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Vienna+20 : “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” Views from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)

FRIDAY FILE: As part of AWID’s commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) that was adopted by representatives of 171 States at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, we are producing a series of Vienna+20 written and audio interviews featuring prominent feminists who were involved in advocating for women’s human rights leading up to and following the Vienna conference.

By Gabriela De Cicco

Our first interview was with Charlotte Bunch: VIENNA +20 - The World has Changed Considerably, as Women's Rights are Taken More Seriously as Human Rights. In this latest interview we speak to three feminist lawyers and women’s rights activists from the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region – Rose Mary Madden, Susana Chiarotti and Guilia Tamayo, on the advancement of women’s human rights over the past two decades, and what challenges still remain to the full and equal realisation of women’s human rights. (1)

Look out for our upcoming Vienna +20 Special Focus Section on, for interviews, analysis and more.

All the women, all the rights, everyday.

AWID: It has been 20 years since representatives of 171 States adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 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?

Rose Mary Madden (RMM): Progress has been made in articulating human rights for some women – mestizo, middle-class, heterosexual, with no visible disability. But others are still left out, for instance lesbians, indigenous women, women with different abilities and Afro-descendant - even though the universality principle encompasses them. Human rights should be enjoyed by all, particularly women in their cultural and sexual diversity. Lip service is paid to this, but States realize human rights through heterosexist public policies or laws that do not embrace women's diversity. This accounts for the ineffectual achievements in realizing paragraph 18 of the Conference's Programme of Action.

Religious groups have intensified their discriminatory discourse against women, and particularly in the case of sexual and reproductive rights, for instance, opposing legalizing abortion or the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. In Mexico, the right to seek an abortion has been achieved only in the capital and recently also in Uruguay but the common denominator in the region has been to impede us from exercising the right to decide about our bodies and criminalizing both abortion and emergency contraception, as has happened in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. I see Central America as one of the regions where women's life, integrity and health are moving backwards the most. Violence against women – including femicide – continues to grow, that is, misogyny is now cross-cutting and States have not fully managed to mainstream women's human rights. We have created a new international and regional legal framework that embraces the universal nature of women's rights and, thanks to the monitoring bodies progress has been made through general or specific recommendations to States, but there has been little compliance on the part of States.

The Vienna Conference Programme of Action has been used by women's and feminist movements, but it would be timely for these kinds of documents to be legally binding on State parties. I know they are not treaties or conventions, but they should be given more weight. If they were to be ratified, for instance, it would be easier to get them implemented.

Some successes include promoting the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); the shadow reports produced by movements – women, transsexual feminists; the adoption and ratification of the Belem do Pará Convention; the specific laws against violence against women; the movement from first-generation laws like those against domestic or family violence to second-generation ones like laws on violence against women; criminalizing violence. We can also consider it as a success that Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and other bodies, together with the feminist movement, are making women's unpaid work more visible. Non-violence against women as a State commitment has resulted in the creation of alerting systems as in Mexico, and non-violence programs implemented by women's agencies in most States. But even all this has not been enough. Introducing femicide/ feminicide as a specific crime in some legal systems – like those of Argentina, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama or Peru – has been a success.

I think the fact that the inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHR) Court has integrated the CEDAW and Belem do Pará conventions into their foundations, particularly in the verdict known as Gonzales and others vs Mexico-Campo Algodonero, that uses the Convention as a protection mechanism for a life free from violence, is an achievement. Also the Atala Riffo vs Chileverdict that echoes for Latin America and the Caribbean what the United Nations has already stated – that sexual orientation is a category protected against discrimination – and makes it explicit that lesbians are included in the protections afforded by Article 1 of the American Convention on Human Rights, as part of "any other social condition".


Susana Chiarotti (SC): We have made huge progress, but it seems to be lost in the whirlwind of negative news we get every day. If we zoom out a bit, we can see how many of our demands at Vienna have been met. Let us remember that in Vienna we asked for a High Commissioner on Human Rights to be appointed. The appointment came fast, with only a small office and few staff in the beginning, but now, the Commissioner has close to a thousand people working in different offices and covering areas which we did not even dream of in 1993.

On the issue of violence against women (VAW), we came out of Vienna with a Declaration acknowledging that violence is a human rights violation. There was no international level treaty on this issue back then. Now two international conventions condemning VAW have already been signed and ratified, one in the Inter-American (Belem do Para Convention) and one in the European system. Also in these 20 years, national laws on violence against women have been passed in all countries around the world, and progress is being made on recognizing new forms of violence that not only refer to domestic violence but also to that happening elsewhere, including in cyberspace. In Vienna we also requested a Special Rapporteur to focus on VAW, a mechanism that has already been implemented and is working actively. Another human rights mechanism created as a consequence of Vienna was the Working Group on Discriminatory Laws and Practices that has five members, one from each region of the world.

Our progress is not limited only to legal frameworks but is also reflected in policies and services, at the national and international levels.

Giulia Tamayo (GT): To turn women and girls' human rights into reality gave a new dimension to the human rights movements' vision. It was not only a change of scale but it also led to a deep review of categories and practices. The last 20 years were fertile for learning and capacity development. Even though progress has been made at different levels, we are still very far from changes that translate into substantive equality for women and girls. New battles and challenges have come up. What was unique about the last 20 years is that abuses have been named and made visible, and that has led to fighting discrimination and violence against women and girls.

In my opinion, in order to speak about successful stories in Latin America we need to take inclusion and diversity into account. There is a long way to go in terms of sexual and reproductive rights (SRRs), and also in challenging economic and political settings that reproduce and encourage violence and discrimination against women and girls.

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 across the globe or in your particular region or area of work?

RMM: I will mention the actions against the right to abortion, women's rights to decide about their bodies; the denial of emergency contraception; girls’ and adolescents' pregnancies as human rights violations. In addition, how poverty renders girls, young women, adolescents and women in general vulnerable. They are often excluded from the educational system, particularly in technical schools or Universities, and from decent and paid work. Sexist education and government education that – unlike private schools – fails to provide access to languages or technology and there is a lack of recognition of sexual harassment in schools from the primary level. The lack of resources for NGOs educating women about their human rights and how to defend them is also a challenge.

SC: I don't think that violations against women's rights have increased. They have new shapes and maybe some forms of violence have been aggravated, but on the whole, what there is, is greater visibility. We no longer let violence happen without exposing it.

The problem of the impunity that follows our reports has partly to do with justice systems. The judicial system is the most conservative in the entire Republican system. The widespread impunity that we see in cases of attacks against women can be partly explained by the gender bias and stereotypes prevailing in the justice system.

GT: In the 90s I stated that women had arrived too late, as States were increasingly unable to protect our rights. Twenty years later, this situation has worsened. In those countries where positive measures were introduced, they ended up being dismantled by regressive changes. Some legal changes took place in the region but the political will was never enough to go beyond formal dispositions and cosmetic expressions. Regarding the new patterns of violence, I would like to bring attention to those that are being played out in current conflicts. Control over territories, the appropriation of resources and the unlimited expectations of profits have turned women's bodies into targets. Contemporary conflicts translate into displacing, sterilizing, enslaving, mutilating and murdering women and girls. To this must be added the force of religious fundamentalisms and their alliances with the media, political and economic powers.

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

RMM: The feminist movement – in its different streams – has pointed out and exposed the ongoing and diverse forms of violence experienced by women in all their cultural, ethnic and sexual diversity. It has contributed to social, political, economic and cultural activities through research, law proposals and monitoring public policies. Several feminists have accessed paid jobs in State agencies. There have been changes in the academic curricula; also Women's Studies courses or subjects that mainstream gender have been created. The movement has taken over the streets with parades, demonstrations, and silent protests. Declaring November 25th the Day of Non-Violence against women in the First Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro, which was then recognised by the UN as a global day, was a success. States have incorporated our proposals and now the crucial issue is how this movement can remain autonomous without financial resources.

SC: Women's movements have been the main force to set the agenda and to push for their implementation. Without the active involvement of women's movements around the world, no progress would have been made in just 20 years. It would have taken longer or, in some cases, it would never have happened.

GT: Women's movements have brought abuses to light and have documented them exposing the State and non-State actors involved. They have even brought them to justice using international mechanisms. However, as a rule, impunity has continued. The genocide verdict against Ríos Montt in Guatemala, that included the horrors suffered by women, was an isolated event. In Peru, women who were sterilized against their will under the Fujimori regime are still waiting for justice. In Mexico, the person who should be held accountable for the Atenco events is now in power. In Colombia, some constitutional rulings for women were obtained, but women who have been displaced are still enduring the consequences of the conflict. Throughout Central America, murders of women are becoming widespread. It is imperative to develop multiple and articulated strategies to make our actions more powerful.

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?

RMM: Lack of funding for legally registered or informal groups promoting women's human rights leads to women's organizations closing down. We understand that Africa is a priority but the fact that most international aid agencies have moved away from our region leaves us highly unprotected. The few remaining resources are mainly given to States, which are often controlled by religious individuals and the advances made in women's human rights in the 90s are being jeopardized. The undisguised involvement of religious groups in national or international power spaces, Parliaments, Ministries, human rights' protection systems is a big threat. It will be important to address the human rights of some groups of women who are still not considered human beings, including, indigenous, lesbian and transsexual women.

SC: Women now face the opportunity to design a new agenda for development - an inclusive, bottom-up agenda, with credible goals and indicators that reflect an intersection between human rights and gender. But this requires that they are able to participate where such an agenda is discussed. And this is not happening, not in the way it has to happen - broad, democratic, diverse, plural involvement. We run the risk of repeating the MDG experience and of continuing to deal with the consequences without confronting any of the root causes of the issues we face.

GT: The biggest threat comes from fear-mongers and fundamentalists against a backdrop of huge greed that increases exclusion and the plundering of livelihoods for most of the planet. Our opportunity lies in global mobilizations that have already begun in different spots around the world. The possibility of making changes through a growing resistance depends on our engagement in those efforts. My expectations are placed on the people's power that is born out of the solidarity among those who are waking up. The new development agenda must delegitimize the paradigm that has been imposed globally on our political communities. There is already enough proof that under that development paradigm, women and girls' rights cannot be guaranteed.

1) Rose Mary Madden, from Costa Rica, is Head of the Women’s Rights Special Program at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH); Susana Chiarotti, from Argentina, is Founder and Director of the Gender, Law and Development Institute (INSGENAR), as well as member of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM); and lawyer Giulia Tamayo, from Peru, worked as a researcher for the Spanish section of Amnesty International until 2012.

Translated by Alejandra Sardá-Chandiramani