Trafficking in Persons | Migration & DiscriminationRacism against Indigenous peoples
Multi-ethnic States & the Protection of Minority Rights

At the Crossroads of Gender and Racial Discrimination

The injustices suffered by victims of racial discrimination and related intolerance are well-known: limited employment opportunities; segregation; and endemic poverty are only a few among these. The disadvantages faced by women in societies around the world are also familiar: lower pay for work of equal value; high illiteracy rates; and poor access to health care. While race is one reason for inequality and gender is another, they are not mutually exclusive forms of discrimination. Indeed, too often they intersect, giving rise to compounded or double discrimination.

For many women factors relating to their social identity such as race, colour, ethnicity and national origin become "differences that make a difference". These factors can create problems that are unique to particular groups of women or that disproportionately affect some women relative to others.

Consider the societal roadblocks experienced by a Roma woman living in Eastern Europe. As a member of the Romani population, she has few advocates and is the target of constant hostility. She is marginalized within her community because of her minority status and within her family because of her gender. The same can be said of an aboriginal woman living in Australia, a Dalit woman living in India, a female asylum seeker living in England and so on. These women live at the crossroads of gender and racial discrimination.

Without taking race into account, the statistics on the status of the world's women show that women have a long way to go before achieving equality with men. According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), women fall short in many of the main indicators that measure progress towards gender equality and women's empowerment.

The literacy rate for women worldwide is 71.4 percent, compared with 83.7 per cent for men. Of the 960 million illiterate adults, two-thirds are women. The gender gap in earning persists, with women employed in industry and services typically earning 78 per cent of what men earn in the same sector. Women's share of decision-making positions reached 30 per cent in only 28 countries in the 1990s. Additionally, of 1.3 billion people living in poverty, 70 per cent are women.

When a woman's race is factored in to her experience, the double burden of gender and racial discrimination and related intolerance becomes evident. Areas of particular concern include the disadvantages faced by minority women in the labour market, trafficking in women, and race-based violence against women.

Minority, immigrant and indigenous women in many societies have limited employment opportunities and are often at the bottom of the labour market. Many of these women hold jobs in free trade zones, the informal economy or unregulated sectors. Maurice Glegle-Ahanhanzo, the special investigator or rapporteur on the subject of contermporary forms of racism of the UN Commission on Human Rights, , studied the situation of minority women in the labour market when he visited Brazil in 1995. He concluded that "black women receive the lowest salaries (four times lower than those of a white man), are employed in the most unhealthy locations, work a triple working day and face threefold discrimination."

Another serious aspect of compounded discrimination, trafficking in women, was addressed in a report presented to the Commission on Human Rights by Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special rapporteur on violence against women. In her report she states that the exploitation of migrants by traffickers "place women in situations in which they are unprotected or only marginally protected by law. Overt forms of violence, including, but not limited to rape, torture, arbitrary execution, deprivation of liberty, forced labour and forced marriage, are perpetrated against women who seek to exercise their freedom of movement".

Ms. Coomaraswamy makes a direct link between anti-immigrant policies, the absence of equal opportunities for women and the phenomenon of trafficking in women. Her report states that, "restrictive and exclusionary immigrant policies serve as important causative factors in the persistence and prevalence of trafficking." When women do not have rights or when such rights are not respected by the State and in the absence of equal opportunities for education and employment, they are made more vulnerable than their male counterparts.

Ethnic or race-based violence against women is considered the most recognizable example of intersectional discrimination. Incidents of rape in Bosnia, Kosovo, Burundi and Rwanda represent race-based targeting of women for an explicitly gender-based violation. Additionally, ethnic conflict produces a large number of female refugees who then become vulnerable to sexual violence and gender-related issues. Rape against women picked because of their ethnic or religious origin has now been recognized as a weapon of war by both International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and prosecuted accordingly.

Until recently, the intersection of gender and racial discrimination and its consequences had not been subject to detailed consideration. The problems were categorized as manifestations of either one form of discrimination or the other, but not both. Ultimately, this allowed the full scope of the problem to escape analysis, which then lead to ineffective or inadequate remedies. This is now changing. Through its "gender mainstreaming" policy, the United Nations, for example, is acknowledging the different ways in which gender roles and gender relations shape women's and men's access to rights, resources and opportunities. The ultimate goal is to achieve equality.

The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September 2001 will be addressing many of these difficult issues directly. The Secretary-General fo the Conference, High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, told a European regional meeting held in Strasbourg last October in prepartion for the Durban conference that, "patterns of modern racism are worryingly different. We need to pay particular attention to gender and racism, and recognize the double discrimination which can occur".

At a recent Asia-Pacific expert seminar in preparation for the World Conference, participants paid particular attention to two consequences of compounded discrimination: irregular migration and trafficking in women. The Seminar noted that, "racial, ethnic and gender discrimination were root causes of migration and trafficking". It was recommended that, during the World Conference, "special focus be put on gender issues and gender discrimination, particularly the multiple jeopardy that occurs when gender, class, race and ethnicity intersect".

The High Commissioner for Human Rights said in New York in February that she believed the Durban Conference could be "a potential Magna Carta for victims". "The hope is for the victims of racism and compounded discrimination to have a positive sense of what the human rights agenda can do for them". Women who suffer from double discrimination will be looking to the Conference to come up with concrete and realistic proposals to address their problems and would accept no less, she added.

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