A plea to the new High Commissioner for Human Rights: defend women's rights

Open Democracy

The new High Commissioner has the opportunity to grasp the torch lit by his predecessors and fully embrace and defend an uncompromising stance for women’s equality - and his legacy will be judged on his commitment to doing so.

First of all, High Commissioner, let me offer my congratulations on your appointment.  You will need strength, determination and support to see through the promise of human rights in a complex world; a promise that remains to be fully realised by all. 

Yours is a hugely important office, in which many people around the globe invest hope for improvements in their lives and those of their children. Here, I draw your attention to the profound and multiple challenges that limit, damage or end the lives and crush the spirit of women and girls around the world. These are challenges that your Office and your voice must continue to address, with conviction and persistence.  

High Commissioner, you follow some truly remarkable women into your post.  They have signalled without reservation that women’s rights are at the heart of the work of your office; this must continue. 

I urge you to hold firm on the agenda of human rights for all – where women count as fully human, for there will be no shortage of detractors who believe your energy is better spent elsewhere. I hope that those who believe that men cannot attend to the rights of women will be confounded by your tenure. You will make a difference by joining the ranks of those who don’t mind being the persistent voices, constantly reminding others that the work to defend women’s rights is far from completed.  The company there is worth keeping! 


An Egyptian woman protests against sexual harassment in Cairo. (June 2014) Mohamed Elmaymony/Demotix All rights reserved.


In a time when fractures in our common humanity are being opened up by supposed divisions of culture, please stand firm on the vision that is shaped around the principle of universality.  Your voice will be important in rejecting arguments that the cultural framing of discrimination, abuse or violence somehow casts a cloak of acceptability over misogyny.   

The battleground for women’s dignity permeates every aspect of private and public life; at its core it is fought with and through the bodies of women. Women are too often subject either to vilification or to instrumental treatment – such as being given food, jobs or money in order to improve child welfare or school attendance, or being encouraged to resist violence in order that women are more effective economic actors.

The thread that ties so much together is the violence that poisons the lives of women and girls and re-affirms, perpetuates or promotes curtailed ambitions or lives shaped by the power of others.  Endemic violence blights the lives of women and girls, whether at home or in the community, at war or in ‘peace’. From domestic violence, to child abuse, FGM to sexual slavery, from ‘honour’ crimes to trafficking  - there are endless ways to cramp the lives of women and girls.  It is a constant effort to name the myriad ways in which women are stymied by structures of oppression that shrink the realisation of their rights.

High Commissioner, please name it; High Commissioner, please stand with and support those who tackle it; High Commissioner, please confront those who perpetuate endemic misogyny, curtailing women’s enjoyment of their rights. 

..the daily reality of female life, by and large, knows little of equality and less of non-discrimination.

The promise of non-discrimination against women made in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the 1995 Platform of Action that was made at the Beijing World Conference, and in many more UN treaties and documents, remains to be fulfilled. Yet much has indeed changed – choices and possibilities known by my daughters would have been totally unimaginable to my grandmothers.    

The Millennium Development Goals, due to be retired in 2015, need to be succeeded by new goals with popular as well as governmental support; goals that dismantle the profoundly resistant structures poisoning the lives of women and help to unravel violent versions of masculinity.   Stand-alone goals on gender equality and on violence against women are being advocated. These should be welcomed and the next set of goals made relevant and real to women and girls.    

Commitments to equality are plentiful in international law and the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of sex and gender are well established. Yet, the daily reality of female life, by and large, knows little of equality and less of non-discrimination.

This is a time when the old order, a patriarchal world where men's privilege was more fully accepted and women's lesser lives were simply a fact of life, has now been profoundly disturbed. The promise of rights for all, without discrimination of any kind, now has to be made real. You can lead that journey into its next phase. 

High Commissioner, I want to be writing a letter to your successor in a few years’ time, saying ‘High Commissioner Prince Zeid made the most remarkable progress on the rights of women and girls.  He was bold and committed, he defended and promoted the principle of universality at a time when it was under attack, moved the promise of lives free of violence into a reality and embedded the rights of women into the fabric of every member state’s actions and policy measures.’ 

There are many people ready to offer whatever advice, support and expertise you might find useful.  We want you to succeed, High Commissioner, we want you to shape a future where women are recognised as human, where exploitation and indignity are consigned to history, where culture can no longer offer a fig-leaf to abusers and where states can no longer undermine the rights of half their populations with impunity.