Women's rights

Women's rights are the rights and entitlements claimed for women and girls of many societies worldwide, and formed the basis to the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century and feminist movement during the 20th century. In some countries, these rights are institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, and behavior, 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.[1]

Issues commonly associated with notions of women's rights include, though are not limited to, the right: to bodily integrity and autonomy; to be free from sexual violence; to vote; to hold public office; to enter into legal contracts; to have equal rights in family law; to work; to fair wages or equal pay; to have reproductive rights; to own property; to education.[2]


Ancient cultures

Bust believed to be of Cleopatra, in Altes Museum, Berlin

Although males seem to have dominated in many ancient cultures, there are some exceptions. For instance in the Nigerian Aka culture women may hunt, even on their own, and often control distribution of resources.[3] Ancient Egypt had female rulers, such as Cleopatra.


Women throughout historical and ancient China were considered inferior and had subordinate legal status based on the Confucian law.[4] In Imperial China, the "Three Obediences"promoted daughters to obey their fathers, wives to obey their husbands and widows to obey their sons. Women could not inherit businesses or wealth[4] and men had to adopt a son for such financial purposes.[4] Late imperial law also features seven different types of divorces. A wife could be ousted if she failed to birth a son, committed adultery,disobeyed her parent's in law, spoke excessively,stole,was given bouts of jealousy or suffered from an incurable or loathsome disease or disorder.[4] But there were also limits for the husband like for example he could not divorce if she observed her parent's in law's mourning sites, if she had no family to return to or if the husband's family used to be poor and since then have become richer.[4]

The status of women in China was also 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)[5] 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),[6][7] 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.[8][9]

During the Republic of China (1912–49) and earlier Chinese governments, women were legally bought and sold into slavery under the guise of domestic servants. These women were known as Mui Tsai. The lives of Mui Tsai were recorded by American feminist Agnes Smedley in her book Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution.[10]

However, in 1949 the Republic of China had been overthrown by communist guerillas led by Mao Zedong, and the people's republic of china was founded in the same year. In May 1950 the Peoples Republic of China enacted the New Marriage Law to tackle the sale of women into slavery. This outlawed marriage by proxy and made marriage legal so long as both partners consent. The New Marriage Law raised the legal age of marriage to 20 for men and 18 for women. This was an essential part of countryside land reform as women could no longer legally be sold to landlords. The official slogan was "Men and women are equal; everyone is worth his (or her) salt". [11]


Main article: Women in Greece
Ancient Greek women

Although most women lacked political and equal rights in ancient Greece, they enjoyed a certain freedom of movement until the Archaic age.[12] Records also exist of women in ancient Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta owning land, the most prestigious form of private property at the time.[13] However, after the Archaic age, women's status had gotten worse and introduction of legal laws such as gender segregation were implemented.[12]

Women in Classical Athens 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[14] 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.[17]

Athens was also the cradle of philosophy at the time and anyone could become a poet,scholar,politician,artist except if you were a woman.[18] Historian Don Nardo stated “throughout antiquity most Greek women had few or no civil rights and many enjoyed little freedom of choice or mobility.[18] During the Hellenistic period in Athens, the famous philosopher Aristotle thought that women would bring disorder, evil, and were “utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.”[18] Because of this, Aristotle thought keeping women separate from the rest of the society was the best idea.[18] This separation would entail living in homes called a gynaeceum while looking after the duties in the home and having very little exposure with the male world.[18] This was also to protect women's fertility from men other than her husband so her fertility can ensure their legitimacy of their born linage.[18] Athenian women were also educated very little except home tutorship for basic skills such as spin,weave,cook and some knowledge of money.[18]

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.[19][20] By the Hellenistic Period, some of the wealthiest Spartans were women.[21] They controlled their own properties, as well as the properties of male relatives who were away with the army.[19] 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.[22] 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").[19][23] Despite relatively greater mobility for Spartan women, their role in politics was just as the same as Athenian women, they could no take part in it. Men forbade them from speaking at assemblies and segregated them from any political activities. Aristotle also thought Spartan women's influence was mischievous and highlighted the greater legal freedom of women in Sparta were its ruins.[18]

Plato acknowledged that extending civil and political rights to women would substantively alter the nature of the household and the state.[24] 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".[25]

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.[26] 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.[26] 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.[26] 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.[26]

Ancient Rome

For more details on this topic, see Women in ancient Rome.

Roman law similar to Athenian law, was created by men in favor of men.[27] Women had no public voice, and no public role which only improved after the 1st century to the 6th century BCE.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30]

The central core of the Roman society was the pater familias or the male head of the household who exercised his authority over all his children, servants, and wife.[27] Similar to Athenian women, Roman women had a guardian or as it was called "tutor" who managed and oversaw all her activity.[27] This tutelage had limited female activity but by first century to sixth century BCE, tutelage became very relaxed and women were accepted to participate in more public roles such as owning or managing property and or acting as municipal patrons for gladiator games and other entertainment activities[27]

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.[31] Girls had equal inheritance rights with boys if their father died without leaving a will.[32]

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.[33] 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:[34] although she had to answer to her father in legal matters, she was free of his direct scrutiny in her daily life,[35] and her husband had no legal power over her.[36] When her father died, she became legally emancipated (sui iuris).[31] A married woman retained ownership of any property she brought into the marriage.[31] 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.[37] Under classical Roman law, a husband had no right to abuse his wife physically or compel her to have sex.[38] Wife beating was sufficient grounds for divorce or other legal action against the husband.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42] Some acquired and disposed of sizable fortunes, and are recorded in inscriptions as benefactors in funding major public works.[43]

By 27-14 BCE, new Julian law permitted women to be free from tutelage if she gave birth to 3 or more children.[27] But in other aspects of law, women were still disadvantaged like for instance not being able to make wills in inheritance without their tutor or poor justice for rape crimes.[27] Rape against women were considered an attack on her family and father's honour in which was later used as a mean to force the daughter to marry her rapist. Rape victims were also shamed for allowing the bad name in her father's honour.[27]

Roman women could appear in court and argue cases, though it was customary for them to be represented by a man.[44] 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'.[45] 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.[46]

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,[47] 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).[48] Childbearing was encouraged by the state: the ius trium liberorum ("legal right of three children") granted symbolic honors and legal privileges to a woman who had given birth to three children, and freed her from any male guardianship.[49]

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.[26] These philosophical trends among the ruling elite are thought to have helped improve the status of women under the Empire.[50]

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).[51] 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.[52] 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.[53]

Roman law recognized rape as a crime in which the victim bore no guilt.[54] Rape was a capital crime.[55] 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.[56] 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.[57] Most prostitutes in ancient Rome were slaves, though some slaves were protected from forced prostitution by a clause in their sales contract.[58] 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.[59] 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.[60] 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."[61]

Byzantine Empire

Since Byzantine law was essentially based on Roman law, the legal status of women did not change significantly from the practices of the 6th century. But the traditional restriction of women in the public life as well as the hostility against independent women still continued.[62] Greater influence of Greek culture contributed to strict attitudes about women'roles being domestic instead of being public.[62] There was also a growing tend of women who were not prostitutes, slaves or entertainers to be entirely veiled.[62] Like previous Roman law, women could not be legal witnesses, hold administrations or run banking but they could still inherit properties and own land.[62]

As a rule the influence of the church was exercised in favor of the abolition of the disabilities imposed by the older law upon celibacy and childlessness, of increased facilities for entering a professed religious life, and of due provision for the wife. The church also supported the political power of those who were friendly toward the clergy. The appointment of mothers and grandmothers as tutors was sanctioned by Justinian.

The restrictions on the marriage of senators and other men of high rank with women of low rank were extended by Constantine, but it was almost entirely removed by Justinian. Second marriages were discouraged, especially by making it legal to impose a condition that a widow's right to property should cease on remarriage, and the Leonine Constitutions at the end of the 9th century made third marriages punishable. The same constitutions made the benediction of a priest a necessary part of the ceremony of marriage.

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[63]

Religious scriptures


Main article: Women in the Bible

"If he marries another wife, he is not to reduce her food, clothing or marital rights." (Exodus 21:10) from the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) So from ancient times women have had a right to sex with their husbands, in addition to being fed and clothed by them. As Frank L. Caw, Jr. points out breach of these Old Testament rights by the polygamous man gave the woman grounds for divorce (Exodus 21:11). Slave wives may have been abolished but the general moral principles covering activities such as divorce still apply today.[64][65]

However, before and during biblical times, the roles of women were almost always severely restricted.[66]


The Qur'an, revealed to Muhammad over the course of 23 years, provided guidance to the Islamic community and modified existing customs in Arab society.[67] 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.[68]

While in customary law, inheritance was limited to male descendants, 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.[69] 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."[70]

The general improvement of the status of Arab women included prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women's full personhood.[71] Women generally gained greater rights than women in pre-Islamic Arabia[72][73] and medieval Europe.[74] Women were not accorded with such legal status in other cultures until centuries later.[75] 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."[76]

Medieval Europe

Women performing tasks during the Middle Ages

The English Church and culture in the Middle Ages regarded women as weak, irrational and vulnerable to temptation who was constantly needed to be kept in check.[77] This was reflected on the Christian culture in England through the story of Adam and Eve where Eve fell to Satan's temptations and led Adam to eat the apple. It was belief based on St.Paul, that the pain of childbirth was a punishment for this deed that led mankind to be banished from the Garden of Eden.[77] Women's inferiority also appears in many medieval writing for example the 1200 AD theologian Jacques de Vitry (who was rather sympathetic to women over others) emphasized for female obedience towards their men and expressed women as being slippery, weak, untrustworthy, devious, deceitful and stubborn.[77] The church also promoted the Virgin Mary as a role model for women to emulate by being innocent in her sexuality,being married to a husband and eventually becoming a mother. That was the core purpose set out both culturally and religiously across Medieval Europe.[77] Rape was also seen in medieval England as a crime against the father or husband and violation of their protection and guardianship of the women whom they look after in the household.[77] Women's identity in the Middle Ages was also referred through her relations with men she was associated with for example "His daughter" or "So and so's wife".[77] Despite all this, the Church still emphasized on the importance of love and mutual counselling within a marriage and prohibited any form of divorce so the wife have someone to look after her.

Royal women's activities in the Middle Ages

In overall Europe during the Middle Ages, women were inferior to that of a man in legal status.[78] Throughout medieval Europe, women were pressured to not attend courts and leave all legal business affairs to their husbands. In the legal system, women were regarded as the properties of men so any threat or injury to them was in the duty of their male guardians.[78]

In Irish law, women were forbidden to act as witnesses in courts.[78] In Welsh law, women's testimony can be accepted towards other women but not against another man.[78] In France, women's testimony must corroborate with other accounts or would not be accepted.[78] Although women were expected to not attend courts, this however was not always true. Sometimes regardless of expectation, women did participate and attend court cases and court meetings. But women could not act as justices in courts, be attorneys, they could not be members of a jury and they could not accuse another person of a felony unless it's the murder of her husband.[79] For most part, the best thing a woman could do in medieval courts is observe the legal proceedings taking place.

The Swedish law protected women from the authority of their husbands by transferring the authority to their male relatives.[80] A wife's property and land also could not be taken by the husband without her family's consent but neither could the wife.[80] This mean a woman could not transfer her property to her husband without her family or kinsman's consent either. In Swedish law, women would also only get half that of her brother in inheritance.[80] Despite these legal issues, Sweden was largely ahead and much superior in their treatment towards women than most European countries.

Medieval marriages among the elites were arranged in a way that would meet the interests of the family as a whole.[78] Theoretically a woman needed to consent before a marriage took place and the Church encouraged this consent to be expressed in present tense and not future.[78] Marriage could also take place anywhere and minimum age for girls would have to be 12 while 14 for boys.[78]

Medieval Germanic, Baltic and Scandinavian Europe

The rate of Wergild suggested that women in these societies were valued mostly for their breeding purposes. The Wergild of woman was double that of a man with same status in the Aleman and Bavarian legal codes.[81] The Wergild of a woman meanwhile was triple that of a man with same status in Salic and Repuarian legal codes for women of child bearing age, which constituted from 12–40 years old.[81] One of the most Germanic codes from the Lombard tradition, legislated that women be under the control of a male mundoald which constituted her father, husband, older son or eventually the king as a last resort if she had no male relatives.[81] A woman needed her mundold's permission to manage property but still could own her own lands and goods. Certain areas with Visgothic inheritance laws until the 7th century were favorable to women while all the other laws were not.[81] Before Christianization of Europe, there was little space for women's consent for marriage and marriage through purchase (or Kaufehe) was actually the civil norm as opposed to the alternative marriage through capture (or Raubehe).[81] However Christianity was slow to reach other Baltic and Scandinavian areas with it only reaching King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark in the year 950 AD.[81] Those living under Norwegian and Icelandic laws used marriages to forge alliances or create peace usually without the women's say or consent.[81] However divorce rights were permitted to women who suffered physical abuse but protections from harm were not given to those termed "wretched" women such as beggars, servants and slave girls. Having sex with them through force or without consent usually had zero legal consequence or punishment.[81]

During the Viking Age, women had a relatively free status in the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, illustrated in the Icelandic Grágás and the Norwegian Frostating laws and Gulating laws.[82] The paternal aunt, paternal niece and paternal granddaughter, referred to as odalkvinna, all had the right to inherit property from a deceased man.[82] In the absence of male relatives, an unmarried woman with no son could, further more, inherit not only property, but also the position as head of the family from a deceased father or brother: a woman with such status was referred to as ringkvinna, and she exercised all the rights afforded to the head of a family clan, such as for example the right to demand and receive fines for the slaughter of a family member, unless she married, by which her rights were transferred to her husband.[82] After the age of 20, an unmarried woman, referred to as maer and mey, reached legal majority and had the right to decide of her place of residence and was regarded as her own person before the law.[82] An exception to her independence was the right to choose a marriage partner, as marriages was normally arranged by the clan.[83] Widows enjoyed the same independent status as unmarried women. Women had religious authority and were active as priestesses (gydja) and oracles (sejdkvinna);[84] they were active within art as poets (skalder)[84] and rune masters, and as merchants and medicine women.[84] A married woman could divorce her husband and remarry.[85] It was also socially acceptable for a free woman to cohabit with a man and have children with him without marrying him, even if that man was married: a woman in such a position was called frilla.[85] There was no distinction made between children born inside or outside of marriage: both had the right to inherit property after their parents, and there was no "legitimate" or "illegitimate" children.[85] These liberties gradually disappeared from the changed after the introductions of Christianity, and from the late 13th-century, they are no longer mentioned.[86] During the Christian Middle Ages, the Medieval Scandinavian law applied different laws depending of the local county law, signifying that the status of women could vary depending of which county she was living in.

Renaissance Europe

By the 16th and 17th century, there was the Great Witch trials orchestrated by the Roman Church, which saw thousands across Europe burned alive, of whom 75-95% were women (depending on time and place).[87] The burnings mostly took place in German speaking lands, and during the 15th century the terminology "witchcraft" was definitely viewed as something feminine as opposed to prior years.[87] Famous witchcraft manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum and Summis Desiderantes depicted witches as diabolical conspirators who worshipped Satan and were primarily women. Culture and art at the time depicted these witches as seductive and evil further fuelling moral panic in fusion with rhetoric from the Church. The origin of the female "witch" myth traces back to Roman mythical night creatures known as Strix, who were thought to appear and disappear mysteriously in the night.[87] They were also believed by many to be of transformed women by their own supernatural powers.[87] This Roman myth itself is believed to originate from the Jewish Sabbath which described non-supernatural women who would suspiciously leave and return home swiftly during the night.[87] Authors of the Malleus Maleficarum strongly established the link between witchcraft and women by proclaiming greater likelihood for women to be addicted to "evil".[88] The authors and inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprengerh justified these beliefs by claiming women had greater credulity, impressionability, feeble minds, feeble bodies, impulsivity and carnal natures which were flaws susceptible to "evil" behavior and witchcraft.[88] These sort of beliefs at the time could send female hermits or beggars to trials just for offering remedies or herbal medicine.[88] These set of developed myths eventually lead to the 16-17th century witch trials which found thousands of women burned at stake.[87]

By 1500, Europe was divided into two types of secular law.[89] One was customary law which was predominant in northern France, England and Scandinavia, and the other was Roman based written laws which was predominant in southern France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.[89]

Customary laws favoured men more than women.[89] For example, inheritance among the elites in Italy, England, Scandinavia and France was passed on to the eldest male heir. In all of the regions, the laws also gave men substantial powers over lives, property and bodies of their wives.[89] However, there were some improvements for women as opposed to ancient custom for example they could inherit in the absence of their brothers, do certain trades without their husbands and widows to receive dower.[89]

In areas governed by Roman-based written laws women were under male guardianship in matters involving property and law, fathers overseeing daughters, husbands overseeing wives and uncles or male relatives overseeing widows.[89]

Throughout Europe, women's legal status centered around her marital status while marriage itself was the biggest factor in restricting women's autonomy.[89] Custom, statue and practice not only reduced women's rights and freedoms but prevented single or widowed women from holding public office on the justification that they might one day marry.[89]

According to English Common Law, which developed from the 12th century onward, all property which a wife held at the time of 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.[90] 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.[91] 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.[92] This perception was not seriously challenged until the 18th century when Jesuit missionaries found matrilineality in native North American peoples.[93]

The philosopher John Locke opposed marital inequality and the mistreatment of women during this time.[94] He was well known for advocating for marital equality among the sexes in his work during the 17th century. According to a study published in the American Journal of Social Issues & Humanities, the condition for women during Locke's time were as quote:[94]

Other philosophers have also made the statements regarding women's rights during this time. For example, Thomas Paine wrote in An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex 1775 where he states (as quote) :[95]

"If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women, almost without exception... adored and oppressed... they are ... robbed of freedom of will by the laws...Yet such, I am sorry to say, is the lot of women over the whole earth. Man with regard to them, has been either an insensible husband or an oppressor."[95]

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.[96]

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.[97] 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".[98]

The efforts of Dorothea von Velen—mistress of Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine—led to the abolition of couverture in the Electoral Palatinate in 1707, making it an early beacon of women's rights. The Palatinate was the first German state to abolish couverture, but it was briefly re-instated by Karl III Philipp, Johann Wilhelm's successor. Dorothea protested from exile in Amsterdam. She published her memoirs, A Life for Reform, which were highly critical of Karl III Philipp's government. To avoid a scandal, Karl III Philipp yielded to Dorothea's demands, and couverture was once again abolished.[99]

in 1754, Dorothea Erxleben became the first German woman receiving a M.D. (University of Halle)[100]

In 1791 the French playwright and political activist Olympe de Gouges published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,[101] 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.[102]

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.[103][104] Wollstonecraft attacked gender oppression, pressing for equal educational opportunities, and demanded "justice!" and "rights to humanity" for all.[105] Wollstonecraft, along with her British contemporaries Damaris Cudworth and Catharine 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.[106]

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."[107]

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 deserve 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[107] but his attempt to amend the reform bill generated greater attention for the issue of women's suffrage in Britain.[108] 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.[109] 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 the Reform Act 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act 1835.[110] 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.[110]

By the 1860s, the economic sexual politics of middle class women in Britain and its neighboring Western European countries was guided by factors such as the evolution of 19th century consumer culture, including the emergence of the department store, and Separate spheres. In Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women's Writing, Krista Lysack's literary analysis of 19th century contemporary literature claims through her resources' reflection of common contemporary norms, "Victorian femininity as characterized by self-renunciation and the regulation of appetite."[111] And while women, particularly those in the middle class, obtained modest control of daily household expenses and had the ability to leave the house, attend social events, and shop for personal and household items in the various department stores developing in late 19th century Europe, Europe's socioeconomic climate pervaded the ideology that women were not in complete control over their urges to spend (assuming) their husband or father's wages. As a result, many advertisements for socially 'feminine' goods revolved around upward social progression, exoticisms from the Orient, and added efficiency for household roles women were deemed responsible for, such as cleaning, childcare, and cooking.[111][112]


By law and custom, Muscovite Russia was a patriarchal society that subordinated women to men, and the young to their elders. Peter the great relaxed the second custom, but not the subordination of women.[113] A decree of 1722 explicitly forbade any forced marriages by requiring both bride and groom to consent, while parental permission still remained a requirement. But during Peter's reign, only the man could get rid of his wife by putting her in a nunnery.[113]

In terms of laws, there were double standards to women. Adulterous wives were sentenced to forced labor, while men who murdered their wives were merely flogged.[113] After the death Peter the Great, laws and customs pertaining to men's marital authority over their wives increased.[113] In 1782, civil law reinforced women's responsibility to obey her husband.[113] By 1832, the Digest of laws changed this obligation into "unlimited obedience".[113]

In the 18th century, Russian orthodox church further got its authority over marriage and banned priests from granting divorce, even for severely abused wives.[113] By 1818, Russian senate had also forbade separation of married couples.[113]

During World War I, caring for children was increasingly difficult for women, many of whom could not support themselves, and whose husbands had died or were fighting in the war. Many women had to give up their children to children's homes infamous for abuse and neglect. These children's homes were unofficially dubbed as "angel factories". After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks shut down an infamous angel factory known as the 'Nikolaev Institute' situated near the Moika Canal. The Bolsheviks then replaced the Nikolaev Institute with a modern maternity home called the 'Palace for Mothers and Babies'. This maternity home was used by the Bolsheviks as a model for future maternity hospitals. The countess who ran the old Institute was moved to a side wing, however she spread rumours that the Bolsheviks had removed sacred pictures, and that the nurses were promiscuous with sailors. The maternity hospital was burnt down hours before it was scheduled to open, and the countess was suspected of being responsible.[114]

Russian women had restrictions in owning property until the mid 18th century.[113] Women's rights had improved after the rise of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks.[113]

Under the Bolsheviks, Russia became the first country in human history to provide free abortions to women in state run hospitals.[115]


Statue in downtown Calgary of the Famous Five. An identical statue exists on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Women's rights activism in Canada during the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on increasing women’s role in public life, with goals including women’s suffrage, increased property rights, increased access to education, and recognition of women as "persons" under the law.[116] The Famous Five were five Canadian women - Emily Murphy, Irene Marryat Parlby, Nellie Mooney McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards - who, in 1927, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to answer the question, "Does the word 'Persons' in Section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867, include female persons?" in the case Edwards v. Canada (Attorney General).[117] After Canada's Supreme Court summarized its unanimous decision that women are not such "persons", the judgment was appealed and overturned in 1929 by the British Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council, at that time the court of last resort for Canada within the British Empire and Commonwealth.[118]

Natural 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.[119] 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".[120] 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.[121] 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[122] and 17th century natural law philosophers came to regard women along with children, slaves and non-whites, as neither "rational" nor "civilised".[120] 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".[119] 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.[119] Modern natural law theorists, 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.[122]

Equal employment rights for women and men

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register

Employment rights for women include non-discriminatory access of women to jobs and equal pay. 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[123] (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.[8][9][124][125][126][127][128][129] In some European countries, married women could not work without the consent of their husbands until a few decades ago, for example in France until 1965[130][131] and in Spain until 1975.[132] In addition, marriage bars, a practice adopted from the late 19th century to the 1970s across many countries, including Austria, Australia, Ireland, Canada, and Switzerland, restricted married women from employment in many professions.[133][134]

A key issue towards insuring gender equality in the workplace is the respecting of maternity rights and reproductive rights of women.[135] Maternity leave (and paternity leave in some countries) and parental leave are temporary periods of absence from employment granted immediately before and after childbirth in order to support the mother's full recovery and grant time to care for the baby.[136] Different countries have different rules regarding maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave. In the European Union (EU) the policies vary significantly by country, but the EU members must abide by the minimum standards of the Pregnant Workers Directive and Parental Leave Directive.[137]

Right to vote

Strategist and activist Alice Paul guided and ran much of the Suffrage movement in the U.S. in the 1910s.
1919 election poster, German social democrats. "Frauen! Gleiche Rechte, Gleiche Pflichten" ("Women! The same rights, the same duties")
Women standing in line to vote in Bangladesh.
Main article: Women's suffrage

During the 19th century some women began to ask for, demand, and then agitate and demonstrate for the right to vote - the right to participate in their government and its law making.[138] 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.[139] 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.[108]

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,[140] Canada, Czechoslovakia, Georgia, Poland and Sweden (1918), Germany and Luxembourg (1919), Turkey (1934), and the United States (1920). Late adopters in Europe were Greece in 1952, Switzerland (1971 at federal level; 1959-1991 on local issues at canton level), Portugal (1976 on equal terms with men, with restrictions since 1931) as well as the microstates of San Marino in 1959, Monaco in 1962, Andorra in 1970, and Liechtenstein in 1984.[141][142]

In Canada, most provinces enacted women's suffrage between 1917–1919, late adopters being Prince Edward Island in 1922, Newfoundland in 1925 and Quebec in 1940.[143]

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 World War II, although in others, such as Kuwait, suffrage is very limited.[108] On 16 May 2005, the Parliament of Kuwait extended suffrage to women by a 35–23 vote.[144]

Property rights (US and Britain)

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[145] and the British Parliament[146] 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.[147] 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.[148]

Modern movements

External video
Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt; What Status For Women?, 59:07, 1962.
Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, interviews President John F. Kennedy, Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg and others, Open Vault from WGBH[149]
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.[150]

The International Council of Women (ICW) was the first women's organization to work across national boundaries for the common cause of advocating human rights for women. In March and April 1888, women leaders came together in Washington D.C. with 80 speakers and 49 delegates representing 53 women's organizations from 9 countries: Canada, the United States, Ireland, India, England, Finland, Denmark, France and Norway. Women from professional organizations, trade unions, arts groups and benevolent societies participate. National Councils are affiliated to the ICW and thus make themselves heard at international level. In 1904, the ICW met in Berlin, Germany.[151] The ICW worked with the League of Nations during the 1920s and the United Nations post-World War II. Today the ICW holds Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the highest accreditation an NGO can achieve at the United Nations. Currently, it is composed of 70 countries and has a headquarters in Lasaunne, Switzerland. International meetings are held every three years.

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,[152] 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.[153][154] 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."[155] 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.[156]

Women for Women International (WfWI) is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that provides practical and moral support to women survivors of war. WfWI helps such women rebuild their lives after war’s devastation through a year-long tiered program that begins with direct financial aid and emotional counseling and includes life skills (e.g., literacy, numeracy) training if necessary, rights awareness education, health education, job skills training and small business development. The organization was co-founded in 1993 by Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi American who is herself a survivor of the Iran–Iraq War and Salbi’s then-husband Amjad Atallah. Since June 2012, WfWI has been led by Afshan Khan, a long-time former executive with UNICEF who became WfWI’s first new CEO since founder Zainab Salbi stepped down to devote more time to her writing and lecturing.[157]

The National Council of Women of Canada (Conseil national des femmes du Canada), is a Canadian advocacy organization based in Ottawa aimed at improving conditions for women, families, and communities. A federation of nationally organized societies of men and women and local and provincial councils of women, it is the Canadian member of the International Council of Women (ICW). The Council has concerned itself in areas including women's suffrage, immigration, health care, education, mass media, the environment, and many others.[158] Formed on October 27, 1857 in Toronto, Ontario, it is one of the oldest advocacy organizations in the country.[159]

The Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia is a Saudi Non-governmental organization founded to provide activism for women's rights. It was founded by Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia Al-Uyyouni, and grew out of a 2007 movement to gain women the right to drive. The association is not officially licensed by the government of Saudi Arabia, and has been warned not to mount demonstrations.[160] In a 2007 interview, al-Huwaider described the goals: "The association will consist of a number of leagues, with each league pursuing a different issue or right... representation for women in shari'a courts; setting a [minimum] age for girls' marriages; allowing women to take care of their own affairs in government agencies and allowing them to enter government buildings; protecting women from domestic violence, such as physical or verbal violence, or keeping her from studies, work, or marriage, or forcing her to divorce..."[161]

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.

United Nations and World Conferences on Women

In 1946 the United Nations established a Commission on the Status of Women.[162][163] 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.[164] 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".[165][166] 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.

Field organisations

Regions where women's rights are less developed have produced interesting local organisations, such as:

Right to education

First group of women who entered university in Iran

The right to education is a universal entitlement to education.[167] The Convention against Discrimination in Education prohibits discrimination in education, with discrimination being defined as "any distinction, exclusion, limitation or preference which, being based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic condition or birth, has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing equality of treatment in education".[168] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states at Article 3 that "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights set forth in the present Covenant", with Article 13 recognizing "the right of everyone to education".[169] While women's right to access to academic education is recognized as very important, it is increasingly recognized that academic education must be supplemented with education on human rights, non-discrimination, ethics and gender equality, in order for social advancement to be possible. This was pointed out by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stressed the importance of human rights education for all children: "What good was it to humanity that Josef Mengele had advanced degrees in medicine and anthropology, given that he was capable of committing the most inhuman crimes? Eight of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust at Wannsee in 1942 held PhDs. They shone academically, and yet they were profoundly toxic to the world. Radovan Karadžić was a trained psychiatrist. Pol Pot studied radio electronics in Paris. Does this matter, when neither of them showed the smallest shred of ethics and understanding?"[170] There has been increased attention given in recent decades to the raising of student awareness to the importance of gender equality.[171]

Reproductive rights

Main article: Reproductive rights
"And the villain still pursues her." Satirical Victorian era postcard.

Reproductive rights are legal rights and freedoms relating to reproduction and reproductive health. Reproductive rights were endorsed by the twenty-year Cairo Programme of Action which was adopted in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, and by the Beijing Declaration and Beijing Platform for Action in 1995.

In the 1870s feminists advanced the concept of voluntary motherhood as a political critique of involuntary motherhood[172] and expressing a desire for women's emancipation.[173] Advocates for voluntary motherhood disapproved of contraception, arguing that women should only engage in sex for the purpose of procreation[174] and advocated for periodic or permanent abstinence.[175]

Birth control

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.""[176]

In the early 20th century birth control was advanced as alternative to the then fashionable terms family limitation and voluntary motherhood.[177][178] The phrase "birth control" entered the English language in 1914 and was popularised by Margaret Sanger,[177][178] 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 1920s by framing it in scientific terms. Stopes assisted emerging birth control movements in a number of British colonies.[179] The birth control movement advocated for contraception so as to permit sexual intercourse as desired without the risk of pregnancy.[175] By emphasizing control, the birth control movement argued that women should have control over their reproduction, an idea that aligned closely to the theme of 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.[180] In the 1960s and 1970s the birth control movement advocated for the legalisation of abortion and large-scale education campaigns about contraception by governments.[181] In the 1980s birth control and population control organisations co-operated in demanding rights to contraception and abortion, with an increasing emphasis on "choice".[180]

Birth control has become a major theme in United States politics. Reproductive issues are cited as examples of women's powerlessness to exercise their rights.[182] The societal acceptance of birth control required the separation of sex from procreation, making birth control a highly controversial subject in the 20th century.[181] In the United States 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.[182] Reproductive rights, that is rights relating to sexual reproduction and reproductive health,[183] were first discussed as a subset of human rights at the United Nation's 1968 International Conference on Human Rights.[184]

Reproductive rights represents a broad concept, 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.[185] Reproductive rights may also be understood to include education about contraception and sexually transmitted infections.[183][184][185][186] Reproductive rights are often defined to include freedom from female genital mutilation (FGM), and forced abortion and forced sterilization.[183][184][185][186] The Istanbul Convention recognizes these two rights at Article 38 – Female genital mutilation and Article 39 – Forced abortion and forced sterilisation.[187]

Reproductive rights are understood as rights of both men and women, but are most frequently advanced as women's rights.[184]


A vacuum aspiration abortion at 8 weeks gestational age.
1: Amniotic sac
2: Embryo
3: Uterine lining
4: Speculum
5: Vacurette
6: Suction pump

Women's reproductive rights may be understood as including the right to easy access to a safe and legal abortion. Women's access to legal abortion is restricted by law in most countries in the world.[188] Where abortion is permitted by law, women may only have limited access to safe abortion services. Some countries still prohibit abortion in all cases, but in many countries and jurisdictions, abortion is permitted to save the pregnant woman's life, or if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.[189]

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."[189] 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."[190][191]

The Catholic Church and many other Christian faiths, particularly those considered the Christian right, and most Orthodox Jews, however, regard abortion not as a right, but as a moral evil and a Mortal sin.[192]

Russia was the first country to legalise abortions and offer free medical care in state hospitals to do so. After the October Revolution, the Women's wing of the Bolshevik Party (the Zhenotdel) persuaded the Bolsheviks to legalise abortion (as a 'temporary measure'). The Bolsheviks legalised abortion in November 1920. This was the first time in world history that women had won the right to free abortions in state hospitals.[115]

Human 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.[193] 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, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. Niue and the Vatican City, which are non-member states, have also not ratified it.[194] The latest state to become a party to the convention is South Sudan, on 30 April 2015.[195]

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.[196]

Women's rights in marriage, divorce and family law

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right of consenting men and women to marry and found a family.[193]

"(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State."

Article 16 of CEDAW stipulates that, "1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations [...]".[197] Among the rights included are a woman's right to freely and consensually choose her spouse; to have parental rights to her children irrespective of her marital status; the right of a married woman to choose a profession or an occupation, and to have property rights within marriage. In addition to these, "The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect".[197]

Polygamous marriage is a controversial practice, prevalent in some parts of the world. The General recommendations made by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, state at General Recommendation No. 21, Equality in marriage and family relations "14.[...] Polygamous marriage contravenes a woman's right to equality with men, and can have such serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependents that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited."[198]

Cohabitation of unmarried couples as well as single mothers are common in some parts the world. The Human Rights Committee has stated:[199]

"27. In giving effect to recognition of the family in the context of article 23, it is important to accept the concept of the various forms of family, including unmarried couples and their children and single parents and their children and to ensure the equal treatment of women in these contexts (General Comment 19 paragraph 2 last sentence). Single parent families frequently consist of a single woman caring for one or more children, and States parties should describe what measures of support are in place to enable her to discharge her parental functions on the basis of equality with a man in a similar position."

Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, also known as VDPA, is a human rights declaration adopted by consensus at the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993 in Vienna, Austria. This declaration recognizes women's rights as being protected human rights. Paragraph 18 reads:[200]

"The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community".

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 to respect fully international humanitarian law and international human rights law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls during and after the armed conflicts.

Maputo Protocol

Main article: 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,[201] Mozambique. On 25 November 2005, having been ratified by the required 15 member nations of the African Union, the protocol entered into force.[202] 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.[203]

Violence against women

United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was adopted by the United Nations in 1993. It defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."[204] This resolution established that women have a right to be free from violence. As a consequence of the resolution, in 1999, the General Assembly declared the day of 25 November to be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Article 2 of the The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women outlines several forms of violence against women:

Article Two:

Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not be limited to, the following:

(a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
(b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
(c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.

Istanbul Convention

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, is the first legally binding instrument in Europe in the field of domestic violence and violence against women,[205] and came into force in 2014.[206] Countries which ratify it must ensure that the forms of violence defined in its text are outlawed. In its Preamble, the Convention states that "the realisation of de jure and de facto equality between women and men is a key element in the prevention of violence against women". The Convention also provides a definition of domestic violence as "all acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit or between former or current spouses or partners, whether or not the perpetrator shares or has shared the same residence with the victim".[187] Although it is a Convention of the Council of Europe, it is open to accession by any country.[207]

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).
Main articles: Rape, War rape, and Violence against 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 a crime against humanity as well as a war crime. Rape is also now recognised as a form 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

Main article: Rwandan 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. 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.[208]

Judge Navanethem Pillay said in a statement after the verdict: "From time immemorial, rape has been regarded as one of the 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."[209] An estimated 500,000 women were raped during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.[210]

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 a crime against humanity if the action is part of a widespread or systematic practice.[211][212] 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.[213]

Rape was first recognised as a 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.[214] 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.[214] 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.[215] 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.[215]

Recognition of forced marriage as a practice similar to slavery

The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery defines "institutions and practices similar to slavery" to include:[216]

c) Any institution or practice whereby:

The Istanbul Convention requires countries which ratify it to prohibit forced marriage (Article 37) and to ensure that forced marriages can be easily voided without further victimization (Article 32).[187]

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children

The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (also referred to as the Trafficking Protocol or UN TIP Protocol) is a protocol to the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. It is one of the three Palermo protocols. Its purpose is defined at Article 2. Statement of purpose as: "(a) To prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children; (b) To protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights; and (c) To promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives."[217]

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