Part 11 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.
Topic 9: Thematic focus: Multiple forms of discrimination
Section 1: Key concepts
Sex and gender defined
Sex refers to biological difference between men and women.
Gender refers to socially constructed roles, behavior, or activities that are considered appropriate for men and women.
There is little variation in aspects of sex between different human societies. However, gender roles may vary greatly. Because gender differences are based on societal attitudes of what is considered appropriate for men and women, they can and do change over time.
Section 2: Identifying discrimination on more than one ground
Discrimination: Expanding the concept
As we learned in Topic 1, direct discrimination means less favorable or detrimental treatment accorded to an individual, or group of individuals, due to their possession of one or more specific characteristics. International law specifies those protected characteristics as: race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Intersectional discrimination occurs when two or more layers of discrimination act together to double or triple the disadvantage experienced by the individual.
Section 3: Focus on minority women
The concept of gender affects both men and women. However, intersectional discrimination on the grounds of both gender and minority status frequently affects and disadvantages minority women in a different way than men. Members of minorities frequently face threats and increased discrimination from the majority when they try to defend their rights. A dominant majority usually has an interest in keeping the situation the same. When minority women assert their rights, the backlash may have a gender dimension – often sexual violence.
It is important to remember:
- Minority women may face particular discrimination or violence because they are both members of a minority group and women.
- No culture is homogenous.
- All cultures are constantly adapting and changing.
- Minority women have the same rights as other women.
Section 4: Balancing cultural rights with the individual rights of minority women
Protection of identity and restrictions
Culture and gender
For many communities, women and girls are the custodians of cultural identity. Often, cultural practices of men will change, whereas the cultural practices of women are maintained. This is one reason why, when there are tensions between the rights of a minority to protect their cultural identity and the rights of individual members of the minority, frequently, the tensions relate to cultural practices of women or those that affect women.
Cultural identity of minorities: A limited right
Writes MRG, “Members of minorities have the right to protect and promote their identity. However, this right is not unlimited. The UN Declaration on Minorities permits states to restrict cultural practices ‘where specific practices are in violation of national law and contrary to international standards’.
States may not enact laws to restrict any practice they choose, because this would make the right to protection of cultural identity meaningless. Prohibitions on cultural practices must be based on reasonable and objective grounds. States should prohibit practices that violate other human rights standards.”
International law sets out principles to which restrictions on cultural practices, including religious practices, must adhere if they are legitimate:
- Restrictions must not be discriminatory.
- Restrictions must be necessary to protect one of the following:
- public safety
- public order
- public health, or morals
- the fundamental rights and freedoms of others
- The restrictions should be the minimum necessary to meet the aim for which they have been employed.
Undue influence is a legal term defining a situation whereby one person improperly exerts influence over another to act in a certain way.
The right to identity is not unlimited, and there are legitimate restrictions that governments can make on minority cultural practices. However:
- Restrictions must not discriminate (directly or indirectly), and must conform to international standards.
- Cooperation with affected communities is important in ensuring that already marginalized groups do not perceive restrictions to be attacks against them.
- The opinions of diverse sections of minorities are important, since there are likely to be different views on cultural practices and restrictions within the community.