions or rules to see whether the rule in question contributes to women's subordination in the short or long term, whether it builds on existing subordination, thus reinforcing it, or whether it helps to overcome that insubordination.

      The corrective approach requires that socially constructed differences need to be changed. Such social change does not come about without risk and it is essential that within the project, there are components that anticipate the risk and help women cope with the risk. In this regard, the participation of women in the design of the project and the processes of implementation is essential. While social change may come at a price, it is often far more sustainable and transformatory in the long term if it represents a move from dependency to autonomy. The challenge is to know when to take note of difference, and to decide on appropriate measures for different treatment that will facilitate equal access, control and equal result.

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    Towards Substantive Equality - Part II: Understanding Discrimination
    The Convention is very clear in its recognition that women have been discriminated against and that this is the cause of the inequalities suffered by women. Discrimination needs to be defined as direct and indirect discrimination. Article 1 of the Convention states that any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has "the intention or effect" of "nullifying or impairing" the "recognition, enjoyment and exercise" by women of all rights in the social, cultural, political and economical spheres is discrimination. Therefore, discrimination will occur when an apparently neutral condition or requirement is imposed that has a discriminatory effect on women, although discrimination was not intended.

    Women, as compared to men, face many obstacles sanctioned by culture, religious practice, by entrenched male interests in key institutions etc. Hence neutral rules or laws may disadvantage them. The Convention also recognises variations of historic or past discrimination and introduces the concept of corrective measures to overcome the effect of past discrimination that leaves women handicapped vis a vis the men. The definition of discrimination also provides a guide for assessing when different treatment accorded to women is permissible. It is essential to have clarity on these principles of we are to use the Convention as a tool for advocacy to promote the advancement of women. These principles provide the framework for formulating strategies and identifying actions for the advancement of women.

    Any development programme for women needs to assess the barriers to:

    • Equality of Opportunity (law, policy and programmes)
    • Equality of Access
    • Equality of Benefit

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    Role of Law & Women's Rights Activism
    Laws are of critical importance because they regulate the rights of the people at various levels - the rights of individuals within the family, the rights between individuals and the community, the rights between individuals and the State and the rights between the community and the State. They are also important because they give enforceability to these rights. Because the private and public spheres are linked, if women's rights are controlled within the family, their potential to function in the public sphere is curtailed. In this context, laws dictate the economic, social and sexual relations of women in the family, and this in turn determines the conditions of women's participation in the economy. In most countries, there are dual legal systems: the civil, that creates the conditions for open societies and open markets to function, and the personal law that operates within the family. If the value systems underlying these two systems are in conflict, then women's equality can never be achieved.

    While it is acknowledged that laws and the legal system are discriminatory against women, it is vital that women identify the legal barriers to the achievement of their rights and to engage in advocacy that will eliminate these barriers. A useful framework to identify the legal barriers is to look at the three interactive components of the Law:

    • Substance
      - Does the substance of the law (as set out in the statutes) discriminate against women?
      - Do they give different rights to men and to women that act to the disadvantage of women?
      - Are there provisions that lay down the conditions for the full development of women - Are there provisions that prevent exploitation?
    • Structure
      - How does the law implement legal rules?
      - How does the law work?
      - How cumbersome, long, drawn out or expensive are the court procedures?
      - Are there effective administrative structures and procedures to implement the provisions of the law?
    • Culture
      - What is the value system in which the law is rooted and implemented?
      - How sensitive is this to the interests of women?
      - Does culture permit women to demand their rights?
      - Is there awareness among women themselves regarding their rights?

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    What are Rights and Why Rights?
    Historical Background to the Evolution of Women's Human Rights

    Human Rights

    • Inherent in all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone; inalienable; and equally applicable to all.
    • Main duties deriving from them fall on states and their public authorities, not on other individuals.


    Why Human Rights?

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    Principle of State Obligation
    Procedures of Accountability

    The Convention carries with it the Principle of State Obligation. Under this treaty, the dynamics of relationship between the State and women is no longer one of dependency on women on the good will or vagaries of the State, but one in which the State has responsibilities to women from which it cannot withdraw. Theoretically, the implementation of the Convention is binding on all State Parties. There is also a monitoring mechanism. All State Parties have to submit periodic reports to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

    Some basic principles of state obligations are as follows:

    Obligation of means through laws and policies and obligations of results. The latter requires that the state ensures the practical realisation of rights by undertaking extra measures implementing enabling conditions etc. so that women's capacity to access the opportunities provided is enhanced. This means,

    • Not just guarantees of rights but ensuring the realisation of rights.
    • Not just de jure but also de facto
    • The State is obligated not only to regulate itself but also the actions of private persons and institutions.

    State Obligation:

    • Prevent discrimination
    • Prohibit discrimination
    • Identify and redress
    • Impose sanctions against discriminating acts
    • Promote women's rights and equality through proactive measures
    • Accelerate defacto equality

    Article 2 obligates the State to do the following:
    • Enact policy of non-discrimination as well as to prohibit discrimination
    • Set up effective mechanisms through which women can obtain redress if their rights are violated
    • Repeal all discriminatory laws and policies

    Article 3 obligates the State to promote equality through all appropriate means: this includes proactive measures and enabling conditions that are needed to ensure the full development and advancement of women.

    Article 4 obligates the State to put in place affirmative action to accelerate de facto equality.

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    UN Mechanisms and Procedures for Monitoring and Enforcing the Convention
    Other Treaties and Mechanisms to Promote Women's Rights

    The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (or the Committee) monitors State implementation of the Convention through consideration of reports submitted by State Parties. After review of the country concerned, the Committee prepares a set of recommendations called the Concluding Comments. The Committee also formulates general recommendations, which are interpretative comments on specific articles of the Convention. These general recommendations are one means by which the Committee addresses contemporary issues which the Convention does not expressly mention.

    The Committee composed of 23 women experts coming from various regions who are elected for a term of 4 years. The experts are nominated by their respective governments and are elected by the State Parties to the Convention. Once elected, they serve in their personal capacity and are not supposed to be accountable to their own governments.

    The Committee meets twice a year for three weeks in January and July. Starting July 1998, the Committee has started with the practice of meeting with NGOs to hear their concerns and to gather inputs for the consideration of government reports.

    Purpose of the Report

    1. Record of performance of government according to the standards of the Convention.
    2. Identify problems and obstacles to women's equality so the can be addressed.
    3. Find solutions to the problems.
    4. Identify best practices.
    5. Evaluate fulfillment of State obligation under the Convention.
    6. Provision of opportunity to benefit from the CEDAW Committee's vast experience to obtain ideas for fulfilling State obligation.
    7. Provision of an opportunity to benefit for the State to show good faith in living up to its obligation by constituting to an open and transparent process of accountability.

    Data Requirements
    The Committee would like to know:

    1. What is the status of women in all fields in as comparison with men?(Indicators)
    2. What are the obstacles to improving women's equality status?
      (Lack of opportunity or lack of access)
    3. What action has the State taken:
      • de jure law, policy, programme (opportunity created)
    4. What is the status of the practical realisation of rights?
      • indicators of de facto rights (results)

    Methodology for Implementing Concluding Comments

    1. Select one recommendation from the concluding comments.
    2. Identify what needs to be accomplished - the ideal changes and goals.
    3. Set time framed targets and standards
    4. What obstacles do you envision in achieving the goal?
    5. What steps need to be taken to overcome the obstacles:
      • Awareness raising - what and for whom (changing culture)
      • Research and data needs
      • Education and training - what and for whom
      • Legal administrative or procedural reforms
      • Infrastructural or support services
      • Budgets
    6. Partnerships
    7. Budgets
    8. Monitoring
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    Case Studies on VAW
    Three case studies were done on incidents of Domestic Violence, Rape and Sexual Harassment. The objective was to use the Convention to promote Women's Rights

    Discussion guidelines:

    1. Describe the problem that the woman/women face(s) in the case study.
    2. What are the full range of rights that seem to have been denied this woman/women?
    3. Identify the obstacles to the fulfillment of the rights that you have identified, particularly in terms of (where applicable):
      • culture, tradition, social norms
      • social and economic status
      • the way state policies and practices act on inequalities and differences in different institutions of the state (judiciary, bureaucracy, police etc.)
    4. What are the recommendations and/or arguments that need to be made to remove the obstacles/barriers: laws, policies, programmes and services, infrastructural development and institutional strengthening, training for awareness creation and attitudinal change etc.
      • List the recommendations as short term and/or long term.
    5. Which provisions of the Convention could support a demand for the above recommendations, and to whom would you address these demands?
    6. What steps need to be taken to ensure the effectiveness of your lobby

The above notes are summarised from the IWRAW Asia Pacific Draft Training Materials/ 2000, that were handed out during the Human Rights of Women Training

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    • All Women's Action Society (AWAM)
    • Amnesty International (AI)
    • Bar Council
    • Era Consumer
    • Legal Aid Centre
    • Pink Triangle
    • Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
    • Sisters In Islam (SIS)
    • Women's Crisis Centre (WCC)
    • Women's Development Collective (WDC)

    • Jemaah Islam Malaysia (WANITA) (JIM)
    • University Malaya General Staff Union (WANITA) (UMGSU)
    • Sembaruthi
    • Women's Aid Organisation


WAO Training for NGOs on Human Rights of Women held from 28th - 30th March 2001 was funded by the British High Commission and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Human Rights Project Fund

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