Violations of the human rights of women, such as domestic violence, were not perceived as human rights issues until quite late. Human rights were originally designed to protect the individual citizen from interference by the state in the private sphere. In their traditional role, however, women were primarily active in the private spheres of the home and family, which were not originally covered by the protection of human rights.
With the declaration of International Women’s Year in 1975 by the UN General Assembly the UN began its intensive involvement with the situation of women throughout the world. The great achievement of this time was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, which is one of the central international human rights conventions. A committee of experts, the CEDAW-Committee, verifies compliance with the Convention by way of country reports. Since 2000, on the basis of an Optional Protocol elaborated under Austrian chairmanship, it also receives complaints by individuals. Austria was one of the first states to agree to the examination of individual complaints by the CEDAW Committee. The sixth Austrian country report from 2004 was examined by the CEDAW Committee in New York on 23 January 2007.
The World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 marked a historic turning point with the explicit recognition of the rights of women as an “inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights”. The acknowledgement and demand that “women’s rights are human rights” culminated in the ambitious results of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. A further milestone was resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which was unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council on 31 October 2000. This resolution for the first time emphasises the essential role of women in all phases of conflict settlement and peace-building.
Austria is not currently a member of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) but is an active observer and regularly sends a high-ranking delegation to the annual meeting. It also cooperates with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in strengthening women’s rights.
Together with the office of the Minister of Women’s Affairs, the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs regularly organises information events for NGOs on developments in international women’s rights.
Austrian commitment to women’s rights
Improving the human rights situation of women is a priority of Austrian foreign policy. Austria actively promotes these rights at all levels: in the United Nations, European Union (EU), Council of Europe and OSCE, and also in relations with third states and in Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC). Main focuses of this commitment are the involvement of women in conflict prevention and settlement, violence against women, and the protection of human rights defenders.
The term “violence against women” is used to described acts of violence against women on account of their sex and those that particularly affect women. Traditional violence such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage is part of the worldwide phenomenon of violence against women that occurs in every culture, religion and social class. According to estimates, one in five women in Austria is affected by violence. In its ADC projects Austria therefore supports the prevention of FGM and other traditional practices by financing sensitivisation projects such as the one in north-east Ethiopia. It also supports the African Union (AU) Gender Office, which combats FGM at the regional level in implementation of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. In relation to UNIFEM activities, Austria contributes regularely to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women. The Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs also endeavours to raise the awareness of Austrian representative authorities in other countries to ensure that Austrians who are forced to marry, for example, can rapidly obtain consular legal protection. Austria also supports ADC projects to combat trafficking in women and girls for prostitution or slave-like work in South Eastern Europe including Moldova. Under the guidance of the Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs a National Action Plan has been devised to combat trafficking in human beings, which takes particular account of the situation of women and girls.
Violence against women tends to increase considerably during and after armed conflicts. Flight and uprooting put women in uncertain situations, and sexual violence against women is used as a cruel weapon of war. Austria is therefore particularly active in urging the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000).
An Austrian National Action Plan with specific measures for implementing Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) in peace missions, development cooperation and humanitarian aid was completed in August 2007 with the aim of encouraging the involvement of women in peace processes, strengthening preventive measures to combat violence against women, increasing the participation of women in Austrian peace missions, and urging greater representation by women in leading positions in international organisations like the UN or EU. A working group under the direction of the Foreign Ministry will monitor the implementation of the Action Plan on an annual basis.