Various international and regional instruments address sex-based discrimination or guarantee women rights related to personal liberty and security, equality, family life, health, religion, property, education, employment, political participation, and more. Already fragile or not prioritized in a number of places, many of these rights have become even more jeopardized due to the substantial worldwide social, political, and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent media reports have highlighted, for example, the “shadow pandemic” of higher rates of domestic violence resulting from required sheltering-in-place; impacts on access to sexual and reproductive health services; and increased financial inequality between men and women due to unprecedented rates of job loss or reductions, particularly in industries that tend to have higher percentages of female workers. On April 9, the United Nations published a policy brief, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women”, underscoring these and other concerns in discussing how “the pandemic is deepening existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in term amplifying the impacts of the pandemic”. Consequently, “even the limited gains made in the past decades” on gender equality “are at risk of being rolled back”.
Against this backdrop, this blog post highlights selected resources for researching international women’s rights. It will emphasize online resources given the current imposition of social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders in many jurisdictions.
For those just getting started, an introductory source, such as the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner publication Women’s Rights are Human Rights, provides a helpful overview of the underlying legal basics and central concepts. Another resource is the subscription-based Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law, which offers a number of relevant articles found by browsing the subject menu under “Human rights à Rights holders à Women, rights”.
Speciality legal research guides on this topic include International Women’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Law by the University of Toronto Bora Laskin Law Library and Women’s Human Rights by the International Justice Resource Center. There are also guides that focus on narrower issues within international women’s rights, such as the Pace Law School Library’s guide on Domestic Violence Law: International Law. Conversely, research guides covering broader areas that cover international women’s rights, such as international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law, can also provide a good (albeit more general) starting point. GlobaLex and the American Society of International Law are just two examples of quality sources for the latter type of guide. Do not overlook non-legal research guides, such as the Georgia Tech Library’s guide on Women and International Affairs or the University at Buffalo Libraries International Human Rights of Women guide.
As an alternative to a research guide and depending on your area of interest, refer to the websites of relevant IGOs or NGOs. These sites are often particularly valuable as current awareness resources, and many also publish statistics and research reports or provide links to relevant primary law such as cases and treaties. For example: UN Women, the United Nations organization “dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women”, maintains a digital library of UN publications, multimedia, and documents, and its Guiding Documents page summarizes and links to international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its optional protocol. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has a page devoted to CEDAW, as well as several other resources on women’s rights listed on its Issues page. Other potential agencies and organizations to track include the United Nations Population Fund, the World Economic Forum, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Equality Now, and the International Center for Research on Women. Or, you could begin with an organization working within specific regions or on particular women’s rights issues. For instance, if you are interested in researching women’s rights in Asia, consult the websites of the Asia Pacific Forum and International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific. The Center for Reproductive Rights is a global organization focused on women’s reproductive health and rights, and Stop Violence Against Women works to end global domestic violence, sexual harassment and assault, and human trafficking.
There are also free online databases that partially or primarily contain primary and secondary sources relevant to international women’s rights. RefWorld, a website of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, maintains a database of country and policy reports, case law, and other documents published by governments and IGOs on issues such as human trafficking and gender-based violence. The Cornell Center for Women, Justice, Economy & Technology hosts the Women & Justice Collection on Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute website. This collection “provides access to international, regional, and domestic caselaw and legislation from around the world related to promoting gender justice and ending gender-based violence.”
As the UN writes:
“COVID-19 is not only a challenge for global health systems, but also a test of our human spirit. Recovery must lead to a more equal world that is more resilient to future crises…. It is crucial that all national responses place women and girls – their inclusion, representation, rights, social and economic outcomes, equality and protection – at their centre if they are to have the necessary impacts. This is not just about rectifying long-standing inequalities but also about building a more just and resilient world.”