On its sixtieth anniversary, the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights is still a distant dream for most of the world’s girls and
women. One in every three women in the world experiences violence in
her lifetime just because she is a woman. In Africa, three million
girls are at risk of female genital mutilation, and ten million girls
worldwide face early and forced marriage each year.
While gender gaps in education have recently been closing, 70% of
children not in school are girls, and sex discrimination pervades most
other sectors. For example, only 16% of parliamentarians worldwide are
Nowhere are violations of women’s human rights greater than in the
health sector. Half a million women die and 10-15 million are
permanently disabled each year from entirely preventable causes related
to pregnancy and childbirth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the lifetime risk
of dying in childbirth is more than 300 times higher than in rich
countries. The health impacts of poverty and injustice are not distant
challenges: the United States ranks 41st in the world in maternal
mortality, behind Latvia, Portugal, and Poland. In Sub-Saharan Africa,
over 60 percent of adults, and 75 percent of young people, living with
HIV/AIDS are female.
Eleanor Roosevelt, architect of the Universal Declaration on Human
Rights, understood that such daily violations of the rights to life,
dignity, and equality are the core human rights challenge. In 1958 she
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"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places,
close to home… the neighborhood… the school… the factory, farm,
or office… Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little
But countries and the international system have only paid lip
service to Eleanor Roosevelt’s wisdom. Over a dozen United Nations
agreements have elaborated in detail the human rights of women and
actions required to protect them. In 1979 the Convention on the
Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a legally
binding treaty, took effect and has been ratified by all but eight of
the world’s governments, including, unfortunately, the United States.
In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights again recognized the
human rights of women and of the girl child and said that they are
"priority objectives of the international community." Two years later,
at the Fourth World Conference on Women, First Lady Hillary Rodham
Clinton nonetheless felt compelled to point out once more that "Women’s
rights are human rights."
So what is the way forward?
Based on decades of international work, we know that there will be
no global peace or security until we secure every woman’s right to a
just and healthy life. Only healthy women whose human rights are
protected can be fully productive workers and effective participants in
their country’s political processes. Only when women are healthy and
empowered can they raise and educate healthy children. These are
imperative in their own right, and also the building blocks of stable
societies and growing economies.
How do we get there?
President-elect Barack Obama has the unique opportunity, and the
profound responsibility, to reestablish U.S. credibility and global
leadership on human rights for all. The first step is to help
strengthen the United Nations as a vehicle to hold governments
accountable for human rights protection and for meeting unfulfilled
commitments to girls and women. Second, the United States can once
again lead the world in making access to comprehensive reproductive
health services a reality for women and young people here in the United
States and globally.
Only when women are able to exercise control over their bodies are
they able to fully realize other human right such as access to education
and employment, political participation and legal equality. Third, the
new President should prioritize asking the Senate to ratify CEDAW.
Finally, the United States, at home and abroad, can enable new
generations to live the principles of the Universal Declaration on
Human Rights. A key vehicle is comprehensive sexuality education, which
teaches young people how to establish equality in relationships;
respect the right to consent in both sex and marriage; and end sexual
coercion and violence against women.
The next Administration will have the opportunity and the power to
make these changes and to create a different kind of world for millions
of girls and women, boys and men. It will take courage and vision to
act boldly. The reward — in lives saved and in our restored reputation
as a global leader for social justice — will be incalculable.
This article was first posted on The Huffington Post.