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Vienna+20: 20 Years of Collective Work Reaffirming Women’s Human Rights

FRIDAY FILE: In the latest interview forming part of AWID’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, AWID speaks to feminist lawyer Alda Facio[i] about some of the advances and challenges to women’s human rights in Latin America, especially related to violence against women in all its forms.

By Gabriela De Cicco

Alda Facio

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 Latin American women over the past two decades?

Alda Facio (AF): In Vienna the women’s movement achieved something we had been demanding for many years: recognition of women’s rights as human rights. The declaration from the Vienna Conference was extremely important, and it happened because of the lobbying that was done at different stages - more and less intense - but starting with the very creation of the United Nations.

Another achievement was that violence against women was recognized as a human rights violation. This has had important implications and was an outcome of the first achievement mentioned above. The third achievement that I consider key is the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. While the Protocol was not created at Vienna, there was a strong call to the UN member states to begin working on a draft Protocol. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) became an intrinsic part of human rights and, therefore, eliminating discrimination against women has to do not only with the advancement of women but becomes part of human rights theory: discrimination against women affects the enjoyment of human rights.

As a result of declaring violence against women a human rights violation, a year later the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women or the Convention of Belem do Para was passed. Another key outcome was the creation of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, an entity that has contributed to better understanding the causes of violence, and what needs to be done to eradicate it. In all Latin American countries there are laws against violence that in many cases they are not enforced, however, there is now no way to deny that the problem exists. Progress in human rights is slow. When something becomes part of the discourse, there is a possibility of it also becoming part of the practice but if it is not even recognized as a problem in the discourse, it can never become a practice.

AWID: Despite the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) and the many other declarations, conventions and 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 that you see in the Latin American region?

AF: As violence has grown overall, that which is specifically aimed at women has grown as well. In a context of intense violence and pervasive impunity, private violence often becomes invisible. Many women working in Ciudad Juarez, for instance, have told me that many of the cases of violence are actually domestic violence - husbands taking advantage of the widespread violence to kill their wives and make it look like it was done by organized crime. Thus, wherever organized crime grows, that context of violence allows for other forms of violence to surface and go unpunished, because it is hard to recognise which kind it is and where it is coming from.

In spite of being part of the human rights discourse violence is often perpetuated and reinforced by being trivialized in social discourse, advertisements, daily conversations, jokes and culture in general. As a result violence is not taken seriously and it grows because it is considered natural. We recently debated freedom of expression in Costa Rica, when a member of parliament presented a proposal to fine advertisers who use women’s bodies in undignified ways. The proposal created a scandal, along the lines of “What a horror! That is censorship!” But as long as objectification of women continues to be naturalized, through using women’s bodies to sell cars, car tyres and other goods, we will see that people continue to believe that women’s bodies are things or goods for sale, and that they won’t see violence against women as a human rights violation.

Fundamentalist backlash has increased. Christian/Catholic fundamentalist thinking has deepened and is quite powerful in some regions. This has direct consequences for sexual and reproductive rights, to which Catholic fundamentalism is clearly opposed. This is a great obstacle for realizing rights in our region. We have, nevertheless, moved forward. The difference between reproductive rights and sexual rights is now clearly recognized, both are accepted as intrinsic components of human rights.

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

AF: None of the achievements I mentioned would had been possible without the women’s movement. It was only due to the ongoing lobbying by women all over the world that we had those achievements in the 1993 World Conference in Vienna. And, it has been up to the women’s movement to maintain these achievements, to keep insisting on our rights in each country and at the regional level. All these rights are credited to the women’s movements and now the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) movements build on women’s achievements to fight for sexual rights. Without all the work done by women, the LGBTI movement would not have this recognition of diversity within a framework of equality - that there is not only one way of being human but different ways, with different sexualities, a rainbow of colors – all this is due to the feminist movement.

An important learning from the last 20 years is that we work better when we are united, not just in numbers but also working cohesively so that we understand what each one is doing – ie. working on sexual rights, or reproductive rights, or violence. This is crucial to have a broader understanding of what human rights are.

AWID: As the Millennium Development Goals (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?

AF: To be more successful than the MDGs have been, we need to make sure that the gender perspective is present in whatever is negotiated and agreed, and not only in two or three points.

Threats come from economic and religious fundamentalisms that want to parcel out what is understood as development. They see economic development as completely dissociated from social and spiritual development. Each follows a separate road with their mutual links and effects becoming invisible. We continue seeing development only in economic terms – only as a by-product of growth – as capitalism has made us believe is the case.

We have an opportunity to get the gender perspective understood. This means, that as a women’s movement we need to come together again as a very strong lobby and advocate for a gender perspective be present in everything, not only in small sections on motherhood or education, but as part of the notion of development that States are putting forward.

[i] A feminist lawyer, scholar, and writer, Alda Facio has a long and distinguished history in women's human rights advocacy both in Latin America and globally since the 1970s.