Gender and women's rights

A brief introduction to gender and women’s rights

Around the world, women are still falling victim to numerous forms of discrimination and inequalities, irrespective of their level of professional, family, social, ‘civil’ or political life. In many countries, the law does not give them the same rights as men. In others, their rights tend still not be respected in practice. Women are also the most frequent victims of various criminal phenomena, such as domestic and sexual violence, forced or early marriages, human trafficking, exploitation or slavery, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and forced abortion.

Gender equality and sex equality are separate issues. Whilst the concept of sex is all about distinct biological differences between men and women, notions about gender reflect ideas held in society, including prejudices, which can also lie at the heart of discrimination. But unlike sex-based discrimination, gender-based prejudices can be prevented by deconstructing certain stereotypes.

Over the last few decades, the issue of women’s rights has received growing attention, especially following the organisation of the fourth World Conference on women in Beijing in 1995. The progress made in implementing that conference’s Declaration and Action Programme is evaluated every five years.

International instruments

In 1979 the United Nations (UN) adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which Belgium ratified in 1985. This instrument sets out to end discrimination related to education, employment, social and economic activities, and ensure that women and men have equal parenting rights. It also attributes great importance to women’s reproductive rights and to access to family planning and social services, so that motherhood and parenthood can be reconciled with a career. The UN Member States are also encouraged to combat traditional practices and stereotypes that have a negative impact on women’s rights, including via education. Moreover, they are urged to adopt positive discriminatory measures vis-à-vis women and abolish the trafficking of women and their exploitation for prostitution. In addition, in 1993 the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Action by Belgium and the United Nations (UN)

The UN has a Commission on the Status of Women that deals both with issues to do with being female as well as ‘gender mainstreaming’ (i.e. taking account of the gender dimension in various policies and actions). The Commission is also responsible for monitoring compliance with the Declaration and the Action Programme adopted in Beijing and ensuring their implementation. Belgium has been an active member of the Commission for several (consecutive) years and also chaired it between 2007 and 2009. This commitment demonstrates the high importance attributed by our country to this problematic and multifaceted issue. The UN General Assembly also discusses several resolutions on the rights of women and girls. Belgium is calling for the promotion and protection of women’s rights within the framework of the resolutions adopted by various UN bodies, like the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the Human Rights Council and various specialist UN agencies and funds. First and foremost, Belgium wants to ensure that sexual and reproductive rights are respected and to combat impunity and guarantee good governance, in a bid to safeguard women’s rights to protection and development. Belgium also attributes great importance to the mandate of the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women.

Action by Belgium and the European Union

The promotion and protection of women’s rights is a priority for Belgium and the European Union. Our country has had an Institute for Equal Opportunities between Women and Men (IEFH/IGVM since 2002, charged to make sure that such equality is respected in Belgium and to combat any discrimination in this connection. The European Union has also adopted various instruments designed to counter violence and discrimination against women in third countries. Belgium and the European Union regularly raise the issues of women’s rights and discriminatory laws and practices in their dealings with third countries.

Furthermore, Belgium supports a number of initiatives designed to promote and protect both women’s rights and gender mainstreaming within other regional organisations, like the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

EU guidelines

The European Union adopts guidelines that set out different ways of achieving EU priorities regarding human rights in its relations with third countries. The EU guidelines on violence against women and measures to combat all forms of discrimination against them make provision for specific measures to be taken by the embassies of EU Member States to improve women’s situation in real life.

For example, they aim to:

  • collect data on violence against women and girls;
  • promote the establishment of preventive mechanisms, protective measures and support for victims of violence;
  • highlight the fight against impunity for the perpetrators of such acts;
  • take steps and/or issue official declarations on individual or more general cases of violence or discrimination against women;
  • encourage the ratification of regional and international instruments for women’s rights and visits by the bodies assigned to monitor them.

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women  

UN Commission on the Status of Women

Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women (PDF, 485.11 Kb)

EU guidelines on violence against women and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them (PDF, 61.51 Kb)

Council of Europe – Equality between women and men  

Belgian Institute for Equal Opportunities between Women and Men (IEFH/IGVM)