Women, Gender and Universal Human Rights?



When we were talking about development and aid in the last lectures, we always ended up also discussing and questioned the existence of something called “universal human rights”.

Does a “catalogue” of human rights exist, that would be overall acceptable and valid for all human beings? Are those rights, especially those written down by the UN universal? Or is it a simply a new way of Western dominance over the periphery, a new way colonialism, where the west tells the developing countries “what is the right thing to do and what is not”?

A lot of criticism of the concept of universal human rights is valid and understandable. Representatives from developing economies especially criticize the narrow definition of human rights and the focus on western ideals such as individualism (Skegg 2005: 668). Those concepts are often contrary to the set-up of non-western cultures and societies. Furthermore it is argued that the proposed universal human rights are not meeting many countries needs and taking into account their “real” situation, especially when looking at boarder rights such as adequate income, access to education and health care (ibid.).

However, I also see another reason, why many states and societies reject the existence of universal human rights. I argue that rejection of the existence of universal human rights especially occurs in countries with highly patriarchal society structures. In those societies, violence against women is used to subordinate them, to keep the traditional patriarchal society structure intact and to secure the dominant role of men.  Accepting that there is something such as universal human rights that include gender equality and strengthen women’s rights would question the role of men in those societies. It would threaten the dominant position of men – and now speaking from a realist perspective: who likes to give up power?

However, interestingly enough the right to life and physical integrity can be found in more or less all religions and cultures – even in non-western cultures and those, who actively treat women as second class citizens.

Therefore even if a universal catalogue of human rights can be questioned and controversially discussed, I argue that at least one norm can be taken as widely accepted: the right to life and physical integrity.  And based on this right is not acceptable that violence against women still exists, is justified and made invisible (Bovarnick 2007). Therefore, before overall rejection that universal human rights exist, we should look beyond the criticism for the motivation behind the rejection and question, whether it is because those norms are western norms and not universal or whether they might be a threat to those who are currently in power…

Bovarnick, Silvie 2007):  Universal human rights and non Western normative systems: a comparative analysis of violence against women in Mexico and Pakistan. Review of International Studies,33, pp. 59-74.

Skegg, Anne-Marie (2005): Brief Note: Human rights and social work : A western imposition or empowerment to the people? International Social Work 2005, 48 (5), pp. 667-672.


2 comments on “Women, Gender and Universal Human Rights?

  1. sarahchan30 says:

    Katia, I agree with you – surely some universal human rights should and must be acknowledged. Frankly I do tire of people saying that I’m ‘disrespecting other cultures’ when i criticize violent acts or sexist beliefs or point out obvious hypocrisies which quite tangibly adversely affect women in cultures other than my own (actually i wouldn’t say the western woman is off scott free in many of these areas either – apart from the standard unequal pay malarky etc, the ridiculous amounts of violent pornography on the internet is certainly not a promising sign for us). In any event, I’m mostly told that i posit a ‘white western’ perspective which must inherently be skewed and biased and therefore dismissible.
    But surely at the most basic of levels some stuff gotta be universal (that view unfortunately, is not universal!). I am talking about very simple ‘do unto others’ (Kant?) and ‘everyone’s on the same level’ stuff. Maybe it sounds idealistic but so what? We should be idealistic. I would add to your argument in which you say “at least one norm can be taken as widely accepted: the right to life and physical integrity” by saying too that men and women both should be able to live in ‘dignity’, (whatever that means – i’ll take it to mean respected).

  2. henning says:

    Hi Katia & Sarah, seeing that this debate affects all social strata from the individual to society to the state it truly is the one discourse that permeates all levels of international relations and is the one generally raised to save nations and topple dictators. At the same time this debate tends to polarise people despite the value disparities that exist even within the ‘liberal West’.

    According to Brown, who in his 1997 article examines the discourse on human rights in the history of Western political theory “[i]t is a mistake, and moreover a mistake with serious political implications in terms of intercultural relations, to pass over this history in favour of a concentration on the present.” He asserts that the liberal position on rights is now and always has been incoherent and confused. All genuinely universal approaches to human rights, he argues, are based on some idea of natural law (vs. positive law, which is associated with particular jurisdictions). Based on this premise there needs to be an understanding of general moral standards and a common notion of human flourishing, some kind of lowest common denominator (common understandings of social order, sexual rights etc.), an idea that he rejects. Alternatively, this common denominator could be derived from ‘practical reason’, yet the variations of practical reasoning and value pluralism across space and time render this unlikely as well. There are plenty of examples within our own societies. Abortion is one such divide. Also the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights debate is a case in point, most Western societies are a far cry from acknowledging these rights, too.

    I do not agree with him discounting the ‘lowest common denominator’, though, which I agree would have to be the right to life and physical integrity. Yet again, the current circumcision debate in Germany highlights the pitfalls even here – the right to physical integrity is certainly not widely accepted.2 Maybe Article 1 should have been “Everyone has the right to life”, as the current contender was bound to be in for a rocky start…

    1) Chris Brown, Universal human rights: A critique. The International Journal of Human Rights, 1:2, 41-65 (1997).
    2) “Circumcision judgment tackles the nuances of cultural justification”, Irish Times, 14 August 2012 (http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0814/1224322134720.html)

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