By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Women’s Human Rights and today’s Women Leaders

I confess. I too was a "Colegiala" once. (No kidding?) I guess the Blog's title is something sort of a dead give away when it comes to the Catholicism part. On the other hand, a lot has changed over the years but a lot of things seem the same. With much trepidation, I addressed a Generation of young Colegialas (I had more jokes than the lecture I shared here) and worried constantly whether I was speaking a language they could even relate to. I'm not really just thinking about English facility but the "gap" which is both cultural and generational. Even if I had references to Angelina Jolie, The Matrix and a handful of other current pop culture obsessions, I worry that I barely made "contact."(Excerpts from a lecture at the 5th Young Women Leader's Conference at Miriam College, headed by Miriam, St.Scholastica, Holy Spirit and Assumption)

The most difficult part of my task today I think lies with the basic problem of bridging what to my mind is not just a generation gap (obviously), but also a glaring cultural and historical gap when it comes to coming to an understanding of women’s human rights today.

I realize that while at this day and age, human rights or for that matter, “women’s human rights” is no longer a new term or unfamiliar catchphrase, it bears noting that this doesn’t necessarily mean that most people, including young people share a clear enough idea of what the words mean in a historical sense. Unfortunately, not all schools offer human rights courses and let’s face it, the topic of human rights isn’t exactly what proliferates You Tube, Bebo, Blogger or Frenster.

Our current understanding of “rights” today has come a long way from the origin of the term in liberal philosophy. Today, when we refer to human rights it both encompasses survival needs as well as claims to basic freedoms like the right to development. Even more importantly, human rights discourse today have come to encompass ethical standards and no less than the concept of human dignity.

Thus when we speak of human rights, women’s human rights, we certainly do not solely refer to the “legal rights” enshrined or documented in law or treaties.

On the other hand, it is also important to understand the (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) CEDAW, not just as a historic document to chronicle the advancement of women’s rights, petrified in print. But how we use it and engage it is also very much a living testament to our evolving bases of ethical societal standards by way of the discourse in human rights.

For today’s generation of women who grew up perhaps, not exactly lacking “role models” (from Ang Su Kyi to Lara Croft-tomb raider-) that is, without a dearth of strong women leaders (hopefully the present administration not included?). With opportunities in various levels of public and political arenas opening up for women, how does one go about convincing budding young women leaders or aspiring women’s rights advocates and feminists that here, and now, we still have far to go in terms of claiming a total victory for women’s empowerment?

In other words, despite erstwhile claims that feminism is dead or that there is no more need for feminism, young women today in fact need to brace themselves (and be ready to face) what has been the “backlash” pushing back gains of the last 30 years in women’s rights.

Today’s generation of young women, especially Filipino women and girls who perhaps are still a little better educated than their counterparts from other developing countries, more adept in the English language (post colonialism’s struggling linggua franca), a little more exposed to ways of the West than other cultures, will often claim that there is no such thing as gender inequality, and that women are in fact, “placed on a pedestal” in Philippine society.

In a forum also discussing the women’s Convention in Makati last year, a young urban professional in the advertising industry spoke about her own misgivings about so-called “gender subordination,” in the open forum. She was (not unlike all of you), talented, upper middle class, educated in the good schools, and independent. She said she both didn’t feel it at work or growing up and wondered out loud what exactly it was we were talking about.

To be totally honest, save for the upper middle class bit (I’m more middle, middle class), I was also brought up in a household where gender was never used against me by my own parents as a “limitation” to what I could do and accomplish. But of course growing up in a Catholic girl’s school, having conservative spinster aunts, and finding myself in the “macho” College of Law, I was also always acutely aware that the “limits” set on women and girls, as well as the discriminatory treatment against women in society (some of them culturally passed off and accepted as “protective” rather than sexist) didn’t really always need to come across as the “staple forms” of “sexism” that by way of media and pop culture, we have come to almost exclusively associate with the worse forms of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Indeed we must remember that even Violence Against Women (VAW) (e.g. rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence) wasn’t always something we could even publicly address and consider as human rights violations in the past. In fact, the Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the treaty on women’s human rights that gives us the basis to do so, doesn’t contain the term, “Violence Against Women.” In fact, General Recommendation No. 19 on VAW (the CEDAW Committee’s definition of gender based violence and VAW) came much later (1992).

Whenever women’s rights activists engage the convention, ever expanding on and expounding on the forms of discrimination and gender inequality as experienced by many women, in different situations, across cultures, races and classes, we should do so with an awareness that I think is best explained by something Prof. Gigi Francisco said:

“A gain in women’s equality in one space may matter little or become altogether meaningless in another space that itself undergoing a dynamic shift. This multi-centricity challenges the women’s movement’s ability to deploy our energies in different spaces simultaneously ” Gigi Francisco, in “Sighting paradoxes for gender in the social movements” DAWN-Southeast Asia

This means for today’s generation of Filipino women and girls, coming to terms with issues like how overseas employment and newly opening and relatively “better-paying” jobs like call centers on one significant level present real means of economic emancipation for thousands (if not millions) of Filipino women and livelihood for their households, on another level, the burgeoning demand for migrant women’s cheap labor in the “service industries” and the outsourcing of call center work also represents the ever growing divide between “first world” and “third world,” and ever worsening geopolitical inequality.

As feminist Barbara Ehrenreich observed in 2002: “Over the last thirty years, as the rich countries have grown much richer, the poor countries have become in both absolute and relative terms- poorer. Global inequalities in wages are particularly striking. In Hong Kong for instance, the wages of a Filipina domestic are about fifteen times the amount she could make as a school teacher in the Philippines.”

Indeed, twenty five years after the Women’s Convention was adopted, young women, particularly, Filipino women face challenges in many ways similar to the challenges faced by women of a past generation, and yet, in many ways, entirely unique to these current times. As an example, women still get sexually harassed in school, workplaces and in public, but with the proliferation of technologies such as cell phones and the internet, the means available and the “places” where harassment takes place can range from the actual to the virtual.

While today, as before, the Women’s Convention itself still serves as a strategic tool for the setting of standards, in the legal and political, economic and cultural spheres, for women’s right to equality, this function is by no means easily dismissed as just symbolic or rhetoric.

In 2000, the Optional Protocol to the Women’s Convention came into force, over eighteen years after the Convention itself came into force (1982). Under the Optional Protocol, the CEDAW Committee now has complaints procedures, on top of what only used to be monitoring procedures via the periodic reporting process by State parties.

Likewise, always bringing the principles equality, non-discrimination and state accountability in CEDAW into relevant application to the changing times has been a challenge that both women working within the UN process and outside of it, have faced.

The CEDAW Committee has adopted many of these attempts as General Recommendations, which interpret the Convention’s principles in the light of emerging and current situations affecting women.

This has also included consolidating “gains” in the discourse of gender equality and women’s human rights, from the ICPD in Cairo 1994 (where reproductive rights and health gained currency as human rights), the Beijing Platform in 1995 (where women’s empowerment and decision-making as the enabling conditions for rights exercise were highlighted) and various significant and hard won consensus documents.

But as I earlier mentioned, these gains in women’s rights are always under threat of being pushed back and it is today’s generation of women and girls who will have to face these challenges head on. The list of challenges is of course myriad and by no means exclusive but nonetheless, I have identified a few, which I think are becoming very important to this generation of Filipino women:

(1) Sexual and Reproductive Rights in the context of the resurgence of Religious Fundamentalism

As states fall back on what were previously considered mandates in health and welfare services, fundamentalist religious movements have sought to monopolize the discourse on morality and ethics, pushing back the debate on sexuality and reproductive matters back to the dark ages.

The irony here is that the language of rights also finds its way into the debates when Fundamentalists themselves claim THE curtailment of their right to religious expression, notwithstanding agendas very much against pluralism or tolerance of religious and secular difference.

(2) The Right to Work in relation to the right to life and the right to development in the context of Globalization and Migration

As mentioned, the sheer reality of job availability abroad for Filipino women is a complex of paradoxes. Women assert this right to work in the face of certain economic and personal crises as well as the genuine right for advancement but majority of the very work opportunities that open up to accommodate cheap migrant labor perpetuates racial and sexual discrimination on a global scale. The situation of women can range from the slavery like conditions to slightly better working conditions and 15 times better pay (that is compared to conditions in the country) but still at a much lower cost to the host state which is interested in “cutting back” on services to its own citizens. An example of this is the mass migration of women to work as domestics and nannies to children in the first world.

(3) Sexual slavery in Trafficking and prostitution (both global and national borders)

The burgeoning and thriving industries of sex trafficking and prostitution is also a complex issue, which is also closely related to the previously mentioned issues of migration and sexual rights, often with feminists themselves engaged in impassioned debates over the language of legal rights and the role of the State.

On the other hand, the fact that thousands of Filipino women as well as many others still get caught in the web of sexual exploitation, the issue is clearly also remains as the unchallenged culture of sexism and commercialism, where “women as sex” have become the very commodities of a global market of what is widely accepted and dictated as the market of “male sexual needs.”

(4) Access to information, education and technology in relation to both the enabling conditions of rights exercise, as well as the means to engage in cross cultural exchanges and the facilitation of movement building

My favorite media studies pioneer, Marshall McLuhan once said “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

In its heyday (which is very much ongoing), information technology is often touted as a “revolution,” as if in every sense egalitarian and accessible to all. Likewise, the proliferation of information across media platforms is often represented as signs of a “free media,” and in turn, a “thriving democracy.”

Yet without the ability to think for ourselves and a genuine understanding of the interests and institutions that control both information, media and technology itself, we are perhaps no different from the characters in Matrix, asleep, in a dreamlike trance, our ways of thinking dictated by and confined to what is allowed. Are we really using technology? Utilizing it to its full creative and transformative potential or merely consumers of it?

As today’s generation of women leaders, and hopefully passionate feminists and advocates, it is a world of both opportunities and challenges that awaits you. In making a commitment to advance women’s human rights everywhere, yours will no doubt be a difficult task. But I have no doubt you can face up to it - (and even have fun doing so.)[Picture from this site which is a great site for studying portion of the "History of Human Rights," particularly, on the UN engagement :Eleanor Roosevelt who is credited with writing the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights]


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