This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most important documents you may have never heard of. On December 10, 1948, the United Nations proclaimed and adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated, “The extraordinary vision and resolve of the drafters produced a document that, for the first time, articulated the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inalienably entitled.”
It is important to remember that point. Human rights were not born with the UDHR. And all of the rights and freedoms spelled out in the UDHR are, sadly, yet to be realized. But it was the first effort to make human rights more than an aspiration; that these rights were to be the baseline standard by which societies would treat men, women and children. No country received immunity from this responsibility. And no time-period would make these rights outdated.
But perhaps more importantly, at a time when cultural inflection points and critical challenges pertaining to women are occurring all over the world, it becomes ever more clear that you can see a connective strand between the UDHR of 70 years ago and the realities of today.
When we consider the revolutions of #MeToo and Time’s Up—with their acknowledgement that society passively accepted harassment, abuse, and violence against women for far too long—it is clear that a predecessor of these movements is the UDHR. Article 3 of the UDHR clearly states:
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
And to avoid any confusion, the “everyone” in Article 3 is defined:
“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.”
Despite the advancements of the globalized digital economy, the traditional challenge of women achieving commercial opportunities remains a persistent one. The World Bank’s 2017 edition of the Doing Business report outlined several disturbing points: 23 economies impose more procedures for women than men to start a business; 16 economies limit women’s ability to own, use and transfer property; 17 economies do not value a woman’s testimony the same way as a man’s in civil court; and while women make up nearly 50% of the world’s population, they make up less than 41% of the world’s formal workforce.
Decades before the dawn of second-wave feminism, the globalized economy, or the 4th Industrial Revolution, the UDHR called for equal pay and equal dignity for working women.
Article 23 (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
Article 23 (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
Finally, while many see slavery as a wicked relic of history, the reality is that it exists today in the form of millions of enslaved women. The International Labor Organization released a report last year finding that women account for more than 70% of the victims of modern slavery in the world, nearly 29 million women. And 99% of modern slaves in the commercial sex industry are women and girls.
Article 4 of the UDHR states plainly and clearly:
Article 4 No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
American politician, diplomat, activist and Junior League member Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in crafting the UDHR while serving as the first chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission from 1947 to 1953. Roosevelt is widely recognized as the driving force behind the UDHR, and the UDHR is widely recognized as the enduring legacy of Roosevelt.
So, as we witness, contemplate and participate in transforming the words of the UDHR into domestic and global norms, we also should acknowledge that a forerunner of our efforts was a historic document brought to life by one of the earliest and most important members of The Junior League.
On International Women’s Day, let us all remember the connective strand between Eleanor Roosevelt, the UDHR, the successes we have seen today and the successes we will engineer tomorrow.