International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at 50: The Significance from a Women's Rights Perspective
The Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and ESCR-Net released a publication entitled The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at 50: The Significance from a Women's Rights Perspective. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) enshrines economic, social and cultural (ESC) human rights, including the right to housing, the right to work and to just conditions of work, the right to food, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to social security, and the right to education, amongst others. It also recognizes “the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights” and prohibits gender-based discrimination.
2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the ICESCR, and it is an important moment to pause and look at the impacts of the Covenant on the lives of those most impacted by violations of ESC rights violations. Globally, women represent the majority of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty throughout the world. There is no aspect of ESC rights that are not relevant to the lives of women, and there is no ESC right which is not directly or indirectly impacted by discrimination on the basis of gender. Women are also on the front lines of ESC rights advocacy and are often targeted in their roles as human rights defenders, for example as they take up struggles to resist land dispossessions, large scale development projects, and forced evictions.
Notably, the 50th anniversary of the ICESCR comes just one year after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as the agreed framework for international development. The 2030 Agenda has a stand-alone Goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (Goal 5), and there are gender equality targets in other Goals, as well as a call for sex disaggregated data across many indicators. ICESCR represents a powerful framework for claiming women’s ESC rights globally, and within the context of the 2030 Agenda, it is vital to ensuring that international development conforms to international human rights law when it comes to realizing women’s ESC rights.
While progress has been made on various fronts, for example, in relation to girls’ education, inequality with respect to the enjoyment of ESC rights is a central fact of women’s lives and an everyday lived reality for women in every region of the world. As UN-Women has recognized, the end of poverty can only be achieved with the end of gender-based discrimination, but the global economy is not working for women, and all too often women bear the brunt of increased economic pressures and deteriorating social services.
Ongoing inequality in the enjoyment of ESC rights also contributes to the continuing subordination of women and makes them especially vulnerable to violence, exploitation and other forms of abuse. Globally, women’s earnings are 24 per cent less than men’s; in many societies, laws and traditions bar women from accessing, controlling and inheriting important resources like land; women worldwide have less access to political power; and women continue to carry an unfair burden when it comes to unpaid care work.
This publication celebrates the significance of the ICESCR from the perspective of advancing and ensuring gender equality and simultaneously points to ways in which the treaty can be utilized even more strategically and effectively to ensure that women’s ESC rights are fully respected, protected and fulfilled towards the goal of achieving gender equality. While the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is sometimes seen as the ‘women’s treaty’ within international human rights law, the truth is that the ICESCR is also directly and extremely relevant to the lives of millions of women worldwide. As UN-Women has highlighted: “In addition to CEDAW, which is a vital reference point for understanding the meaning of gender equality, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the work of the committee that supervises its work, are also essential to understanding and addressing women’s economic and social rights.” ICESCR provides an important normative framework for claiming and upholding ESC rights, and it recognizes the central principle of gender equality. In particular, the principle of substantive equality articulated by CEDAW and echoed by ICESCR is also integral to claiming women’s ESC rights. The right to gender equality is not subject to progressive realization, rather it is an immediate obligation of States parties under ICESCR to ensure that women are able to enjoy their right to equality in relation to ESC rights. Immediacy of obligations can be contrasted with the notion of progressivity, the latter of which has been described by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) as “a necessary flexibility device,” which, while it applies to the general realization of ESC rights, cannot be said to apply to women’s right to equality.
Finally, this publication seeks to overview the content of normative statements which CESCR has made over the years on various issues relevant to women’s ESC rights, and to highlight cases in which advocates have engaged with CESCR successfully to raise these issues and seek redress for violations of women’s ESC rights. While it does not address the issue of implementation by States, the publication highlights CESCR’s commentary within the context of many specific country reviews (country and year of review are noted in the footnotes). However, it is not meant to be an exhaustive commentary on everything that CESCR has said on every issue of interest.
The publication is available in English HERE.
The publication is available in Spanish HERE.