International: SKSW Statement on Human Rights and Traditional Values

WLUML allies

The traditional values underpinning international human rights: How can they contribute to promotion and protection? (Room XXI, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 4 October 2010) Thank you, honourable members of the panel, friends and colleagues in the international human rights community, good afternoon. On behalf of the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women, we welcome the opportunity to participate in the discussion on the relationship between human rights and traditional values.    

Our Campaign is led by women’s human rights defenders who are at the forefront of challenging forces which politicize and mis-use culture to condone violations of their rights and those of others.  These violations are often justified with reference to traditional values and practices that have the effect of subjugating women and girls and abusing their fundamental human rights. We seek to end cruel punishment of women because ‘traditions’ had judged them for having transgressed the imposed ‘norms’ especially those aimed at regulating or controlling their  behaviour and sexuality.  

Our Campaign acknowledges that after more than 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was embraced and adopted by the United Nations, the relationship between traditional values and human rights remains highly contested. We affirm the UDHR as not only ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations’ but a common standard of assessment for all traditional values.  The UDHR is an embodiment of positive traditional values that are universally held by this community of nations and are consistent with the fundamental dignity of all human beings.  

Our partners’ documentation of their lived realities prove that many of the most brutal forms of discrimination specifically targeted against women and girls are deeply rooted in patriarchal values. Acts of violence against women in the name of ‘culture’ are all too often cited as in line with traditional values and norms.

This phenomenon occurs in countries across all global regions but most especially in countries that still maintain laws that regulate obedience, ‘modesty’, freedom of mobility, and require a woman’s submission to the men in her family. In some communities, women and girls are still considered to be the property of their fathers or husbands. Politico-fundamentalist forces manipulate and deny a woman’s right to autonomy and bodily integrity in order to strengthen their dominance and control in society.  Women’s bodies become a site of contestation, bartering and control in situations where militarism and economic incentives are tantamount. Women perceived as defying their socially-prescribed roles are decried as having brought shame and dishonour on their family and community. Reprisal is often in the form of brutal violence as a form of punishment and control.  Values and traditions that underpin these abuses are legitimised by States’ structures and systems that remain gender-biased and condone the primacy of such values over its civil laws and international obligations. 

On the other hand, we are equally concerned with the tendency to essentialize traditional values as inherently harmful to women. We are concerned with the notion that human rights law alone can eliminate “harmful traditional practices and will secure and free women and girls at risk by these. Focusing solely on harmful traditional practices while overlooking the economic and political underpinnings of women’s subordination and without recognizing the need for enabling factors that allow women to reclaim and redefine their cultures as legitimate actors in their communities are equally problematic in the long run. 

We call upon the member States of the UN to make a firm and unequivocal commitment that no country may invoke traditional values to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope. Customs, tradition or religious considerations must  not be tolerated to justify discrimination and violence against women and girls whether committed by State authorities or by non-state actors. We look forward to State policy measures that proactively promote a rights-based culture while simultaneously modifying or even rejecting cultural patterns or practices which are detrimental to the enjoyment of human rights.  We call upon the member States of the UN and the various UN human rights bodies to recognize and support the important role of women’s groups and organizations working at the forefront of challenging those traditional values and practices that are intolerant and antithetical to fundamental human rights principles. 

For more information about the SKSW Campaign, please refer to:

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