Equality and Democracy 


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Equality and Democracy 




Report from the discussion groups and conclusions
by the general rapporteur,
Strasbourg, 28 February 1995

Council of Europe


from the Conference organised by the Council of Europe as a contribution to the preparatory process of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15 September 1995)

Palais de l'Europe, Strasbourg, 9-11 February 1995









A. Equal participation of individuals and groups: the challenge of parity democracy

B. A gender perspective on the functioning of democratic institutions

C. Universalism versus cultural relativism in regard to human rights



A. The recognition of the fundamental right of women and men to equality: a precondition for democracy

B. The self-determination of women: obstacles and strategies

C. Enjoying human rights: conflicts and contradictions





The Council of Europe decided that it could usefully contribute to the preparatory process for the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15 September 1995) by providing a forum for a pan-European exchange of views based on its specific approach regarding the promotion of equality between women and men in the perspective of human rights and genuine democracy. It was felt that the Conference "Equality and democracy: Utopia or challenge?" might usefully complement the work of the High-level Regional Preparatory Meeting of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (Vienna, 17-21 October 1994), the main focus of which was the participation of women in economic and social life.

The two themes chosen for discussion were:

1. New dimensions of democracy and citizenship

2. Citizenship and full enjoyment of human rights by women

Discussions were designed to throw light on the obstacles which at present prevent equality between women and men from being achieved and to identify strategies to bridge the gap between law and practice. They were marked by the specific characteristics of the Council of Europe, which are free and open dialogue, and a firm commitment to the principles and values on which it is built, i.e. the protection and development of fundamental human rights and the safeguard and enhancement of pluralist democracy. The Conference was not a decision-making forum and no final resolutions were adopted concerning the questions at issue. It resulted in one final document taking the form of conclusions drawn up by the General Rapporteur, Ms Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland.

The Conference took place at the Council of Europe's Headquarters (Palais de l'Europe) in Strasbourg, France, from 9 to 11 February 1995 and was attended by some 250 participants. These included representatives of the member States of the Council of Europe, other European states, Council of Europe and European Union bodies, and representatives of international governmental and non-governmental organisations. Independent experts with extensive experience in the field of human rights and of equality between women and men were invited to play a central role in the discussions.


The Conference was co-chaired by Ms Mona Sahlin, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and Mr Janez Drnovšek, Prime Minister of Slovenia. Ms Mary Robinson, President of Ireland, gave a keynote speech during the opening session.

The two main themes of the Conference were separated into six, sometimes converging areas for discussion. Introductory reports were presented in Plenary session on the six sub-themes and discussion groups were then convened to examine each of these sub-themes.

The six areas thus covered were:



A. Equal participation of individuals and groups: the challenge of parity democracy

Introduction by: Ms Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo (Portugal), President of the Independent Commission "Population and Quality of Life", former Prime Minister of Portugal

Discussion group President: Ms Tarja Halonen (Finland), Chair of the Ad hoc Committee on Equality of the Sexes of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Rapporteur: Ms Gisèle Halimi (France), Barrister

B. A gender perspective on the functioning of democratic institutions

Introduction by: Ms Cristina Alberdi (Spain), Minister for Social Affairs, presented by Ms Marina Subirats (Spain), Director of the Institute of Women

Discussion group President: Ms Magda Kósa Kovács (Hungary), Minister for Labour

Rapporteur: Ms Lydie Err (Luxembourg), President of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

C. Universalism versus cultural relativism in regard to human rights

Introduction by: Ms Madeleine Reberioux (France), President of the French League for Human Rights

Discussion group President: Mr Theo van Boven (Netherlands), Professor of Law, University of Limburg

Rapporteur: Mr Andrew Byrnes (Australia), Professor of Law, University of Hong Kong



A. The recognition of the fundamental right of women and men to equality: a precondition for democracy

Introduction by: Ms Elisabeth Palm (Sweden), Judge at the European Court of Human Rights

Discussion group President: Ms Johanna Dohnal (Austria), Federal Minister for Women's Affairs

Rapporteur: Ms Kathleen Mahoney (Canada), Professor of Law, University of Calgary


B. The self-determination of women: obstacles and strategies

Introduction by: Mr David Maclean (United Kingdom), Home Office Minister

Discussion group President: Ms Zofia Kuratowska (Poland), Vice-Speaker of the Senate

Rapporteur: Ms Greetje den Ouden-Dekkers (Netherlands), Chair of the Emancipation Council


C. Enjoying human rights: conflicts and contradictions

Introduction by: Mr Mervyn Taylor (Ireland), Minister for Equality and Law Reform

Discussion group President: Ms Ingunn Yssen (Norway), State Secretary, Ministry of Children and Family Affairs

Rapporteur: Mr Claude Debrulle (Belgium), Director of Administration, Administration of Civil and Criminal Affairs

In the final sessions of the Conference, the rapporteurs presented their reports of the discussions in the groups in Plenary session. After reactions to the reports and a general debate, the General Rapporteur, Ms Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, President of Iceland, presented the conclusions of the Conference, drawing together the major points that had emerged during the discussions.

This document contains: (I) reports of the discussion groups; (II) the conclusions of the General Rapporteur.




A. Equal participation of individuals and groups:

the challenge of parity democracy

Rapporteur: Ms Gisèle Halimi

1. The challenge of parity democracy calls for a double strategy, which would involve putting an end to the under-representation of women in decision-making bodies, while strengthening democracy, giving it its full significance by bringing together, on a equitable basis, representatives of both parts of the human race, women and men.

2. Such a strategy will seek to establish the right of every human being - man and woman - the right of every citizen to express his or her views effectively at all levels of power.

3. Working on the basis of these two hypotheses, the goal of this strategy will be to reform democracy by abolishing the anomaly and the contradiction whereby one part of the population - men - speak on behalf of the other half - women, who are not equitably represented. In some countries (France and Greece) under-representation of women is outrageously disproportionate (5 to 6%).

4. The concept of parity democracy has been defined in detail by the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men (CDEG). The discussions during the first part of the debate have, however, shown that it needs to be explained.

5. The first step has been to establish that equality and parity are by no means identical. They are by nature different. Equality is the goal, whereas parity is one of the means of achieving it.

6. The aim of our work was to discuss and to draw up proposals on the challenge of democratic parity.

7. It was unanimously agreed that there is a serious imbalance in the representation of men and women. There is no equitable division of power. It has become imperative to improve the way in which democracy functions by enabling women to participate more equitably.

Individuals or groups?

8. Do women constitute a group? Some women and men regard women as a group, resembling in some ways other disadvantaged groups in society: young people, the unemployed, the disabled, etc. Differences in sex between men and women should therefore not be stressed, instead it should be demonstrated that, apart from the common characteristics, the only differences which exist are cultural, social, religious, educational and economic.

9. Others have replied that women should under no circumstances be regarded as a group or a category. They are the female component of a dual humanity. Like the other component, the male, they incorporate all social groups and categories. Thus, before being unemployed, foreign, poor, black, old, or disabled - in other words before belonging to one of these categories - an individual is born, and is a man or a woman.

10. The rejection and fear of the criterion of sexual difference comes from the fact that it has been used to the detriment of women, as a criterion of inferiority and as a justification for discrimination, whereas, on the contrary, this difference should be perceived as a factor enriching humanity and democracy and demanding equality.

Obstacles to the achievement of equality

11. What are the obstacles to the achievement of this equality? They have long been identified and were referred to again: cultural and religious conditioning, social and economic dependence, segregated education, training which fails to meet the needs of women, etc.

Practical measures

12. Which practical measures will enable all men and women to participate equitably in democracy? These measures are situated at different levels; they differ according to the country, to the attempts that have already been made and to the level of economic and social development.

13. Reference was also made to the fundamental importance of changing the way boys and girls are educated in order to eliminate stereotyping (promoting access for girls to professions traditionally reserved for boys, and vice-versa), and the role of the media.

14. The socialisation of women, particularly through women's NGOs, was widely stressed by participants with previous experience of this - the Nordic countries - as well as by participants, particularly from Central and East European countries, anxious for socialisation.

15. The notion of work needs to be reconsidered. In particular, part-time and full-time employment should enjoy the same status and those who work part-time should not be penalised. A necessary precondition is that this type of work should not be a means of condemning women to the ghetto of secondary occupations and that it should be engaged in by equal numbers of men and women.

16. A specific measure was cited as an example, namely that in Sweden one month of parental leave has been allocated to the father alone which, if not taken, the couple forfeits.

17. To promote the participation of individuals in democracy, it was proposed:

At the national level

- to delete from all documents any discriminatory measures which hinder, for example, access by women to education and high-level posts, etc.;

- to adopt "positive measures" to achieve equality, as recommended by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 18 December 1979, which calls on governments to adopt all possible measures to this end, temporary measures which in practice favour that part of the population which still lags behind, namely women, and which should not be regarded as discriminatory;

- to include in national constitutions the principle of parity as a means of achieving equality which, although it is often proclaimed, is not implemented in practice;

- to organise, when public law in the various countries so permits, a referendum giving each citizen the right to express their views on the principle of parity freely (France, for example, stated that most women's and feminist organisations support a referendum. A recent survey has shown that 70% of women and 53% of men are in favour of parity and 3% of women and 33% of men are against it);

- to introduce, as a transitional measure, parity quotas or thresholds, as has been very successfully done in certain Nordic countries such as Norway, where 50% of those elected are women. Because of the change in attitudes, public opinion has now accepted the notion that women can occupy positions in decision-making bodies in the same way as men. Quotas are therefore no longer relevant;

- where the quota rule is not observed, political parties should be penalised by being forced to leave seats set aside for women but not filled by them vacant and, if they do not conform to the rule, declare these lists invalid (Belgium);

- to provide funds as an incentive to political parties which include a certain number of women on the electoral lists (Poland);

- to draw up electoral lists by listing women and men alternately (implementation of parity before it is incorporated into the Constitution and legal documents).

18. Some participants suggested the creation of women's parties as a transitional measure and an inducement to the inclusion of women on the lists of political parties (Iceland, 1980s).

At the international level

19. The work of international organisations is essential.

20. The Council of Europe has played a pioneering role in the area of parity democracy and should now set itself the task of remedying the shortcomings of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights which only lays down a negative right the prohibition of discrimination. To this end, an additional protocol to the Convention should be adopted. This protocol should clearly and formally include the basic principle of equality between women and men as a source of positive law.

21. The United Nations Convention referred to above should not only be ratified by all States but above all the reservations made by governments which have ratified it should be withdrawn. The United Nations Convention could serve as a common basis for the drawing up of national legislation designed to ensure equal participation in democracy by all individuals.

22. Parity democracy is a means of rethinking democracy and making it more effective, the ideal being to achieve a democracy which needs no qualification. It should culminate in genuine partnership and a new social contract, based on a contract between the sexes.

23. For this reason it was deeply regretted that only a small number of men had attended the Conference. It was stressed that the proposals put forward within the framework of the discussion on parity democracy were not directed against men but were formulated on their behalf and for their benefit. The achievement of a balanced society is in the interest of all.

24. The debate sought to establish that the right to equal participation in democracy is a universal right of the human individual since it guarantees everyone, men and women, the right to express their views in a just and autonomous manner at decision-making level.

25. In conclusion, many delegations agreed on:

- the fact that women suffer serious inequality where the right to participate in democracy is concerned;

- the need to abolish the obstacles which hinder a priori such participation (namely, cultural and religious conditioning, social and economic dependence, segregated education, and training which fails to meet the needs of women);

- the adoption, as a means for the active pursuit of equality and towards achieving more representative democracy for all citizens - both men and women - of:

either quotas or parity.


1. Some representatives did not support the idea of quotas or parity. They emphasised the need to abolish the obstacles to women's full participation in political decision-making by making more effective use of existing procedures.

2. The representatives of Finland indicated that in Finland, where the amended Act on Equality will soon come into force, the number of elected women is at present about 40%.

B. A gender perspective on the functioning of democratic institutions

Rapporteur: Ms Lydie Err

As a first step, the working group considered the precise nature of the points for discussion within the theme which it had been asked to consider. There were two possible interpretations: it could examine either the effects of the growing number of women in political life on the functioning of democratic institutions or the ways of encouraging the participation of women in public life. While recognising the relevance of the first approach, the group decided to focus on the means which should be introduced or developed to encourage this participation.

The group reviewed the various factors explaining the low level of female participation in public life. Among these, particular stress was laid on the issue of maternity (freedom of choice and child care) and differences in the social conditioning of women.

The working group noted that a genuine democracy is only possible if women participate actively and in sufficient proportions in public life. The group stressed that equality meant equal dignity for women while recognising their differences, on the understanding that such differences should be seen as cultural and social, and not biological, differences.

Certain representatives contested the very concept of parity democracy, on the grounds that government intervention should be designed to motivate rather than coerce.

The following means were discussed:

At the national level

An action strategy requires countries to incorporate the principle of equality into their respective constitutions and ensure that this principle is respected through their legislation. The legal framework must be accompanied by the establishment or strengthening of institutional arrangements, such as ministries for women's rights with responsibility for promoting women's access to public life.

Political parties, whose importance in public life is now self-evident, should encourage greater female participation. Attention was drawn to the influence of electoral systems on women's involvement in politics. Particular attention should also be paid to the methods used to nominate candidates for elections, at national, regional and local levels. It is important not to lose sight of the local level, which is often a first stepping stone into a political career and a focal point for grass-roots democracy.

One approach is to make political parties more aware of the need for women to be better represented in their midst, which also means when they nominate candidates for elections. When the awareness-raising approach has little or no effect, one effective method may be to exert pressure on the political parties. Thus the threat of abstaining at elections, as happened in Greece during the last European elections, or of creating a female political party, as has been done in Sweden, may act as a strong incentive for political parties to admit more women to their ranks.

Another approach is to draw up rules providing for a more balanced representation of women in lists presented by political parties for elections or even directly in bodies elected by universal suffrage. In this context, the group held a detailed discussion on the issue of quotas. This general term in fact has two dimensions: the notion of quotas in the public service and that of a quota for bodies elected by universal suffrage. While the former presents no particular problems, the latter can raise legal difficulties. Several speakers questioned the constitutionality of legislation to introduce a quota for one particular category of the population.

The issue of equality in the functioning of democratic institutions involves first and foremost a problem of attitude. A strategy for promoting women's participation in public life cannot be sufficient if it is not accompanied by measures designed to change attitudes. In particular, men should be encouraged to play a more active part in exercising family responsibilities. Above all, this involves raising the status of unpaid work.

Concrete action is also necessary to encourage women to become actively involved in political life. Education and training are key areas in this regard, in which women's mutual assistance networks can make an important contribution, as the United Kingdom example has shown.

While women's involvement in public life is first and foremost a matter of individual choice, a more collective approach within the framework of civil society is of critical importance if their participation is to be effective. Here, non-governmental organisations concerned with women's place in society have an important role to play. International organisations, and in particular the Council of Europe, should take steps to promote a permanent dialogue between these organisations and governments.

Finally, it is important to make the media more aware of the need for greater female participation in public life, so that they can bring the issue to public attention.

At the international level

Reference should be made to the important role of international legal instruments. One initial step could be to encourage governments which have not already done so, to ratify instruments designed to safeguard and promote women's interests.

Secondly, the proposed drafting of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights laying down the principle of equality between women and men is an initiative which demands our full commitment. Finally, in order to increase its effectiveness, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women should be reviewed from two points of view. Firstly, there should be a re-examination of the issue of reservations to the Convention, since these may be such as to empty it of all content. Secondly, the control mechanism provided for in the Convention should be reformed to make it more effective. One idea might be to use this mechanism to report to the Council of Europe on problems arising in its member States regarding discrimination suffered by women.

This focus on international instruments should be accompanied by the development of co-operation between the various international bodies concerned with promoting women's role in public life (United Nations, Inter-Parliamentary Union, European Union, Council of Europe).

Finally, a particular place should be given at the international level to concrete initiatives to promote equality between women and men, as was done by the Council of Europe at the International Workshop on the subject which it organised in Ljubljana in December 1994.

The various means discussed can only be introduced if there is a genuine political will to give women their proper place, having regard to the particular circumstances of each country. This political will must be applied to creating a society in which men and women are genuine partners whose complementarity ensures the progress of a society in which mechanisms such as quotas will no longer have a raison d'être.

C. Universalism versus cultural relativism in regard to human rights

Rapporteur: Mr Andrew Byrnes

Introduction: the challenges to universalism

The starting-point of the group's deliberations was the recognition that the principle of the universality of human rights was under serious challenge in different fora. At the international level, some States were challenging the principle of the universality of human rights, while within Europe (and elsewhere) the radical political and social changes of recent years had led to the resurgence of religion and the assertion of nationalistic and ethnic identities and politics. The rise of all forms of religious fundamentalism was seen as posing a particular threat to the enjoyment by women of their human rights and to the full participation of women in decision-making at all levels of society.

While the challenges to universality were not directed exclusively at justifying restrictions on the enjoyment by women of their basic human rights, the fundamental principle of equality between women and men had been put in issue. Restrictions on the enjoyment by women of the right to equality and the full exercise of all human rights were frequently justified by appeals to cultural, religious or traditional norms; the need for these norms to be adhered to by women is frequently claimed to be a necessary means of asserting one's social identity in the face of Western cultural imperialism in the form of universal human rights. A further element of the challenge to universality was the claim by some developing countries that limitations on rights, particularly the civil and political rights of women and men, are a justifiable way of realising the legitimate priorities of developing countries in realising their right to development and fundamental economic, social and cultural rights.

The group noted that the issue of maintaining the principle of universality in the face of these challenges was a matter of importance for women in all regions of the world. As a result of the multicultural nature of European societies, significant problems existed in Europe, which needed to be addressed as a matter of priority; accordingly, it was essential to focus on this issue in the context of Europe. However, it was also important to support women in other regions of the world who were struggling to realise the full enjoyment of their human rights against the patriarchal invocation of culture, religion and traditions.

The importance of reaffirming the fundamental principle of universality

The group noted the endorsement of the universality of all human rights by the world community in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights on 25 June 1993) and underlined the importance of the affirmation in the Vienna Declaration that women's rights formed an integral part of human rights and that the principle of equality and the full enjoyment by women of their human rights were a priority concern of the international community. However, the group recognised that, despite these solemn commitments, some States were undermining these principles by continuing to question the principle of universality and that these attacks had already begun to make inroads into the gains made in Vienna. Particular mention was made of the sections of the Cairo Declaration which conferred on States the freedom to respect fully religious and cultural traditions and the philosophy of the citizens of each country when defining their national population policies; various proposals put forward during the negotiations leading up to the World Social Summit in Copenhagen were also referred to.

In this context, the method of adoption of texts at international conferences by consensus was seen as involving the danger that fundamental statements of principle already agreed by the international community, but over which there was some disagreement, might be the casualty in the search for consensus at subsequent international conferences. While consensus may be a desirable method of proceeding in many circumstances, it was felt that the pursuit of consensus at any cost was potentially dangerous for the full realisation of women's human rights.

The group was of the clear view that it was fundamentally important for governments and NGOs to call on the Beijing World Conference on Women to reaffirm in unequivocal terms the universality of internationally guaranteed human rights and fundamental freedoms, to reaffirm that women's human rights form an integral part of human rights to which the highest priority should be given, and to adopt practical measures in order to give effect to these commitments.

Cultural pluralism and the importance of recognising the diversity of cultures

The group distinguished between the concept of cultural relativism and that of cultural pluralism. Cultural relativism was understood as involving the invocation of culture, religion and traditions to oppose and obstruct claims by women to the full and equal enjoyment of human rights, the full development of women's potentialities, and their full and equal participation in their societies. Cultural pluralism - the acceptance and celebration of difference and diversity in a manner which respects the equal dignity of women and men - was viewed as something that should be welcomed and fostered. The rejection of a cultural relativist approach did not mean the rejection of the diversity of cultures, but only those aspects of culture which acted as impediments to the achievement by women of their full human potential.

While strongly supporting the principle of the universality of human rights, the group also noted the fundamental importance of culture, religion and tradition in the lives of individuals and communities, the positive aspects of cultural and religious traditions and practices, and the advantages of embracing diversity and cultural pluralism. The group also noted that the rights to cultural identity, freedom of religion and to participate in cultural life are themselves internationally guaranteed human rights. It was recognised that account had to be taken of differing cultural contexts in the implementation of human rights norms. In this context, a distinction was drawn between the universal applicability of human rights standards - which apply to all societies - and the method of their implementation in a particular society - which may take different forms, provided that the underlying values of those standards are not compromised.

The invocation of culture, tradition and religion to restrict the enjoyment of women's internationally guaranteed human rights

The group also recognised, however, that the role played by culture, religion and tradition has frequently been a negative one so far as women are concerned. Participants noted that very often culture, tradition or religion are invoked by men to restrict the opportunities and activities of women, and to subordinate and disadvantage women. It is overwhelmingly men who control the process of interpreting and defining the relevant religious, cultural or traditional practices, and as a consequence these norms are defined in patriarchal ways which limit women's human rights, especially in asserting control over women's sexuality and in confining women in roles that reinforce and perpetuate their subordination. The use made by some States of appeals to culture, religion and tradition as a means to legitimate the exercise of undemocratic or repressive power was also noted.

The point was strongly made that the acceptance of a cultural relativist approach, particularly in the European context, would create an unacceptable hierarchy of rights, by giving priority to the right to religious freedom and cultural identity above other equally fundamental and important human rights. A likely consequence of accepting the primacy of the right to assert one's religion and culture - particularly in its more extreme forms, which might involve sexual segregation - would be to undermine the fundamental goal of the full and equal participation of women at all levels of society on the basis of a genuine and just democracy.

The dynamic nature of culture, tradition and religion and the importance of enhancing women's role in their definition and interpretation

The group noted that culture, religion and tradition are not static, but dynamic, and that women have not been accorded a major role in the definition and interpretation of their culture, religion and traditions. Accordingly, the group considered that it is critically important for women to claim and to be given an equal role in what is at present overwhelmingly a male monopoly of defining and interpreting cultural, religious and traditional norms and their implications for the role of women. This inclusion is a fundamental aspect of promoting the participation by women in decision-making at all levels of society (and thus working towards a genuinely democratic society); it brings with it the benefits of women's perspectives, and gives effect to fundamental human rights values regarding equality.


Resolving conflicts between human rights standards and cultural, religious and traditional norms

The group spent some time discussing the general issue of how one negotiates situations in which claims are made that custom and cultural or religious practices justify divergence from or restriction of international human rights standards. Much of the discussion focused on the two examples raised by Mme Reberioux in her introductory address, namely female circumcision and the restrictions on the wearing of the veil in French schools.

A clear view emerged from the discussion that there were some acts which constituted violations of women's human rights and which could not be justified by appeals to culture, religion, tradition, or competing human rights priorities. Acts which violated the physical integrity of women's bodies were cited as the clearest examples of such violations. It was also pointed out that violence against women did not only take the form of physical violence; there were other forms of violence which were less visible but equally devastating and these too were clear violations of women's human rights.

It was noted that the international community of States had explicitly accepted in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women that religion, custom and tradition could not be invoked to justify the infliction of violence against women as defined in the Declaration. Reference was also made to non-derogable rights, such as the right to be free from torture, contained in general international and regional human rights instruments. Against this background the group concluded that female circumcision carried out on girls and young women was clearly inconsistent with human rights and could not be justified by reference to cultural norms. The case of adult women who might elect to undergo circumcision was also raised but this was seen as more problematic. There was also discussion of the most effective techniques of eradicating such practices, reference being made to the important roles of information, education, dialogue and the law.

How one approaches conflicts between human rights standards and appeals to cultural or religious practice once one moves beyond this category of violations was seen as more problematic. It was noted that in some cases human rights guarantees themselves recognise that limitations on the enjoyment of those rights may be permissible; in other situations two rights may be opposed to each other. The question was raised of how one goes about reconciling such a conflict.

The underlying assumption of the discussion was that, in resolving such conflicts, primacy must be given to the right to equality, as a fundamental value in itself and as a means towards enhancing the full participation of women in the life of their communities. The advancement of the equality of women and the full enjoyment by women of their human rights is a fundamental legal and moral obligation of the Council of Europe and the international community. Accordingly, any attempt to limit women's right to equality and enjoyment of human rights can only be justified by compelling reasons. In determining whether such restrictions are justifiable under international human rights standards the views of women must be given primacy - women themselves must be empowered and provided with the opportunity to determine what their cultures, religions and customary backgrounds mean for themselves.

Interdependence and indivisibility of human rights

One major challenge to the principle of universality has been posed by developing countries which have been critical of the emphasis given to civil and political rights by some Western countries. These States have stated that such a focus does not reflect the needs and aspirations of their societies and have claimed that realisation of the right to development and of fundamental economic, social and cultural rights must take precedence, where necessary at the expense of the full enjoyment of some civil and political rights. They have maintained that this is a choice that is both legitimate and consistent with international human rights standards.

The group stressed the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights. The importance of ensuring women's civil and political rights, both as a goal in itself and for the purpose of enhancing their enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights, was underlined.

The group also noted the importance of ensuring women's full enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. Frequently, despite the official rhetoric surrounding the importance of economic, social and cultural rights, in practice often little emphasis is placed on the realisation of women's economic, social and cultural rights. Not only must this neglect be rectified as a matter of equality and justice, but it is clear that the overall benefits that accrue to society from the economic empowerment of women are considerable.

It was stressed that women's human rights should not be pushed into the background and dealt with only in those fora with responsibility for "women's issues", but must also be brought into the mainstream. States, international institutions, independent expert bodies and non-governmental organisations all bear a responsibility to ensure that general human rights instruments and procedures respond to the violations of the human rights of women.

International standards and procedures

The existence of explicit, binding legal standards and effective procedures for their implementation at the national, regional and international levels was seen as important in promoting the realisation by women of their human rights. Support was expressed for the adoption of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women under which individuals and groups could lodge complaints of alleged violations of the Convention. Support was also expressed for the elaboration of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights which would contain an explicit independent guarantee of equality between women and men.

The group also noted that challenges to universality manifested themselves in the area of reservations to human rights conventions, in particular the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A number of States had entered reservations to these conventions, subjecting their acceptance and implementation of international standards to national laws, religious laws or practices, or customary and traditional practices. While some States parties to these conventions have objected to these reservations on the basis that they are inconsistent with the object and purpose of the relevant convention, all States parties should follow up these actions by taking effective action to limit the entry of such reservations and to persuade States to accept fully the international standards by withdrawing reservations and changing national law and practice to comply with those international standards.



The following recommendations are made on the basis of the discussions:

(a) At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, governments should unequivocally reaffirm:

·. the principle of universality, indivisibility and interdependence of fundamental human rights;

·. that women's rights are an integral part of human rights and that the principle of equality of women and men and the full realisation by women of their internationally guaranteed human rights are a priority concern of the international community;

·. that culture, religion, custom and traditions may not be invoked as barriers to women's full enjoyment of their human rights ;

(b) governments should actively support the elaboration and adoption of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women conferring the right of petition on individuals and groups;

(c) governments should take active steps to encourage the withdrawal of reservations to human rights treaties by which States parties seek to limit their obligations to give effect to the fundamental principle of equality;

(d) governments, religious institutions, and all sectors of society should recognise the legitimate claims of women to have a significant role in the definition and interpretation of religious, cultural and customary norms and should take active steps to encourage women's involvement in these processes;

(e) governments, intergovernmental organisations, judicial institutions and independent expert bodies should take active steps to ensure that human rights standards are interpreted and applied in a manner which recognises and responds to violations of women's human rights, and which promotes the realisation of equality between women and men;

(f) the Council of Europe should step up work on the preparation of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights enshrining the fundamental right of women and men to equality, and significant progress on this matter should be made by the time of the Beijing Conference; and

(g) the Council of Europe should initiate comparative studies into the influences that different cultures, religions and traditions play in enhancing and impeding the full realisation of women's human rights within the member States of the Council of Europe.



A. The recognition of the fundamental right of women and men

to equality: a precondition for democracy

Rapporteur: Ms. Kathleen Mahoney

Participants noted a very significant gap between the legal protection of equality between women and men at the national and European level. There was widespread agreement that Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is unable to offer sufficient protection against either inequality or discrimination on the basis of sex, whilst constitutional or other statutory arrangements do recognise equality as a fundamental right.

It was in this context that the discussion focused on the following questions:

1) Should there be an additional protocol to the ECHR? and

2) If so, what should the content of the protocol consist of?

A protocol to the ECHR

The overwhelming response to the first question was that there should be such a protocol. Out of 33 interventions, no one spoke out against it, although there were variations as to the content desired. The main arguments advanced for such a protocol were the clear shortcomings of Article 14, which is non-autonomous, and the positive influence such a protocol could bring to bear on national legislation. One participant from outside Europe said that such a protocol would also serve as an important source of inspiration for countries in other continents which are seeking to advance equality between women and men.

The discussion then shifted to the possible content of such a protocol. Three main options were discussed:

1) an independent non-discrimination provision;

2) an independent provision guaranteeing a substantive right of women and men to equality (which would also cover option 1);

3) an obligation for States to take positive measures (which would also include option 2).

The widest support was given to the second option: the substantive right of women and men to equality. On the one hand, although many expressed the view that an obligation to take positive measures (included in option 3) would be ideal and is indeed already in place for most Council of Europe member States, which have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), they feared that the necessary agreement could not be achieved on that option. On the other hand, the minimalist approach of option 1 would only be agreed to as a last resort if the most preferred option (a substantive equality right) were not attainable.

One or two participants voiced a concern that the adoption of an additional protocol might entail the risk of a clash between the case law of the European Court of Justice and that of the European Court of Human Rights, or that it might bring the latter Court to interfere with policy choices by Governments. On the first point, other participants recalled that the case law of the two Courts is complementary, that the European Convention only lays down minimum standards and that the Court of Justice has regard to the Convention and its case law when giving its own judgments. The Maastricht Treaty on European Union has reinforced the Union's adherence to fundamental rights and refers to the Convention in this respect.

On the second point, experts on the Convention recalled that the Court has consistently stated that its role is subsidiary to that of the national authorities, and that it is "not for the Court to say what may be the best policy" in a certain field.

There was general agreement that, whatever option were retained, a "saving provision" should be drawn up as an essential component of the protocol. The purpose of the saving provision would be to immunise any positive measures a State may take from challenges of invalidity on grounds of discrimination (see, for example, Article 4, paragraph 1, of the CEDAW Convention: " Adoption by States Parties of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women shall not be considered discrimination ....").

Supportive measures

A number of supportive measures were identified which could be taken if such a protocol were added to the Convention; other measures could also play a very useful role independently from the adoption of such a protocol.

One such measure was the use of Article 57 of the Convention. This provision reads as follows: " On receipt of a request from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, any High Contracting Party shall furnish an explanation of the manner in which its internal law ensures the effective implementation of any of the provisions of this Convention.". It was pointed out that this provision has rarely been used until now (on only a handful of occasions in 40 years). However, there is potential for effective use of this provision in that it could have a beneficial impact in providing the Court with comparative material on law and practice of the member States. At the same time, if the Secretary General would make public such a request, NGOs could have a potential input in the process of interpreting the Convention.

The need to give a wider role to NGOs was repeatedly stressed. It is clearly necessary that decision-makers, be they political or judicial, be in touch with reality. In this respect, it was felt that NGOs could, through their contribution, enrich the decision-making process.

One area where this idea could be put into practice is the role of NGOs before the European Court of Human Rights. Some participants suggested that NGOs be given the right to bring class actions or collective complaints to the Strasbourg organs. The main disadvantage here, however, is that it would involve a fairly radical amendment of the Convention. On the other hand, a relatively easy way of expanding the role of NGOs before the Court would be through the use of existing possibilities offered by the Rules of Court. These allow for amicus curiae briefs to be presented by NGOs to the Court, subject to the latter's approval, wherever this may assist the Court in deciding a case. It was felt that, in particular in gender equality cases under the proposed protocol, NGO input might be especially helpful and a more flexible interpretation of the Rules of Court would be welcomed. It was also suggested that the amicus curiae role could perhaps be developed into the presentation of oral argument in addition to written communications.

Another idea put forward during the debate which aroused interest concerned the creation of a legal action fund to support individual complaints well-suited to serve as test-cases and backed up by equality-promoting NGOs. This would only concern ground-breaking cases, important to a wider circle of people. This is not to be confused with the existing legal aid programmes at national and European level. Such a legal action fund should be fed by Governments through the Council of Europe but operate at an "arm's length" from them.

It was further suggested to include the element of gender awareness in existing training and education programmes for judges and other judicial officers. This could be done by credible experts on the model of programmes that already exist in various countries.

Many participants were convinced that it would be extremely useful to introduce mechanisms, at the national level, to screen legislation, policy, procedures and rules, for their compatibility with the equality principle. It was suggested that such a pre-ratification exercise would ensure that the protocol would already have positive effects prior to its entry into force. This idea was in particular endorsed by participants from Central and East European countries. Some States have already had good experiences with such equality proofing of legislation (e.g. when preparing ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), whilst others are in the process of doing it. Participants from these States did not disguise the difficulties involved, since structures and procedures have to be put in place, but stressed that such an exercise furthers NGO involvement in the democratic process and offers a window of opportunity for removing inequalities.

More in general, it was thought that equality between women and men should, already now, be a key criterion when deciding on admission of new member States to the Council of Europe.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Some interventions dealt with the positive impact of CEDAW on national law and practice. One participant felt that the proposal to establish a complaints mechanism by means of an optional protocol to the CEDAW should be examined prior to any consideration of adding a Protocol to the ECHR. Others expressed concern about linking these two proposals and felt that they could be undertaken independently.

As may be gathered from my report, the discussions in our Working Group have been most fruitful. There are two more general points which I would like to put to you, because they transcend the concrete suggestions I have just described. There was a general feeling that the tremendous potential of NGOs to contribute to awareness-raising of the public and of decision-makers has, so far, been under-used. It clearly emerged from the discussions that a greater role for NGOs would enhance democracy. The final point I would like to make concerns an observation made by one participant with respect to different variants for the proposed protocol to the ECHR. She reminded us that legal structures are tools for political purposes: once the political will exists, lawyers can translate it into law. The overwhelming majority of participants thought that reinforcement of equality between the sexes is an important objective of democracy.

B. The self-determination of women: obstacles and strategies

Rapporteur: Ms Greetje den Ouden-Dekkers

As an introduction to the subject Mr Maclean delivered an excellent speech during the morning session of the Conference. The self-determination of women derives from the universal human rights of which the rights of women are an inalienable, integral part. The eradication of discrimination on the grounds of sex has been declared a priority objective of the international community. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a main instrument to achieve equality between women and men.

The discussions of our working group focused on a number of general points, including:

(i) All human beings must be seen as individuals and respected as such, each with their own legal identity;

(ii) Obstacles to the self-determination of women vary in different countries and in different circumstances. In this respect, we paid particular attention to those countries in stages of transition to full democracy;

(iii) Emphasis was laid on the need to find solutions both in law and in practice;

(iv) The idea of genuine partnership was stressed many times in relation to many areas. While women must learn to help themselves, this has to be with the full co-operation of men;

(v) if women are to be able to exercise free choice genuinely, they must have access to complete and full information;

(vi) Some participants would like to see this debate no longer framed in negative terms - with women seen as "victims" or "beneficiaries", but rather to identify positive elements and build on those.


Much emphasis was laid on education as a strategy to reach structural changes in present and future society. Education gives women awareness, knowledge and empowerment.

It gives them self-respect and self-esteem. Education is an important strategy to change the gender bias in the process of socialisation of boys and girls. Stress was laid on the use of textbooks without the stereotype images of women's and men's traditional roles. Statistics on the position of women are very important. They give information on women's real position in the labour market, in politics, and elsewhere in society, and provide tools for policy changes. A plea was made for policies to direct young females, after basic education, towards secondary and tertiary education. The importance of women's studies as an instrument for more insight into the status of women was emphasised, including the need for financial support. Women's studies in history make women visible and offer a frame of reference for the young in relation to their past. Women's studies in the field of economics offer a true picture of prevailing labour conditions and any negative implications. Provision should be made for a well-equipped women's studies centre in each country.

Violence against women

Mr Maclean's introduction inspired the participants in our group to a lively discussion on violence against women as an obstacle to genuine equality. Violence against women has a long tradition based on women's subordinate position. We have to break through the silence around the violence against women, for the sake of future generations. We discussed for a long time domestic violence, which means the abuse of women in the sphere of the family, an environment which is generally considered to be safe. In the home, we have to ask ourselves, is there an adequate legal response to violence against women? The answer is generally - no. One example: how can it be that in certain countries rape within marriage is not illegal?

Even if we have utopian laws, what is the situation behind the curtains at home? Women are often too frightened to come forward to reveal what is hidden. They need encouragement and support, and afterwards they need help to come to terms with their ordeal. Social workers, doctors, teachers have all been called upon to help draw open the curtain behind which violence is often hidden. Men must be called to account.

The term 'domestic violence' is misleading as it gives the impression that it is somehow less serious because it is in the domestic or even private sphere. Try as I might to find new terminology I cannot. Instead let me offer the slogan "domestic violence is public violence". This puts the issue where it needs to be - in the open.

In the public sphere strong measures are required to combat forced prostitution and traffic in women both at national and international level. Intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) must take the lead in putting an end to these particularly abhorrent practices.

Sexual violence against women continues to be used as a form of torture or as a means to reach political ends. The rape of women in Bosnia is but one example. For women who flee from this sexual violence, the categories for refugee status should be extended to include such violence. The grounds for refugee status should be extended further to grant the right of asylum to women fleeing from the practice of genital mutilation.

Women in their search for asylum must be treated as individuals. In determining refugee status, women are often not addressed as separate persons but are linked to a husband or a relative. This practice must end and women need to be encouraged to apply as independent individuals.

There are guidelines adopted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in relation to women and children, which must be forcefully applied.

Free choice in reproduction and lifestyle

The right to free choice in matters of reproduction and lifestyle was considered a fundamental right for women. The enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights is a prerequisite for women to have genuine self-determination. Women should decide for themselves whether they want to have children and, if so, make the decision on number, spacing and timing. Health programmes should cover reproductive rights. Where family planning is concerned, women should be informed about the means available so as to make their own choice. Adequate counselling is necessary and means of contraception should be of high quality, affordable and easily accessible. It is clear that abortion as a means of family planning is unacceptable. One-child policies and rewarding policies should be condemned. Pre-natal gender selection, through abortion, is rejected. Effective measures should be taken to put an end to female genital mutilation since it denies the integrity of the female body. Governments must take action to stop these practices, otherwise they have no right to call them barbaric.

The Cairo document represents a generally accepted approach to the question of abortion; some would like to see it go further, considering abortion to be an element of a woman's right to free choice. Criminalisation of abortion is a direct threat to women's health, since it will be done illegally and under dangerous conditions, causing the deaths of numerous women.

A policy of sex education, especially for the young generation, and the availability of means of contraception, are the best ways of avoiding unwanted pregnancies and, thus the need for abortion. Sex education should also focus on male respect for the female body. No male has the right to free access to a woman's body. The Netherlands was mentioned as providing an example of good legislation and good practice: the emphasis on prevention makes the Netherlands a country with a very low abortion rate.

The importance of the use of condoms for safe sex, since AIDS is claiming ever more victims world-wide, was stressed. To deny people the use of condoms to protect them from HIV infection poses a threat to the health of women and men as well as to newly born children.

The fundamental value of free choice in reproduction is affected by religious, bio-ethical, ideological and other considerations.

The voices of young women should be heard since sexual life is not solely attached to married life. This leads to the point of the right to be different, whether in terms of lifestyle - the choice to live in a family or to live alone, with or without children - or sexual preferences. The reproductive rights of lesbian women should be recognised.

Mass Media

Mass media are becoming an increasingly important element in the power structure of society. Where image-building on masculinity and femininity is concerned, the role of the media should especially be scrutinised. The portrayal of violence in the media contributes to violence against women. Media should evolve along with changes in society: they should recognise the empowerment of women and contribute through information to the process of emancipation. Women working in the media also have a role to play. It is high time to make it clear that gender stereotypes are outdated: men are no longer only macho bread-winners and women not only wives and mothers. The negative psychological influence of showing stereotypes of women should not be underestimated.

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

CEDAW should be used as an important instrument to achieve equality between women and men. To bring about structural changes, a reporting system for States Parties is essential: it forms the basis for public debate and social change. Governments should ratify the Convention and reservations should be withdrawn. A right of complaint should be introduced, and the Committee's two-week meeting per annum should be extended. At the national level, the provisions of the Convention should be made known in plain language that all can understand. The contents of the countries' reports and the Committee's observations on them should be made known to a wide audience so as to provoke public debate and to put pressure on the government for appropriate changes in national policy.

For the empowerment of women, we have to look at the legal and de facto position. We also have to look at the different phases of development in the status of women in different countries. Those in the transition process especially need support. Policies should aim at giving financial, technical and other support to women's organisations and other non-governmental organisations. Networks need to be built whereby experience and expertise can be readily shared, in order to sustain the development of democracy.

When we look at what we are aiming at, the future seems Utopia. When we consider what we can do, we embrace the challenge.


C. Enjoying human rights: conflicts and contradictions

Rapporteur: Mr. Claude Debrulle

1. The starting point for the group's discussions was the emphasis on the universality and indivisibility of human rights:

- the universality of human rights means that all these issues should be considered independently of any specific cultural environment and discrimination against women set in the general context of all forms of intolerance. Any infringement of women's individual rights committed in the name of a specific culture was therefore deemed unacceptable. Several examples concerning migrant women were cited, such as sexual mutilations and other, more subtle, violations of their cultural rights.

- the indivisibility of human rights reminded us that the discussion should focus on civil and political as well as social, cultural and economic rights: their interdependence was emphasised and it was noted that in practice certain fundamental rights prevailed over the - equally fundamental - right to equality between women and men.

2. The working group noted the persistence of an evident phenomenon: the preponderance of male power in all the organisations and institutions which are representative of certain areas of activity - political, principally the legislative and executive functions, economic, especially among directors and senior managers in the private and public sectors, and social, in particular among those responsible for enforcing the law (police and customs) and in the trade union movement.

This male power continues to be a source of discrimination against women, in terms of both their civil and political and their social, cultural and economic rights.

Numerous examples were quoted from national experience, often more serious in the countries of South, or of Central and East Europe: flagrant disparities in political representation, in access to rewarding jobs, in income from employment, in the division of family responsibilities - even more so when they are combined with a job or career - and in the higher rate of female unemployment, which reaches 50% in certain countries of Central and East Europe.

In response to this situation, the group stressed the long-term nature of the task which women face and which requires in particular a major change in attitudes.

3. The group focused initially on the representation of women in public life, with a view to achieving a better balance of power and thus reducing discrimination. It observed, that with rare exceptions, the level of this representation was tending to stagnate, or even decline, in both East and West Europe, which considerably reduced the prospects for genuine democracy.

The group considered that this female representation could be substantially improved by:

a) drawing up special rules such as the establishment, on an interim basis, of quotas;

b) the expansion of institutions with responsibility for monitoring the application of these rules - institutions of the "ombud" type, one of the advantages of which is the fact that the monitoring body is personalised (ministries, etc.);

c) the implementation of a series of supporting measures such as determined action by strong female non-governmental organisations, the creation of female political alliances, education and training in women's rights and the use of the media and advertising campaigns to highlight women's contribution to public activities, as well as history, meaning the transmission of the collective memory of women to young girls and women who gibe at feminism on the pretext that the majority of the battle has already been fought.

The group noted that in certain European countries - all of them Nordic - the combined use of such methods had been successful in increasing female representation in political parties and legislative assemblies.

Where it is effective, the representation of women in society is primarily a matter of elected political representatives. The percentage of women at government level is much lower than 50% and even than the 40% which in certain countries is the minimum threshold aimed at for political representation. The obvious under-representation of women in the European Court (one woman) and in the European Commission (two women) of Human Rights was pointed out. The situation of women in the private sector, where no quotas seem to exist, is well known: women are predominantly employed in the low wage sectors and their numbers decrease the higher up the job hierarchy one goes.

4. The principal means adopted in seeking to remedy this situation has been the reconciliation of occupational life with family life for both sexes. The example of certain Nordic countries has led to the recommendation that measures such as the following should be adopted: parental leave combined with payment (by the social security system) of a high percentage of the previous salary, obliging fathers to take part of this leave, failing which that part of the leave is forfeited; reduced working time (with a corresponding reduction in salary); several days paid leave each year in case of care for a sick child (up to ten in the example referred to) for each parent and for working parents who are away from work to care for a sick child (under the age of 12); encouragement of men to participate in all areas of house work and not simply care for the children; child-minding facilities.

Questions were raised concerning the cost of positive action in favour of women as this is an argument often put forward, especially in a period of economic crisis, in order to contest the topicality of such measures. Elements of response were given by the representatives of Norway who admitted that such measures had an important immediate budgetary impact, but also positive effects, which could be measured in terms of budgetary profits. They mentioned the perceptible decrease in stress for women who work and its incidence on social security expenses, as well as the increase in the birth rate (without objectively established links with positive measures) and thus in the active population.

The reconciliation of professional and family life, important for families where both parents work, is essential for one-parent families, most of which comprise just the mother and her children. Moreover, one-parent families experience particular material problems due to the gap between the salaries paid to women and men, a situation which often pushes these families below the poverty line. Situations of this kind are continually on the increase and this is tending to make poverty a predominantly female phenomenon.

The problem of the gap between the salaries of men and women, which has often been debated, was not taken up again. However, in view of the fact that such a gap exists and to a very high degree, even in European countries where legislation stipulates equal pay for men and women for the same work and for work of equal value, measures were envisaged to ensure that existing regulations are implemented more effectively.

5. With this in mind, the group looked at ways of improving the control mechanisms for the application of international rules concerned with the protection of human rights. While aware of the existence of certain control mechanisms and of the safeguards they offer, the group nevertheless:

a) called on countries which had not already ratified the most important instruments concerned with respect for women's rights to do so immediately. Particular reference was made to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 1949 New York Convention on the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of Prostitution. It also demanded the withdrawal of the reservations entered at the time of their ratification. In this respect, the group mentioned the possibility of organising periodically (once a year) public round tables during which member States would have to explain the reasons why an instrument was not ratified or why a reservation was maintained;

b) supported the Draft Protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which would provide the right of individual or collective complaints (bearing in mind the NGOs habilitated to act for women's interests) to the Committee set up by the Convention;

c) requested States to devote a substantial part of their periodic reports on the implementation of the instruments of the Convention to the specific situation of women;

d) called on States to collaborate fairly and without reservation with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women;

e) insisted that the Draft Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the right of women and men to equality, currently being discussed by the Council of Europe, be finalised as soon as possible;

f) called for the adoption of the Draft Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter which provides for a system of collective complaint;

g) called for respect for the rights of women during armed conflicts, particularly through the use of the mechanism for monitoring respect for humanitarian rights enshrined in the Geneva Convention and implemented by the Protocol setting up the Fact-Finding Committee.

6. The group also considered other topics:

The first concerned the protection of the rights of women during armed conflicts which are part of the contemporary European scene and which are so widespread throughout the world. The group stressed the horror of ethnic cleansing, which in the case of women is exemplified by rape, forced pregnancy following rape, sexual abuse and other inhuman treatment inflicted by government agents such as paramilitary militia. It demanded the abolition of these odious practices and rejected the notion that these crimes could go unpunished.

It also considered the duty of countries which have been spared the horrors of armed conflict and religious intolerance to incorporate sexual discrimination, as exemplified by the refusal to allow women to teach, the obligation to wear the veil or even forcible marriage, in the criteria of political or religious persecution used to substantiate women's applications for asylum.

The second topic concerned the role of the media which reveals the conflict between freedom of expression and the abuses to which this freedom can lead where the image of women is concerned. Like Aesop's tongue, the media are capable of the best and the worst. They can play a major role in enhancing the image of women or project a caricature and stereotyped image of women in their most traditional roles.

The group therefore stressed the role which women should play in the debate on the need for self-regulation in the media or at least for a journalistic ethic as strict in the areas of equality between women and men as in the daily fight against racism and xenophobia.

An African saying, quoted in the course of the discussion will be our conclusion: "Ants are very small, but if they work together, they can overcome an elephant".




I. Introductory remarks

It has been a great pleasure and, indeed, a privilege for me to act as General Rapporteur of this Conference, which is now nearing its conclusion. I have had the opportunity to listen to your rich and stimulating debates, on a subject that is - and has always been - of great importance to me. I have been impressed by the quality of the interventions and view the free and open discussions which have taken place here as an affirmation of the Council of Europe's strength with respect to the principle of free speech which it champions.

Here, women and men from all over Europe have participated in and contributed towards fulfilling the mission that was conferred on us: to define practical and practicable ways and means of building effective equality between women and men in the coming century. Our discussion has been truly pan-European. It has made me more conscious than ever before of the fact that the old ideological barriers have been definitively discarded and that all Europeans, be they from North, South, West, Central or Eastern Europe, experience a common need to discuss and tackle together the problems they share. I was particularly interested to hear the participants from Central and Eastern Europe raise issues and problems which do not differ in principle from those now being debated in other European countries which have been members of the Council of Europe for a much longer time. There is no essential difference, only one of degree.

II. Human rights, equality and democracy

It is encouraging to note the firm commitment to the question of equality which has been expressed by participants at a meeting of such a high political standing. We are witnessing the ascendancy of equality as a major political issue, and one which to a large extent transcends traditional party political boundaries. This is highly significant at a time when, as we all know, most European countries are undergoing upheavals including economic recession and social exclusion of various kinds. All of us here, at one time or another, have heard claims that the problem of women's rights and of equality between women and men should be put to one side until what are called more "urgent" problems have been solved; that we should first address the questions concerning "our society as a whole." This Conference, however, has taken a different view: it has expressed the firm conviction that no problem can be solved in a manner which is satisfactory, just and equitable for society in its entirety, for as long as half of society (i.e. women) is, to varying degrees, excluded from the process. If women and men are not given the possibility to work together on an equal basis, sharing the same rights and the same responsibilities, we shall be left with "half-baked" societies and, above all, "half-baked," incomplete democracies. Equality is an inseparable part of our process towards better, fully-developed societies. This Conference delivers a double message to the countries taking part in it. To those which are currently undergoing the transition towards building new democratic institutions and a market economy, it highlights their unique opportunity to incorporate this principle of partnership and shared responsibilities into the societies that they are building. At the same time, it warns mature European "democracies" against complacency, by pointing out the fundamental flaw in their model of society if it does not take steps to involve society as a whole - both women and men - in its full operation.

As the Secretary General pointed out in his opening address, our debates have been set against the backdrop of the principles of the protection, the promotion and the fuller realisation of human rights and pluralist democracy. It has been repeatedly emphasised over the past three days that genuine democracy and full respect for human rights cannot be achieved until women have obtained effective equality with men. I am convinced that, by stating the equality question in these terms, our meeting will be seen as a landmark - not just within Europe, but also in the global context. It has affirmed that the promotion of equality should be a political priority, and that its achievement is a vital precondition for the democratic defence of the dignity and integrity of all human beings - which means women and men alike.

- Preserving what has been achieved and moving forward

We all agreed on the urgent need for action. In many European countries - as the Secretary General and others have pointed out - there is a genuine backlash against women's rights and against equality. This backlash is even stronger in some parts of the world outside Europe, where, on grounds of cultural traditions or interpretations of religious doctrine, women are denied their most basic rights to equal dignity and physical and mental integrity. What has been gained for women must not be lost. Europe must join forces to preserve what, often at great cost, has been achieved. Yet the present sense of urgency can be seen as a test of our resourcefulness, an inspiration not to stop in our tracks, but to put our new ideas and perspectives into practice. This Conference has repeatedly heard that, while legal obstacles to equality have to a large extent been removed, the gap between law and practice still remains wide and the same obstacles to de facto equality remain in place. It was suggested in the discussions here, and in the addresses by the Secretary General and the President of Ireland, that we have reached a crossroads: either we continue down the same road with, in all likelihood, the same result, or we change direction in the hope of reaching our destination faster. The debates seem to imply that the time may be ripe to risk changing direction, to tackle the issue of equality with a new and positive approach that might yield faster and better results. Perhaps there is little more to be gained now from approaching this issue solely in terms of combating discrimination against one of the sexes, or of a struggle for power between the two sexes. On the contrary, this Conference has shown the value of asking questions such as: "What do we lose if women do not participate fully in the building of a democratic society? What do we lose if men do not participate fully in the education and upbringing of their children?" This presages an entirely new vision of society based on partnership and the equal sharing of rights and responsibilities. By encouraging this kind of society for the future, we will have the chance to unleash human potential on a scale comparable to the Renaissance, when Europe attained a lasting dignity that represented an advance for all mankind. And the motivation for such a change must be inspired by women and men alike.

Such a shift of approach and emphasis towards the issue of equality between women and men might well lead us, as the Secretary General encouraged us to do in his opening statement, to think about the strategies we have employed. In the 1970s, when the United Nations and regional bodies, like the Council of Europe, began work in this field, the emphasis was on "women's status": the guiding theme was to work to achieve equal rights for women. In the 1980s, as de jure equality began to take shape, the focus shifted towards real equality between women and men, and towards temporary special measures to overcome subsisting discrimination and inequalities. Since women today, some two decades later, have still not achieved their rightful place in society, the notion of "parity" has emerged, based on the principle of partnership and sharing of rights and responsibilities. I would venture, while recognising that further thought needs to be given to this notion, that "parity" is the approach to adopt if we wish to achieve genuine equality in the 21st century. Parity is the safety net of democracy and for women and men alike. I feel that this could be one of the messages of this Conference.

- Setting the issues in context: women's rights are human rights

Indeed, we should not forget that the objective of the Conference was to provide an input into the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, to be held in Beijing in September. The Beijing Conference will set priorities and goals in this field for the next ten years, and it is of paramount importance that our messages reach their destinations and are reflected in the World Platform for Action to be adopted there. This has been a Council of Europe Conference, and we should remind ourselves that the basic principles and values enshrined in the Council of Europe are the safeguard and promotion of fundamental human rights and pluralist democracy. Equality is an integral part of those principles and values. The Declaration on equality of women and men by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (16 November 1988) establishes equality between women and men as a principle of human rights, a sine qua non for democracy and an imperative of social justice.

If I underline this point so strongly, it is because I am convinced that the Strasbourg "ethos" is not only relevant but indispensable to productive thinking at the Beijing Conference, the theme of which is "Actions for equality, development and peace." From the perspective of universal and indivisible human rights, there can be no real development and no real peace without respect for human rights. Unfortunately, the conflict in former Yugoslavia and the crises in Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh are there to remind us of that fact.

The World Conference on Human Rights of the United Nations (Vienna, June 1993) stated that "the human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." So much depends upon this principle being reaffirmed by the international community at the Beijing Conference. Already, we hear arguments that the right of women to equality with men is a luxury for advanced societies which the less developed countries of the world cannot afford. Even more alarmingly, we all too frequently hear the very concept of human rights, let alone the minimum standards contained in human rights instruments, dismissed as essentially a Western idea, stemming from the Judeo-Christian ethic and tradition. As such - it is claimed - human rights are alien and inappropriate to certain regions or countries of the world which espouse different religious or cultural traditions. This argument is increasingly put forward in respect of women and their right to enjoyment of fundamental human rights, and our Conference was firm in its rejection of such viewpoints.

- Upholding the universality and indivisibility of human rights

The principle that human rights - of both women and men - are universal and indivisible, and that their respect and enjoyment is a duty of all States, irrespective of socio-cultural or religious traditions, or economic or political systems, has been unambiguously reaffirmed at this Conference. It is totally unacceptable that, in the name of "cultural traditions," "religion," "regional particularities" or level of development, women are denied their fundamental rights and freedoms, their right to self-determination, the right to exercise their citizenship. Diversity, including cultural diversity, is the great strength of the European and world heritage. We strive to embrace such diversity, but not at the expense of universal human rights. There are probably no examples of countries or regions which deprive women of their rights on these grounds but adhere to the principles of human rights and democracy in other respects. This Conference has laid particular emphasis on the indivisibility of universal human rights and the fact that women will not be able to enjoy development and economic and social rights if they are denied in a most elementary fashion the enjoyment of civil and political rights.

- Appraising our own defects

By recognising and appraising the defects of our European societies with regard to women's right to respect of their universal and indivisible human rights, our message will have more clout in the global context. We must address the multifarious examples within our own societies where women do not enjoy respect for their rights. As those societies are increasingly multi-cultural, we can no longer avoid the issue of practices deriving from certain cultural or religious traditions which flout women's human rights. We must face up to the dilemma of how far we can tolerate the intolerable in the name of tolerance. And, if we speak of the intolerable, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that, in the conflict in former Yugoslavia, women have been the victims of the vilest of infringements of their right to life, to dignity and to physical and mental integrity.

We need to take a close look at the legal culture of our European societies and at how it has left its imprint on the way in which laws and institutions are framed. This culture has had the effect of glossing over women's existence and of tailoring law and institutions in a manner which has not, on the whole, worked for women. The same applies to national and international human rights instruments. We need to consider how human rights enforcement mechanisms can be enhanced and substantive rights framed in a manner which will work for women too. The protection of women's rights world-wide would be considerably enhanced through an Optional Protocol to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women empowering that Convention's supervisory body to examine individual and group complaints. At the European level, in line with the Council of Europe's pioneering action in the field of human rights, the adoption of an Optional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, embodying the fundamental right of women and men to equality, is to be strongly encouraged.

We must also appraise the defects of our democracies. The democratic system, its survival and enhancement, depends on real participation by citizens in political and public life. But the fact is that, in many European countries - indeed most of them - women continue to be under-represented in political decision-making, and are sometimes totally marginalised from it. We all agree that, as long as this situation prevails, it is impossible to speak about genuine democracy. Earlier on, I described democracies as being "half-baked" unless they are ready and willing to take advantage of the experiences, creativity and competence of women, at all levels of decision-making, in all walks of society.

- Convincing and transforming

My sister President, Ms Mary Robinson, spoke of a democratic deficit in our contemporary societies and of the need to deepen democracy in a structural way. But she also reminded us of the necessity to communicate this idea to the population as a whole, to convince the population of the need for structural adjustments in our democratic processes so as to make them more inclusive. We can all agree with her that the formal democratic processes would gain much by weaving into their modus operandi elements from the functioning of the informal processes within civil society, where women are heavily engaged. The formal processes also need to lean on those informal processes which are working for and with women within civil society, both as a "training ground" for women's entry into the formal processes and as a testing ground for measuring their own performance.

But communicating this democratic deficit to the population as a whole implies much more than sensitising women and men to the fact that women are under-represented in Parliament or in positions of responsibility. If we are genuinely convinced of the need to deepen democracy in a structural way, multi-faceted strategies are required so as to cast aside dominant patterns which tend to confine women and men to stereotyped roles in society and we must mainstream a gender perspective in policy-making, be it in employment, social affairs, health, education, environment, defence, finance or other matters. Education in the broadest sense of the term (including through the media) is of particular importance for fostering new role-models and the change of mentalities needed to overcome our democratic deficit in a meaningful way.

These, in essence, must be our messages to Beijing. Instead of congratulating ourselves on the positive and forward-looking vision which they entail, we should feel concern at the loss which all mankind will suffer if we fail to see them incorporated into the Beijing Platform for Action, not merely their wording, but also their spirit. If not, we shall not witness the achievement of effective equality between women and men in the 21st century, and we shall have missed a tremendous opportunity to construct democracy, consolidate respect for human rights, and improve justice and equity.


III. Some highlights

It is not my intention, in my difficult task of summing up the principal conclusions to emerge from our work, to repeat all the points and action proposals set out in the excellent reports and rich summaries prepared by our six introductory speakers and rapporteurs. I have considered that my task should be to extract from those summaries a number of points which appeared to be of particular significance.

- Reinforcing the legal framework

The importance of law-making was recognised, both for upholding the principle of equality itself and for supporting sectoral policies and positive action designed to make equality effective. A wide range of proposals was made with a view to reinforcing the legal framework at both national and international levels, to improving the effectiveness of mechanisms and institutions responsible for enforcing the law and to making the law meaningful for women.

Numerous action proposals touching on the national framework ranged from general measures, such as the inclusion of an explicit right of women and men to equality in national constitutions and the establishment and strengthening of national equality machinery (Equality, Ombuds, Commissions), to specific sectoral legislation and regulations in such areas as education, employment, health, contraception, social affairs and political participation.

Considerable focus was placed on the international legal framework, particularly in the human rights field. This was in recognition of the fact that international standard-setting can serve as an agent for change at the national level, in addition to providing avenues of redress for women in cases where mechanisms of enforcement are woven into such instruments.

Principal highlights among the proposals were the call for the speedy adoption of an Optional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights embodying the fundamental right of women and men to equality; support for the adoption of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women opening up the possibility for individual and group complaints, as well as for the speedy adoption of a Protocol to the European Social Charter providing for a system of collective complaints.

Ratification by States of international human rights instruments was considered crucial, but it was noted that, in cases where substantial reservations are made, the effectiveness of such instruments is seriously weakened. It was stressed that States which have made reservations to human rights instruments in general, and to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in particular, should withdraw those reservations.

It was recognised that human rights instruments have not always worked for women on account of the legal culture within which such instruments are framed and interpreted. It was strongly urged that steps be taken to ensure that human rights standards are interpreted and applied in a manner which recognises and responds to violations of women's human rights and promotes equality.

- Political and public participation

It has been strongly emphasised by this Conference that the participation of women in political and public life on an equal footing with men is a requirement for democracy that can no longer be ignored. Specific measures need to be taken in order to remedy the democratic deficit engendered by the unbalanced representation of women and men in political life. It has been said that we must strive for a new social contract, in which women can fully assert themselves. This new social contract concerns the social and political reorganisation of society as well as private relationships. It requires the changing of deeply ingrained attitudes, and solidarity among women.

Among the measures mentioned to achieve this aim are the setting of parity thresholds and target figures, in political parties as well as in the consultative organs of the State and the trade unions. But other strategies must accompany these measures. Training, encouragement and advice to women, political and civic education might be mentioned among others.

The action of women's organisations is also essential in this respect. Through such organisations, women can be encouraged to move out of the private sphere and become engaged in politics and in community activities. They can also help women to develop leadership skills and offer them an opportunity to exercise fully their citizenship rights at all levels. Media and information campaigns should also be among the strategies used to favour the participation of women in political and public life.

- Obstacles to the self-determination of women

Participants unanimously condemned the fact that women still continue to be exposed to practices which may be qualified as torture or as inhuman or degrading treatment, by virtue of their sex. Physical, sexual and psychological violence, traffic in women and forced prostitution are still common. The failure of some governments and others to recognise this might, in itself, be considered a violation of women's rights. As one of the introductory reports indicated, "we have to break through the silence around the violation of women's rights, for the sake of future generations".

Strong legal measures, both at national and international level, are required to combat this phenomenon. Governments should have a co-ordinated approach in order to find the most effective strategies to eliminate violence against women, be they in the home or at work or in the context of armed conflicts.

Preventive measures through education and community initiatives should also be taken. The raising of public awareness is essential in this respect. Women who are victims of violence must be encouraged to come forward and receive the necessary help and support.

It was felt that the enjoyment of sexual and reproductive rights is a prerequisite for women to have genuine self-determination. It was thought that this right must be recognised and protected, as a matter of human dignity and the effective enjoyment of human rights. It is a matter of free choice that people - women and men - should be able to have access to the means to make an informed choice. Therefore, the development of social, health and educational policies concerning matters such as family planning, contraception and sex education were thought to be essential to avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortion.

- Education

Education is one of the key areas in the promotion of equality and the empowerment of women. Not only does education give women knowledge and awareness, it also contributes to increase their self-esteem. Education is an important strategy to alter prejudice about women's and men's roles in society.

The gender perspective should be integrated in the curricula. Stereotypes must be eliminated in schoolbooks and teachers trained to raise their awareness of this question, so as to ensure that girls and boys make informed career choices which are not based on gender biased traditions. Women also need further education and training to help them to succeed in working life.

The promotion of research on the history and the status of women, including statistics, will provide useful information and tools for policy change. It was thought that each country should make provisions for a women's studies centre.

- Reconciliation of family and professional life

Numerous suggestions were made as to how the gap between de jure and de facto equality can be bridged and how to overcome the stereotypes that prevail in society. In this context, equal partnership of women and men and the reconciliation of family and professional life were mentioned as essential, both at individual level and in the organisation of social life. As long as the private sphere remains largely women's concern, they will be much less available than men for positions of responsibility in economic and political life.

Among strategies, mention might be made of the generalisation of parental leave, shared between mothers and fathers, greater availability of childcare facilities, care for the old and encouragement for men to participate in housework. Women must be relieved of the burden of having two jobs, which can adversely affect their career prospects, disrupt their private and family life and prevents them from taking part in political and public life. The specific problem of single parent families, the majority of which are women, was emphasised. It was pointed out in this context that women suffered more than men from social exclusion and poverty.

- Non-governmental organisations

The importance of women's organisations was unanimously recognised. NGOs have a vital role to play in agenda-setting and in charting practical strategies of action. They have a major function when it comes to conveying women's interests and concerns. They can act as pressure groups and, as such, they have a major role to play in creating a political will for equality and making women's voices heard, both at the national and international level, through their networks. Activities of women's NGOs in the field of education, training and information are of critical importance for women's participation in political and public life. It was strongly recommended that the Council of Europe and other international organisations should take steps to favour the dialogue between non-governmental organisations and Governments.


IV. How should we convey our messages to the Beijing Conference?

As a daughter of Iceland, a country where women have always enjoyed respect in society from the earliest times, I cannot resist concluding by telling you a little about the ancient cosmogony, the world view of my forebears.

When Iceland was settled 1,100 years ago, no one then had heard of the idea that woman was created from man's rib. Instead, in the old Norse mythology as retold by Iceland's greatest medieval historian, Snorri Sturluson, we read about genetic craftsmanship of a more egalitarian and eco-friendly type, and rather less surgical. Two wondrously beautiful trees floated together onto a deserted shore where they were found by the gods, who made them into a man and a woman. The gods gave them essentially human qualities, and in equal shares: spirit and life; understanding and the power of movement; and form, speech, hearing and sight. We note with interest that the gods were not guilty of gender discrimination. The man was called Askr, meaning "Ash tree", and the woman Embla, which probably means "Elm tree". Man and woman, according to this myth, are trees, just like the central symbol of the old Viking world, the ash, which is the tree of life itself. One of the roots of the tree of life is nourished by the spring of wisdom, and at another root there are three goddesses, called Urd, Verdandi and Skuld: Past, Present and Future, who create the destiny of men and women.

So, when we are considering our messages for Beijing and a way of putting them across, I hope that our vision can encompass such a view of the world too: nourished by wisdom, thriving in the present, living in the future. Our messages, I venture to hope, will be in this spirit of optimism and nobility.

All participants thus have an individual and collective responsibility to make sure that our messages are taken on board in the preparatory process, in the Commission on the Status of Women at its forthcoming session in March, and in the positions taken by our delegations in that Commission.

I would be particularly pleased if Council of Europe member States could, jointly, make amendments to the draft Platform, inspired by the debates and conclusions of this Conference.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that, when we go to Beijing, we shall be consistent with what we have said in this forum. It is crucial that we speak the same language and with one voice.

I would ask you all to do your most to take the Strasbourg "ethos" with you to Beijing.

Beyond the framework of the Beijing Conference, I would urge us all to speak the same language and with one voice in all other international fora where the principle of the supremacy of human rights and of their universal and indivisible nature may be at stake. That principle, to which we all adhere, requires careful nurturing and bolstering against potential attack.


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