Human Rights in Contemporary World

Introduction to Human Rights

According to Pereira (2007), human rights are universally inalienable. All human beings are entitled to these rights at birth. Also, they are said to be egalitarian and wide-ranging. In this paper, the author analyses an example of human rights abuse in the contemporary world. The human rights abuse selected shows a clear conflict between universalism and cultural relativism.

To this end, the author selected the issue of abuse of women rights. The moral, religious, and other ideas behind the apparent conflicts in this issue are analyzed. Furthermore, the author analyses major international and regional instruments used to address the issue of abuse of women rights. The mechanisms that can be used to address this abuse or prosecute those who engage in this practice are analyzed.

The author of this paper thinks that abuse of women rights is rampant in many societies in the world. The abuse is attributed to several factors, such as cultural and religious beliefs. The author focuses on genital mutilation and discrimination against women based on religious beliefs. The two are used as classic examples of violation of women rights.

Universalism and Cultural Relativism: General Overview

A lot of people are skeptic about the concept of a universal moral language. The skepticism has sparked debate about the universality of human rights in different parts of the world (Pereira, 2007). Cultural relativists contend that culture is the main source of moral rights or rules (Prasad, 2007). Prasad asserts that rights are culturally determined, but excessive relativism is controlled by the universalism of these freedoms.

Individuals who subscribe to the idea of cultural relativism contend that human rights vary from one culture to another. They hold that acts regarded as violations of human rights in one culture may be accepted as normal behavior patterns in another culture.

The idea that human rights are egalitarian does not take into consideration the fact that societies exhibit cultural differences. The cultural relativism aspect does not provide an inclusive set of universalism. There are cases where human rights have been violated due to this conflict between universalism and cultural relativism.

The Universalism vs. Cultural Relativism Debate and Violation of Women Rights


Women rights are depicted differently in different cultures around the world. It is noted that the gap between universalism and cultural relativism has derailed efforts to formulate human rights that are uniform. The gap has led to the violation of human rights about those freedoms.

Proponents of the universality of rights concept continue to accuse proponent of cultural relativism of their tendency to justify the continued subjugation of women rights based on cultural variations.

With regards to the violation of human rights, women continue to face immeasurable forms of abuse in society. The violations are in the form of, among others, rape, forced prostitution, genital mutilations, forced motherhood, and alienation from political processes. Most of the abuse cases are due to cultural beliefs. Ironically, Baderin (2003) holds that women are perceived as the “upholders” of traditions that, in turn, affect them.

Women adhere to traditional, religious, and cultural demands that are specific to their communities. Given an option, the majority of women would prefer to abide by the traditions in which they were brought up. Many nations are governed by patriarchal ideologies, which stifle social reforms in society. As such, women have no power to influence oppressive traditions (Brownlie, 2008).

Genital Mutilation and Violation of Women Rights

One prime example of harmful cultural traditions involve genital mutilation, especially in the African continent. Ironically, the abuses are committed in countries that are members of the United Nations Council (UN). The organization has advocated for the abolishment of such retrogressive practices.

The practice is supported by the need to uphold cultural norms. For example, some cultures require a seven-month pregnant mother to undergo circumcision to purify the baby (Hashemi, 2008).

Governments in the countries where these traditions prevail adhere to non-interference policies. Many of them do not perceive genital mutilation as a human rights issue. Instead, they view it as a way of preserving culture. Other nations that have made initiatives to abolish this act of human abuse only enact policies as empty gestures instigated to gain approval from the UN and other western communities.

Governments like those in Kenya and Nigeria, who have signed the ratification as a move to eradicate the practice, continue to overlook these acts of human rights violation (UN Department of Public Information [UNDPI], 1987).

Universalists condemn genital mutilation, terming it as culturally sanctioned human rights violations. On their part, cultural relativists endorse these practices, terming them as invaluable in the preservation of culture (Renteln, 2011).

Religious Based Discrimination against Women

Religion creates a solid foundation and pillar for cultural practices. However, discrimination against women is rampant within religious circles. For example, Islam condones what universalists perceive as human rights violations. Islam has disregarded the universalist point of view, opting for the cultural relativism concept that supports the definition of human rights on a cultural basis (Hashemi, 2008).

Gender-based sanctions defined by sharia rules have encouraged segregation of women in the society. For instance, sharia laws postulate that women must be married to Muslims and to one man at a time. Muslim women are prohibited from choosing their spouses. Also, married women are forbidden from flirting or behaving provocatively in front of men, other than their husbands (Penna & Campbell, 2008).

Islamic marriage rules regarding men are less restrictive compared to those governing women. Men can marry up to four Muslim women. Also, men have the right to retain or divorce their wives. Universalists are of the view that Muslim women have internalized and accepted these prescriptions. They are brought up believing that they are inferior to men (Brownlie, 2008).

The Role of International and Regional Instruments

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) can be used to address the issue of violation of women rights. It was adopted by the UN in 1979. Some refer to it as the “international bill of rights for women” (UNDPI, 1987). The provisions of this convention can be integrated into local laws and regulations to address the issue of violation of women rights (UNDPI, 1987).

Traditions cultural norms are not static. As such, international and regional legal instruments can be used to combat the abuse of women rights.

Women should take the leading role in activities aimed at achieving this. The reason is that women are both targets and ‘upholders’ of cultural practices. Mechanisms that address women rights must be safeguarded by women themselves. For instance, regional legislators must lobby the government to adopt the provisions of CEDAW (UNDPI, 1987).

Inter-Parliamentary Unions (IPUs) between countries can be used to formulate and laws to fight female genital mutilation and religious discriminations against women. For example, laws can be enacted to punish parents who take their daughters through female genital mutilation (UNDPI, 1987).

A major strength of this instrument is the fact that it is internationally recognized and acceptable. It is also effective given that it took into consideration input from women during the formulation. However, the conflict between universalism and cultural relativism affects the applicability of the same.

For example, universalists support these legal instruments, arguing that they protect women rights at the international level. However, cultural relativists argue that the legal instruments fail to acknowledge the fact that culture is not uniform. To address this issue, the instruments can be adapted to accommodate local realities (UNDPI, 1987).

Corrective Mechanisms

One corrective measure to address the issue of violation of women rights involves adopting convention treaties into law.

The measures include the formation of tribunals that work with relevant institutions to ensure that the rights of women are protected. CEDAW convention is one of the human right treaties that recognize the reproductive rights of women and targets. It aims at restructuring traditional cultures that are oppressive to women (Penna & Campbell, 2008).

When the mechanisms above are put in place, those who violate women rights can be charged in a court of law. Parliaments ensure that international and regional instruments are understood by the locals. Parliaments should review laws regularly to ensure that the rights of women are upheld (Reichert, 2006).

Summary and Conclusion

Cultural laws take precedence over universal laws. The issue of violation of women rights needs a long term solution. To this end, it is important to note that cultural relativism is not superficial.

To address the issue of violation of women rights, an internal and gradual movement that involves both young and older generations should be formed. When this happens, the adoption of universalist rules will not derail mechanisms meant to ensure that women enjoy their rights.


Baderin, M. A. (2003). International human rights and Islamic law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brownlie, I. (2008). Principles of public international law (7th ed.). London: Oxford University Press.

Hashemi, K. (2008). Religious legal traditions, international human rights law and Muslim states. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Penna, D. R., & Campbell, P. J. (2008). Human rights and culture: Beyond universality and relativism. Third World Quarterly, 19(1), 7-27.

Pereira, W. (2007). Inhuman rights: The western system and global human rights abuse. Goa, India: Other India Press.

Prasad, A. (2007). Cultural Relativism In Human Rights Discourse. Peace Review, 19(4), 589-596.

Reichert, E. (2006). Human Rights: An Examination Of Universalism And Cultural Relativism. Journal of Comparative Social Welfare, 22(1), 23-36.

Renteln, A. D. (2011). International human rights: universalism versus relativism. Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

United Nations Department of Public Information (1987). Is Universality in jeopardy?. New York: United Nations.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *