How one word changed human rights for women

How one word changed human rights for women

By Dear Molly

It was 1948 and the world was recovering from the atrocities of WWII, with tensions between the east and west approaching a high.

Meanwhile, the newly-established United Nations was keen to forge ahead with a landmark document that would shape the way all human beings were entitled to be treated globally.

That document would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seventy-two years later, it holds the Guinness World Record as the most translated document ever and is currently available in over 500 languages.

But it could have looked a bit different, if not for one woman and one word.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world…

“Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

Drafted by representatives of diverse legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. 

Two years in the making, the document was one of the initial projects for the United Nations after it was established in 1945 and was overseen by former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt as the first Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission.

The declaration acknowledges that disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in “barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind”, while inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all is the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

It further argues human rights should be protected by the law.

The UDHR was officially adopted on December 10, 1948, and while its promise is yet to be fully realised, it sets the parameters for the rights of all around the globe.

Had it not been for an Indian activist, however, it might only have spoken of the rights of men.

Hans Mehta and the push for gender equality

Other than Eleanor Roosevelt, Indian activist Hans Mehta was the only other female delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1947-48.

Highly educated, Mehta had been part of India’s freedom movement and was among those who drafted the Indian Constitution after Independence.

Mehta was a fierce advocate for women both at home and abroad and brought this to the table in her role on the Human Rights Commission.

So, when Article 1 of the declaration included the words “All men are born free and equal" she staunchly advocated for a change of phrase.

Ultimately, Mehta would get her wish with the final document instead reading: "All human beings are born free and equal".

On the 70th anniversary of the UHDR proclamation in 2018, Mehta’s “essential contribution” and that of other women was acknowledged, with UN chief Antonio Guterres noting without her :”…we would likely be speaking of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man rather than of Human Rights”.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Hans Mehta are just two of the women who helped shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with their influence serving to establish gender equality, while highlighting injustices like child marriage, and inequitable pay.

You can read more about their contribution to the UDHR here.

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