Women who shaped the Universal Declaration
Eleanor Roosevelt’s leading role as Chairperson of the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been well documented. But other women also played essential parts in shaping the document. Some of them, and their contributions to the inclusion of women’s rights in the Universal Declaration, are featured here.*
* Source: Women and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Rebecca Adami, Routledge, 2018
First lady of the United States of America from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed, in 1946, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by United States President Harry S. Truman. She served as the first Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At a time of increasing East- West tensions, Eleanor Roosevelt used her enormous prestige and credibility with both superpowers to steer the drafting process toward its successful completion. In 1968, she was posthumously awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize.
Hansa Mehta of India, the only other female delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947-48, was a staunch fighter for women’s rights in India and abroad. She is widely credited with changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal” in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A diplomat and feminist leader from the Dominican Republic, Minerva Bernardino was instrumental in arguing for inclusion of “the equality of men and women” in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Together with other Latin American women (Bertha Lutz of Brazil and Isabel de Vidal of Uruguay), she had also played a crucial role in advocating for the inclusion of women’s rights and nondiscrimination based on sex in the United Nations Charter, which in 1945 became the first international agreement to recognize the equal rights of men and women.
BEGUM SHAISTA IKRAMULLAH
As a delegate to the General Assembly’s Third Committee on social, humanitarian and cultural matters, which in 1948 spent 81 meetings discussing the draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Begum Shaista Ikramullah of Pakistan advocated for emphasis on freedom, equality and choice in the Declaration. She championed the inclusion of Article 16, on equal rights in marriage, which she saw as a way to combat child marriage and forced marriage.
As Chairperson of the Sub- Commission on the Status of Women in 1946, and then of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1947, Bodil Begtrup of Denmark advocated for the Universal Declaration to refer to “all” or “everyone” as the holders of the rights, rather than “all men.“ She also proposed including the rights of minorities in Article 26 on the right to education, but her ideas were too controversial at the time. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes no explicit mention of minority rights, but guarantees equal right to everyone.
As Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1948, Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux of France successfully advocated for a mention of non-discrimination based on sex to be included in Article 2. The final text of the article states that, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, 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.”
Evdokia Uralova of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic was the Rapporteur of the Commission on the Status of Women to the Commission on Human Rights in 1947. She strongly argued for equal pay for women. Thanks to her, Article 23 states that “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” Together with Fryderyka Kalinowska of Poland and Elizavieta Popova of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, she also stressed the rights of persons in Non-Self-Governing Territories (Article 2).
Lakshmi Menon, delegate of India to the General Assembly’s Third Committee in 1948, argued forcefully for the repetition of non-discrimination based on sex throughout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as for a mention of “the equal rights of men and women” in the preamble. She was also an outspoken advocate of the “universality” of human rights, strongly opposing the concept of “colonial relativism” that sought to deny human rights to people in countries under colonial rule. If women, and people under colonial rule, were not explicitly mentioned in the Universal Declaration, they would not be considered included in “everyone,” she argued.