Let us look for more allies. And to look for them, let's look for languages that cannot be rejected.(Susan Chiarotti, quoted in Keck and Sikkink 1998: 166)
Until recently, human rights standards were set and monitored in inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) in ways that confirmed men as having greater value than women. The human rights listed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are supposed to apply to everyone ‘without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2 UDHR). However, foundational human rights documents, the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) are not gender-neutral. They do not apply equally to women and to men. The fact that these documents use the pronoun ‘he’ throughout is not accidental. Rather than listing universal, gender-neutral rights, they list ‘what men fear will happen to them’ (Edwards 2011: 51–64). The UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR practically never mention women explicitly, and they are above all concerned with what happens to people in the public sphere, as a result of activities and policies carried out on behalf of the state. The private domestic sphere of the family, which has at least as much impact on how women are controlled and exploited, is constructed in foundational human rights documents as a place of natural, family relations, somewhere that is itself in need of ‘protection’.
It was not until the 1990s that feminists came to the question, ‘Are women's rights human rights?’. The women's movements of the 1970s and 1980s took little interest in human rights. In the Northwest, radical and socialist-inclined movements were more concerned with raising consciousness and finding new ways to live in egalitarian and liberated ways outside the nuclear family than with changing laws and policies. Women's movements in what was then called the ‘Third World’ also had their own concerns, different in different national and regional contexts. Even when the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was signed and ratified in the 1970s, as a result of the efforts of people involved in the UN Commission on the Status of Women that dates back to 1946, it seemed too limited and bureaucratic to hold much appeal (Reilly 2009).