International Women's Day is Perfect Time to Fight Gender Bias at the UN

A version of this article originally appeared on the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0. 

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The continued battle over women’s rights both in the United States and across the world calls for a reaffirmation of the fact that women’s rights are human rights. International Women’s Day is the perfect time to once again point that out and challenge the gender bias in the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

During the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, it was explicitly reaffirmed that women’s rights are human rights. The commitment of the United Nations, its member states, and NGOs to this important recognition has become clear in their efforts for the advancement of women and gender equality in their policies and practices. An important example is the institution of UN Women, the gender equity agency uniting the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and United Nations Development Fund for Women.

However, this evolving consciousness has not yet been reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself, the fundamental document human rights advocates base their work on. The declaration emphasizes that human rights are indivisible and apply to all members of the human family, and Article 2 explicitly states that there will be no distinction based on gender. Yet Article 1 still reads, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Furthermore, almost half of the articles use the male pronouns “him,” “he,” “himself,” and/or “his” as the generic terms to represent all of humanity. This initial gender bias in the declaration is historically understandable, but today needs to be addressed if we are truly committed to the full inclusion of women’s rights in human rights. If you are not convinced, imagine all pronouns to be feminine. Wouldn’t that sound exclusive of men? Therefore, we should replace the word “brotherhood” in Article 1 with something along the lines of “human solidarity.” This term is gender inclusive and reaffirms our shared humanity, which in turn strengthens the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the same way, the words “him,” “himself,” “he,” and “his” should be replaced with “one,” “one’s,” or “their”.

This linguistic adaptation will be of invaluable symbolic importance, as it recognizes the efforts of those working for women’s rights and truly reaffirms the United Nations’ commitment to gender equity. It is well-known that words are not value-free: They simultaneously reflect and reinforce values and attitudes. Moreover, a change in language is not only symbolic, but also has practical value for educational purposes. Gender equity should be integral to the next generation’s upbringing and curriculum. When they learn about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they should not have any reason to read gender bias in the concept of “human.”

Since the declaration was always intended to include women, there should be no legal consequences of these changes. And I by no means suggest a complete re-examination of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is merely an update in the language. Fifteen years after Beijing, it is time to review the Declaration from the perspective of our evolving consciousness regarding women’s rights and gender equity. We must recognize the dedicated efforts of millions of women and men around this world for these causes by reflecting their work in the central declaration for human rights, either in the document itself or in the form of an addendum.

Like all gender equality advocates, I am dedicated to the tireless efforts of the global women’s movement. I hope to do so with a gender-inclusive Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Photo Credit: cometstarmoon

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Minjon Tholen

Minjon Tholen is a Diversity & Inclusion Management Consultant based in Washington DC. She was previously a Roosevelt Institute l Pipeline Fellow and holds a Master's degree in Gender and Women's Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Minjon grew up in The Netherlands and was born in Sri Lanka. Her primary interests are diversity & inclusion and social justice & human rights, and more specifically, gender equality and women's rights, sexual and reproductive health, and youth empowerment.

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