Jessie Street & human rights

Elizabeth Evatt

My favourite photo of Jessie shows her standing under the entry hatch of the RAAF bomber which carried the Australian delegation to San Francisco for the United Nations Charter conference in April 1945. You had to be tough to travel in those days - and Jessie was tough. It was still war time and they had to fly in darkness, in acute discomfort on makeshift seats, with no cabin service, island hopping across the Pacific. Jessie is shown clutching a sleeping bag. Jessie was the only woman member of Australia's delegation. In San Francisco, she quickly joined forced with the small band of women from other delegations. Their first victory was to have the equal rights of men and women recognised in the Preamble to the United Nations Charter.

Next, they wanted women to be able to work in the United Nations on equal terms. Some governments did not think it necessary to provide for this. But Jessie and the other women knew only too well that, when women are not mentioned expressly, they are likely to be excluded. They won the day. The UN Charter provides for conditions of equality in employment for men and women.

Their third goal was to secure a permanent United Nations body to deal with women's rights. Jessie wanted this to be an influential body, with its own secretariat. She wanted states to report to the body on how they had given effect to its resolutions on women's equality. The women argued that such a body was needed in addition to the proposed Commission on Human Rights, because historically rights had been enjoyed exclusively by men and had been denied to women.

As she had always said, if you don't refer expressly to women, they will be excluded from rights.

They succeeded in getting a Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). But their original fears about the potential for neglect of women's rights were realised, when the CSW was given lower status and fewer resources than those given to the Commission on Human Rights.

Furthermore, the existence of a separate Commission for Women led to a real risk that women's issues would be overlooked by the Commission on Human Rights, when it began drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1947.

By that time, Jessie was Vice-Chair of the CSW. The CSW had won the right to be present when the Draft Declaration was being discussed; the aim was to ensure that women's rights were not overlooked.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become a revered and authoritative document in human rights. It was drafted in 1947-48 by the Human Rights Commission, which was presided over by the equally revered Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is therefore startling to read that the first Draft of the Declaration sent out by the Commission for comment opened with these words: 'All men are brothers'. The rest of the draft was written entirely in the male person. These were the rights of 'man'; they were, as drafted, 'his' rights. There was no reference to 'woman' or to 'her' rights - except for one minor reference to mothers and children.

Jessie and her CSW colleagues sprang to the attack. Jessie wanted the language to be expressly inclusive of male and female, at every point. As she had always said, if you don't refer expressly to women, they will be excluded from rights. The CSW women found support from a member of CHR Mrs Hansa Mehta of India. They had partial success. The 'brotherhood' opening was dropped. In its place, Article 1 begins: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.'

But the victory was limited. Although some attempt was made in later drafts to introduce terms such as 'everyone' and 'all persons', and to mention women in a few places, the Declaration doggedly stuck to the male pronoun - 'he', 'him' and 'his rights' throughout. The impression this gives is not completely offset by the provision to the effect that rights were to be enjoyed without discrimination on the ground of, inter alia, sex.

Jessie and the CSW made an impact in some other areas. She wanted women to have not only the equal right to marry, but to have equal freedom of choice in marriage and equal rights during marriage and in regard to divorce. Those points were won, (Article 16), but she did not succeed in getting a provision that women were not deprived of their nationality by marriage, or a ban on polygamy. (Nationality, UDHR 15)

Jessie's arguments for a provision on equal pay regardless of sex were taken up in the next (Geneva) draft and remain in the final Declaration, (Article 23 (2)). Jessie wanted the Declaration to make express provision for widows to be entitled to social security. This principle is included in the final Declaration (article 25).

But some of Jessie's forward looking ideas were ignored. She argued for a provision in the Declaration recognising the right of women to freedom from violence. This idea, and others concerning the protection of the rights of prostitutes, were disregarded.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. Bert Evatt was presiding at the time as President of the General Assembly. When we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration later this year, we can recall that, behind the scenes, the interventions of Jessie Street and the CSW helped to ensure that there was express provision for equal pay, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and social security protection for widows. And slightly more gender inclusive language.

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