Human Rights---Whose Definition?

On the first day of the UNCSW, I attended a Conversation Circle focusing on  “Human Rights ”which was hosted by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women.  The purpose of these conversation circles is to provide an opportunity for groups with common interests to network and to share ideas on how to work together in the future. There were approximately 50 participants representing a variety of countries.

The underlying assumption that all groups participating in UNCSW share a common understanding and vision of what “human rights” for women looks like was challenged in the first circle I was part of.  There were two people from a right-to-life/anti abortion organization from Texas who tried to steer the dialogue in that direction.  Although the rest of the group was polite in trying to reclaim the agenda, I felt I could not engage in a meaningful discussion so I moved to another group.

In the second group, there were several human rights lawyers---from Switzerland, Nepal, the UK and delegates from China and Sudan.  The focus was mostly on using international conventions such as the Convention for the Elimination of  Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to further the goal of women’s equality.  I spoke about the recent complaint lodged by the Native Women’s Association of Canada to the CEDAW Committee asking for an inquiry into the government’s lack of action to deal with the appalling situation of missing and murdered Aboriginal women.  The other delegates were suprised to hear that this situation exists in Canada.

I also pressed the point that human rights must encompass social and economic rights, including the right to decent work for all women.  I gave the example of the CUPE partnership agreement with the government and employers in Saskatchewan, which resulted in over 2,000 Aboriginal people, many of them women, and many of them in rural areas, gaining access to unionized jobs in the health care sector.

It was frustrating to have to waste time dealing with groups who are essentially opposed to women’s rights at a conference which is focused on trying to move forward on achieving equality for women.  However, there were interesting exchanges with women from various organizations who want to hear more about the Canadian labour movement’s agenda for decent work for rural, northern and remote women, and we have much to learn from these sisters as well.

Maureen Morrison is the Equality Representative for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Manitoba Regional Office 

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