The Women Who Shaped Human Rights at The UN

[Published in Madras Courier, January 14, 2019]

From left — Angela Jurdak (Lebanon), Fryderyka Kalinowski (Poland), Bodil Begtrup (Denmark), Minerva Bernardino (Dominical Republic), and Hansa Mehta (India), delegates to the UN’s Sub-Commission on the Status of Women, New York, May 1946 /UN Photo

In today’s world marred by conflicts, inequality, mass displacement and instances of gross human rights violations, the relevance of human rights as a concept, practicable goal, and even hope for many has only increased. Ever since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, nearly 70 years ago, it has served as a guiding force behind many international laws, politico-legal frameworks, and constitutions around the world. As a seminal document with 30 articles spanning the realm of political and civil rights and social, economic and cultural rights, the Declaration holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated document (with over 500 translations).

To commemorate this occasion, the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York has organized an exhibition highlighting the origins and journey of the Declaration. As I stood there, scribbling notes and clicking pictures, I was soon joined by a host of other women — event attendees, diplomats, visitors who stopped by the same corner — eager to record the birth of this extraordinary document and consensus. What was however different and striking about this exhibit was its acknowledgement of the contribution of eight women — some lesser known names, especially from the non-western world, who helped shape the Declaration. Here, I provide brief glimpses — using text and data from various public sources, including the exhibit — of work and contribution of these eight women [in alphabetical order of their last names].

Bodil Begtrup

Bodil Begtrup was the Scandinavian presence at the exhibit. Since 1930s, she was actively involved with the Danish National Women’s Council and other similar women’s rights initiatives in her home country Denmark. In 1938, she became a delegate to the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN. Later, she became a member of the Danish delegation to the General Assembly during 1946–52.

She served as the Chairperson of both the UN Sub-commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1946 and later of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1947. CSW was an intergovernmental body established in 1946 for the promotion of gender equality. The exhibition credits her for advocating the need to include the phrases “all” and “everyone”, as opposed to “all men”, as right holders within the Universal Declaration. Within Article 26 (Right to Education) of the Declaration, she proposed the need to include the rights of minorities. The exhibition sources suggest how her ideas were found to be “controversial” at that time. Though the Declaration doesn’t make an “explicit mention of minority rights”, it does guarantee equal rights to everyone.

Minerva Bernardino

Minerva Bernardino was actively involved with political developments for women in her country of the Dominican Republic. As a leader of Acción Feminista Dominica, she successfully led the campaign to include civil rights and suffrage for Dominican women in the amended Constitution of 1942.

Her career began as a civil servant in the late 1920s and early 1930s while her tryst with the UN began in 1945, where she attended its founding conference in San Francisco and became one of the only four women to sign the United Nations Charter. Along with her female counterparts from Latin America (Isabel de Vidal of Uruguay and Bertha Lutz of Brazil), she advocated for the inclusion of women’s rights and non-discrimination based on sex within the UN Charter, which is hailed as the first international agreement to recognize the equal rights of men and women. With respect to the Universal Declaration, the exhibition credits her for playing a key role in arguing for the inclusion of the phrase — “the equality of men and women” within the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

She was also one of the fifteen founding members of the of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Begum Shaista Ikramullah

Among South Asian presences, Begum Shaista Ikramullah was a rarity. She was born in Kolkata, was elected in 1946 elections in India, and later was also elected in the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. During the course of her life, she was a politician, diplomat and writer. She served as a delegate to the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which spent over 81 meetings in 1948 to deliberate on the drafting of the Declaration. The exhibition credits her for championing the cause of “freedom, equality and choice” to be included within the Declaration. To this end, she was instrumental in shaping Article 16 of the Declaration which deals with equal rights in marriage and the role of free and full consent. She believed that this provision could act as a means to combat child marriages and forced marriages.

Marie-Helene Lefaucheux

Like Bernardino, Marie-Helene Lefaucheux [seated in above photo] was also one of the founding members of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In 1946, she attended the first UN General Assembly as the only female representative of the French delegation. In her capacity as Chairperson of CSW in 1948, she successfully championed for the inclusion of non-discrimination based on sex within the Article 2 of the Universal Declaration. In its current form, Article 2 condemns any form of distinction based on “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

Lefaucheux’s early political career began as a French resistance fighter during World War II and following France’s liberation, she was elected to the first interim parliament of the provisional government. From 1954–1964, after her stint with the UN, she was actively involved with various women’s rights organizations in France such as National Council of Women and International Council of Women.

Hansa Mehta

Other than Eleanor Roosevelt, Hansa Mehta of India was the only other female delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1947–48.

She was a social reformer, freedom fighter, writer, an educator and a champion of women’s rights. Her early years in India and later her experiences at the UN spoke to her belief and experiments in framing a codified set of rights. For instance, during 1946–47 as President of All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), she had proposed a Charter of Women’s Rights.

The UN exhibition credits her for changing the phrase “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal” within the Article 1 of the Universal Declaration. In December 2018, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres remarked that if not for Hansa Mehta, “we would likely be speaking of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man rather than of Human Rights.”

She played a prominent role in drafting the Constitution of India as a member of the Constituent Assembly from the province of Bombay (during 1946–49). The Indian Constitution heavily drawn upon the Universal Declaration.

Lakshmi Menon

Along with Hansa Mehta, Lakshmi Menon was the other Indian woman who was featured at the exhibit. Menon was a lawyer and a champion of women’s education. Her stint at the UN began as a delegate from India to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee in 1948. The exhibition credits her for arguing out the case for incorporating “non-discrimination based on sex” throughout the Universal Declaration. In addition, she strongly pushed for the inclusion of the phrase — “the equal rights of men and women” within the preamble of the Declaration.

Menon was a staunch supporter of the universality of human rights. In this regard, as per the exhibit sources, she strongly opposed the concept of colonial relativism that sought to undermine the human rights of those under the colonial rule. After her stint with the UN, she served as a Minister of State for External Affairs (during 1957–66) in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet. In 1955, she became the president of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC).

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the most preeminent names associated with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the spouse of Franklin D. Roosevelt, she served as the former first lady of the United States of America (1933- 1945). Later, she was appointed to the UN General Assembly in 1946 as a US delegate by President Harry S Truman. Her leadership role, as the first Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights (first convened at Lake Success in New York, 1947) was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration as well as shepherding the often contentious to arrive at an agreeable final document. The exhibition credits her for employing her “prestige and credibility at a time of East-West tensions”, to successfully spearhead the drafting process of the International Bill of Human Rights.

Evdokia Uralova

Like other women representatives discussed here, Evdokia Uralova (in the center of the above photo) of the erstwhile USSR (Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic) was also involved with the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in her capacity as rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947. The exhibition credits her for championing the cause of equal pay for women within the Universal Declaration. To her credit, Article 23 of the Declaration clearly states that “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

Along with her two female counterparts (Elizavieta Popova of USSR and Fryderyka Kalinowska of Poland), she also called for the need to safeguard the rights of persons in Non-Self Governing Territories (enshrined in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration).

The eight women featured here — courtesy the scholarly work of Rebecca Adami from Stockholm University, who has written extensively about those momentous days — present a gendered history of the origin of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The fears, hopes and demands that they brought to fore reflect the social, economic and cultural milieu of the respective countries that they represented at the UN. But more personally, some of these women were also actively involved with national political struggles in their home countries and had active roles during World War II.

To an extent, they saw in the birth of UN, an opportunity to transform their experiences to create an institutional framework for a world that had seen the horrors of World War II up close and was still in the early stages of decolonization. This was particularly true of women representatives from newly independent States and young democracies like India. As women, who were cognizant of many shades of discrimination that fellow women in their home countries endured, it was not surprising that a recurring theme that surfaced in the advocacy efforts of these eight women was the call for gender equality, the relevance of which has only increased manifold today.

Development practitioner & writer | Former policy consultant & researcher with United Nations | I work in migration, gender policy & technology for development.