International Intersectionality: A Theoretical and Pragmatic Exploration of Women's International Human Rights Violations

117 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2012

See all articles by Johanna Bond

Johanna Bond

Washington and Lee University - School of Law

Date Written: July 16, 2012


Ardent identity politics dominate the world stage. As Afghanistan struggles to overcome Taliban rule, the international community attempts to help rebuild a nation torn apart by violent ethnic clashes. Recent eruptions of violence between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority in the Indian state of Gujarat have focused international attention on communal conflicts in the region. In both cases, and many more like them, women's bodies become one of the primary sites for contested national identity. In Afganistan, the struggle for nationalist identity violated women's international human rights through extreme forms of seclusion, isolation, and violence. In Gujarat, the religious conflict led to large-scale rape and murder.

In addition to the violence visited on women as a result of extreme nationalism around the world, women in such situations are also often forced to choose between nationalist struggles and struggles to achieve gender equality. Identity politics, as popularly conceived, leave no room for women to situate themselves at the crossroads of both struggles and lead to oversimplified notions of women's identity. Although feminists in the global South have criticized this understanding of women's human rights around the world. The international human rights community has, in fact, relied on its own permutation of a unified, monolithic identity for women, which has led to a myopic approach to women's human rights that fails to address complex forms of human rights violations. The international human rights community has, in recent years, expanded its definition of human rights violations to include many of the human rights abuses commonly perpetrated against women. Although this expansion represents significant progress for the world's women, the movement has consistently relied on a rigid, unitary category of "women." With the exception of some voices from the global South, the international women's human rights community's focus on "women" to the exclusion of other ididentity categories, such as ethnicity, race, class, religion, and sexual orientation, has resulted in a limited understanding of women's human rights. One explanation for this is that, like the domestic women's rights movement in the United States, the international women's human rights movement began by focusing on perceived "shared experience" in an effort to maximize support for the movement. Only in the last few years have activists begun to critically examine whether the international women's human rights movement, as currently understood, can accommodate a complex, nuanced understanding of human rights violations.

The predominant narrow, relatively static notion of women's human rights does not adequately reflect the eperience of women within minority racial or ethnic communities, lesbians, disabled women, or other women who may experience discrimination or human rights violations as a result of both gender and another ground. In 1998, for example, members of the Indonesian ethnic majority raped a number of ethnically Chinese women who constitute an ethnic minority in Indonesia. These women suffered human rights violations, including death threats and rape, based simultanelusly on their gender and ethnicity. The international community, however, largely failed to recognize abuses such as these as products of both racism and sexism.

The international human rights community historically has not responded to such human rights violations as both violation of rights related to race or ethnicity and gender. "Neither the gender aspects of racial discrimination nor the racial aspects of gender discrimination are fully comprehended within human rights discourses." This is due to both the theoretical framework of human rights and the fragmented structure of human rights organizations and institution, which divide responsibility for addressing human rights along rigid substantive lines separating, for example, race and gender. Indeed, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights observed, "The United Nations, governments, inter-governmental and non-governmentatal organizations have often addressed racial and gender discrimination as two separate problems, leaving women faced by multiple forms of dicrimination unsure of where to turn for redress." The current theoretical foundations, organizational structure, and practice of the United Nations and many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) does not permit a nuanced human rights analysis that would account for multiple forms of human rights abuses occurring simultaneously.

Keywords: Women's Rights, International Law, Human Rights

JEL Classification: K10, K33

Suggested Citation

Bond, Johanna, International Intersectionality: A Theoretical and Pragmatic Exploration of Women's International Human Rights Violations (July 16, 2012). Emory Law Journal, Vol. 52, No. 71, 2003, Available at SSRN:

Johanna Bond (Contact Author)

Washington and Lee University - School of Law ( email )

Lexington, VA 24450
United States

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