The Limits of Human Rights

Violence in the home was for many years seen as a private family matter, and there are still contexts where that is at least the cultural and social norm. Both legal and religious systems, across cultural contexts, sanctioned male domination and control of their women. It was during the second feminist movement in the United States that a paradigm shift began. Domestic violence began to be viewed as a political and social issue.

This led to a language of intervention, one that has shifted the focus to the need for a societal response. Framing domestic violence as a human rights issue came from the work of activists to heighten understanding that domestic violence was a serious problem.

The language of human rights has a weakness however. Elizabeth Gerhardt has argued in her book, ‘The Cross and Gendercide[1], that viewing violence against women as a human rights issue presents it in a more wholistic perspective because it takes into account a wide range of related issues. She argues that the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides whole life frame of reference from which to respond.

As a description of the problem, this may be correct, to a point. However, the all-encompassing nature of the categories of the declaration, fails to wrestle with the nuances of women’s lives, the multiple layers that cannot be consumed under singular categories. Lila Abu-Lughod asserts in her book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?[2]’, that the layers of women’s lives are ignored in discourses that homogenise their issues. She argues that women are constantly negotiating the terrain of their lives in ways that belie the categorisation of their issues under the common categories used by those who want to enact change for women.

Human rights has given focus to the challenges that women face, and provided a language that the world understands. What it fails to do is provide links into women’s every day lived experience, to their realities. There is a dissonance for women whose lives must be lived by negotiating daily their experiences and the contingencies with which they live.

[1] Gerhardt, Elizabeth, The cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Academic, 2014

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Havard University Press, 2013

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