Violence against women is seldom, if ever, considered a human rights violation, yet it has a significant impact on women across the world. The feminist approach explains this datum because such abuses occur in the private realm, therefore, exceedingly difficult to curtail without infringing on culture or challenging the traditional notion of human rights. This essay will look into why female rights are not traditionally considered human rights, and why it is essential for them to be substantiated in the discourse of human rights. Human rights covenants, as we know them have ingrained patriarchal values that although relevant to the time, do not provide adequate protection and equality for women. The alarming rates of domestic violence that women face around the world is an indication that something more must be done to give normative force to such issues and thus eradicate them.
In todays society there remains a significant inconsistency between human rights norms and the reality that women face across the world. Even though violence against women is formally prohibited in documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEdAW) and Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (dEVAW), it remains tolerated and practiced in many societies, and regularly unenforced. In 1993, the dEVAW was adopted by the United Nations and it defines violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UdHR) entrenches a notion of non-discrimination; human rights are applied impartially to both men and women universally. However rights found in the UDHR, International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) have an inherent male bias. Ursula O'Hare (1999) notes that male hegemony over public life and institutions meant that rights came to be defined by men. Despite claims that deem human rights to be universal, human rights as enshrined in the UDHR and subsequent documents, strive to uphold rights that are pertinent only to those who wrote them, typically being western liberal men (Friedman, 2003; Kelly, 2005; MacKinnon, 2006; O'Hare, 1999). The traditional concept of human rights as founded by such covenants, marginalizes women’s rights as irrelevant of lesser importance, thus continuing the cycle of inequality.
Rights upheld by human rights covenants, through their inherent male prejudice, are at odds with women’s rights. Not only do they inadequately protect women, they work in opposition to feminist movements. For example, Article 16(3) in the UDHR states ‘family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection’. However, statistics show that alarmingly high rates of assault and homicide occur in the familial sphere. Because human rights ideology stems from liberal political philosophy, protection of the private realm of life from political interference was seen as fundamental. This subsequently renders the discourse of rights as unable to locate sexual or physical abuse in the private sphere as a rights violation (Sullivan, 1995).
The traditional conception of human rights is inadequate in providing protection for women and ought to be challenged. The traditional notion of human rights separates the private and public realm of abuses, with the private realm often unattended. Human rights abuse is seen to occur