Women, girls and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment
by David Boyd, Gerard Quinn, Michael Fakhri
UN Special Rapporteurs
Women, girls and the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
(Report of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, David Boyd).
All people depend on nature for their life, health and well-being, from the oxygen in air produced by plants on land and at sea, to crops pollinated by birds, bats and bees and other insects. Everyone has the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
This includes clean air; access to safe water and adequate sanitation; healthy and sustainably produced food; non-toxic environments in which to live, work, study and play; healthy biodiversity and ecosystems; and a safe climate.
Unfortunately, gender-based stereotypes, biases, inequalities and discrimination profoundly restrict women and girls’ enjoyment of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
This also affects the rights to life, health, adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, education and an adequate standard of living, cultural rights and child rights.
It has been 75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights boldly stated that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which currently has 189 States parties, entered into force in 1981. Despite remarkable progress towards gender equality in some States, systemic discrimination persists.
Laws that discriminate against women and girls, sociocultural norms that reduce their agency, and stereotypes about femininity, masculinity and gender-assigned roles continue to restrict the political and economic power of women and girls in every State and every sphere of society.
The planetary environmental crisis affects everyone, everywhere, but not equally. Harmful gender norms, stereotypes, biases and discrimination exclude women and girls from participating in environmental decision-making and enjoying a fair share of nature’s benefits, while imposing disproportionate impacts related to the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse and pervasive pollution.
According to the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “the exclusion of half of society from effectively helping to shape environmental policies means those policies will be less responsive to the specific damage being caused, less effective in protecting communities and may even intensify the harm being done”.
Sustainable development depends on the gender-transformative realization of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as recognized in United Nations resolutions.
In its pioneering resolution 48/13, adopted in 2021, the Human Rights Council emphasized that States must fully respect human rights obligations, including those related to gender equality.
In its resolution 76/300, adopted in 2022, the UN General Assembly recognized the importance of gender equality, gender responsive action to address climate change and environmental degradation, the empowerment, leadership, decision-making and full, equal and meaningful participation of women and girls, and the role that women play as managers, leaders and defenders of natural resources and agents of change in safeguarding the environment.
As demonstrated by their impressive but under-appreciated contributions to protecting the environment, women and girls are powerful, transformative agents of change who should be primarily viewed not as victims, but as equal, indispensable partners and leaders in the transition to a just and sustainable future.
In order for women and girls to realize their rights and potential, nature must be conserved, protected and restored, pollution must be prevented and urgent action must be taken to achieve a safe climate.
The voices of women and girls must be heard, their ideas implemented and their stewardship work rewarded. To facilitate these advances, society must dismantle the beliefs, norms, institutions and systems that perpetuate gender discrimination.
The global economy is broken. It is based on two pillars – the exploitation of people and the exploitation of the planet – that are fundamentally unjust, unsustainable and incompatible with human rights. Similarly, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) observed that environmental crises “are deeply rooted in an economic system that fails to value, protect, nourish and invest in what is essential”.
Like women’s disproportionate unpaid labour and contributions to the care economy, nature’s contributions to people are a critical foundation for human health and the economy but are taken for granted.
Skewed value systems that champion profit, growth and domination of nature fuel discrimination, environmental injustice and the oppression, erasure and exploitation of women, girls and other vulnerable groups.
Businesses abuse human rights with impunity, worsen inequality, pollute, destroy nature and exacerbate the climate crisis. Powerful marketing methods exploit stereotypes and drive gendered patterns of unsustainable consumption (e.g. meat, cars, cosmetics and fashion) to the detriment of women, girls, human rights and the environment.
As a result, women and girls face profound socioeconomic disadvantages that erode their political agency and power. Legal, social and cultural obstacles prevent them from securing jobs, promotions and leadership positions, and limit their access to land, natural resources, finance, technologies, agricultural equipment and inputs, training and extension services.
The following facts illustrate the pervasive, devastating nature of gender discrimination today:
(a) Women comprise 70 per cent of the world’s poor; rural women have fared worse than rural men and urban women and men on every development indicator;
(b) Women do three times more unpaid household and care work than men in both high- and low-income countries, resulting in time poverty, lower employment and lower earnings;
(c) Women are overrepresented in informal economies (and thus lack social and legal protections); receive 20 per cent lower wages than men for the same work; and frequently experience worse working conditions;
(d) Women are underrepresented in leadership, management and decision-making roles across all levels and all sectors:
(i) Across 156 countries, women hold only 22.9 per cent of parliament seats and represent only 16.1 per cent of ministers;
(ii) In 2022, only 8.8 per cent of chief executive officers at Fortune 500 companies were women.
At current rates of progress, it will take 286 years to repeal or amend discriminatory laws and close gaps in legal protection for women and girls, and 155 years to close the political empowerment gap.
Making matters worse, many gender gaps have widened as a result of the economic, health and social consequences of the coronavirus disease (COVID 19) pandemic.
Gender discrimination and stereotypes affect girls from a young age, as they are treated as inferior in many States and cultures, undermining their self-esteem and leading to lifelong inequality, deprivation and exclusion.
For example, domestic obligations imposed on girls – including water and fuel collection, cooking, cleaning, care-giving and other time-consuming tasks that interfere with girls’ education, play and development – are rooted in cultural norms and traditions that give men and boys preferential treatment.
States must tackle the root causes of gender inequality. To fulfil women and girls’ human rights, gender-transformative changes to laws, policies, programmes and projects, as well as education, awareness-building and training are urgently needed. Human rights, based on the bedrock of equality and non-discrimination, can and should be a catalyst for needed systemic changes.
Although the present report is focused on the right of women and girls to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, all human rights are interrelated, undermined by inequality and gender discrimination, and compounded by intersecting vulnerabilities related to race, ethnicity, poverty, age, sexual orientation, migration status and disability.
* Access the report: http://undocs.org/A/HRC/52/33
Transformation of services for persons with disabilities - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Gerard Quinn.
There is a clear need to adopt a new philosophy to govern the design and delivery of support to persons with disabilities based on their moral agency, autonomy and social inclusion. States must transition away from service models based exclusively on impairment.
New kinds of partnerships are needed to realize this new philosophy. States must redefine the “public interest” and determine how to invest in and shape the provision of services. Support must shift from medically dominated systems that rely on coercion to support that is freely chosen.
Active consultation with persons with disabilities is therefore required, to determine what persons with disabilities need and want. The business sector must embrace its human rights responsibilities and become a partner for change.
Change requires a new lexicon that rejects labels such as “client”, “consumer” and “service user” and focuses on the core rights of citizenship.
Policy tools to manage change include supported decision-making models to create individualized support, peer support networks, independent living centres, standards for public procurement and contract compliance, competition law to create space for new market entrants, and new technology, including artificial intelligence.
The provision of support for families, collection of data on system performance, incentivization of new support providers, adoption of standards for service providers and enhancement of oversight and monitoring are likewise needed.
* Access the report: http://undocs.org/A/HRC/52/32
Conflict and the right to food: - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Nonetheless, the world is rife with discrimination and inequality. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic exposed just how deadly discrimination and inequality can be.
Along with others, the Special Rapporteur has identified systemic discrimination and structural inequality as root causes of human rights violations. Human rights law commonly addresses inequality by focusing on people who are poor, vulnerable or marginalized.
Echoing his own previous reports as well as recent ones by other mandate holders, the Special Rapporteur reiterates that human rights law requires scrutinizing how people are made poor, vulnerable or marginalized. How is inequality produced?
Structural inequality is not a natural occurrence or anomalous. It is produced by systems, including food systems. The right to food can be fully realized only once all actors involved understand how our food systems are making people vulnerable to harm.
The mandate holder has observed over the years how violence in food systems can be detrimental, especially to marginalized people, smaller communities, isolated families and workers who lack the resources for collective bargaining and action.
All food providers – be it a parent, worker, small-scale or large-scale food producer – are particularly vulnerable to violence in times of distress and crisis. When food providers are vulnerable, communities are vulnerable.
Violence in food systems has increased in recent years owing to the interdependence of various factors affecting global food security. For example, the rural communities dealing with the loss of traditional livelihoods and farmers who confront land-grabbing by powerful businesses are in many instances already severely affected by climate change and drought.
Communities that have to take on an overwhelming struggle against corporations for the preservation of their ancestral lands, traditional knowledge and seeds are often the ones that, during the global pandemic, relied heavily on their own such knowledge, ancestral dietary habits and holistic practices for survival.
In preparing the present report, the Special Rapporteur found that structural inequality had made mass amounts of people more vulnerable to violence; in turn, systemic violence has been a significant cause of structural inequality. This vicious cycle of structural inequality and systemic violence causes widespread human rights violations.
Food systems not only produce food but also generate and amplify violence that makes people more poor, vulnerable and marginalized. In the report, the Special Rapporteur gives an account of different forms of violence in food systems that harm people and generate the conditions that lead to human rights violations.
He does not attempt to address all forms of violence in food systems; instead, he draws from the inputs received to provide a narrative on how different interests and identities experience shared forms of violence.
The Special Rapporteur frames violence as systemic, focusing on how violence inherently structures food systems. He outlines four interconnected and overlapping forms of violence: discrimination; bodily harm or assault against a person’s physical and mental integrity; ecological violence; and erasure.
Food systems rely on a global economy of dependency and extractivism. In a joint study, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) found that violence and conflict remain the drivers of acute hunger in many parts of the world. They concluded that both hunger and violence would increase in 2022, especially as the global economy deteriorated.
Over the past four years, global rates of hunger have risen and are expected to continue to rise in the near future, leading to record humanitarian needs. Conflict and natural disasters alone cannot, however, explain this trend. Understanding systemic violence in food systems requires viewing them as part of the global economy.
Today’s global economy is the continuation of a centuries-long process characterized by a dynamic of dependency and extractivism undergirded by international law at large and national legal regimes. Countries and transnational corporations, in their pursuit of extracting resources from nature, have disrupted and reconfigured people’s social and ecological relationships, limiting people’s ability to have a stable livelihood and attacking people’s very existence.
This degree of disruption and reconfiguration is a violent act against people, undermining their dignity and humanity, often through categories of disability, race and gender. The resulting structural inequality is illustrated by the fact that people in situations of vulnerability and from marginalized communities are usually – and predictably – at the losing end of having their rights met, especially their right to food.
Systemic violence violates the right to life by limiting or denying people access to the necessities of life: land, seeds, water, fair and stable markets and dignified work. When people are dispossessed of their land or work in hostile conditions, they are more exposed to harm on a regular basis.
With less secure access to land or dignified work, people have less bargaining power because they are limited in their ability to negotiate favourable terms in commercial transactions or for work. This is how systemic violence makes people vulnerable and dependent while enabling a relatively small group to take advantage of their vulnerability. It allows the few who already have power and resources to gain the ability to restrict access to what is necessary to reproduce life, generating more violence and inequality.
During today’s food crisis, transnational corporations in the agrifood sector are profiteering while people struggle and suffer as life gets harder. Markets today amplify the crisis and are prone to volatility because of a global food system that relies on a small number of industrially produced staple grains, a small number of countries to produce those grains for export, and a small number of corporations that dominate the agrifood market.
Since the 1980s, the dominant global common sense has been that Governments should no longer use international agricultural policy to cooperate or to try and stabilize markets; instead, policymakers have been driven by short-term calculations of rapid production and maximizing profit.
* Access the report: http://undocs.org/A/HRC/52/40
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Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month
by Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Each year during April the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect solemnly observes Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month, marking the grim anniversaries of the start of several genocides in the past century.
This month of commemoration is a time to honor all the victims and survivors of past atrocity crimes not only by remembering, but by redoubling our efforts and commitment to “Never Again” for those around the world today who remain at risk of these unconscionable crimes. Memorialization of genocide and its victims is an essential part of atrocity prevention.
On 6 April the siege of Sarajevo began during the Bosnian War. For nearly four years the Bosnian Serb Army besieged the city and subjected the population to heavy bombardment and shelling, killing more than 11,000 people. Atrocities were perpetrated throughout the Bosnian War, including ethnic cleansing campaigns, systematic mass rape and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica.
On 7 April the international community commemorates the 29th anniversary of the start of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Over the course of a 100-day period between April and July approximately one million Rwandans were murdered in the fastest genocide of the twentieth century. Despite clear and credible warnings from those within Rwanda, the United Nations and its member states failed to take timely and decisive action to prevent the impending genocide.
On 17 April 1975 the “Khmer Rouge” seized power in Cambodia, where they used state authority to perpetrate a genocide. All Cambodians were deprived of their basic human rights and those deemed “enemies of the people” were murdered in the notorious “killing fields.” The Khmer Rouge also systematically targeted minority religious and ethnic communities for destruction. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives, but political divisions amongst the permanent members of the UN Security Council meant that the world largely ignored these crimes until after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown in January 1979.
Starting on 24 April 1915 over one million Armenians living under Ottoman Empire rule were targeted and killed during mass deportations. Armenian property and cultural institutions were pillaged, while thousands of women were abducted and forced into religious conversion. The systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people was genocide.
Throughout April we also commemorate the liberation of several major Nazi concentration camps during 1945, including Buchenwald, Dachau, Dora-Mittlebau, Flossenbürg and Bergen-Belsen. During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and its allies systematically persecuted and murdered six million Jews, large numbers of whom were detained and exterminated in concentration camps.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, these anniversaries serve as reminders from history that the world should no longer tolerate political indifference and inaction whenever and wherever populations face an imminent risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.
As we observe this Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month, populations around the world continue to face the threat of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes not for anything they have done, but for who they are. It is for this reason that the relentless and consistent implementation of the Responsibility to Protect is more important than ever.
We hope that during this Genocide Prevention and Awareness Month member states recommit to upholding their enduring moral and political responsibility to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations and take timely and effective action wherever and whenever atrocity crimes are threatened. This solemn responsibility must be upheld with consistency, courage and without exception.
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