by Emily Sullivan
I’m currently talking a course called Human Rights here at Princeton. The cases we have covered are all cases of ethnic or nationalist conflict resulting in genocide. What is missing from the syllabus is the cadre of human rights abuses women face every single day.
Countless acid burnings, genital mutilations, rapes, honor killings, and other atrocities occur without any international condemnation. We accept cultural relativist excuses for our lack of action, and ”cultural sensitivity” legitimizes our neglect of women all over the world. A single statistic makes this painfully clear: since the instatement of China’s One Child policy, 16 million females are missing - “aborted because they weren’t boys.” This number dwarfs the toll of any of the genocides we have studied—11 million during the Holocaust, 1 million in the Armenian genocide, 2 million in Cambodia, and 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda.
Women are shipped as sexual cash crops from Thailand to New York’s brothels, and burned on their husbands’ funeral pyres in India—along with their husband’s other possessions. Women are saleable and exploitable by their husbands or fathers. Women are disposed of, like yesterday’s garbage—aborted, left on a roadside, starved in orphanages, “stillborn”—solely for being female. Battery, rape, sex slavery, and the silence that surrounds the atrocities that women face every day led Catharine MacKinnon to ask, “Are Women Human?” She asked this question a decade ago. With the most recent news surrounding the pro-rape law in Afghanistan, which denies women the right to deny their husbands sex, the answer is still a resounding “No.”
Of the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 24 speak of rights denied to women based on their gender. Women do not have access to the means to fight their own abuses, for men run the governments, write the laws, and choose when and how to enforce them. Protections that are relevant only or predominantly for women—such as protections from unwanted pregnancy, domestic violence, and sexual violence—are simply left out of the written laws.
If we accept freedom from starvation as a basic human right (Article 25), how do we view human rights in light of the fact that 70% of the world’s hungry are women and girls? If education is a basic human right (Article 26), how can we claim human rights include women when 2/3 of children in the world who are not in school are female? If all humans, regardless of gender, have a human right to equal pay (Article 23), why do women earn 75 cents to a man’s dollar and do more than 2/3 of the world’s unpaid labor?
Women’s human rights do not get enforced because there is no one state or entity that can step up against all the rest—no states hands are clean in this arena. We ignore women’s rights abuses on an international level because we ignore them on a domestic level. Abuses that are common—like rape—are given no attention because they are so familiar. The torture and disappearance of women has existed beyond public radar because it has been a relative cultural constant, whereas genocide was organized into fast-acting campaigns. This does not make the gradual decimation of the female population in China any less real. To claim that these facts translate into an inability to act, however, is simply not true. Of course we could act. We could start by changing the laws in the U.S. so that rape and domestic abuse laws are actually prosecutable—we simply choose not to.
We operate on a completely different idea of justice when it comes to women. Women’s deaths, shamings, rapes, burnings, or torture do not register with the international collective the same way men’s do. Nationality, ethnicity, race, and religion are all categories which merit protection against human rights abuses, but not gender. It is a bizarre omission, and one that is has resulted in devastation for women around the globe.