Our Voices

How Women Shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is widely regarded as a landmark document of the 20th century. It is the most translated document in the world and has been ratified by every country. Over the past 75 years, the UDHR has served as a blueprint for human rights and inspired several international human rights treaties. Today, gender equality is a human right and at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, combating gender-based violence is one of our core causes. But despite the significance of the document, far-less recognized are the women from different parts of the world who worked tirelessly to make it gender-inclusive.

One of the key figures in the drafting of the UDHR was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was appointed in April, 1946 as the first Chairperson of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Having served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was determined to champion his post-war vision of a world where people are free to live their lives with dignity in an atmosphere of peace and security. With her background as a political activist and her strong commitment to women’s rights and racial justice, she was well-suited for the task.

Roosevelt brought her passion and commitment to the drafting process, advocating for the inclusion of provisions that protected the rights of women, children, and minority groups. She remained resilient in her commitment to the UDHR despite pressure from the U.S. amid Cold War tensions that constantly threatened to derail the project.

As she famously stated in her speech on the 10th anniversary of the UDHR, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Beyond the West, the legacy of women who helped to shape the UDHR bears the footprints of women like Hansa Mehta, an Indian political leader and human rights advocate who served as her country’s delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1947 to 1948. Mehta was a vocal advocate for the rights of women. It is to her credit that we do not refer to the UDHR today as “the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Her efforts helped to ensure the replacement of the phrase “All men are born free and equal” with “All human beings are born free and equal,” in Article 1 of the document.

In many ways, the story of the UDHR is a story of women shaping human rights history. Pakistan’s Begum Shaista Ikramullah was a trailblazer for equal rights and freedoms for women. Born in 1915 into a politically influential and wealthy family in British India, she became one of the first Muslim women to come out of purdah, and the first Muslim woman to earn a PhD from the University of London. As Pakistan’s delegate to the third committee of the UN, she championed the inclusion of Article 16 of the UDHR on equal rights in marriage, to combat child marriage and forced marriage—drawing from her own life’s experience. She remains an important figure in the history of women’s rights and gender equality in Pakistan.

Another significant figure in the crafting of the UDHR was Dominican diplomat and feminist advocate Minerva Bernardino. A vocal and passionate advocate for women’s rights and gender equality, not only was she among the four women who signed the UN Charter in 1945, she was one of the signatories of the UDHR in 1948. Bernardino advocated for the phrase “equal rights of men and women” to replace “equal rights of men” in the preamble of the UDHR, recognizing the importance of inclusive language in the fight for gender equality. She believed that omitting the phrase “and women” would have suggested intentional discrimination and would have perpetuated systemic inequalities.

Evdokia Uralova of Belarus was the Rapporteur of the Commission on the Status of Women to the Commission on Human Rights in 1947. She is credited for her persuasive arguments for equity in Article 32 which states: “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.”

Today, the struggle for gender equality continues, and the legacy of these pioneering women remains relevant. Their contributions to the UDHR were groundbreaking at the time and have provided great inspiration for numerous gender equality initiatives. Such efforts include our Gender-Based Violence campaign which has worked to secure justice for transgender women like Vicky Hernandez and femicide victims like María Sagrario and five other young women who were murdered in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.