Aside from the starring role of Eleanor Roosevelt, the other members of the Commission tasked with framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) were male. The document was originally drafted to open: ‘All men are brothers’ and referred throughout to the rights of men. It was the intervention of Jessie Street, Australia’s only woman delegate to the United Nations, that resulted in Article 1 instead reading: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’
Unfortunately, despite Street’s efforts to rid the declaration of its sexist language, she was only partially successful and to this day, this most revered and authoritative document still refers to ‘mankind’, ‘man’, ‘the spirit of brotherhood’ and makes exclusive use of the male pronoun. The failure to provide acknowledgement of women throughout the document undermines the provisions declaring that rights should be enjoyed without discrimination.
Street’s attempt to establish a right for women to be free from violence was also unsuccessful, while her argument for greater recognition of the rights of motherhood resulted in a rather paternalistic compromise with the drafting of Article 25, which groups mothers with children as needing ‘special care and assistance’. This is a far cry from recognising the critical bond between mothers and their children, and the right of mothers not to be separated from their offspring
CEDAW also provides inadequate recognition of maternal rights, since it provides only that women should have equal rights with men in relation to the number and spacing of children and the rights and guardianship in respect to those children. There is a failure to acknowledge the greater physical, psychological and economic impact that childbearing has on women and to ensure that this reality translates into additional human rights attaching to motherhood. Rather, the critical bond between a mother and child is disregarded by international human rights law, which instead enshrines ‘family’, a difficult construct to define, as the fundamental unit of society.
This blind spot had a significant impact on Australian legislation, such as our Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) which is framed to protect marriage, the family and the ‘best interests of the child’ but fails to acknowledge the distinct human right of mothers to be supported to retain care of their offspring. This has left the way open for child removal policies and the promotion of adoption and surrogacy, and for abuse and manipulation of the family law system by male perpetrators. It has established a world view in which having a relationship with the biological mother is regarded as superfluous to a child’s needs.
[This is an edited extract – the original article is published by the Australian Lawyer’s Alliance and can be accessed at the link below.]