Women’s Rights

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Women’s rights around the world is an important indicator to understand global well-being.

A major global women’s rights treaty was ratified by the majority of the world’s nations a few decades ago.

Yet, despite many successes in empowering women, numerous issues still exist in all areas of life, ranging from the cultural, political to the economic. For example, women often work more than men, yet are paid less; gender discrimination affects girls and women throughout their lifetime; and women and girls are often are the ones that suffer the most poverty.

Reading this report about the United Nation’s Women’s Treaty and how a variety of countries have lodged reservations to various parts of it shows we still have a long way to go to achieve universal gender equality.

Gender equality furthers the cause of child survival and development for all of society, so the importance of women’s rights and gender equality should not be underestimated.

This article explores these issues further.

On this page:

  1. Progress
  2. Lack of Progress
  3. Women Work More Than Men But Are Paid Less
  4. Gender discrimination throughout a lifetime
  5. Feminization of Poverty
  6. Women, Reproductive Rights and Population Issues
  7. Women and children: the double dividend of gender equality
  8. Women and Climate Change
  9. Women and the Media
  10. Beijing +5 Special Session
  11. Beijing +15 Special Session
  12. Women, Militarism and Violence
  13. More Information


It isn’t easy to change tradition overnight. However, a small example of successes include:

On the 30th anniversary of CEDAW Inter Press Service (IPS) listed a number of benefits the women’s right treaty has provided around the world, for example:

  • Morocco gave women greater equality and protection of their human rights within marriage and divorce by passing a new family code in 2004
  • India has accepted legal obligations to eliminate discrimination against women and outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace
  • In Cameroon, the Convention is applied in local courts and groundbreaking decisions on gender equality are being made by the country’s high courts
  • Mexico passed a law in 2007 toughening its laws on violence against women
  • And the CEDAW committee in Austria decided two complaints against Austria concerning domestic violence in 2007
  • UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also noted that within the UN itself, the number of women in senior posts has increased by 40 percent
  • The Convention has been used to challenge discriminatory laws, interpret ambiguous provisions or where the law is silent, to confer rights on women, Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said.

Ban Ki-moon also described the treaty as one of the most successful human rights treaties ever, according to IPS.

Back to top

Lack of Progress

Thirty years after the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), many girls and women still do not have equal opportunities to realize rights recognized by law. In many countries, women are not entitled to own property or inherit land. Social exclusion, honor killings, female genital mutilation, trafficking, restricted mobility and early marriage among others, deny the right to health to women and girls and increase illness and death throughout the life-course.

We will not see sustainable progress unless we fix failures in health systems and society so that girls and women enjoy equal access to health information and services, education, employment and political positions.

Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization, Equal rights and opportunities for women and girls essential for better health, International Women’s Day, March 8, 2010

You would think that as time goes on, there would be more equality between men and women. Unfortunately, trends are moving in the other direction.

Inter Press Service notes that progress is mixed:

When it comes to female education rates, progress has been made around the world, and in many countries girls and young women have outnumbered and outperformed boys and men at all levels of schooling for decades. Nevertheless, these advances have yet to translate into greater equity in employment, politics and social relations.

Mario Osava, Women More Educated, Not More Equal, Inter Press Service, March 1, 2010

A report from Human Rights Watch also describes how women’s rights have not been observed in some countries as much as expected; in some places claims are made that women’s rights will be respected more, yet policies are sometimes not changed enough—or at all—thus still undermining the rights of women.

In some patriarchal societies, religion or tradition can be used as a barrier for equal rights. For example, as Inter Press Service reported, the Bangladesh government tried to hide behind laws to deny women equal rights. In Pakistan for example, honor killings directed at women have been carried for even the slightest reasons.

As Amnesty International also points out, Governments are not living up to their promises under the Women’s Convention to protect women from discrimination and violence such as rape and female genital mutilation. There are many governments who have also not ratified the Convention, including the U.S. Many countries that have ratified it do so with many reservations.

Despite the almost universal ratification of the Convention (second only to the Convention on the Rights of the Child), a number of countries have still not signed or ratified it. The handful of remaining countries are: USA (signed, but not ratified), Iran, Qatar, Cook Islands (a Non-member state of the United Nations), Nauru, Palau, Tonga, Somalia, and Sudan.

To see the US on this list may seem surprising to most, and Human Rights Watch is critical of the delay in getting a ratification, noting that this treaty has been in limbo in the U.S. Senate for decades. It was sent it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a vote in 1980. The first hearing on it was 10 years later. After a vote mostly in favor for it by the Foreign Relations Committee in 1994, some conservative senators blocked a US Senate vote on it. In 2002 the Foreign Relations Committee again voted that the treaty should be ratified, but the 107th Congress ended, so it requires a vote again in favor of sending the treaty to the full Senate for ratification!

Some opponents of the treaty have raised fears that it would undermine US law, but Amnesty International USA shows that such fears of the treaty are based on myths.

The US of course has a decent record when it comes to women’s rights, so this may not seem a concern immediately. However, as Amnesty International USA further argues not only would ratification for the US be straight forward (for US laws in this area are already consistent with the CEDAW treaty), but it would also help to increase their credibility when raising these issues worldwide.

(There are different types of problems all over the world that women face, from the wealthiest countries to the poorest, and it isn’t the scope or ability of this site to be able to document them all here, but just provide some examples. Links to other sites on this page document more thoroughly the actual instances, cases and situations around the world.)

Back to top

Women Work More Than Men But Are Paid Less

The informal slogan of the Decade of Women became Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 354

Women cultivate, plough, harvest more than half of all the food in the world.

According to Inter Press Service, On a global scale, women cultivate more than half of all the food that is grown. In sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, they produce up to 80 percent of basic foodstuffs. In Asia, they account for around 50 percent of food production. In Latin America, they are mainly engaged in subsistence farming, horticulture, poultry and raising small livestock.

Yet women often get little recognition for that. In fact, many go unpaid. It is very difficult for these women to get the financial resources required to buy equipment etc, as many societies still do not accept, or realize, that there is a change in the traditional roles.

UNICEF’s 2007 report on state of the world’s children focused on the discrimination and disempowerment women face throughout their lives and how that impacts children’s lives. In regards to work and pay, they noted the following:

Estimated earnings for women are substantially lower than for men
RegionEstimated earnings per year (in 1000s of US dollars at 2003 prices)Percentage of men’s earnings


  • The first number in each row represents women
  • The second number in each row represents men

Estimated earnings are defined as gross domestic product per capita (measured in US dollars at 2003 prices adjusted for purchasing power parity) adjusted for wage disparities between men and women. Some numbers rounded for display purposes.

Source: UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2007, p. 41, Figure 3.3

Industrialized nationsWomen 21
Men 37
CEE/CISWomen 4.6
Men 8
Latin American and
Women 4
Men 10
East Asia and PacificWomen 4
Men 6.5
Middle East and North
Women 2
Men 7
South AsiaWomen 1
Men 2.5
Sub-Saharan AfricaWomen 1
Men 2

Reasons for such disparity include the fact that women are generally underpaid and because they often perform low-status jobs, compared to men. UNICEF notes that the data isn’t always perfect, and that generalizations such as the above can hide wider fluctuations. In Brazil, for example, women under the age of 25 earn a higher average hourly wage than their male counterparts. (p.39)

UNICEF’s main summary of equality in employment (chapter 3) included the following points:

For many women, unpaid work in and for the household takes up the majority of their working hours, with much less time spent in remunerative employment. Even when they participate in the labour market for paid employment, women still undertake the majority of the housework.

When women work outside the household, they earn, on average, far less than men. They are also more likely to work in more precarious forms of employment with low earnings, little financial security and few or no social benefits.

Women not only earn less than men but also tend to own fewer assets. Smaller salaries and less control over household income constrain their ability to accumulate capital. Gender biases in property and inheritance laws and in other channels of acquiring assets also leave women and children at greater risk of poverty.

Paid employment for women does not automatically lead to better outcomes for children. Factors such as the amount of time women spend working outside the household, the conditions under which they are employed and who controls the income they generate determine how the work undertaken by women in the labour market affects their own well-being and that of children.

UNICEF, State of the World’s Children, 2007, p.36

Back to top

Gender discrimination throughout a lifetime

The above-mentioned 2007 report on state of the world’s had an informative section (see pages 4–5) on how women are discriminated against at various stages through life, summarized here:

Foeticide and infanticide
UNICEF notes that Where there is a clear economic or cultural preference for sons, the misuse of [pregnancy diagnostic tools] can facilitate female foeticide.
The middle years
A principal focus of the middle years of childhood and adolescence is ensuring access to, and completion of, quality primary and secondary education. With a few exceptions, it is mostly girls who suffer from educational disadvantage.
Among the greatest threats to adolescent development are abuse, exploitation and violence, and the lack of vital knowledge about sexual and reproductive health, including HIV/AIDS. Specific areas that UNICEF highlighted were female genital mutilation/cutting; child marriage and premature parenthood; sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking; sexual and reproductive health; and HIV/AIDS.
Motherhood and old age
These are two key periods in many women’s lives when the pernicious effects of both poverty and inequality can combine. Shockingly, It is estimated that each year more than half a million women—roughly one woman every minute—die as a result of pregnancy complications and childbirth, 99% of which occur in developing countries. Yet many of these women’s lives could be saved if they had access to basic health care services. In addition, elderly women may face double discrimination on the basis of both gender and age. Many older women are plunged into poverty at a time of life when they are very vulnerable. However, children’s rights are advanced when programmes that seek to benefit children and families also include elderly women.

Back to top

Feminization of Poverty

The feminization of poverty is a phenomenon that is unfortunately on the increase. Basically, women are increasingly the ones who suffer the most poverty.

Professor of anthropology, Richard Robbins also notes that

At the same time that women produce 75 to 90 percent of food crops in the world, they are responsible for the running of households. According to the United Nations, in no country in the world do men come anywhere close to women in the amount of time spent in housework. Furthermore, despite the efforts of feminist movements, women in the core [wealthiest, Western countries] still suffer disproportionately, leading to what sociologist refer to as the feminization of poverty, where two out of every three poor adults are women. The informal slogan of the Decade of Women became Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 354

This then also affects children, which makes the dire situation even worse. For example, even in the richest country in the world, the USA, the poorest are women caring for children.

The lending strategies to developing countries by institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have affected many women in those countries.

Poverty, trade and economic issues are very much related to women’s rights issues due to the impacts they can have. Tackling these issues as well also helps to tackle women’s rights issues. And, tackling gender issues helps tackle poverty-related issues. See also the Asia Pacific online network of women web site for more about issues relating to globalization and its impacts on women.

For more about these aspects, refer to this site’s section on trade and poverty related issues.

Back to top

Women, Reproductive Rights and Population Issues

As seen in the population section of this web site, tackling many population related causes involves tackling many women’s issues such as increased knowledge and access to better health care, family planning and education for women. The beneficial results of these get passed along to the children and eventually the society. In fact, as PANOS shows in a report, providing women reproductive rights is part of their human rights.

And as Amnesty International shows, when basic health care infrastructure is lacking, the poorest suffer the most. For example, in the case of pregnant women giving birth comes with the real risk of death, which affects the rest of the family and community too:

No Woman Should Die Giving Birth: Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone, Amnesty International, via CultureUnplugged.com

Back to top

Women and children: the double dividend of gender equality

The above title comes from UNICEF’s 2007 report on state of the world’s children where they focus on the discrimination and disempowerment women face throughout their lives and how that impacts children’s lives.

The key messages that came out from the report were as follows:

Gender equality and the well-being of children go hand in hand
Gender equality furthers the cause of child survival and development.
Gender equality produces a double dividend: It benefits both women and children
Healthy, educated and empowered women have healthy, educated and confident daughters and sons. Gender equality will not only empower women to overcome poverty and live full and productive lives, but will better the lives of children, families and countries as well.
Women’s equal rights and influence in the key decisions that shape their lives and those of children must be enhanced in three distinct arenas: the household, the workplace and the political sphere
A change for the better in any one of these realms influences women’s equality in the others, and has a profound and positive impact on child’s well-being and development.
Gender equality is not only morally right, it is pivotal to human progress and sustainable development
Achieving Millennium Development Goal Number 3—promoting gender equality and empowering women—will also contribute to achieving all the other goals, from reducing poverty and hunger to saving children’s lives, improving maternal health, ensuring universal education, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

This short video from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs also hints at the benefits of investing in women; that they will tend to invest in things that improve conditions for much of society:

Invest in Women — Do you see the opportunity?, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2010

A short video from the International Herald Tribune also gives a few examples of lives of different women around the world and how they can bring benefits to wider society:

The Female Factor , International Herald Tribune, March 11, 2010

Back to top

Women and Climate Change

Many of the above factors also combine to make women more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) explains:

Women—particularly those in poor countries—will be affected differently than men. They are among the most vulnerable to climate change, partly because in many countries they make up the larger share of the agricultural work force and partly because they tend to have access to fewer income-earning opportunities. Women manage households and care for family members, which often limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to sudden weather-related natural disasters. Drought and erratic rainfall force women to work harder to secure food, water and energy for their homes. Girls drop out of school to help their mothers with these tasks. This cycle of deprivation, poverty and inequality undermines the social capital needed to deal effectively with climate change.

Facing a changing world: women, population and climate , State of the World’s Population 2009, UNFPA, November 18, 2009, p.4

The UNFPA also captures this in some videos that accompanied their 2009 report.

The first one is the above-described effects occurring in rural areas of Bolivia. The second one is on the impact on women in Vietnam.

Back to top

Women and the Media

Even media attention on women who help and fight for certain causes is distorted. For example, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) analyzed U.S. media reporting during the British Princess Diana’s funeral, and noted that the U.S. media typically concentrate only on a few people like the late Diana and Mother Teresa who had some sort of celebrity type status, and rarely reported on the thousands of others doing similar work.

In other cases, the roles of women presented in the media, from talk shows, to entertainment shows as well as news reporting can often end up reinforcing the status quo and the cultural stereotypes, which influence other women to follow suit. This happens in all nations, from the wealthiest to the poorest (and happens with men as well as children). It can have positive aspects, such as providing guidance and sharing issues etc. but it can also have a negative effect of continuing inherent prejudices etc.

(For more on this perspective, see this collection of articles from MediaChannel.org on Women’s Media)

Back to top

Beijing +5 Special Session

From June 5 to June 9 2000, there was a conference at the United Nations, New York, continuing on 5 years from a similar conference in Beijing, 1995. (The formal name of the conference was Women: 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century.)

In 1985 there was a conference in Nairobi, Kenya, to formulate strategies for advancing women’s rights. This was followed by a plan of action defined in 1995, in Beijing.

It has been recognized and agreed for a while that successful development also involves gender equality. The goals of this conference then was to reflect on the promised provisions of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere.

Leading up to, and during the conference, many organizations had numerous issues to bring to the fore, including:

  • Women’s reproductive rights
  • Abduction of girls
  • Child soldiers and armed conflict
  • Poverty and Economy
  • Education and Training
  • Health
  • Violence
  • Decision Making
  • Institutional Mechanisms
  • Human Rights
  • Media
  • Environment
  • The Girl-child

According to a UN report, the international community had fallen far short of its commitments to empower women and achieve gender equality and that only eight out of 188 member states had certain global agreements for this.

It was also pointed out at this UN session that Women continued to be deprived of basic and fundamental rights because of measures imposed in certain countries.

In fact, some were even opposed to moving forward on such important issues, such as Holy See (the Vatican), Nicaragua, Sudan and Libya and sometimes Iraq and various other nations on particular issues such as reproductive rights, even freedom of expression (Libya and the Vatican opposed this). The Vatican, Iran and some other delegations even wanted to delete references to sexual and reproductive rights and health in the Current Challenges section of the review document.

Regarding the Vatican (the Holy See), there was growing concern at their role as permanent observer, where they are considered to be more than a non-governmental organization (NGO), but less than a nation. They therefore have some influence and have been criticized at the way they have affected some UN decisions regarding gender-related issues to be more effectively pushed forward. As part of some of the criticisms, there is the suggestion to challenge the Holy See’s power by demanding that the Vatican should be classified as an NGO instead.

Some NGOs and organizations from the third world trying to fight for women’s rights also felt they were left out of the conference.

For more in-depth discussion of the issues you can also look at

Back to top

Beijing +15 Special Session

15 years on from the 1995 Beijing conference, and a decade after the conference described above, there was a 2-week meeting on women’s rights progress once again. Technically, this was the 54th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to report on global efforts toward democracy and human development through the empowerment of women.

Inter Press Service (IPS) reported on the conference suggesting mixed feelings on the outcome; while there was improved understanding on some issues, there were still a number of political uncertainties on questions such as whether or not there would be any

  • Commitments to protect the universality of women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive rights;
  • Significant progress on the proposal to set up a separate U.N. agency — officially called a gender entity — for women;
  • Increased funding for gender-related issues, including resources to battle sexual violence.

(See IPS’s coverage of Beijing +15 as well as the United Nations Beijing +15 web site for more details.)

Back to top

Women, Militarism and Violence

It is often argued—and accepted—that women, being the gentler sex, and typically being the main care givers in society, are less aggressive than men. Feminists often argue that women, if given appropriate and full rights, could counter-balance a male-dominated world which is characterized by aggression in attitudes, thoughts, society and, ultimately, war.

In May 2004, the Occupation/Coalition forces in Iraq were shown around the world to be committing torture and other grotesque acts on Iraqi captives. For feminists and others, what was also shocking was that some of these acts were being perpetrated by women in the U.S. military.

Feminist activist Barbara Ehrenreich captures some of the thoughts and reactions quite well:

Secretly, I hoped that the presence of women [in the U.S. army] would over time change the military, making it more respectful of other people and cultures, more capable of genuine peacekeeping. That’s what I thought, but I don’t think that anymore.

A certain kind of feminism, or perhaps I should say a certain kind of feminist naivete, died in Abu Ghraib [the prison facility from where most of the torture pictures and footage originated]. It was a feminism that saw men as the perpetual perpetrators, women as the perpetual victims and male sexual violence against women as the root of all injustice. Rape has repeatedly been an instrument of war and, to some feminists, it was beginning to look as if war was an extension of rape. There seemed to be at least some evidence that male sexual sadism was connected to our species' tragic propensity for violence. That was before we had seen female sexual sadism in action.

… But the assumption [within feminism] of [women’s] superiority [over men], or at least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was more or less beyond debate. After all, women do most of the caring work in our culture, and in polls are consistently less inclined toward war than men.

… If that assumption had been accurate, then all we would have had to do to make the world a better place—kinder, less violent, more just—would have been to assimilate into what had been, for so many centuries, the world of men.

… What we need is a tough new kind of feminism with no illusions. Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change. We need a feminism that teaches a woman to say no—not just to the date rapist or overly insistent boyfriend but, when necessary, to the military or corporate hierarchy within which she finds herself.

Barbara Ehrenreich, What Abu Ghraib Taught Me, Alternet, May 20, 2004

Towards the end of the article, Ehrenreich notes that gender equality often appears to be limited to allowing women to have equality in a male-dominated world, meaning women struggle to have rights to do what men do. But, if what men are doing is generally seen as negative, then gender equality in that context is not enough. As she ends:

To cite an old, and far from naive, feminist saying: If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low. It is not enough to be equal to men, when the men are acting like beasts. It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.

Barbara Ehrenreich, What Abu Ghraib Taught Me, Alternet, May 20, 2004

Back to top

More Information

For more information on women’s rights in general, see

  • Women’s Rights News Headlines from this web site
  • From Inter Press Service (IPS):
  • Oxfam’s Gender and Development section looks at the worsening plight of women around the world, from the increased feminization of poverty to the inequality between men and women.
  • OneWorld.net’s guide on Gender issues covers many issues.
  • The United Nations is an obvious main source of information and they have many resources, including:
  • Womankind is a development agency supporting women from the developing world tackling issues such as poverty and sexual or political oppression. They have a good web site with more information.
  • The Girls Global Education Fund is an impressive web site that tackles the important issue of girls education, especially where traditionally girls grow up not having the same access to education as boys.
  • MADRE, as they say in their own words, is an international women’s human rights organization that works in partnership with women’s community-based groups worldwide to address issues of health, economic development and other human rights.
  • Third World Network provides a collection of articles on Women’s rights and gender issues, also looking at the relationship with other issues such as globalization, poverty, economics, health, violence, sexual exploitation, gender equity, culture and more.
  • Amnesty International has a section on women.
  • The People’s Movement for Human Rights Education (PDHRE) web site has an informative section on Human Rights and Women.
  • OneWomen is a web site of the Asia Pacific Online Network of Women in Governance, Politics and Transformative Leadership. It has many articles and links.
  • Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom provides a look at all sorts of issues, from political, economic, social etc.
  • The Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) is a portal of information and analysis on women’s rights and global issues.
  • Mama Cash is the oldest international women’s fund established in the Netherlands in 1983 supporting various initiatives around the world guided by the principle that social change starts with women and girls.

Back to top

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

Back to top

Document revision history

Added small notes and quotes about challenges and a UN women’s conference
Added some more examples of progress, based on the CEDAW treaty, as well as information and videos on how climate change will impact women.
Added an additional link for further information and attempted to fix some other broken links to additional information.
Information added on the international women’s rights treaty, on how women are discriminated through various stages of life, and how gender equality also benefits children
Small note about women in Africa gaining more and more positions in parliament
A subsection on Women, Militarism and Violence added in light of the torture of Iraqi captives by U.S. occupation forces, including women personnel, and what that has meant in terms of gender equality

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.