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Roundtable on Human Rights
An exchange on Human Rights: Advancing the Frontier of Emancipation

Riane Eisler


I would like to start by thanking Kathryn Sikkink for her excellent essay “Human Rights: Advancing the Frontier of Emancipation.” My focus has been on the expansion of human rights theory and action to include the majority of humanity: women and children. That focus came not only out of my concern for the millions of women and children worldwide whose most basic rights to life, liberty, and freedom from violence are violated every day, most often within their own families and communities, but also out of my decades of multidisciplinary, historical, and cross-cultural research showing that achieving social and economic justice worldwide requires an integrated progressive agenda—one that, like the agenda of regressives, includes matters still viewed by many liberals as “just” women’s and children’s issues.

In 1987, the year my book The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future was published, I wrote the first article on what is now termed “women’s rights as human rights” for the Human Rights Quarterly.1 Fast forwarding, my more recent publications include a chapter called “Protecting the Majority of Humanity” in a book published by Cambridge University Press as well as pieces for other outlets such as my article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies called “Protecting Children: From Rhetoric to Global Action.”2

Here I want to add to this conversation some of the reasons that expanding human rights theory and action to focus much more attention on this area is so important.

(1) Until recently, human rights theory and action focused primarily on the so-called public sphere from which the majority of humanity—women and children—were traditionally barred. However, our first, and most lasting, lessons about human relations are learned not in the public sphere, but in the private sphere. This is where people learn to respect the rights of others—or where they learn to view human rights violations as normal. Indeed, psychology and neuroscience show that what children observe and/or experience in families affects their adult beliefs, behaviors, political attitudes—even the neural structures of their developing brains.

(2) There is a global pandemic of violence against women and children affecting many millions more than all the wars in our world. Over the last decades, for the first time in history, numerous reports have documented the magnitude, severity, and systemic nature of crimes against women and children, as well as their consequences, including traumas and all too often deaths. To give a few examples:

(a) Traditions of abuse and violence against the female half of humanity

In its “Fact Sheet on Domestic Violence as Torture,” Amnesty International points out that violence against women in intimate relations not only takes the lives of millions of girls and women but also criminally torments them.3 A World Bank report estimated that this violence against women was as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer and a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.4

Yet to this day, even murder in the name of honor is not classified as a crime in many regions of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Neither is disfiguring a girl by throwing acid in her face for spurning a suitor, or other “customary” violence, such as beating a woman to “chastise” her for not obeying her husband. Rape (including revenge rape) is also not prosecuted in many areas, even though according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), one in five women worldwide will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Brutalities ranging from genital mutilation of girls and child marriage (often to men four or five times as old as the child) to selective female infanticide and denying girl children food and health care (in addition to education) have long been justified on the grounds of cultural and/or religious tradition in parts of Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.

In addition to the resulting deaths and traumas to survivors, with all the adverse human and social consequences, the economic costs of these human rights violations are huge, not to speak of the enormous costs to our world when children learn to internalize a model of our species in which difference, beginning with the most fundamental difference between female and male, is equated with superiority and inferiority, dominating or being dominated, being served or serving—which can then automatically be applied to other differences, be it race, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth.

(b) Traditions of abuse and violence against children of both genders

Receiving almost no press coverage, but affecting millions of children worldwide, is violence against children in schools. Generally described as “corporal punishment,” this practice is still legal in 90 countries, and 350 million students around the world face violence in their schools each year. According to the report “Learn Without Fear,” this includes 33 types of violence, from beatings to hitting children on the head.5 In the United States, paddling—that is, hitting a child’s buttocks with a wooden instrument—is still legal in 21 states, and, according to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, is used frequently in rural areas of 13 Southern states.6

In most cultures, violence against children in families is still considered an acceptable, even moral, form of discipline. Some of this violence is extremely severe: physical blows (on many areas of the body, not only on the buttocks), kicking, shaking, throwing, scratching, pinching, biting, burning, whipping, scalding, suffocating, and beatings with belts, bats, sticks, metal rods, and other instruments. In other words, children are subjected to acts that in other circumstances would be classified as torture—acts that, especially since these children are dependent on the adults who commit them, are especially traumatic. Yet in most world regions, using force to punish children in families is not defined as an act of violence, even though it would be a crime if against an adult.

Children in many world regions are still forced to work in dangerous and inhuman conditions, with children as young as age four in Afghanistan subject to forced labor and debt bondage. Children are also placed in combat-related roles, forced to be soldiers or to set explosive devices, and trained as suicide bombers, with the use of child suicide bombers, including girls, in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad by Boko-Haram on the rise, according to a 2017 Al Jazeera report.7

As for sexual violence, in addition to the global sex trade and its millions of victims and the violence of forced sexual intercourse with much older men of child brides (sometimes, as in recent cases in Yemen, causing fatal internal injuries), the World Health Organization estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under the age of 18 have experienced forced sexual intercourse or another form of sexual violence.8 United Nations reports indicate an even greater percentage, based on data showing that between 7 and 36 percent of adult women and between 3 and 29 percent of adult men reported sexual victimization in the home during their childhood.9 Yet in many world regions these crimes are rarely prosecuted.

In addition to the horrible impact of these and other forms of violence against children on its victims, what children learn from these practices is that abuse and violence are permissible, even moral, to impose one’s will on others.

(3) The question that arises is why these crimes have been given so little attention in the thousands of volumes that have by now been written about human rights. One reason is the astonishing omission, or at best marginalization, of children in what we have been taught as “important” knowledge and truth. Another is an equally astonishing fact: none of the major social categories we use to describe social systems—right or left, capitalist or socialist, industrial or pre-or post-industrial, Eastern or Western, Northern or Southern, etc.—have much, if anything, to say about children or families.

These omissions in both language and normative narratives have served a purpose. They condition people to consider what happens in families and to children to be of little if any real social importance.

Still another reason for the silence about violations of women’s and children’s human rights is that religious scriptures contain commands to actually use violence against women and children, such as the famous biblical “spare the rod and spoil the child.” So, to this day, many traditions of abuse and violence are still justified on religious grounds. So, again, we may ask, why would religions prescribe and/or permit violence against women and children in families? Why do many people believe that this is acceptable, even moral?

Answering these question requires a new cultural analysis: one in which the social construction of families, and hence parent-child relations, plays a key part. The categories of the domination system and the partnership system provide the conceptual frame for this analysis, which documents the connections between what happens in the public sphere of politics and economics and what happens in the private sphere of family and other intimate relations.

To briefly illustrate, we see the domination configuration in the most repressive and violent societies of modern times—from Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to the Taliban, ISIS, and other fundamentalist cultures (societies that include secular and religious, Eastern and Western, and rightist and leftist regimes). In all these societies, the ideal norm is authoritarianism, a high degree of punitiveness, and rigid male-dominance in both the family and the state. In other words, what we see are interconnections: mutually reinforcing dynamics between what happens in the so-called private and public spheres of life.

Societies that orient more toward the partnership configuration also transcend conventional categories such as religious or secular, Eastern or Western, and technologically developed/less developed. They include indigenous societies such as the Indonesian Minankabao, the Chinese Mouso, and the La Paz Zapotec of Mexico from one side of the technological spectrum, as well as technologically advanced societies such as Sweden, Finland, and Norway. In these cultures, we again see feedback loops between family and other intimate relations, on the one hand, and whether a society is more peaceful, equitable, and democratic, on the other.

From this perspective, we see that expanding the purview and reach of respect for human rights is part of the contemporary movement toward the partnership side of the social scale. Indeed, if we look at modern history from this new perspective, we see that the modern progressive social movements have in one way or another challenged traditions of domination.

During the 1700s, the “rights of man” movement that emerged during the European Enlightenment challenged the “divinely ordained” right of despotic kings to rule their “subjects.” This was followed by the feminist movement, which challenged the “divinely ordained” right of men to rule the women and children in the “castles” of their homes. The abolitionist, civil rights, and anticolonial movements challenged the “divinely ordained” right of one race or nation to rule over another. The pacifist and then peace movements challenged the use of force to impose rankings of domination. The movement for social and economic justice, and later the human rights movement, challenged traditions of violence and injustice. The environmental movement challenged man’s “divinely ordained” right to dominate and conquer nature.

The organized challenges to the tradition of domination and violence against women and children have been latecomers in the challenges to traditions of domination. But unless particular attention is paid to these human rights violations, we will not have the foundations for more equitable and peaceful relations—be it in families or in the family of nations.

I have written extensively about these matters, and the need for a different kind of education for cultural change. But as someone who also has a legal background, I have also written about how law can play a role in this process.

For instance, I have proposed expanding the purview of international law, especially the Rome Statute, to protect women and children worldwide. The intent of the statute is the protection of certain groups from genocide and/or widespread, abhorrent, and systemic violations of human rights. However, as it now stands, the Rome Statute does not list women or children under protected groups. This is why I have proposed:

(1) Expanding the interpretation of relevant sections of the Rome Statute, particularly sections of Article 7–Crimes against Humanity, to include widespread and systemic practices that cause women and children great suffering or serious injury to physical or mental health but are not punishable under a state’s laws or, if there are laws, they are not being enforced.

(2) Where necessary, amending the Rome Statute to include (in addition to nationality, race, ethnicity, and religion) gender and childhood under protected groups.

The emerging principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) can also play a role, as it strengthens the interpretation of the Crimes against Humanity Section of the Rome Statute to hold those officially or unofficially acting for governments responsible when practices are well-known, widespread, large-scale abuses against civilian populations that cause great suffering or serious injury to physical or mental health, but are not included in a state’s laws, or, if there are laws, they are not enforced.

I invite everyone to contribute their expertise to this effort to reinterpret and amend international law, and engage universities, law firms, and other organizations to provide the leadership and resources to bring it to fruition. I also want to invite you to play a part in a much-needed global educational campaign to bring awareness and knowledge about changing traditions of violence and abuse against women and children worldwide. Indeed, if we do nothing to end the widespread, systemic, and atrocious crimes against women and children that continue worldwide, we will not have foundations for a more just and caring world.



1. Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987; Harper Collins, 2017); “Human Rights: Toward an Integrated Theory for Action,” The Human Rights Quarterly 9, no. 3 (August 1987): 283–308.
2. Riane Eisler. “Protecting the Majority of Humanity,” in Sustainable Development, International Criminal Justice, and Treaty Implementation, eds. Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger and Sébastien Jodoin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 305–326, available at http://centerforpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Protecting-the-Majority-of-Humanity.pdf; “Protecting Children: From Rhetoric to Global Action,” International Journal of Partnership Studies 5, no. 1 (Winter 2018), available at https://pubs.lib.umn.edu/index.php/ijps/article/view/1125/1070.
3. Amnesty International, End Domestic Violence. End Torture: A Fact Sheet on Domestic Violence as Torture (New York:, Amnesty International, 2005).
4. Lori Heise, “Violence Against Women: The Hidden Health Burden,” UNIFEM Discussion Paper 255 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 1994).
5. Randeep Kaur interview in “Millions Face School Violence across Asia,” Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), October 8, 2008, http://www.abc.net.au/ra/programguide/stories/200810/s2385881.htm.
6. “Corporal Punishment in Public Schools,” CNN.com, August 20, 2008, eved from http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/08/20/corporal.punishment/#cnnSTCOther1
7.  "'Alarming' Rise in Boko Haram Suicide Bombers," Al Jazeera, April 12, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/rise-boko-haram-child-suicide-bombers-170412041301650.html.
8. United Nations, Global Estimates of Health Consequences due to Violence against Children (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2006).
9. United Nations, Promotion and Protections of the Rights of Children General Assembly A/61/150, Report to the Secretary-General. (New York: United Nations, 2006).


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Riane Eisler
Riane Eisler is President of the Center for Partnership Studies and Editor-in-Chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies. Internationally known as a systems scientist and attorney working for the human rights of women and children, she is the author of groundbreaking books such as The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future and The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics.



Cite as Riane Eisler, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on Human Rights,'" Great Transition Initiative (April 2018), www.greattransition.org/roundtable/human-rights-riane-eisler.




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