Gendering the Universal Declaration

Fionnuala Ni Aolain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As the Universal Declaration on Human Rights celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this article examines the gendered foundations of the document. Drawing on its drafting history the article concludes that despite considerable advances contained within it the document has many limitations. Over the years, greater attention has been focused on the ways in which the Universal Declaration has advanced claims for gender equality. As the document's influence and status have magnified, its gendered boundaries are in plainer sight. Moreover, as feminists have systematically exposed the entrenched biases of international law, the Universal Declaration does not emerge from scrutiny unscathed. This article analyses the enduring impact of gender inclusions and exclusions in the drafting of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Examining the Declaration's drafting history reveals the character and form of gender as included in the document and the long-term effects on the normative character of human rights law. Following in the footsteps of other feminist international scholars, this article suggests that foundational documents matter to the construction of gender relations in ways that are difficult to dislodge and create conceptual pathways that can substantially limit theoretically open-ended visions of international human rights law. Thus, advancements typified as achievements in their time may carry more baggage with them than we perceive. The article suggest that a more quizzical view of the gains made for women in the Universal Declaration might contribute to the broader project of defining gender dignity, violation, and accountability in ways that consistently reflect and respond to the experiences and needs of women rather than to an accommodationalist model which tries to "fit" the experiences of women within an existing and constrained framework.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335
JournalMaryland Journal of International Law and Trade
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2009


  • gender
  • universal declaration
  • discrimination
  • drafting history
  • foundational legal documents
  • sexism


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