Women's Rights Are Human Rights

ELLEN GOODMAN

March 05, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- These are times when Americans have to slip a new set of lenses into an old pair of frames.

The political prescription that we wore for so long produced a kind of Cold War myopia. For almost 50 years, we pictured the world in terms of East and West, the Soviet Union and America. It was virtually all we could see.

Now we are looking out again. The people and the problems that were once just outside our peripheral vision have come into clear view.

Indeed Monday, International Women's Day, will mark a ''see-change'' in our understanding of the harsh realities of women's lives. It comes at time when women's rights are finally being included in the panorama of human rights.

The starkest example of this change has come with the reports by victims and witnesses from Bosnia. Rape was once regarded as an inevitable byproduct of war, if not an actual perk for warriors. But this year it is a war crime, slated to be a centerpiece of any tribunal called for by the United Nations.

In France, the genital mutilation of two immigrant girls from Gambia -- a ritual clitoridectomy -- would have once been dismissed as a religious or family affair. This winter, the mother who ordered the mutilation was sentenced to jail.

In Korea, women kidnapped and held captive as ''comfort women'' for Japanese soldiers had been silenced by shame since World War II. This year, they spoke out about sexual slavery.

In Canada, a Saudi woman sought political asylum on the grounds that she was in grave danger back home because of her views on the status of women. Now, after refusing and then allowing her permission to stay, the Canadian government is considering granting refugee status for the victims of gender discrimination.

From Kuwait the world learned of more protests by Philippine maids held captive at their jobs. From India came the story of a 13-year-old girl saved by a flight attendant after she had been sold into marriage by her parents to an elderly Middle Eastern buyer.

And from the United Nations came the news that the Conference on Human Rights meeting in Vienna this June will include -- for the first time -- a substantial agenda of women's-rights issues, from voting to violence.

It is not a coincidence that these stories have flashed into our line of moral vision now. It's the work of women in the international human-rights community who have stripped off their organizations' old blinders. It's the work of women activists in a hundred countries where abuse once took place in the shadows.

The remarkable thing is that for so long a time, diplomats and foreign ministers dismissed the mistreatment of women as a private, not a public matter. As Dorothy Thomas, the head of women's rights for Human Rights Watch describes it, ''Violence against women has been misconceived as a private thing, an incidental thing, an unfortunate thing and a cultural thing. Any thing but a human-rights thing.''

tTC Indeed, the range of laws and customs that enforce second-class status by sex were often defended as part of a country's tradition or religion. We tiptoed around these issues, talking discreetly in hushed diplomatic tones about cultural relativism.

Now, as Ms. Thomas says, ''the women activists in these countries are saying themselves, 'there's a big difference between recognizing we come from different cultures and falsely using culture to justify a violation of human rights.' '' It's the abusers, she says, who use the cultural defense.

The world long ago stopped excusing slavery. Anyone who tried to defend apartheid on the grounds of cultural relativism today would be laughed off the international stage. We are beginning to change attitudes toward women's status as well.

So, on this International Women's Day, the world's eyes will be open to violence as far abroad as Bosnia. Women's rights are being seen, literally seen, as human rights.

In our country we are sorting out priorities and policies for the post-Cold War world. We have to restructure a foreign policy that focuses on the environment, on population, on the world economy. We can only do that if women's rights and roles in everything from education to reproduction are part of the picture.

L This new vision of the world demands a very wide-angle lens.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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