Thursday, September 29, 2016


Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration, States have repeatedly emphasized the universality and indivisibility of human rights. At the World Conference in Vienna they specifically recognized that women’s human rights are part of universal human rights and they have subsequently reaffirmed this, including at the Fourth World Conference on Women. As mentioned above, the Vienna Programme of Action also explicitly stressed the importance of eradicating “any conflicts which may arise between the rights of women and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism.”

Despite these commitments by States, the question of universality has often been raised when States have tried to justify violations of women’s rights in the name of culture. The Special Rapporteur on violence against women in her report on cultural practices within the family that are violent towards women (E/CN.4/2002/83) highlights female genital mutilation, so-called honour killings of women, son preference and witch hunting

as examples of customs that have been defended under the pretext of being part of a given culture. Stereotypes and cultural norms which dictate prescriptive roles for women in society also have a negative impact on women’s enjoyment of their human rights. For instance, girls’ lack of access to education has sometimes been justified on the presumption that, as mothers and wives, they will not enter the workforce and thus do not require education.

The universality of human rights and their validity in a given local context have often been contested through relativist discourses that brand them as foreign ideas incompatible with local culture.13 However, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has warned against discourses that disregard the fact that culture is not static and changes over time. She also points to women’s lack of influence in decision-making processes which define the culture of any given community (A/67/287).
As mentioned earlier, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women requires States to “take appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”. The Committee, in its general recommendation No. 19 (1992), comments on articles 2 (f), 5 and 10 (c) that attitudes and practices according to which women are subordinate to men uphold the subjugation of women in society, and thus undermine women’s human rights, gender equality and non-discrimination, mentioning the practices of family violence and abuse, forced marriage, dowry deaths, acid attacks and female circumcision. It also comments on article 12 on the right to health, stating that certain traditional practices perpetuated by culture and tradition are harmful to the health of women and children. These practices include dietary restrictions for pregnant women, preference for male children and female circumcision or genital mutilation
The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, in her report on intersections between culture and violence against women, argues that it is possible to negotiate human rights with culture, challenging discriminatory and oppressive aspects of culture while retaining its positive aspects. She concludes that “compromising women’s rights is not an option. Therefore, the challenge that confronts us today is to respect and prize our diverse cultures while developing common strategies to resist oppressive practices in the name of culture, and to promote and uphold universal human rights while rejecting encroachments grounded in ethnocentric thinking” (A/HRC/4/34, para. 71).

 The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has also discussed the interaction of the principle of universality of human rights, recognition and implementation of cultural rights and the need to respect cultural diversity (A/HRC/14/36). The Special Rapporteur views the universal promotion and protection of human rights, including cultural rights, and respect for cultural diversity as mutually supportive. She recalls the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity and Human Rights Council resolution 10/23 to affirm that respect for cultural rights or cultural diversity may not undermine the universality of human rights.

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