Gender equality is an integral part of human rights and a fundamental aspect of a just, secure, and democratic society. Gender equality means equal rights and opportunities for women and men in laws and policies, and equal access to resources and services within families, communities and society at large.
Effective gender equality legislation is crucial in guaranteeing the equal rights and opportunities of women and men in all spheres of life as well as in preventing systemic discrimination against women. Gender equality laws should ensure that women’s and men’s rights and interests are equally taken into account when designing policies that affect them both. Throughout the last decades, many nations have taken measures to ensure formal, de jure, equality between women and men, by adopting a number of groundbreaking laws and policies.
Nonetheless, inequalities between women and men persist in both private and public spheres as a result of stereotypes that are maintained at both the state and societal level. Therefore, serious measures are needed to ensure substantial, de facto, gender equality; equal rights in practice. Such measures can vary from awareness-raising initiatives to affirmative action measures, meaning active efforts to balance out inequalities disadvantageous to women, often referred to as “special measures.”
International human rights law requires all governments to respect and protect the human rights of each individual on an equal basis. States must recognize the unique context in which women experience the violation of their human rights and take all necessary steps to protect women from discrimination and abuse in both the private and public spheres. Historically, states have assumed responsibility for human rights violations only when state agents or officials were the perpetrators. However, women frequently face discrimination and abuse from non-state actors, such as their employers, partners, husbands, families and community members. As human rights law has developed over the years, each state currently has the positive responsibility to promote and protect the human rights of women and men and to stop violations thereof. As such, the state must take affirmative steps to prevent direct and indirect discrimination against women, meaning voluntary and intentional differences in treatment and cases where such an unjustified difference is the (possibly unintended) consequence of a seemingly neutral provision or practice.
Considerable commitments to gender equality have been made by nations through international instruments and agreements. The most important of these is the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, (CEDAW). Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, CEDAW is the first document to comprehensively address women's rights within political, cultural, economic, social and family spheres. CEDAW guarantees the right of all women to be free from discrimination as well as to ensure that the implementation of this right is legally and practically provided for by States Parties. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, as adopted by the Vienna Conference of Human Rights in 1993, explicitly states in Article 18 that “the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community.“ Further international commitments to gender equality were agreed to at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and more recently in the Beijing + 15 Review - a renewal of commitments to examine challenges and good practices in implementing the Platform. The Platform sets out a comprehensive set of actions that can be taken to promote gender equality.
At the regional level, the Council of Europe has devoted attention and resources to promoting equality between women and men, while the European Union has established the European Institute for Gender Equality, which supports the EU and its Member States in their efforts to promote gender equality, to fight discrimination based on sex and to raise awareness about gender equality issues.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) places a strong emphasis on the promotion of gender equality within the institution on the one hand, and in participating States on the other, by assisting States to comply with their international and national gender equality commitments and obligations. In the 1991 Moscow Document, the participating States have recognised that “full and true equality between men and women is a fundamental aspect of a just and democratic society based on the rule of law.”
In the 2004 OSCE Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality, the “[OSCE] Participating States have committed themselves to making equality between women and men an integral part of policies both at State level and within the Organization.” The 2004 OSCE Action Plan highlights inter alia the following priority areas:
• Ensuring non-discriminatory legal and policy frameworks,
• Preventing violence against women,
• Ensuring equal opportunity for participation of women in political and public life,
• Encouraging women’s participation in conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction,
• Promoting equal opportunity for women in the economic sphere, and
• Building national mechanisms for the advancement of women.
In the Ministerial Council Decision 7/09 on Women’s Participation in Political and Public Life, participating States have specifically committed to promote gender equality and equal opportunity for participation of women and men in political and public life. Likewise, in Ministerial Council Decision 14/05 on Women in Conflict Prevention, Crisis Management, and Post-Conflict Rehabilitation, participating States have recognized the importance of equal opportunities in the security sector. This Decision recognizes UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on the role of women in all levels of conflict prevention, crisis management and resolution, and post-conflict rehabilitation. The Ministerial Council Decision 15/05 on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women reaffirms that States have an obligation to prevent violence against women and provide protection to victims; failure to do so “violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) also supports the participating States in implementing their gender equality commitments, through specific programmes on gender equality and women and security.
Introduction prepared based on contributions received from Gabriele Reiter, International Expert.
Uploaded in December 2011.
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