Why is the language of human rights still ignoring women?

Shiloh Sophia McCloud Lewis – WNN SOAPBOX

Woman refugee South Darfur
A displaced refugee woman in South Darfur sits on the only bed she can find after running from devastating conflict in her home village. Image: Albert Gonzalez Farran/UNAMID

(WNN) Santa Rosa, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: It was when I began to have images of women from around the world who are suffering flash before my mind, that the reality of the state of the world started ‘sinking in’ after my trip to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March 2013.

It was a kind of spiritual epiphany, but not the good kind. To consider a girl child suffering from FGM being called a boy when referring to her rights. The ridiculousness of women basket weavers being called “men” who sell their wares for their living. Or in images where women and girls in their own cultural environments, one after the other, are being missed and denied by being called “HIM.”

In my mind these women had words used against them in humanitarian language; words that would leave them ‘out-of-the-picture’. Words like ‘mankind’ and ‘brotherhood’ seemed to be stamped across women who were not only misunderstood, but mislabeled.

“Language that uses the generic masculine – excludes women and renders them invisible,” says CEDAW – Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the agency that works today within the UN to bring women across the world together to discuss and report marginalization and discrimination.

I began to wonder how could a girl-child feel welcome in a global world where she is being referred to as ‘him’? Especially in regards to her rights and by the very organization, the United Nations, which has pledged to fight for her justice.

This despair in knowing so many women and girls who are left out of the conversation and the language, felt far deeper than I had or have words for. I only knew then, and know now, that this language is a part of what is keeping women trapped today, sanctioned right here in our UN. My heart pounded. I felt frustration and confusion and compassion. The giggle of disbelief became tears streaming down my face, and they are streaming now as I share my story.

How could this be? Surely someone has fought for this before?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains words like ‘mankind’, ‘brotherhood’, ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘himself’ over 25 times and does not fairly include women in the language. We know that women’s rights are human rights. In this understanding it is time for men and women to be included in humankind instead of limited by mankind. The United Nations says they are the first to recognize this, but issues under inclusive language are falling through the cracks.

I am sure that when the Declaration was written, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt still felt the word ‘man’ represented men as well as women as a whole, but that is no longer the case. If she were alive today I have no doubt that this topic would be relevant to her. Simply put, it is time to take action.

Eleanor Roosevelt, while she was captive to the male-dominated language of her time, was a tireless advocate for the elderly, the poor, the disabled and for ethnic and African American minorities. But she is especially known as an advocate for those who were marginalized outcasts, especially refugees.

“She would rather light candles than curse the darkness and her glow has warmed the world,” said Adlai E. Stevenson, United States representative to the United Nations, in his eulogy of Eleanor Roosevelt honoring her life on the day of her death at the age of 78 on November 7, 1962.

Quote by Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt holding up the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Today we have learned something new in our century, that use of language can harm women who do not deserve to be left outside of the circle.

It takes a lot of imagination — and a determinedly blinkered focus on exceptions at the privileged margins — to envision a real woman in the Universal Declaration’s majestic guarantees of what ‘everyone is entitled to’. After fifty years, just what part of ‘everyone’ doesn’t mean us?, said author and feminist Catharine MacKinnon who wrote the book “Are Women Human?” MacKinnon was also the more recent winner of the 2014 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of American Law Schools Section on Women in Legal Education.

“Within the UN’s first year, the Economic and Social Council established its Commission on the Status of Women, as the principal global policy-making body dedicated exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women.  Among its earliest accomplishments was ensuring gender neutral language in the draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” outlines the UN in its introductory coverage of United Nations Global Issues and women.

Could it be that those in leadership positions at the UN do not know how pervasive male-gendered language is, as it continues to be used predominately throughout the world, in both the spoken and the written word?

Language itself seems to be a mirror of our world society where women, especially girls and girl infants, are too often pushed to the side. Yes women have made strides, but evidently not to the point where a change is made. Would they have to have all the countries sign again, and would some, given the chance, refuse? Is it better to have a unified agreement that seems to never change than to have an agreement that is truly based on human rights for all?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Mead.

I welcome the day, in my lifetime, or not too far from now, when the women and girls of the world will hear, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of humanity”.

Inclusive language for women in our modern times does not have to be a struggle. It should be a celebration. It seems like such a simple thing – more intimate than justice or rights, it feels like a call to dignity.

So if I could ‘say anything’ to the United Nations it would be this: it is time to revise the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What would you say? Are you with me?


Join a petition for change at the United Nations HERE: “Revise The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be gender-inclusive”


WNN Special Commentator Shiloh Sophia McCloud Lewis is a visionary artist and teacher who has dedicated the past 20 years of her life to art as a path of healing through the process of painting, writing and intentional creativity. At the core of her work, and as an advocate for global women, is the belief that the right to self-expression is one of the most basic of human rights.


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