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Vienna +20: Some Advances and Setbacks for Women’s Human Rights in Asia

FRIDAY FILE – In the latest interview forming part of AWID’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, AWID speaks to advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement and international champion of human rights, Hina Jilani, about how the conference strengthened women’s networks and advocacy to advance women’s human rights, but that there are still clear challenges to women actually realizing their human rights.

By Susan Tolmay

AWID: How far do you think we have come in the last 20 years in realizing universal human rights for women? What are some of the success stories for you from the past two decades, particularly for women in Asia and Pakistan in particular?

Hina Jilani (HJ): The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna provided an impetus to the movement for the acceptance of the concept that “women’s rights are human rights”, which provided the framework for women’s rights advocacy and for strategic action at national, regional and global level. It is with some satisfaction that I can say that any challenges to the affirmation that “The human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights”, have been effectually marginalized. Women’s rights issues have gained prominence in political, social and economic discourse at all levels and are reflected in human rights programs and agendas that have attained any level of credibility.

Political participation of women has now become an indicator of democratic development and measures have been instituted in many parts of the world to provide more opportunities to women for direct or indirect participation in governance. Compared to the situation in 1993, there is now a better prospect for women’s concerns being addressed in development agendas and in economic policies adopted by states or international bodies. The strong women’s networks that developed following the Vienna Conference should take credit for these achievements and was one of the most positive outcomes of the Conference.

AWID: Despite the Vienna Declaration and POA and the many other declarations, conventions, POAs and other instruments, violations of women’s human rights continue, often with impunity. What are some of the new or increasing violations of women’s human rights in Asia?

HJ: Women’s movements all over the world continue to face difficult challenges in the implementation of the international normative framework for women’s human rights and the era of implementation must begin now. Pakistani women are already putting more energy into ensuring that there is institutional capacity to implement legislation on civil and political rights as well as social and economic rights. They have started to seek the establishment of mechanisms on the ground for access to legal remedies and for social and economic justice.

Countering violence against women in all its forms is a continuing challenge that is complicated by the slow pace of social reform and because, i) Internal monitoring procedures and effective control by public institutions to guarantee the enforcement of these commitments are absent; ii) Public institutions are increasingly used to perpetuate and strengthen special interests and sectors; iii) Institutions for policing and prosecution are inefficient and corrupt, and iv) Independence of the judiciaries is severely constrained resulting in the denial of protections that are normally available under a constitutional framework.

In Pakistan militancy and terrorism in the name of Islam have further weakened the prospects of action by the state to ensure “women’s participation in all walks of national life” as stated in the Constitution. The long drawn-out period of militancy has increased militarization in several regions of the country. This trend has had a negative impact on human rights in general, but has made women particularly vulnerable to marginalization and insecurity. Women human rights defenders working for the promotion and protection of women’s rights, in particular, are under threat. Women’s social rights are further restricted as a concession to Islamic extremism in the country. Restrictions on their freedom of movement, expression and assembly have curtailed their ability to carry out their activities in safety.

AWID: What role have women’s movements played in advancing some of the issues you describe?

HJ: Asian women, including women in Pakistan, have strengthened their advocacy and have sustained movements for human rights and for women’s rights. They demonstrate a deep understanding of the essence of linkages with other social and political movements to promote human rights, and to prevent the isolation of the women’s rights agenda. They have also strived hard for legislative change to strengthen the legal framework for women’s equality, political participation and protection, and have gained significant success in this regard. In Pakistan several laws to protect women against violence were enacted in the past decade, and some of the notorious anti-women laws were amended to mitigate, though not completely eliminate, the harm that such laws have caused to women’s dignity and equality. It is, however, also true that several harmful practices continue and social attitudes are very slow to change, impeding the pace of progress.

AWID: As the MDGs come to an end in 2015 and a new development agenda is negotiated, what do you see as some of the opportunities and threats for advancing women’s human rights in the areas you referred to above?

HJ: While it is difficult to give an assessment of the MDGs in the context of women’s social and economic advancement at this time, it may not be far wrong to say that this has not been an area of the major success of the MDGs. The new development agenda, if it is to take forward the achievements and amend the past flaws, must, in the first place, be one that is constructed with women’s effective participation and contribution. Elements that allow enforcement of social and economic rights and create mechanisms for international accountability for their violation must be an integral part of that agenda. Social progress and economic advancement of women is inextricably linked to attitudinal changes. It is, therefore, imperative that local initiatives for ensuring freedom of expression, for movement and association be resourced and given political support, so that human rights organizations are able to undertake social reform as well as promote women’s visibility in social, economic and political activity.