UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures
An old woman prays for peace in the Oromo Camp for internally displaced people in Uganda. For 19
years the Lord's Resistance Army has terrorized the people living in the Northern provinces.

The Promise of Human Rights

-Human Rights and Poverty Reduction

-The Human Rights of Girls and Women

-Human Rights: Essentials for the MDGs

-Reproductive Rights in Practice

-Rights, Gender and Culture: Seeking Convergence

-Support for Disenfranchised Groups

"Sixty years have passed since the founders of the United Nations inscribed, on the first page of our Charter, the equal rights of men and women. Since then, study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health-including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation. And I would also venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended. But whatever the very real benefits of investing in women, the most important fact remains: Women themselves have the right to live in dignity, in freedom from want and from fear." - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UN Commission on the Status of Women

One of the major achievements of the 20th Century was the development of a rich body of international law affirming the equal rights of all human beings. Building on the foundation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, numerous conventions,(1) protocols(2) and agreements have affirmed and expanded its principles. But despite the many agreements embraced and treaties ratified, the reality is that in the early 21st century, women and other neglected groups, especially those whose lives are circumscribed by poverty and discrimination, are not able to exercise their fundamental human rights. The next major challenge is fulfilling the promise of human rights.

Human rights, women's rights among them, are fundamental to poverty reduction and development, yet their importance is not always fully understood. Poverty is characterized by exclusion and lack of power to claim legitimate rights.(3) The 1986 UN Declaration on the Right to Development recognized the right "to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized". The eradication of extreme poverty as called for by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) relies on the fulfilment of the rights of individuals through expanded opportunities, choices and power. The relationship between poverty and human rights is embodied in the UN Millennium Declaration of 2000, in which 189 countries pledged to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to advance the rights of women.

Fulfilling the promise of human rights calls for transformations in the underlying value systems that legitimize discrimination. Internationally accepted standards of human rights provide a framework to guide and measure progress. The dedicated efforts of civil society, parliamentarians and the media in holding governments and other key actors accountable are crucial to maintaining momentum. And the notion that all of humankind is bound by shared human rights has an inherent power, which rights-based approaches to human development can unleash (see Box 6).

Human rights education, and the active participation of those whom development efforts and decisions have passed by, are central to a rightsbased approach. Armed with information about rights and equipped with the skills and resources to claim them, individuals and communities can become agents of change and gain control over their own destinies.(4) The empowerment conferred by this sense of entitlement contributes to the momentum and sustainability of rights-based approaches. It is also essential to sensitize those responsible for protecting human rights, including police officers, judges, military personnel and health providers. More such efforts are needed before everyone, especially those who are doubly or triply disenfranchised by poverty, gender and other forms of discrimination, can fully exercise their fundamental rights.

Human Rights and Poverty Reduction

Expanding freedoms and choices is the goal of human development. Poverty and discrimination diminish freedom by depriving individuals of opportunities to exercise their fundamental human rights. A human rights-based approach to ending poverty and deprivation is at the forefront of UN reform(5) and central to the UN Millennium Declaration.

Because human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, they can become part of a virtuous circle that enables people to overcome poverty. The denial of human rights, on the other hand, can lead to a vicious cycle that entraps individuals in a life of highly restricted choices. A woman whose right to education is denied, for example, is more likely to face compromises to her rights to health, to vote, to marry voluntarily and to choose the number and spacing of her children.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides guidelines to countries on how to apply a rights-based approach in developing poverty reduction policies.(6) They point out that empowering people living in poverty is necessary for effective poverty reduction. They also emphasize that dutybearers are responsible for upholding international human rights standards (see Box 6).(7)


The rights-based approach marks a shift away from an earlier development focus on meeting basic needs, which relied on charity or good will. A rights-based approach, in contrast, recognizes individuals as "rights-holders", which implies that others are "duty-bearers". Needs, on the other hand, have no object-there is no person or mechanism designated to meet them.

Under a human rights framework, governments are the primary duty-bearers. Among their duties are the establishment of equitable laws and systems that enable individuals to exercise and enjoy their rights, and to seek judicial recourse for violations under the rule of law. As rights-holders, people can claim their legitimate entitlements. This approach emphasizes the participation of individuals and communities in decisionmakingprocesses that shape policies and programmes that affect them. See Sources

From a human rights standpoint, addressing poverty is more than a moral obligation. Under international law, both national governments and the wider international community bear responsibility for addressing extreme poverty and the inequities that characterize it.(8) Thus human rights have become a powerful instrument for galvanizing support for the MDGs.(9) Even in situations where governments have explicitly recognized human rights, resource constraints- human, financial and technical-may make it impossible to satisfy the claims of all rights-holders at once. In such circumstances, it may be necessary to set priorities and progressively realize rights.(10) However, under a rights-based approach, no effort must be spared in guaranteeing the core set of rights reflected in the MDGs, such as the rights to personal security, survival, food, shelter, education and health.

Like the MDGs themselves, a rights-based approach gives priority to the most impoverished and marginalized groups whose rights are so often ignored, and calls for a more equitable distribution of resources in their favour.(11) Various resolutions and reports presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights (which is expected to undergo reforms following the UN Secretary-General's recommendations(12)) have called particular attention to the needs of women, especially heads of households and older women, "who often bear the greatest burden of extreme poverty".(13) The report of one independent expert noted that programmes to eradicate extreme poverty "must focus on women" since "allowing women to enjoy all their rights.has a major impact on the enjoyment of these rights for the society as a whole".(14)

The Human Rights of Girls and Women >>
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