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  5. Promoting and Protecting the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Women: NHRI Actions and Strategies

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FOCUS June 2007 Volume 48

Promoting and Protecting the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Women: NHRI Actions and Strategies

Sneh Aurora*

* This article is the second of a two-part series on the role of NHRIs in protecting and promoting the ESC rights of women

Typically, NHRIs have a mandate to receive and act upon complaints of human rights violations from civil society. Most NHRIs are also empowered to undertake enquiries on their own initiative (suo moto) into particular human rights situations or issues. Both of these powers can be extremely important in highlighting and addressing the issues women face in the realization of their ESC rights, and reporting on how the Government implements national laws and international instruments which promote these rights of women

Many NHRIs in the Asia-Pacific region are indeed conducting investigations into cases involving violations of women's ESC rights, including the National Human Rights Commission of India which in a 2004 case of a female bonded laborer, ensured the woman received compensation and was rehabilitated.[1]

Investigating systemic violations

ESC rights issues typically include those that are more systemic in nature, rather than individual complaints. NHRIs are well positioned to raise systemic issues of human rights violations with authorities. For example, NHRIs can conduct general inquiries or undertake research and investigative studies on a particular issue or violation of women's ESC rights

In 1998, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission undertook a National Inquiry into issues relating to pregnancy and workplace discrimination. The inquiry involved extensive research and consultations with employers, employees, unions, health professionals, employer associations, government agencies, community groups and school students in metropolitan, regional and rural areas. The report entitled Pregnant and Productive: It's a right not a privilege to work while pregnant details the findings of the inquiry and makes 46 recommendations. The report evidences the existence of widespread and systemic discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and potential pregnancy in Australian workplaces.[2]

NHRIs can also develop, in cooperation with academic and research institutions, methodological and practical tools for mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policy areas. The National Human Rights Commission of India has conducted and/or commissioned several research studies in the area of ESC rights as they relate to women. For example, in 2004 the Indian NHRC commissioned a study on the Feminization of Poverty and Impact of Globalization - A Study of Women Construction Labourers in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This research study was conducted by the Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women's Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and aimed to project the appalling conditions of women construction labourers and suggest measures for improving them.[3]

Monitoring the ESC rights of women

A State's performance of its human rights obligations must be monitored to ensure that the obligations are being met. Monitoring performance with regard to obligations relating to the ESC rights of women is especially important, particularly because of the obligation of progressive realization of ESC rights, and the fact that women are typically a disadvantaged group

In July 2005 during the time of the conflict between the Maoists and the State, the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal conducted a month-long monitoring mission on the rights of the children, including the girl child, in armed conflict. In the course of monitoring, the teams of the Commission gathered significant information on various issues related to the rights of children in 11 districts, giving special attention to extra-judicial killings and maiming, use and recruitment of child soldiers, attacks inside schools and use of schools in the conflict, rape and other violent acts against children, abduction and illegal detention of children, and refusal of humanitarian assistance to children. During the monitoring mission, the team also organized several interactions with local people including representatives of civil society and various administrative authorities in the districts, as well as representatives of the Maoists, calling upon them to respect children's rights, and to include schools in the zone of peace while respecting international humanitarian law

In another example, the Monitoring and Review Division of the NHRI of Sri Lanka carried out several surprise visits to State Women's Detention Centers and Children's Homes in 2006. The purpose of these visits was to monitor the conditions within these custodial institutions, and to make recommendations to change policy regarding women's ESC rights, as well as to raise the awareness of Center inmates and staff through a series of workshops. Specific women's rights addressed included the rights to education, health, food and housing. Immediate results from the monitoring activity included an improvement of the quality of food provided to women inmates, the establishment of medical facilities within certain Centers, and the provision of schooling and vocational training for children in Children's Detention Centers

Development of national human rights action plans

An NHRI can make a significant contribution to the development, adoption and implementation of a national human rights action plan and, in particular, can ensure that the plan includes issues relating to the ESC rights of women. NHRIs can ensure the inclusion of a commitment to take legislative and administrative measures to entrench the recognition and observance of ESC rights, the elimination of discrimination in the observance of ESC rights, as well as a commitment to effective means of redress for violations of such rights. An NHRI can also support the integration of a strong gender perspective in the national human rights action plan, and ensure that such plans are informed by and consistent with a comprehensive strategy for gender equality

NHRIs should participate in both the national coordinating committee and in wider consultative activities. NHRIs are also well placed to ensure that a wide array of actors in civil society are consulted, and can facilitate and coordinate dialogue between the government, relevant NGOs, and other civil society organizations and individuals

Where national plans have been developed to date in countries that have NHRIs, these institutions have usually been closely involved in the planning process. For example, in Indonesia, an Inter-Departmental Standing Committee on Human Rights drew up the Indonesian National Plan of Action on Human Rights 1998-2003 in cooperation with the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights. Much of the input for the human rights action plan came from a National Workshop on Human Rights held in 1994, which was attended by some 300 participants from government, civil society and the Indonesian NHRI

In some cases, NHRIs may be called upon to take a leading role in coordinating the implementation of the plan. Where this happens, it should still be clearly recognized that the commitments in the plan impose obligations on governments to take appropriate action and that responsibility for ensuring achievement of the plan's objectives cannot be transferred to non-governmental bodies.[4] For example, a feature of the Philippines Human Rights Plan 1996 - 2002 was the central role given to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights (PCHR) in coordinating its implementation, as well as overseeing its monitoring and review process. The plan also included a number of issues, including those relating to the ESC rights of women.[5]

Promotion and human rights education

As the second focus of their mandate, NHRIs are required to undertake programs on human rights education and sensitization. NHRIs can promote public awareness of the issues around the realization of the ESC rights of women by:

  • issuing public statements on issues related to women's ESC rights;
  • publishing research studies on these issues;
  • developing and disseminating publications using the media (radio, television, print, internet) effectively in disseminating information; and
  • conducting national workshops and hearings on issues relating to women's ESC rights.

Increased public awareness of the issues encourages victims of such violations to access the NHRI. As well, there is heightened awareness of state obligations around these rights by the government, as well as civil society

Around the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, for example, numerous Asia-Pacific NHRIs have developed and disseminated publications and materials, including the national institutions from Australia, India, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Fiji

In addition, the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), in collaboration with the UNDP, organized a High-Level Policy Dialogue on A Human Rights Perspective on MDGs and Beyond in July 2005. This session included a focus on Millennium Development Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women, and Millennium Development Goal 5: Improve maternal health. One of the main objectives of the dialogue was to facilitate the development of country-specific MDG targets and indicators for Malaysia. Among the issues discussed were the poverty level of female-headed households, the low female labor force participation, the lower-level employment of women, and maternal health. From the workshop, a series of recommendations were put to government.[6]

Training specific target groups

NHRIs can also develop and conduct trainings and workshop on the ESC rights of women for specific target groups. These trainings should include sensitization on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the centrality of women to the promotion and protection of ESC rights. Trainings can also include issues around: general gender sensitivity, state obligations under international covenants, and the development of national level action plans and strategies. Target groups for trainings and sensitizations sessions (at local, provincial/district and national levels) include government officials, NGOs, community-based organizations, police and law enforcement officials, judges and lawyers, and prison officials

In February 2006, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand and other stakeholders organized participatory seminars on ESC rights (including women's ESC rights) in Chiangmai for 150 community leaders, educators, local government officials, and NGOs and minorities. During the workshop, participants discussed regional ESC rights issues affecting women and children. This session was replicated in four other regions of the country later that same year

The Philippines Commission for Human Rights has a wide-ranging program in the area of human rights education, which has won the institution a UNESCO prize for human rights education in 1994. In addition, the President of the Philippines declared 1998-2007 a Human Rights Education Decade. Within this framework, the PCHR has put in place an ambitious program of education and inter-agency cooperation

For further information, please contact: Equitas - International Centre for Human Rights Education, 666 Sherbrooke West, Suite 1100, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1E7; ph (+1-514) 954-0382 ext. 32; fax (+1-514) 954-0659;;


1. Case of Smt. Thenmozhi, reported in December 2004 Newsletter of the Indian National Human Rights Commission

2. Australia Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission website (1999-2000 Annual Report). Accessed on 30 May 2007

3. National Human Rights Commission of India website (2004-2005 Annual Report. pages179-180). Accessed on 30 May 2007

4. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action, Professional Training Series No. 10, (New York and Geneva) 29 August 2002

5. Ibid

6. Proceedings of the Dialogue A Human Rights Perspective on MDGs and Beyond. SUHAKAM website: Accessed on December 2006.