Tribute to International Women’s Day: Women and the Right to Equality with Irwin Cotler

Professor Irwin Cotler, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Hillel Neuer: We are going to begin our next panel. Once again this is a tribute to International Women’s Day today and our panel is on “Women and the Right to Equality.” I want to introduce our honored first speaker.

Professor Irwin Cotler has just arrived here from Canada. He is a distinguished law professor, a constitutional and comparative law scholar, international human rights advocate, counsel to prisoners of conscience, public intellectual, peace activist, a Member of Parliament and the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He’s been described as being “at the forefront of the struggle for justice, peace and human rights.” He taught human rights law at McGill University Faculty of Law. I had the great privilege to be a student of Professor Cotler and I can tell you that students from far and wide came to McGill University specifically to learn under Professor Cotler. In his more recent career, he was elected in 1999 to the Canadian Parliament capturing 92 % of the vote. He was re-elected in 2000 with the highest percentage in the country and re-elected again in 2004, 2006, 2008. He served as counsel to former prisoners of conscience Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela, Jacobo Timerman, Alexander Nikitin, Kundung Xiang, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Maclean’s magazine referred to him as “counsel for the oppressed.” Professor Cotler is an advocate against racism and discrimination, he has served as counsel to the National Coalition for Japanese-Canadian Redress and the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations. He has also served as chair of the National Conference on Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian justice system and as co-chair of the Canadian “Helsinki Watch Group.” I believe Professor Cotler is the only member of the Liberal Women’s Caucus, he has been so for more than ten years. Women’s rights have always been at the forefront of his concerns. While he was Minister of Justice and Attorney General he helped transform the face of the judiciary in Canada through the appointment of two outstanding women  Justices to the Supreme Court of Canada, Justices Rosalie Abella and Louise Charron, making the Supreme Court of Canada the most gender representative Supreme Court in the world. And all that is thanks to Professor Irwin Cotler. Without further ado, I have the honor to give the floor to Professor Cotler.

Professor Irwin Cotler: Thank you Hillel for those very kind, warm words of introduction. I must say that one of the great joys of a law professor is when he can see the best of his students, like Hillel Neuer, being at the forefront of the struggle for human rights and doing so by being in the trenches of human rights. I always recall the words of my late father, who in seeking truth and to instruct me about the imperative of the pursuit of justice, always would remind me that if you want to pursue justice, then you have to feel the injustice around you. Otherwise the pursuit of justice is an abstract notion. Only the ‘going in and about’ the community, feeling the injustice, acting on that injustice, that is what the pursuit of justice is all about and that is what I take this conference to be all about. I want to commend Hillel Neuer and the NGOs who have put together this conference and brought here those who can bear witness to the struggle for human rights. And in that regard, I am delighted to be able to share this platform with Dr. Massouda Jalal, who has been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan and beyond.

As it happens, we meet today – and it may not sometimes be known or us be aware of it – that we are meeting at a historical moment in the struggle for women’s rights in general and the right to equality and protection against violence, against women in particular. For we meet on the 100th anniversary of the founding of International Women’s Day, founded a century ago today in Copenhagen. On the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Royal Commission on the Status of Women, whose landmark report, including at the time recommendations for equal pay for work of equal value, for a national day care system, objectives that regrettably have yet to be realized, but where that report became a milestone in the march towards equality not only in Canada but beyond. In the aftermath of the 30th anniversary of the International Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the foundational treaty rights framework with respect to the search for women’s equality and protection against violence. On the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, which Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last week alone characterized as a “historic milestone on the road to empowerment for women,” as he put it. And whose platform for action on 12 key issues – poverty, education and training, health, violence against women women in armed conflict, economic and social rights, power and decision-making, the media, environment, international mechanisms protection of girls and human rights – remain as Rachel Mayanja put it last week, and she is the Senior Adviser to the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and who herself put it, “the most comprehensive global framework to achieve the goals of gender equality, protection against violence, development and peace.” And we recall also today the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, which underpinned the Beijing Conference to take place two years later, with its call for action. And whose clarion call that women’s rights are human rights and there are no human rights which do not include the rights of women, energized the Vienna Conference, paved the way for the Beijing Declaration. And indeed, the women’s movement, one can say not only energized the Vienna Conference on human rights with their advocacy of women’s rights, but those of us who were there will recall that they energized the movement for human rights as a whole. Women’s rights advocates at the Vienna Conference were at the centerpiece of the march for human rights as a whole. Fifteen years later after the Beijing Conference and its predecessor, Vienna Conference on Human Rights, it is tragic to note that not only are women’s rights still not seen as human rights – which was a clarion call at the Vienna Conference and paved the way for Beijing – not only is the promotion and protection of women’s rights still not a priority on the national and international agenda, but discrimination against women remains as UNESCO characterized it even then, as a form of gender apartheid, while violence against women is a persistent, pervasive and pernicious evil. 

Indeed as women’s rights leader Charlotte Bunch put it on the occasion of the Beijing Conference some fifteen years ago, and astonishingly enough some have argued that the situation has only worsened since, and I quote: “vast numbers of people around the world suffer from starvation and terrorism and are humiliated, tortured, mutilated and even murdered every year just because they are women.” Indeed as the new Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, recently put it, “Violence against women violates human dignity as well as numerous rights including the right to equality, physical integrity, and freedom from discrimination.” And she added, “I believe that equality and equal protection doctrines demand that we address violence against women in all its manifestations as discrimination against women.” As I recently had the occasion to say in the Canadian Parliament, “violence against women is a multi-dimensional assault on women’s equality and human security. Women cannot achieve equality if they are subjected to violence in their daily lives. And the opposite is also true; women’s inequality increases the vulnerability of women to violence and limits their network of options, including, for example, leaving an abusive relationship.” 

Accordingly, my remarks today will be organized around two basic themes. First, the indices of gender equality. In other words, a snapshot of the Beijing Plan of Action and that which was set forth in the Beijing Plan of Action fifteen years later. For reasons of time admittedly an abbreviated snapshot, but I think we need to have a sense of where we stand in terms of some of the indicators of the march towards equality. And second, because of – as I mentioned – the interaction between violence against women and the struggle for equality, I will briefly reference the recent G8 conference on violence against women, which took place in Rome in September 7-8, 2009. I had occasion to be there at that Conference, which if any of you were there or read about it, was a remarkable conference, in terms of the witness testimony respecting violence against women, which brought together women and in the main, I might add, witness testimony from women from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. And, which included some twenty women who were Ministers in their own rights, women Ministers of Equality or women’s rights, social development, and the like in their respective countries and came, as I said, from countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. A riveting conference in terms of the personal testimony and also in terms of the imperative of action for violence against women. And so I will speak in terms of two case studies which emerged in that Conference among others with respect to the compelling concerns regarding violence against women: first, the evil of trafficking in women and girls, and second mass sexual violence in armed conflict of which the Congo today is the worst but not the only example. 

And so let me begin now with identifying, as I said as my first theme today, the indices of gender inequality, which taken together can constitute what has been characterized as a form of “gender apartheid,” so that we can thereby through an appreciation of these indices or indicators of gender inequality, monitor, combat and redress this gender inequality on both the domestic and international levels. The first index or measure of gender inequality may be said to be the absence of equal voice in our parliaments, in our governments and in our public decision-making arenas. For example, women in Canada make up 50.4% of the Canadian population, but they occupy only 1/5 of the seats in the House of Commons. This mirrors in effect the global phenomenon, where less than 20% of parliamentarians internationally happen to be women. I might add parenthetically – and this is the position that the women’s caucus in Canada has taken and as Hillel Neuer has mentioned I have been a member of that women’s caucus for the last ten years – this ends up in effect being a policy choice. For a while, for example, in the 1970s 15% of Norway’s Parliament was then made up of women, Norway then undertook active measures to increase women’s participation and it is now 40%. Simply put, women’s political participation is a legal and policy determinant that countries and parties can make an influence. Moreover, and this is something not always appreciated, it is something that I sensed in our weekly meeting of the Women’s Caucus in Canada and the nature of the discourse that takes place at that weekly meeting, which I can tell you is the more inspiring of the meetings that take place in the Canadian Parliament. But empirical studies have demonstrated that increased female participation in Parliament results in greater parliamentary attention to gender equality, to family policy, to [enhancing] social policy, such as a national child care strategy and the like. In other words, the discourse and decisions of a Parliament change for the better the more women that are represented in Parliament. And so my first index [is] the importance of equal voice. 

The second index has to do with the manner in which discrimination is often not only a matter of policy and practice but it can even be institutionalized as a matter of law. And therefore, when you have discrimination institutionalized as a matter of law, it is the legal regime which ends up mandating that discrimination. And we have, of course, untold examples of legalized discrimination which is in that sense a manifestation as well of “gender apartheid.” 

A third index is the wide disparity in power and wealth between men and women. While women are the majority of the world’s population, and while women account for more than 50% of the world’s food supply, it is disturbing to note that women earn less than 10 % of the world’s wealth and own less than 1% of the world’s property. So a dramatic disparity in power and wealth, which is also underpinned by the institutionalized discrimination, which tends to mandate it in legal systems. 

A fourth index, with respect to women’s inequality, is that of the gender disparity in income security or what might be called insecurity, including the feminization of poverty. For example, I sometimes will use Canada as an example here, over 1/3 of single women in Canada over the age of 65 live in poverty. Women not only earn less than men do for work of equal value, but almost 50% of the households are headed by single parents who are poor, mainly women, while child care remains beyond the financial reach of many. 

Which brings me now to the fifth index to which I wish to refer, and it is sometimes ignored, and that’s the intersectional dimension of the disadvantaged situation of women. As the Canadian Research Assistants Institute for the Advancement of Women put it, proactive poverty elimination must be based on recognizing the interconnected barriers that make certain groups of women more vulnerable than others. For example statistics Canada reported that 30% of women of color are low income compared to 17% of all women in Canada. Therefore, all policy initiatives to combat gender inequality in general, and the incidence of poverty in particular, must factor into consideration the phenomenon of inter-sectional, i.e. the unique circumstances and systemic inequality, of ethnocultural, racialized, immigrant, disabled and particularly aboriginal women. As our Liberal Women’s Caucus put it, “there’s an urgent need to design specific programs to address inequality amongst such vulnerable women and facilitate their successful integration into society.” In particular, as we have seen in Canada and as a case study of this phenomenon of intersectionality, the reality of aboriginal women often include acts of racism and sexual violence, extreme poverty, lack of access to adequate housing, chronic health problems and the like. Simply put, aboriginal women are the highest at-risk population in Canada. The systemic discrimination that they endure is based both on their aboriginal status as well as on their gender. And we have had a horrifying situation in Canada where some 500 aboriginal women have been murdered or disappeared and are unaccounted for over the last several decades. Only recently and finally and belatedly as the government announced that it will begin to look into the causes, as well as the consequences, of disappeared and murdered aboriginal women, which remains as a blot on our whole struggle for women’s equality in Canada.

A sixth index is the lack of provision for early learning and child care and the corresponding fallout for social and economic gender equality. As the 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment put it, headed at the time by then and now Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Rosalie Abella, and I quote, “Child care is the ramp that provides equal access to the workforce for mothers.” I regret to say that 24 years later that ramp has yet to be built in Canada as well. 

A seventh index is the relationship between poverty, homelessness and the need for safe and affordable housing. Indeed, in Canada, over 4 million Canadians are in need of affordable and adequate housing, but a disproportionate number of them are women and in particular aboriginal women, single older women, single mothers, recent immigrants, disabled women and the like. [] I am using Canada as a case study, and I’m using a prosperous democracy so you can appreciate how this acts itself out in places where affordable and safe housing may not only be a matter of disadvantage in social and economic rights terms but can be a disadvantage in terms of human security, in terms of matters of life and death. But access to safe and affordable housing is seen to be the foundation upon which all other economic and social needs, such as health and employment, depend. For low-income women, this is particularly acute as housing will always constitute a significant expenditure of their income and therefore a main determinant of their well-being. 

And eighth is the importance of the whole spectrum of health related concerns, be it with respect to reproductive rights, be it with respect to equal access to health and for safe maternal and child care. We may not appreciate that one woman dies every minute – every minute – as a consequence of that most natural of acts of giving birth. And you know, I experienced it with my daughter just last week who gave birth happily to a healthy girl, but not after some 48 hours of intensive and very apprehensive labor where it was ‘touch and go’ and this was in a safe setting. So I’m speaking here about the crucial aspect of protective and promoted maternal health care and reminding us, as I say, that one woman dies every minute as a consequence of the most natural of acts of giving birth.

A ninth index has to do with differential access to justice, and in particular, for the protection of the most vulnerable of women. The absence, for example, in our own country of Canada of a comprehensive system of sustainable legal aid ends up disadvantaging women particularly in matters of family law, civil law and the like. 

Noting the time aspect. So let me move very quickly into what was to be the second part of my remarks, where I indicated that I would speak about two case studies regarding violence against women, mindful of the interaction between inequality and violence against wome. Very briefly, turn to those two case studies. 

The first is a matter of trafficking, where what we’re dealing with when we talk about trafficking in women and girls is the commodification in human beings, of treating human beings as cattle to be bonded and bartered or as goods to be bought and sold; what I’ve elsewhere referred to as a global slave trade. We know that this grotesque trade in human beings now generates upwards of 12 billion dollars a year in the fastest growing international crime industry in the world. We know that the majority of victims who are trafficked are women and children, girls under the age of 25, and that many trafficking victims also include children. We know that the victims of trafficking are desperate to secure the necessities of life and that exploitation is at the core of the crime and evil of trafficking. And we know that regardless of the purpose for which they are trafficked, all trafficked persons, all trafficked women, suffer deprivation of liberty, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including threats of violence and actual harm to themselves and their family members. 

And so if we are to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat trafficking, we need to stop thinking in terms of abstract silos. We need to stop thinking of human trafficking as an abstract or faceless problem, or thinking of it as an international problem or a criminal law problem or a law enforcement problem or an immigration problem or a public health problem or an economic problem. It is each and all of these and more. Most important, and whenever we speak about trafficking and trafficking of women and children, we have to realize that behind each of the problems to which I referred is a human face, a human being who is being trafficked, such that trafficking constitutes an assault on our common humanity.  And it has to be seen first and foremost as a generic human rights assault with a human face as its victim. In terms of what can be done, – and with this I close as there is no time– I mention it in terms of what I call the four Ps. The first ‘P’ is the Prevention of trafficking to begin with. The second ‘P’ is the Protection of the victims of trafficking, and sometimes we ignore that where victims become doubly victimized both as a victim of trafficking and then for example when they are unprotected and get deported and the like. The third is the Prosecution. We have to bring the perpetrators of the trafficking to justice. And the fourth is Partnerships, domestic and international, between governments and civil society; comprehensive partnerships. I will close – because time prevents me from going into the second aspect of women in armed conflict –  with the words and the theme of the Conference on Violence Against Women in Rome and the theme was, “Respect women, Respect the world.” And I say if we want to respect the world, we have to respect women. 

Thank you

Speakers and Participants

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada


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