The fight for equal rights of women and men

"Woman is born free and remains equal in rights to man. These rights are liberty, property, legal security and above all the right of resistance against oppression.“
Olympe de Gouges, 1791

Women's rights are human rights

Girls and women should have the same rights and opportunities in their lives as boys and men and shall be completely equal in all aspects of life. But reality gives a different picture.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations drew up a resolution in 1948 which is intended to ensure the greatest possible protection of all human beings - without restriction or, as the Declaration states, "without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."[1] This of course includes the prohibition of discrimination against people perceived as women.

Discrimination can be fatal

Yet every day, all over the world, women experience the most serious violations of these human rights: violence in the family, by an intimate partner or at work, denial of sexual and reproductive rights, forced marriages, trafficking of women, forced prostitution, targeted abortion of female fetus.

Simple cooking place in the tiny barrack for seamstresses in © FEMNETSimple cooking place in the tiny barrack for seamstresses in © FEMNET

In addition, discrimination against women leads to unequal chances in life: the female half of the population worldwide generally receives lower wages than the male half. Women often have no access to land, although they are the ones who mainly cultivate it.

In many countries, girls attend school less often and for a shorter period than boys. If there is not enough food on the table, it is women and girls who eat at the end. Women are often not involved when decisions are made – in the family or in the community. In many cases, they are not even allowed to decide about their own bodies - the right to family planning and free choice of partners is denied to many.

Throughout the world poverty tends to be female: around 70 percent of the 700 million people living in extreme poverty are women. Two third of the almost 500 million illiterate people are women. The reasons are rooted in tradition, religious practices, claims to power based on economic profits and general structural gender-specific disadvantages.

Mourning relatives of a victim of the death of Rana Plaza © FEMNETMourning relatives of a victim of the death of Rana Plaza © FEMNET

In the event of a disaster, discrimination against women can be fatal: in many cases women lack the skills to help themselves or are more exposed to danger due to traditions. In the 2004 tsunami disaster in Asia, up to four times more women than men lost their lives.

Even when the Rana Plaza building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, with more than 1,100 dead and around 2,500 injured, more women were affected. With around 80 percent, women make up the majority of employees in the local textile industry. In this industry, wages below the subsistence level, lack of rights and extremely poor working conditions prevail, a constellation that is quasi typical for women.

Insufficient attention is paid to the needs of women and girls, who are disproportionately higher affected by devastating consequences of crisis. They are more frequently the target of assaults and sexualised assaults. Further expectant mothers often die in childbirth because the specific needs of women in refugee camps are not taken into account, especially with regard to the question of adequate care during pregnancy and childbirth. Humanitarian aid usually neglects measures that could help women to regain a livelihood[2],

Women are often already disadvantaged by the fact that registration in refugee camps as a prerequisite for humanitarian care is only carried out under the name of the male head of household. At the same time, they are more burdened because they usually take care of the injured and sick, look after the children and are usually responsible for the food supply.

On top of all these human rights violations based on structural discrimination, directly exercised violence takes place: women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 have a higher risk of experiencing rape and violence in the family than becoming victims of traffic accidents and wars or than getting cancer and malaria[3]. Mathematically, one woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner every 2.5 days in Germany.[4]


The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

Forms of gender-based violence:

  • physical abuse such as violent attacks, assault, murder
  • sexual violence such as rape, sexual harassment, abuse
  • psychological violence such as bullying, stalking, coercion, psychological abuse, intimidation
  • structural violence such as economic/financial exploitation, denial of access to education

In 1979, with the adoption of the so-called "Women's Convention" or CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) by the General Assembly of the United Nations, women's specific human rights were anchored in international law, including protection against male violence and reproductive rights. The agreement is considered the most important human rights instrument for women under international law. The signatory states are committed to the legal and actual equality of women in all areas of life; they must themselves comply with the principle of equal treatment and actively work towards the elimination of discrimination in society. There are now 187 countries that are part of this Convention.[5]

In the 1990s, a series of international conferences led to the identification of various problem areas of violence against women as human rights violations and called for measures to end them.[6]

The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action included the following key demands: governments should guarantee and promote human rights of women, the principle of equality in legislation, the amendment of discriminatory legislation and access to information on human rights.

Twenty years after the World Conference on Women in Beijing, it has become clear that there are still enormous discrepancies between claims and reality in many countries: gender-discriminatory laws, lack of knowledge of the law and gender-specific prejudices in the police, administration and judiciary are still in place in many countries. Moreover, there is no sign of a significant decrease in serious human rights violations against women such as genital mutilation, rape, forced marriages and so-called honour killings. Within the framework of Agenda 2030, which was adopted in 2015, the United Nations named gender equality as goal 5 out of 17 goals for sustainable development (Sustainable Development Goals, SDG).

In recent years, improvements have been achieved in the discriminatory treatment of women in many countries of the world, but in general, women's access to education, health and politics has even deteriorated worldwide. At the current rate it would take 202 years for women and men to achieve equality in the workplace, according to the World Economic Forum[7]-

Die 17 UN-Nachhaltigkeitsziele (SDG) im Überblick

Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment at work

Logo Ratify ILO C190

After several years of negotiations, Convention 190 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the elimination of violence and harassment at work was adopted in 2019. It declares that "violence and harassment in the world of work is a violation of human rights" and thus a "threat to equal opportunities, unacceptable and incompatible with decent work". It is now up to the member states of the ILO to ratify it, i.e. to transpose it into national legislation.

According to the United Nations, more than 800 million women worldwide have experienced sexual or physical violence in private or at work. Over a third of all countries have no laws against sexual assault at the workplace. The ILO Convention not only refers to violence in the world of work, it also emphasizes the responsibility of employers to protect employees from violence in their families.

Nobody should die for fashion! © BCWSNobody should die for fashion! © BCWSIn the textile industry, companies are facing great challenges in reducing human rights violations against women. It became clear that sexual violence in this industry is widespread in the manufacturing countries.[8]

Depending on the country, between 60 and 90 percent of employees are women, mostly very young and without further education. In contrast, supervisory and executive positions are usually reserved for men, who often exploit their position of power with discriminatory acts, including violence. FEMNET considers international fashion companies to have a responsibility to respect human rights at work, to analyse the risks and consequences for women, to prevent gender-specific violence and to set up effective complaint mechanisms.




[1] Allgemeine Erklärung der Menschenrechte

[2] Care Danmark (o. J.): Women and girls in emergencies

[3] World Bank: Zahl von 1993, aber es gibt nichts Neueres und es wird immer noch damit gearbeitet

[4] Hilfetelefon: Zahlen zur Partnerschaftsgewalt

[5] CEDAW - Frauenrechtskonvention

[6] Abschlußerklärung der UN-Weltfrauenkonferenz in Peking 1995

[7] World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2018

[8] Studie von Human Rights Watch, Februar 2019, Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry