“Women’s Discrimination”

Eleonora Barbieri Masini

There is no need to underline the many victories of human rights in the last two hundred years. At the same time, I believe that in this same period the duty aspect of such rights has not been sufficiently developed. This fact is important because it is the way to the effective realisation of rights and is the aim of the Trieste Carta of the International Council of Human Duties. In the last fifty years, since World War II which is at least two generations, the duty aspect of human rights has become more crucial with formally accepted rights often not being respected or enforced. In other words, though rights are acknowledged, the duty of ensuring that they are respected by individuals, social groups and institutions is still not part of the global culture. By culture I mean the ensemble of shared values according to which the people of a given group (in our case the global community) make choices, behave and act. As such, it the focus of human duties, yet these are not still part of the global culture and of the different distinctive cultures. In this contest it is important to cite the UNESCO Mexico City Declaration of 1982 and the great volume of research conducted on behalf of Unesco on this subject 1. According to article 2 of the Human duties Carta, we have the duty to work for the elimination of racial injustice, discrimination against women and the abuse and exploitation of children. In this paper, I shall concentrate on the second duty, the duty to combat discrimination against women. There is though an important point that applies in general: the three groups cited in Article 2 of the Human Duties Carta are precisely those without power in our society, those that are mainly marginal to decision making in economic and political terms, though they can proclaim achievements in terms of attainment of rights in the last decades. For the first group the success of South Africa, and the cultural refusal of apartheid and of discrimination of different cultures, has certainly had some important successes, but how far injustices are part of the whole African continent, or of other countries for that matter, is still to be seen, especially in the long term. The same can be said in relation to children’s rights. On this issue, just as an indication, it is useful to mention that the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child differs from other conventions and, most importantly, with respect to the need for more flexible and innovative approaches to implementation. First of all, the definition of “child” and indeed of children’s many different needs and hence also of duties, the latter still not being so well defined (2).

In this paper I shall mainly show how women’s discrimination is accepted very much in terms of rights but not sufficiently in terms of duties, namely therefore in cultural terms. It is only when the accepted and shared values and, hence, choices and behaviours are recognised by the people of a given social group, however large or small, that we can speak of real changes, for this means they have become part of the culture. My hypothesis in this paper is the following: without denying the importance of the recognition of human rights, the objective of change in human behaviour is not achieved, until the duty to work against the various forms of discrimination has become part of a culture. Generally speaking, I feel this stage has not yet been reached. Discrimination of women has been on the agenda of human rights at a global level for quite some time. Already in the seventeenth century educated women were very vocal in demanding the respect of what they considered to be their rights. In a letter to her husband written on March 31 1776, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, second president of the United States, and mother of the sixth President of the United States, we read: “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you to remember the ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put so much unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment rebellion and will not hold ourselves by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”(3). This is a very clear statement by a woman over two hundred years ago. In the meantime, other women have been equally assertive in demanding their rights in the US and in Europe. Yet, there is still a lot to be achieved. in this century women have fought constantly against women’s discrimination in different circumstances and for different reasons: first the suffragette[i] and later the feminists. In recent decades, the United Nations system has been holding world meetings against women’s discrimination (Mexico City 1975, Copenhagen 1980, Nairobi 1985 and Beijing 1995) and initiated also a Women’s Decade (1975- 1985). Throughout this period things have changed at the world level and at the level of countries. Almost all countries have signed and accepted the Convention against all forms of discrimination related to women adopted on the 18th of December 1979 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. At the same time, the situation of women in many areas of human life and in many parts of the world has deteriorated rather than improved, thus showing that the proclamation of rights in itself is not sufficient.

A. Women and Health

(With Reference to SDGS Goal 3)

Most of the women of the world are concentrated in the developing countries (4) and the global trend is for women to live longer than men. As a consequence, there is an increase in the number of older women (over 60). However, this is certainly not yet the case in all countries; not, for example, in the Sub-Sahara region or in Southeast Asia, where maternal mortality is still high. It is however an indication of the better general health of women due to international efforts, but with continuing geographical differences. On the one side, female life expectancy is increasing, with women living on average seven years longer than men (in Eastern Europe twelve years, for reasons pertaining to men’s health and wars) and in other developed countries and Central Asia between six and ten years longer. In other parts of the world, for example in Latin America and in the Caribbean, in central, east and west Asia, female and male life expectancy is about the same. In many developing countries, the life expectancy of men at women is still much lower than in the rest of the women is still much lower than in the rest of the world. In Sub-Sahara, 54 years for women and 51 for men; in Uganda and Zambia even lower than 50. Of course the shocking wars in Rwanda and Burundi have increased this difference and show, once more, the high price paid by women also in wars which are generally considered to affect especially men. Female infant mortality continues to be higher than male infant mortality in some countries, China and possibly others, although in general infant mortality is one of the indicators showing a better quality of life in the world at large. In this context, discrimination against women emerges in a hidden manner. Maternal mortality is still high in many countries due to lack of maternity care. This is an important area of discrimination which it is a human duty to overcome. It is very difficult to obtain accurate data for this area, but in 1988 (5) there were 360 deaths per 100.00 births in Northern Africa, 690 in Sub-Sahara Africa and 570 in southern Asia. At the global level, more than half a million women are estimated to die each year for lack of adequate reproductive health care. This issue was a highlight of the 1994 United Nations World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The highest maternity risk is for adolescent girls, for whom maternal and infant mortality is higher than that of women over twenty, also due to cultural habits related to food in many countries. Adolescent girls are often the last to eat, coming only before their mother, and for this reason have a high level of anaemia. There is another relatively new issue, this is part of the duty to go against discrimination of women, and is related to the high incidence of HIV among women and young girls. The World Health Organisation estimates that16 million adults and one million children have already been infected with HIV. In 1994 the estimated percentage of women was 40%. According to the same source, by the year 2000 the number of infected women will equal that of men, with 10-15 million newly infected mainly in the developing countries, the main victims being between 15 and 49 years of age and living in urban areas. The discrimination element comes here in terms of young women who contract the infection from older men; in many developing countries they are often in no position to refuse intercourse (6). In terms of discrimination, it has to be acknowledged that although a great deal of attention has been paid to the issue of health, especially since the UN conferences of Cairo and Beijing (1995), on women’s issues discrimination is still very much part of the cultural environment and not only in the developing countries. This emerges from a close examination of the results of research related, for example, to black and Hispanic areas in the US, and the situation of women migrants in Europe, where female infant mortality, maternal mortality and the incidence of HIV among young women is very high.

B. Women and Education

(With reference to SDGS Goal 4)

Education is also a field that has drawn attention at the international level. The efforts in the last decades of intergovernmental organisations such as the World Health Organisation and UNESCO have achieved results. Yet, here too women continue to be discriminated in different ways, also in relation to global economic and political decisions that seem to have a greater impact on women than on men. The developed countries have achieved a high level of education for women. In Latin America there have been extensive literacy programmes and other activities to ensure equality in education. Yet even education at the higher levels (tertiary education) does not ensure equal access to work or social status for example in Spain, southern Italy, Argentina Chile and Colombia (7). Another factor to be taken into account is that many of the programmes have been cut in the last decade, due to the economic crisis and therefore the discrimination of women is likely to be even more visible in the next generation. In Africa and some parts of Asia where the issue is one of illiteracy, there is always a higher rate of illiteracy for girls than boys (25% or more). This is because girls are expected to perform certain tasks in the home. The illiteracy of women over the age of 25 is generally twice or more that of girls between 15 and 24; in women over 40 it is sometimes 50% higher than the youngest cohort and even 70% higher in some African and Asian countries. For girls it is also important to distinguish enrolment from attainment (completion of each level of education) because the drop out rate is higher than for boys. Another important point to note is that in the last 15 years male illiteracy has also been increasing in some regions due to wars, economic adjustment and declining of international funding (8). I can conclude this part on discrimination of women in education by saying that in periods of social and political crisis women seem to have to bear the brunt more than men, as the indications on literacy and on the family (next point) show.

C. Women and the Family

There are two phenomena that seem to discriminate women in the transition period of the family at the world level. One is mainly related to the more developed countries, where the family is becoming smaller and is composed of two or three components. In such families women work mainly outside the household, especially women belonging to the cohort between 25 and 45. As they have little external support, e.g. nurseries or help from the older generation, women find themselves working longer hours than men because of their dual working role: active formal work and domestic work. Two, increasing numbers of women headed households, with women having to work and look after children single-handed. The trend of women headed households is increasing rapidly all over the developed world for a variety of reasons (a higher rate of divorce, separations and of informal unions), in developing countries in particular because of male migration, and in Latin America because of increasing informal unions. The world trend is toward 30% of all families headed by women, with peaks in the Caribbean region. Such a major change in the family, the basic social institution, certainly has an impact on men but again women seem to be the ones who bear a greater burden in the change. Children suffer greatly in this situation. It is especially important that women receive support in this new task, as they have the responsibility of educating the future generation.I see this as an extremely important duty for society to assume.

D. Women and Work

This is a much debated issue which is often placed at the centre of the debate on women’s discrimination. Certainly, at least at the level of laws and conventions, the area of work is the one in which some of the most concrete progress has been made. Yet, to reinforce the hypothesis I stated at the start of this paper, unless the issue of women’s work and equality of rights percolates into the culture of society, difficulties will remain (though fewer than in the past) and can even be expected to increase in times of economic crisis or, worse, in a society suffering from a crisis of cultural identity. The number of women on the labour market has certainly increased in the last twenty years. The concentration of working women in Asia (representing approximately 60% of the global female work force), and specifically East Asia, is an important factor in the development of the newly industrialising countries of the region. With respect to the discrimination issue it is important to note that it is often difficult to measure the rate of women’s presence in work in terms of participation or time. In any case it is a fact – and I can cite my own personal research for the United Nations University (9) – that women work more hours than men, if you include domestic work and other household-related activities. This is an important difference that applies to all countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom, where women work at least two hours more than men. It is certainly more dramatic in other countries, excluding USA (but only some women) and Australia. There is another discrimination which is related to the work of women in the informal economy, where the workforce is mainly female and very often not covered by any form of health or social security insurance. Although in many cases this work in the informal sector helps economies to survive, women receive no recognition for their contribution which has no visibility at all. According to data, two other kinds of discrimination related to women’s work are still very present: job segregation and wage disparity. The former is gradually changing with the idea of women surgeons, police officers, fire workers and judges slowly becoming more acceptable, though this acceptance is still not part of the culture or not of all cultures. The latter, wage discrimination, is changing much more slowly. All over the world women earn less than men. In Japan and in South Korea, to cite two developed countries, women earn from 50 to 52% what men earn. In some other countries, generally considered to be more developed, for example Ireland, they earn 90% the male wage, in Australia 87%, in Germany 73% and in Sri Lanka 75%. Much more could be said on this point but I believe that here too there is a very clear area of discrimination against which it is a duty to fight.

E. Women and the Media

The media without doubt discriminate against women who are presented as objects and manipulated all over the world level in whatever culture.

There are also women who are extremely active in the media in many countries, including developing countries, especially in radio, for example in ISIS (International Information Systems) and other media networks. Again these groups need to be supported in the interests of women who are not visible, and also for their contribution in terms of information and education to women in remote areas.This is another important duty that is essential if women are to be able to have their voice heard without acrimony or antagonism in a positive and constructive spirit.


In the light of what has been said thus fair, I feel that the time has come to concentrate not so much on discrimination against women (although acknowledging that it definitely still exists), as on acknowledging what women have contributed to society, the changes now taking place in their role and the dignity and generosity with which women are accepting their new role in every culture. The feminist movement has been extremely important. It is now important to understand the real situation of women at the world level (and not only in developed countries) and to assure dignity to them. The opportunity offered by the Human Duties Carta is important for ensuring the understanding that women are fighting not only for rights. What is especially important at this point in time, and for the future, is the awareness that women have a very positive contribution to make in a problem-ridden society. They are well equipped to contribute the the construction of a more solidarity-oriented society, in part because of their long-standing, silent, invisible commitment particularly in situations of stress such as the present one at the global level (10).


  1. UNESCO Mondialcult World Conference on Cultural Policies, Mexico City, 1982 Final Report, Paris, and Eleonora Barbieri Masini (Ed), “Futures of Cultures”, UNESCO, Paris 1994.
  2. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20.11.1989, UN General Assembly.
  3. Abigail Adams, Letter of March 31, 1776 in “Feminism, The Essential Historical Writings”, Miriam Schneir (Ed), Vintage Books, New York, 1972.
  4. United Nations, “The World’s Women, Trends and Statistics, 1990-95”, New York, pp. 65-82.
  5. United Nations, “The World’s Women, Trends and Statistics, 1970-90”, op cit. p 58.
  6. Eleonora Barbieri Masini, “Women at the Threshold of the XXIst Century: Hopes and Fears”,  Sedos, Rome, 1996.
  7. Eleonora Barbieri Masini and Susan Stratigos, “Women, Households and Age”, United Nations University, Tokyo 1991.
  8. United Nations, “The World’s Women 1990-95”, op. cit. p. 91.
  9. Eleonora Barbieri Masini and Susan Stratigos, “Women, Households and Age”, op cit.
  10. WIN (Women’s International Network) Emergency and Solidarity, Issues 1-2-3, UNESCO, 1995.
Notes on the Web Edition:
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  • References to institutional sources are linked in the text by the editor
  • Other references and notes are given in roman numeral