Stay Informed

Your go-to source for the latest trends impacting gender justice and women’s rights around the world

Vienna+20: Some progress, but instruments are only effective if they are implemented

FRIDAY FILE: As part of AWID’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, AWID spoke to feminist human rights activist, Lin Chew[i], about the importance of the conference and the instruments that followed. But she warns that instruments are only as good as they are implemented, a relevant lesson as we watch negotiations taking place at this years CSW58.

By Susan Tolmay

It has been 20 years since representatives of 171 States adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Actionof the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, which affirmed, “The human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights”. How far do you think we have come in the last 20 years in realizing universal human rights for women?

I’m not that optimistic about big successes in terms of actual changes or transformation or long term structural changes – because that would take more than 20 years to achieve. But the conference was significant, as was the Beijing conference in 1995 – we looked at it together – it was a synchronised process, first in Vienna, putting women’s rights on the agenda there and then at the women’s conference putting human rights there – so together it looked at women’s human rights and the slogan women’s rights are human rights came about. So Vienna, together with Beijing, put women’s human rights on the agenda: that was a good opportunity and momentum, and after that it has been about the attempts of women’s organisations to raise awareness on how to realize the potential that had been created.

I was working in the issue of trafficking at that time and one of the core aims of the anti- trafficking movement was to make clear what a human rights approach (HRA) was in working on these issues, because many who took up the cause of ‘anti-trafficking’ were conflating ‘trafficking’ with ‘prostitution’. For example in a human rights framework, the rights of sex workers to ‘consent’ to work in prostitution are as valid as the rights of others not to be forced and violated. We tried to make this distinction as clear as we could, although I’m not sure that in the last 20 years we have actually succeeded. Although I think we did establish that we need a human rights approach in dealing with trafficking, and there has been a more conscious human rights approach to dealing with trafficking –so we can call this a success. But on the other hand there are still different interpretations of human rights, and still a lot of confusion about what really constitutes “trafficking”.

The whole meaning of rights needs to be better understood, although work on the human rights approach has progressed in general. There have been incremental improvements in the rights and situation of women – at least on paper - over the last 20 years.

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?

I don’t think there are new violations, I think there are new or different manifestations of the same things - because the basic discrimination and fundamental exclusion of women in all areas of life and denial of rights in all areas, including in the family –is still endemic. For example you see what happens in India and across the globe, women who now need to migrate for work and then get into very bad situations. There are very strong religious, cultural and traditions that are deeply entrenched, and difficult to change. Women have to work within this context, including restrictions on movement, clothing, honour killings …all these are rights violations, and sometimes we stop it in one place, but then it comes up somewhere else. So we see new manifestations of the same violations in new places and circumstances.

The economic situation in Asia is not improving for women, especially those women at the bottom rungs of society, as rural populations become more and more impoverished, and massive migration to the urban centres continues. For women in this situation there is little formal employment, and they are relegated to the “informal” (read unacknowledged, unprotected and under-remunerated) sectors. For example my organisation works in Indonesia with home-based workers, domestic workers and with women porters – there is still a large number of women who work in markets in Jogjakarta, who carry loads of up to 80kg of merchandise on their backs, and they earn as little as 2000 rupiah per load, so about HK$2, less than 10 euro cents. And now, after a lot of organizing and struggles, sometimes people realize and give up to 20 000rp, which is still less than 2 euro. Women have to carry many loads per day to earn enough to live. But they are organizing in collectives and getting support from one another. Recently they managed to get a place where they could go and rest and change - their cause is not well known, and this is one of the many forms of work that doesn’t qualify as ‘decent work’.

Talking about the international instruments - they were the result of a lot of policy work at the national and international level, where we would fight for every word. They are useful, but you need to understand that instruments are exactly that, instruments – you have to use them, and you have to use them effectively. And that is where the problem lies, there aren’t enough people and mechanisms in place to use them effectively. And we have to be realistic, the instruments are often toothless, there is little accountability and no sanctions; at most you can try to shame governments, who are not doing their due diligence, but some are just shameless, and there is lack of political will.

But we can use these instruments as educational tools: I worked on the development of a human rights assessment tool for anti-trafficking and the same principles could be applied to assessment in terms of other instruments. But there still seems to be a big awareness gap and what do we do with governments who do not implement agreements, even though they may have ratified them?

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

Movements are necessary when you want to make advances, the collective can achieve more than the individual, so movements are crucial to these processes. The women’s movements are building stronger alliances with other social movements as we start to realize that all of the issues are inter related and inter-sectional. Over the last few years there is an increasing awareness that we have to work together. Although sometimes when we talk of women’s movements, they are more at the national level and it doesn’t really get down to the very grassroots level. One optimistic example is in Indonesia, where “domestic workers schools” have been set up to educate and raise consciousness about rights of domestic workers in line with Domestic Workers Convention, No. 189, adopted by International Labour Organization (ILO) members in 2011, and there is good collaboration with other social and women’s organizations who also support the advocacy for national legislation to implement the convention. So this is a good example of women’s organizing.

[i] Executive Director of Institute for Women’s Empowerment, Hong Kong. For about 20 years (from the early 1980’s) Lin worked intensively on migrant and sex workers' issues, forced labour and slavery-like practices, in the Netherlands and globally. Most recently, she was involved in programmes (WEMC / WRRC) that support women's strategies to resist and overcome the negative impacts of cultures and religions on their rights. She has served for more than a decade on governance and advisory structures of local and international women’s funds (Her Fund / Global Fund for Women / Mama Cash). Lin is also a potter, mother and grandmother.