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Women's rights

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Women's rights are the rights and entitlements claimed for women and girls of many societies worldwide.

In some places these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behaviour, whereas in others they may be ignored or suppressed. They differ from broader notions of human rights through claims of an inherent historical and traditional bias against the exercise of rights by women and girls in favour of men and boys.

Issues commonly associated with notions of women's rights include, though are not limited to, the right: to bodily integrity and autonomy; to vote (suffrage); to hold public office; to work; to fair wages or equal pay; to own property; to education; to serve in the military or be conscripted; to enter into legal contracts; and to have marital, parental and religious rights.

History of women's rights


The status of women in China was low, largely due to the custom of foot binding. About 45% of Chinese women had bound feet in the 19th century. For the upper classes, it was almost 100%. In 1912, the Chinese government ordered the cessation of foot-binding. Foot-binding involved alteration of the bone structure so that the feet were only about 4 inches long. The bound feet caused difficulty of movement, thus greatly limiting the activities of women.

Due to the social custom that men and women should not be near to one another, the women of China were reluctant to be treated by male doctors of Western Medicine. This resulted in a tremendous need for female doctors of Western Medicine in China. Thus, female medical missionary Dr. Mary H. Fulton (1854-1927) was sent by the Foreign Missions Board of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to found the first medical college for women in China. Known as the Hackett Medical College for Women (夏葛女子醫學院), this College was located in Guangzhou, China, and was enabled by a large donation from Mr. Edward A.K. Hackett (1851-1916) of Indiana, USA. The College was aimed at the spreading of Christianity and modern medicine and the elevation of Chinese women's social status.


The status of women in ancient Greece varied form city state to city state. Records exist of women in ancient Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta owning land, the most prestigious form of private property at the time.

In ancient Athens, women had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos headed by the male kyrios. Until marriage, women were under the guardianship of their father or other male relative, once married the husband became a woman’s kyrios. As women were barred from conducting legal proceedings, the kyrios would do so on their behalf. Athenian women had limited right to property and therefore were not considered full citizens, as citizenship and the entitlement to civil and political rights was defined in relation to property and the means to life. However, women could acquire rights over property through gifts, dowry and inheritance, though her kyrios had the right to dispose of a woman’s property. Athenian women could enter into a contract worth less than the value of a “ medimnos of barley” (a measure of grain), allowing women to engage in petty trading. Slaves, like women, were not eligible for full citizenship in ancient Athens, though in rare circumstances they could become citizens if freed. The only permanent barrier to citizenship, and hence full political and civil rights, in ancient Athens was gender. No women ever acquired citizenship in ancient Athens, and therefore women were excluded in principle and practice from ancient Athenian democracy.

By contrast, Spartan women enjoyed a status, power, and respect that was unknown in the rest of the classical world. Although Spartan women were formally excluded from military and political life they enjoyed considerable status as mothers of Spartan warriors. As men engaged in military activity, women took responsibility for running estates. Following protracted warfare in the 4th century BC Spartan women owned approximately between 35% and 40% of all Spartan land and property. By the Hellenistic Period, some of the wealthiest Spartans were women. They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army. Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, and unlike Athenian women who wore heavy, concealing clothes and were rarely seen outside the house, Spartan women wore short dresses and went where they pleased. Girls as well as boys received an education, and young women as well as young men may have participated in the Gymnopaedia ("Festival of Nude Youths").

Plato acknowledged that extending civil and political rights to women would substantively alter the nature of the household and the state. Aristotle, who had been taught by Plato, denied that women were slaves or subject to property, arguing that "nature has distinguished between the female and the slave", but he considered wives to be "bought". He argued that women's main economic activity is that of safeguarding the household property created by men. According to Aristotle the labour of women added no value because "the art of household management is not identical with the art of getting wealth, for the one uses the material which the other provides".

Contrary to these views, the Stoic philosophers argued for equality of the sexes, sexual inequality being in their view contrary to the laws of nature. In doing so, they followed the Cynics, who argued that men and women should wear the same clothing and receive the same kind of education. They also saw marriage as a moral companionship between equals rather than a biological or social necessity, and practiced these views in their lives as well as their teachings. The Stoics adopted the views of the Cynics and added them to their own theories of human nature, thus putting their sexual egalitarianism on a strong philosophical basis.

Ancient Rome

Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony, commanded troops during the Roman civil wars and was the first woman whose likeness appeared on Roman coins.

Freeborn women of ancient Rome were citizens who enjoyed legal privileges and protections that did not extend to non-citizens or slaves. Roman society, however, was patriarchal, and women could not vote, hold public office, or serve in the military. Women of the upper classes exercised political influence through marriage and motherhood. During the Roman Republic, the mother of the Gracchus brothers and of Julius Caesar were noted as exemplary women who advanced the career of their sons. During the Imperial period, women of the emperor's family could acquire considerable political power, and were regularly depicted in official art and on coinage. Plotina exercised influence on both her husband, the emperor Trajan, and his successor Hadrian. Her letters and petitions on official matters were made available to the public —an indication that her views were considered important to popular opinion.

A child's citizen status was determined by that of its mother. Both daughters and sons were subject to patria potestas, the power wielded by their father as head of household ( paterfamilias). At the height of the Empire (1st–2nd centuries), the legal standing of daughters differs little if at all from that of sons. Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will.

Couple clasping hands in marriage, idealized by Romans as the building block of society and as a partnership of companions who work together to produce and rear children, manage everyday affairs, lead exemplary lives, and enjoy affection

In the earliest period of the Roman Republic, a bride passed from her father's control into the "hand" (manus) of her husband. She then became subject to her husband's potestas, though to a lesser degree than their children. This archaic form of manus marriage was largely abandoned by the time of Julius Caesar, when a woman remained under her father's authority by law even when she moved into her husband's home. This arrangement was one of the factors in the independence Roman women enjoyed relative to those of many other ancient cultures and up to the modern period: although she had to answer to her father in legal matters, she was free of his direct scrutiny in her daily life, and her husband had no legal power over her. When her father died, she became legally emancipated ( sui iuris). A married woman retained ownership of any property she brought into the marriage. Although it was a point of pride to be a "one-man woman" (univira) who had married only once, there was little stigma attached to divorce, nor to speedy remarriage after the loss of a husband through death or divorce. Under classical Roman law, a husband had no right to abuse his wife physically or compel her to have sex. Wife beating was sufficient grounds for divorce or other legal action against the husband.

Because she remained legally a part of her birth family, a Roman woman kept her own family name for life. Children most often took the father's name, but in the Imperial period sometimes made their mother's name part of theirs, or even used it instead. A Roman mother's right to own property and to dispose of it as she saw fit, including setting the terms of her own will, enhanced her influence over her sons even when they were adults. Because of their legal status as citizens and the degree to which they could become emancipated, women could own property, enter contracts, and engage in business. Some acquired and disposed of sizable fortunes, and are recorded in inscriptions as benefactors in funding major public works.

Roman women could appear in court and argue cases, though it was customary for them to be represented by a man. They were simultaneously disparaged as too ignorant and weak-minded to practice law, and as too active and influential in legal matters—resulting in an edict that limited women to conducting cases on their own behalf instead of others'. Even after this restriction was put in place, there are numerous examples of women taking informed actions in legal matters, including dictating legal strategy to their male advocates.

Bronze statuette of a young woman reading (latter 1st century)

The first Roman emperor, Augustus, framed his ascent to sole power as a return to traditional morality, and attempted to regulate the conduct of women through moral legislation. Adultery, which had been a private family matter under the Republic, was criminalized, and defined broadly as an illicit sex act ( stuprum) that occurred between a male citizen and a married woman, or between a married woman and any man other than her husband. That is, a double standard was in place: a married woman could have sex only with her husband, but a married man did not commit adultery when he had sex with a prostitute, slave, or person of marginalized status ( infamis). Childbearing was encouraged by the state: the ius trium liberorum ("legal right of three children") granted symbolic honours and legal privileges to a woman who had given birth to three children, and freed her from any male guardianship.

Stoic philosophies influenced the development of Roman law. Stoics of the Imperial era such as Seneca and Musonius Rufus developed theories of just relationships. While not advocating equality in society or under the law, they held that nature gives men and women equal capacity for virtue and equal obligations to act virtuously, and that therefore men and women had an equal need for philosophical education. These philosophical trends among the ruling elite are thought to have helped improve the status of women under the Empire.

Rome had no system of state-supported schooling, and education was available only to those who could pay for it. The daughters of senators and knights seem to have regularly received a primary education (for ages 7 to 12). Regardless of gender, few people were educated beyond that level. Girls from a modest background might be schooled in order to help with the family business or to acquire literacy skills that enabled them to work as scribes and secretaries. The woman who achieved the greatest prominence in the ancient world for her learning was Hypatia of Alexandria, who taught advanced courses to young men and advised the Roman prefect of Egypt on politics. Her influence put her into conflict with the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, who may have been implicated in her violent death in the year 415 at the hands of a Christian mob.

Roman law recognized rape as a crime in which the victim bore no guilt. Rape was a capital crime. The right to physical integrity was fundamental to the Roman concept of citizenship, as indicated in Roman legend by the rape of Lucretia by the king's son. After speaking out against the tyranny of the royal family, Lucretia killed herself as a political and moral protest. Roman authors saw her self-sacrifice as the catalyst for overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the republic. As a matter of law, rape could be committed only against a citizen in good standing. The rape of a slave could be prosecuted only as damage to her owner's property. Most prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, though some slaves were protected from forced prostitution by a clause in their sales contract. A free woman who worked as a prostitute or entertainer lost her social standing and became infamis, "disreputable"; by making her body publicly available, she had in effect surrendered her right to be protected from sexual abuse or physical violence. Attitudes toward rape changed as the empire came under Christian rule. St. Augustine and other Church Fathers interpreted Lucretia's suicide as perhaps an admission that she had encouraged the rapist and experienced pleasure. Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, if a father accused a man of abducting his daughter, but the daughter had given her consent to an elopement, the couple were both subject to being burnt alive. If she had been raped or abducted against her will, she was still subject to lesser penalties as an accomplice, "on the grounds that she could have saved herself by screaming for help."

Religious scriptures


"And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." Genesis 3:20)

"Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, she judged Israel at that time." ( Judges 4:4) God chose a woman, Deborah, to guide Israel.

"Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her." ( John 20:18) The first person to see Jesus after his crucifixion was a woman, Mary.


The Qur'an, revealed to Muhammad over the course of 23 years, provide guidance to the Islamic community and modified existing customs in Arab society. From 610 and 661, known as the early reforms under Islam, the Qur'an introduced fundamental reforms to customary law and introduced rights for women in marriage, divorce and inheritance. By providing that the wife, not her family, would receive a dowry from the husband, which she could administer as her personal property, the Qur'an made women a legal party to the marriage contract.

While in customary law inheritance was limited to male descendents, the Qur'an introduced rules on inheritance with certain fixed shares being distributed to designated heirs, first to the nearest female relatives and then the nearest male relatives. According to Annemarie Schimmel "compared to the pre-Islamic position of women, Islamic legislation meant an enormous progress; the woman has the right, at least according to the letter of the law, to administer the wealth she has brought into the family or has earned by her own work."

The general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood. Women were generally given greater rights than women in pre-Islamic Arabia and medieval Europe. Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures until centuries later. According to Professor William Montgomery Watt, when seen in such historical context, Muhammad "can be seen as a figure who testified on behalf of women’s rights."

The Middle Ages

According to English Common Law, which developed from the 12th century onward, all property which a wife held at the time of a marriage became a possession of her husband. Eventually English courts forbade a husband's transferring property without the consent of his wife, but he still retained the right to manage it and to receive the money which it produced. French married women suffered from restrictions on their legal capacity which were removed only in 1965. In the 16th century, the Reformation in Europe allowed more women to add their voices, including the English writers Jane Anger, Aemilia Lanyer, and the prophetess Anna Trapnell. English and American Quakers believed that men and women were equal. Many Quaker women were preachers. Despite relatively greater freedom for Anglo-Saxon women, until the mid-19th century, writers largely assumed that a patriarchal order was a natural order that had always existed. This perception was not seriously challenged until the 18th century when Jesuit missionaries found matrilineality in native North American peoples.

18th and 19th century Europe

Three women sitting around a small table, one sewing, one drinking a cup of what is possibly tea. All three are drawn to look almost horrific. The third woman looks as if she has two heads, but it may be that there are four women. The women's heads do not look they are comfortable on their bodies. The colors are dark red, black, brown, and almond.
The Debutante (1807) by Henry Fuseli; The woman, victim of male social conventions, is tied to the wall, made to sew and guarded by governesses. The picture reflects Mary Wollstonecraft's views in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.

Starting in the late 18th century, and throughout the 19th century, rights, as a concept and claim, gained increasing political, social and philosophical importance in Europe. Movements emerged which demanded freedom of religion, the abolition of slavery, rights for women, rights for those who did not own property and universal suffrage. In the late 18th century the question of women's rights became central to political debates in both France and Britain. At the time some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment, who defended democratic principles of equality and challenged notions that a privileged few should rule over the vast majority of the population, believed that these principles should be applied only to their own gender and their own race. The philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau for example thought that it was the order of nature for woman to obey men. He wrote "Women do wrong to complain of the inequality of man-made laws" and claimed that "when she tries to usurp our rights, she is our inferior".

First page of the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen

In 1791 the French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, modelled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. The Declaration is ironic in formulation and exposes the failure of the French Revolution, which had been devoted to equality. It states that: “This revolution will only take effect when all women become fully aware of their deplorable condition, and of the rights they have lost in society”. The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen follows the seventeen articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen point for point and has been described by Camille Naish as “almost a parody...of the original document”. The first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen proclaims that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility.” The first article of Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen replied: “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility”. De Gouges expands the sixth article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which declared the rights of citizens to take part in the formation of law, to:

Australian women's rights were lampooned in this 1887 Melbourne Punch cartoon: A hypothetical female member foists her baby's care on the House Speaker

“All citizens including women are equally admissible to all public dignities, offices and employments, according to their capacity, and with no other distinction than that of their virtues and talents”.

De Gouges also draws attention to the fact that under French law women were fully punishable, yet denied equal rights.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a British writer and philosopher, published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, arguing that it was the education and upbringing of women that created limited expectations. Wollstonecraft attacked gender oppression, pressing for equal educational opportunities, and demanded "justice!" and "rights to humanity" for all. Wollstonecraft, along with her British contemporaries Damaris Cudworth and Catherine Macaulay started to use the language of rights in relation to women, arguing that women should have greater opportunity because like men, they were moral and rational beings.

A Punch cartoon from 1867 mocking John Stuart Mill's attempt to replace the term 'man' with 'person', i.e. give women the right to vote. Caption: Mill's Logic: Or, Franchise for Females. "Pray clear the way, there, for these – a – persons."

In his 1869 essay The Subjection of Women the English philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill described the situation for women in Britain as follows:

"We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights. Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband; no less so, as far as the legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called."

Then a member of parliament, Mill argued that women should be given the right to vote, though his proposal to replace the term "man" with "person" in the second Reform Bill of 1867 was greeted with laughter in the House of Commons and defeated by 76 to 196 votes. His arguments won little support amongst contemporaries but his attempt to amend the reform bill generated greater attention for the issue of women's suffrage in Britain. Initially only one of several women’s rights campaigns, suffrage became the primary cause of the British women’s movement at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time the ability to vote was restricted to wealthy property owners within British jurisdictions. This arrangement implicitly excluded women as property law and marriage law gave men ownership rights at marriage or inheritance until the 19th century. Although male suffrage broadened during the century, women were explicitly prohibited from voting nationally and locally in the 1830s by a Reform Act and the Municipal Corporations Act. Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst led the public campaign on women's suffrage and in 1918 a bill was passed allowing women over the age of 30 to vote.

Equal employment rights for women and men

The rights of women and men to have equal pay and equal benefits for equal work were openly denied by the British Hong Kong Government up to the early 1970s. Leslie Wah-Leung Chung (鍾華亮, 1917-2009), President of the Hong Kong Chinese Civil Servants’ Association 香港政府華員會 (1965-68), contributed to the establishment of equal pay for men and women, including the right for married women to be permanent employees. Before this, the job status of a woman changed from permanent employee to temporary employee once she was married, thus losing the pension benefit. Some of them even lost their jobs. Since nurses were mostly women, this improvement of the rights of married women meant much to the Nursing profession.

Suffrage, the right to vote

Women standing in line to vote in Bangladesh.
1919 election poster, German social democrats. "Frauen! Gleiche Rechte, Gleiche Pflichten" ("Women! The same rights, the same duties")
A Famous Author Helen Kendrick, poses mid 19th century.
Author and Scholar Helen Kendrick Johnson opposed women's suffrage.

During the 19th century some women began to agitate for the right to vote and participate in government and law making. Other women opposed suffrage like Helen Kendrick Johnson, whose prescient 1897 work Woman and the Republic contains perhaps the best arguments against women's suffrage of the time. The ideals of women's suffrage developed alongside that of universal suffrage and today women's suffrage is considered a right (under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). During the 19th century the right to vote was gradually extended in many countries and women started to campaign for their right to vote. In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote on a national level. Australia gave women the right to vote in 1902. A number of Nordic countries gave women the right to vote in the early 20th century – Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Denmark and Iceland (1915). With the end of the First World War many other countries followed – the Netherlands (1917), Austria, Azerbaijan, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Georgia, Poland and Sweden (1918), Germany and Luxembourg (1919), and the United States (1920). Spain gave women the right to vote in 1931, France in 1944, Belgium, Italy, Romania and Yugoslavia in 1946. Switzerland gave women the right to vote in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.

In Latin America some countries gave women the right to vote in the first half of the 20th century – Ecuador (1929), Brazil (1932), El Salvador (1939), Dominican Republic (1942), Guatemala (1956) and Argentina (1946). In India, under colonial rule, universal suffrage was granted in 1935. Other Asian countries gave women the right to vote in the mid 20th century – Japan (1945), China (1947) and Indonesia (1955). In Africa, women generally got the right to vote along with men through universal suffrage – Liberia (1947), Uganda (1958) and Nigeria (1960). In many countries in the Middle East universal suffrage was acquired after the Second World War, although in others, such as Kuwait, suffrage is very limited. On 16 May 2005, the Parliament of Kuwait extended suffrage to women by a 35–23 vote.

Property rights

During the 19th century some women in the United States and Britain began to challenge laws that denied them the right to their property once they married. Under the common law doctrine of coverture husbands gained control of their wives' real estate and wages. Beginning in the 1840s, state legislatures in the United States and the British Parliament began passing statutes that protected women's property from their husbands and their husbands' creditors. These laws were known as the Married Women's Property Acts. Courts in the 19th-century United States also continued to require privy examinations of married women who sold their property. A privy examination was a practice in which a married woman who wished to sell her property had to be separately examined by a judge or justice of the peace outside of the presence of her husband and asked if her husband was pressuring her into signing the document.

Modern movements

Iraqi-American writer and activist Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International.

In the subsequent decades women's rights again became an important issue in the English speaking world. By the 1960s the movement was called "feminism" or "women's liberation." Reformers wanted the same pay as men, equal rights in law, and the freedom to plan their families or not have children at all. Their efforts were met with mixed results.

In the UK, a public groundswell of opinion in favour of legal equality had gained pace, partly through the extensive employment of women in what were traditional male roles during both world wars. By the 1960s the legislative process was being readied, tracing through MP Willie Hamilton's select committee report, his equal pay for equal work bill, the creation of a Sex Discrimination Board, Lady Sear's draft sex anti-discrimination bill, a government Green Paper of 1973, until 1975 when the first British Sex Discrimination Act, an Equal Pay Act, and an Equal Opportunities Commission came into force. With encouragement from the UK government, the other countries of the EEC soon followed suit with an agreement to ensure that discrimination laws would be phased out across the European Community.

In the USA, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was created in 1966 with the purpose of bringing about equality for all women. NOW was one important group that fought for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This amendment stated that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." But there was disagreement on how the proposed amendment would be understood. Supporters believed it would guarantee women equal treatment. But critics feared it might deny women the right be financially supported by their husbands. The amendment died in 1982 because not enough states had ratified it. ERAs have been included in subsequent Congresses, but have still failed to be ratified.

In Ukraine, FEMEN was founded in 2008. The organisation is internationally known for its topless protests against sex tourists, international marriage agencies, sexism and other social, national and international social illnesses. FEMEN has sympathisers groups in many European countries through social media.

Birth control and reproductive rights

"And the villain still pursues her." Satirical Victorian era postcard.

In the 1870s feminists advanced the concept of voluntary motherhood as a political critique of involuntary motherhood and expressing a desire for women's emancipation. Advocates for voluntary motherhood disapproved of contraception, arguing that women should only engage in sex for the purpose of procreation and advocated for periodic or permanent abstinence.

Cover of the 1919 Birth Control Review, published by Margaret Sanger. In relation to "How shall we change the law?" Sanger wrote "…women appeal in vain for instruction concerning contraceptives. Physicians are willing to perform abortions where they are pronounced necessary, but they refuse to direct the use of preventives which would make the abortions unnecessary… "I can't do it – the law does not permit it.""

In the early 20th century birth control was advanced as alternative to the then fashionable terms family limitation and voluntary motherhood. The phrase "birth control" entered the English language in 1914 and was popularised by Margaret Sanger, who was mainly active in the US but had gained an international reputation by the 1930s. The British birth control campaigner Marie Stopes made contraception acceptable in Britain during the 1920 by framing it in scientific terms. Stopes assisted emerging birth control movements in a number of British colonies. The birth control movement advocated for contraception so as to permit sexual intercourse as desired without the risk of pregnancy. By emphasising control the birth control movement argued that women should have control over their reproduction and the movement had close ties to the feminist movement. Slogans such as "control over our own bodies" criticised male domination and demanded women's liberation, a connotation that is absent from the family planning, population control and eugenics movements. In the 1960s and 1970s the birth control movement advocated for the legalisation of abortion and large scale education campaigns about contraception by governments. In the 1980s birth control and population control organisations co-operated in demanding rights to contraception and abortion, with an increasing emphasis on "choice".

Birth control has become a major themes in feminist politics who cited reproduction issues as examples of women's powerlessness to exercise their rights. The societal acceptance of birth control required the separation of sex from procreation, making birth control a highly controversial subject in the 20th century. In a broader context birth control has become an arena for conflict between liberal and conservative values, raising questions about family, personal freedom, state intervention, religion in politics, sexual morality and social welfare. Reproductive rights, that is rights relating to sexual reproduction and reproductive health, were first discussed as a subset of human rights at the United Nation's 1968 International Conference on Human Rights. Reproductive rights are not recognised in international human rights law and is an umbrella term that may include some or all of the following rights: the right to legal or safe abortion, the right to control one's reproductive functions, the right to access quality reproductive healthcare, and the right to education and access in order to make reproductive choices free from coercion, discrimination, and violence. Reproductive rights may also be understood to include education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections, and freedom from coerced sterilization and contraception, protection from gender-based practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and male genital mutilation (MGM). Reproductive rights are understood as rights of both men and women, but are most frequently advanced as women's rights.

Women's access to legal abortions is restricted by law in most countries in the world. Where abortion is permitted by law, women may only have limited access to safe abortion services. Only a small number of countries prohibit abortion in all cases. In most countries and jurisdictions, abortion is allowed to save the pregnant woman's life, or where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. According to Human Rights Watch "Abortion is a highly emotional subject and one that excites deeply held opinions. However, equitable access to safe abortion services is first and foremost a human right. Where abortion is safe and legal, no one is forced to have one. Where abortion is illegal and unsafe, women are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term or suffer serious health consequences and even death. Approximately 13% of maternal deaths worldwide are attributable to unsafe abortion—between 68,000 and 78,000 deaths annually." According to Human Rights Watch "the denial of a pregnant woman's right to make an independent decision regarding abortion violates or poses a threat to a wide range of human rights." Other groups however, such as the Catholic Church, the Christian right and most Orthodox Jews, regard abortion not as a right but as a 'moral evil'.

United Nations and World Conferences on Women

In 1946 the United Nations established a Commission on the Status of Women. Originally as the Section on the Status of Women, Human Rights Division, Department of Social Affairs, and now part of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Since 1975 the UN has held a series of world conferences on women's issues, starting with the World Conference of the International Women's Year in Mexico City. These conferences created an international forum for women's rights, but also illustrated divisions between women of different cultures and the difficulties of attempting to apply principles universally. Four World Conferences have been held, the first in Mexico City ( International Women's Year, 1975), the second in Copenhagen (1980) and the third in Nairobi (1985). At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), The Platform for Action was signed. This included a commitment to achieve " gender equality and the empowerment of women". In 2010, UN Women is founded by merging of Division for the Advancement of Women, International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, Office of the Special Adviser or Gender Issues Advancement of Women and United Nations Development Fund for Women by General Assembly Resolution 63/311.

Natural law and women's rights

17th century natural law philosophers in Britain and America, such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, developed the theory of natural rights in reference to ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and the Christian theologist Aquinas. Like the ancient philosophers, 17th century natural law philosophers defended slavery and an inferior status of women in law. Relying on ancient Greek philosophers, natural law philosophers argued that natural rights were not derived from god, but were "universal, self-evident, and intuitive", a law that could be found in nature. They believed that natural rights were self-evident to "civilised man" who lives "in the highest form of society". Natural rights derived from human nature, a concept first established by the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium in Concerning Human Nature. Zenon argued that each rational and civilized male Greek citizen had a "divine spark" or "soul" within him that existed independent of the body. Zeno founded the Stoic philosophy and the idea of a human nature was adopted by other Greek philosophers, and later natural law philosophers and western humanists. Aristotle developed the widely adopted idea of rationality, arguing that man was a "rational animal" and as such a natural power of reason. Concepts of human nature in ancient Greece depended on gender, ethnic, and other qualifications and 17th century natural law philosophers came to regard women along with children, slaves and non-whites, as neither "rational" nor "civilised". Natural law philosophers claimed the inferior status of women was "common sense" and a matter of "nature". They believed that women could not be treated as equal due to their "inner nature". The views of 17th century natural law philosophers were opposed in the 18th and 19th century by evangelical natural theology philosophers such as William Wilberforce and Charles Spurgeon, who argued for the abolition of slavery and advocated for women to have rights equal to that of men. Modern natural law theorist, and advocates of natural rights, claim that all people have a human nature, regardless of gender, ethnicity or other qualifications, therefore all people have natural rights.

Human rights and women's rights

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Participation in the CEDAW
  Signed and ratified
  Acceded or succeeded
  Unrecognized state, abiding by treaty
  Only signed

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, enshrines "the equal rights of men and women", and addressed both the equality and equity issues. In 1979 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for legal implementation of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Described as an international bill of rights for women, it came into force on 3 September 1981. The UN member states that have not ratified the convention are Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. Niue and the Vatican City, which are non-member states, have also not ratified it.

The Convention defines discrimination against women in the following terms:

Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

It also establishes an agenda of action for putting an end to sex-based discrimination for which states ratifying the Convention are required to enshrine gender equality into their domestic legislation, repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women. They must also establish tribunals and public institutions to guarantee women effective protection against discrimination, and take steps to eliminate all forms of discrimination practiced against women by individuals, organizations, and enterprises.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325

On 31 October 2000, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, the first formal and legal document from the United Nations Security Council that requires all states respect fully international humanitarian law and international human rights law appicable to the rights and protection of women and girls during and after the armed conflicts.

Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks out for women's rights

Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009).

During the eight years that Ms. Clinton was First Lady of the United States (1993-2001), she traveled to 79 countries around the world. A March 1995 five-nation trip to South Asia, on behest of the U.S. State Department and without her husband, sought to improve relations with India and Pakistan. Clinton was troubled by the plight of women she encountered, but found a warm response from the people of the countries she visited and a gained better relationship with the American press corps. The trip was a transformative experience for her and presaged her eventual career in diplomacy. In a September 1995 speech before the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Clinton argued very forcefully against practices that abused women around the world and in the People's Republic of China itself, declaring "that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights". Delegates from over 180 countries heard her say: "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all." In doing so, she resisted both internal administration and Chinese pressure to soften her remarks. She was one of the most prominent international figures during the late 1990s to speak out against the treatment of Afghan women by the Islamist fundamentalist Taliban. She helped create Vital Voices, an international initiative sponsored by the United States to promote the participation of women in the political processes of their countries. It and Clinton's own visits encouraged women to make themselves heard in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Maputo Protocol

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, better known as the Maputo Protocol, was adopted by the African Union on 11 July 2003 at its second summit in Maputo, Mozambique. On 25 November 2005, having been ratified by the required 15 member nations of the African Union, the protocol entered into force. The protocol guarantees comprehensive rights to women including the right to take part in the political process, to social and political equality with men, and to control of their reproductive health, and an end to female genital mutilation.

Rape and sexual violence

A young ethnic Chinese woman who was in one of the Imperial Japanese Army's "comfort battalions" is interviewed by an Allied officer (see Comfort Women).

Rape, sometimes called sexual assault, is an assault by a person involving sexual intercourse with or sexual penetration of another person without that person's consent. Rape is generally considered a serious sex crime as well as a civil assault. When part of a widespread and systematic practice rape and sexual slavery are now recognised as crime against humanity and war crime. Rape is also now recognised as an element of the crime of genocide when committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a targeted group.

Rape as an element of the crime of genocide

In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established by the United Nations made landmark decisions that rape is a crime of genocide under international law. The trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu, the mayor of Taba Commune in Rwanda, established precedents that rape is an element of the crime of genocide. The Akayesu judgement includes the first interpretation and application by an international court of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Trial Chamber held that rape, which it defined as "a physical invasion of a sexual nature committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive", and sexual assault constitute acts of genocide insofar as they were committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a targeted group, as such. It found that sexual assault formed an integral part of the process of destroying the Tutsi ethnic group and that the rape was systematic and had been perpetrated against Tutsi women only, manifesting the specific intent required for those acts to constitute genocide.

Judge Navanethem Pillay said in a statement after the verdict: “From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as spoils of war. Now it will be considered a war crime. We want to send out a strong message that rape is no longer a trophy of war.” An estimated 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Rape and sexual enslavement as crime against humanity

The Rome Statute Explanatory Memorandum, which defines the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, recognises rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, "or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity" as crime against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systematic practice. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action also condemn systematic rape as well as murder, sexual slavery, and forced pregnancy, as the "violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law." and require a particularly effective response.

Rape was first recognised as crime against humanity when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia issued arrest warrants based on the Geneva Conventions and Violations of the Laws or Customs of War. Specifically, it was recognised that Muslim women in Foca (southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina) were subjected to systematic and widespread gang rape, torture and sexual enslavement by Bosnian Serb soldiers, policemen, and members of paramilitary groups after the takeover of the city in April 1992. The indictment was of major legal significance and was the first time that sexual assaults were investigated for the purpose of prosecution under the rubric of torture and enslavement as a crime against humanity. The indictment was confirmed by a 2001 verdict by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that rape and sexual enslavement are crimes against humanity. This ruling challenged the widespread acceptance of rape and sexual enslavement of women as intrinsic part of war. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found three Bosnian Serb men guilty of rape of Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim) women and girls (some as young as 12 and 15 years of age), in Foca, eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore two of the men were found guilty of the crime against humanity of sexual enslavement for holding women and girls captive in a number of de facto detention centres. Many of the women subsequently disappeared.

2011 study of status by country

Status of women by country according to data collected by Lauren Streib

In the 26 September 2011 issue of Newsweek magazine a study was published on the rights and quality of life of women in countries around the world. The factors taken into account were legal justice, health and healthcare, education, economic opportunity, and political power. The rankings were determined by Lauren Streib by uniform criteria and available statistics. According to the study, the best and worst were:

Top ten
Rank Country Overall Justice Health Education Economics Politics
1  Iceland
2  Sweden
3  Canada
4  Denmark
5  Finland
6  Switzerland
7  Norway
8  United States
9  Australia
10  Netherlands
Bottom ten
Rank Country Overall Justice Health Education Economics Politics
165  Chad
164  Afghanistan
163  Yemen
162  Democratic Republic of the Congo
160  Mali
160  Solomon Islands
159  Niger
158  Pakistan
157  Ethiopia
156  Sudan
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