Background and Mandate

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) established its Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women in 1994 to renew its commitment to ensuring that the rights of women are fully respected and ensured in each member State.  While the constitutions of each member State formally guarantee equality, the Commission’s examination of national legal systems and practices had increasingly revealed the persistence of discrimination based on gender. 


Accordingly, the Rapporteurship was established with an initial mandate to analyze the extent to which member State law and practices that affect the rights of women comply with the broad obligations of equality and nondiscrimination set forth in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights.  Following the intensive study carried out by the Rapporteurship, the Commission published its Report on the Status of Women in the Americas to: provide an overview of the situation; issue recommendations designed to assist the member States in eradicating discrimination in law and practice; and establish priorities for further action by the Rapporteurship and the Commission.


          The obligations of equality and nondiscrimination continue to serve as the points of orientation for the selection of issues being addressed by the Rapporteurship.  Further, the Commission and its Rapporteurship place special emphasis on the problem of violence against women, itself a manifestation of gender-based discrimination, as recognized in the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, “Convention of Belém do Pará.” 


Since that initial study, the Rapporteurship has played a vital role in the Commission’s work to protect the rights of women through the publication of thematic studies; assisting in the development of new jurisprudence in this area within the individual case system; and supporting the investigation of broader issues affecting the rights of women in specific countries of the region through on site visits and country reports.[1] 


More specifically, the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women serves to: raise awareness of the need for further action to ensure that women are able to fully exercise their basic rights; issue specific recommendations aimed at enhancing member State compliance with their priority obligations of equality and nondiscrimination; promote the mechanisms – for example, the filing of individual complaints of violations – that the inter-American human rights system provides to protect the rights of women; conduct specialized studies and prepare reports in this area; and assist the Commission in responding to petitions and other reports of violations of these rights in the region. 


The priority given by the Commission and its Rapporteurship to the protection of the rights of women reflects the importance given to this area by the member States themselves.  In particular, the Plan of Action adopted by the Heads of State and Government during the Third Summit of the Americas recognizes the importance of women’s empowerment, and their full and equal participation in development, in the political life of their countries, and in decision-making at all levels.  To this end, the Plan of Action endorses the Inter-American Program on the Promotion of Women’s Human Rights and Gender Equality and other regional initiatives aimed at implementing the commitments set forth in the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action.



The Rapporteurship works under the directionof a member named by the plenary of the Commission.  The current Special Rapporteur, Member Susan Villarán, was named by the Commissio in late 2003. Commission Member Marta Altolaguirre was designated by the Commission in 2000 and served until late 2003.  The first Rapporteur, member Claudio Grossman, was named by the Commission in 1994, and served until 2000.


Recent Initiatives and Current Priorities

Since the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women was established in 1994, the Commission has developed a practice of specifically addressing the situation of the rights of women during on-site visits.  The rights of women are then dealt with in a specific chapter of its related country reports.  The Special Rapporteur has generally participated in such visits in his or her capacity as Commission member, and played an important role in ensuring due attention to this topic.  A recent example is the Commission’s on site visit to Colombia, carried out in December of 2001, which included a series of meetings related to the situation of the rights of women. 


          In February of 2002, the Rapporteurship carried out its first independent on-site visit, for the purpose of examining the situation of the rights of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.  The visit was undertaken following the receipt of information and expressions of concern from hundreds of nongovernmental organizations and other representatives of civil society, and pursuant to the invitation of the Government of President Vicente Fox.  The visit focused on the grave situation of violence against women in that area, including the killing of over 250 women and girls since 1993, and the unresolved disappearance of over 200 others. 


During the Commission’s March 2002 period of sessions, Rapporteur Marta Altolaguirre informed the plenary of the Commission about the visit and the information collected, and subsequently organized a series of follow-up hearings with representatives of the State and civil society at the Commission’s headquarters. 


In December of 2002, the Commission approved the conclusions and recommendations set forth in the report prepared by the Special Rapporteur, and the report was published in March of 2003.  The recommendations fall into three categories:  general recommendations; recommendations concerning the application of due diligence to investigate these crimes and prosecute and punish those responsible; and recommendations concerning the application of due diligence to prevent future such crimes.  The recommendations focus on ending the impunity that has characterized the vast majority of these crimes, as a key means to punish past killings and prevent future killings.


The Rapporteurship continues to serve the Commission as a vital resource in dealing with individual petitions alleging human rights violations with gender specific causes and consequences.  The Rapporteurship provides an initial analysis of new petitions received in this area, and also assists in follow-up on petitions being processed and the preparation of related reports. 


          The Rapporteurship’s Work Program


The Rapporteurship is currently defining the work program for its next initiatives, the focus of which will be women’s access to justice.  As the Rapporteurship and the Commission have observed in a wide variety of contexts, women often face severe obstacles in obtaining access to effective judicial protection and guarantees.  Because effective access to justice is indispensable for the protection and exercise of basic rights, the Rapporteurship considers that overcoming these obstacles is a vital and urgent priority in the region. 


The Rapporteurship will carry out its analysis taking into account the role of women in the administration of justice from three perspectives.  First, the analysis will consider the situation of women as administrators of justice – as judges, prosecutors and lawyers, and as legislators and members of the executive branch responsible for formulating and implementing law and public policy in this area.  The analysis will examine the extent to which women are participants in these critical functions, and the obstacles that continue to limit the participation of women in key decision-making positions within the administration of justice.  Second, the project will review the situation of women as litigants in the judicial system, with particular attention to the rights of women who have been the victims of crime.  Third, the study will analyze the situation of women being tried as defendants within the criminal justice system.


The core objectives of the project include:


*       Identifying and sharing best practices in the region with respect to women’s access to justice


*     Analyzing the current challenges that confront the countries of the region in this area


*       Formulating recommendations designed to strengthen the best practices and overcome the obstacles


*       Amplifying awareness in the region of the guarantees and mechanisms the inter-American human rights system offers for the protection of the rights of women


*    Monitoring, and providing any technical assistance requested by member States in the implementation of the recommendations in national law and practice


          It is vital to the project that the Rapporteurship incorporate a broad range of information and sources in its study of the obstacles that impede women’s access to justice.  In this regard, the Rapporteurship plans to count on the support of a group of outside experts, as well as a wide variety of state sources and representatives of civil society.  In addition to written requests for information from these sources, the work plan includes a series of subregional consultations aimed at gathering data for the project and providing information to the users and potential users of the inter-American human rights system about the mechanisms it offers for the protection of the rights of women - particularly the right to judicial protection and guarantees.  Accordingly, these consultations will include both working meetings and participatory workshops.


To date, the Rapporteurship has relied on very limited Commission resources to carry out its mandate, and is currently seeking external funding to assist in fulfilling the objectives of its work program.  Such funding will be essential to carry out the information gathering and promotional aspects of this program, as well as to support the ability of the Rapporteur to consult with experts in the field in the design and execution of the project.  Further, such funding will be crucial in ensuring intensive follow up on the implementation of the recommendations to be issued by the Commission.  To date, the Rapporteurship has received funding from the Unites States, and a generous donation from the Government of Finland which will support a project on women´s access to justice.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

          The Commission is a principal organ of the OAS, charged with promoting, protecting, and defending human rights in the Americas. The Commission derives its authority principally from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the other regional human rights treaties. The Commission is made up of seven commission members, who are elected in their personal capacity by the OAS General Assembly, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.


[1] The thematic studies, case reports and country reports may be found on the CD of materials prepared by the Commission, or are available through the IACHR’s web site at: www.cidh.org (which includes a search engine).  The Rapporteurship may also be contacted directly at (202) 458-6011 or 6002.