The disadvantages, discrimination and subordination suffered by women globally have been well documented in a variety of contexts. Yet the issue of women's human rights has, until relatively recently, been neglected in international law. The instruments composing the International Bill of Human Rights contain general non-discrimination clauses which include the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender, whereby the rights within these instruments are held to be applicable to everyone, regardless of, inter alia, sex. As this chapter will discuss, these generic non-discrimination clauses have, in a number of ways, proved inadequate to capture the specific nature of violations suffered by women and to provide adequate protection. Women's human rights are an overarching phenomenon touching on all aspects of the international human rights framework. The importance of addressing human rights issues as they specifically pertain to women and others suffering disadvantage or oppression within gender-based power structures, has now been widely recognised.
Informed, determined and vociferous campaigns by national and international women's rights movements and coalitions have brought to light, and attempted to redress, a number of inadequacies within the international human rights system. In particular, they have questioned a number of the assumptions underlying the existing framework of protection, particularly a narrow focus on non-discrimination at the expense of broader concerns reflecting the experiences of women, such as gender-based violence. The culmination of the 1976−1985 United Nations (UN) Decade for Women with the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference was instrumental in bringing key issues to the fore, and was followed by the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action ten years later. The Platform discussed and made recommendations on a wide range of issues, including poverty, education, health, violence against women, armed conflict, political rights and the rights of the girl-child, which showed the breadth of concerns relating to women's rights.
At the heart of this discussion remains the core question: why do the human rights of women still remain so contested and controversial? Conceptual and sociological approaches to cultural and social hierarchies; as well as the practicalities of how far to ‘mainstream’ women's human rights into existing human rights mechanisms, rather than creating separate regimes specifically aimed at protecting women, have been at the centre of these debates.