Image: Theme 'Gender' by Pancho

Some key concepts

Millions of people in Europe are discriminated, stigmatised and even vic-tims of violence because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights1

Gender affects everyone in complex, subtle and overt ways. Our sexuality and gender identity are integral aspects of human nature. The terms sex, gender, gender identity and sexuality have different meanings, but are often confused.

Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that differentiate men and women. We are defined as male or female at birth, which becomes a social and legal fact from that point on. Some people are born with atypical combinations of physical features (body characteristics) that usually distinguish boys from girls at the time of birth. These persons may be referred to as "intersex". Often, doctors would automatically perform immediate surgery on the person (or soon after birth) to "correct" the body, often without the consent of the person affected or the parents. This is increasingly criticised by intersex activists.  They refer to Principle 18 of the Yogyakarta Principles (a document developed by a group of international human rights experts), which called on states to: "Take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to ensure that no child's body is irreversibly altered by medical procedures in an attempt to impose a gender identity without the full, free and informed consent of the child in accordance with the age and maturity of the child and guided by the principle that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration."

Gender refers to the socially-constructed set of expectations, behaviours and activities of women and men which are attributed to them on the basis of their sex. Social expectations regarding any given set of gender roles depend on a particular socio-economic, political and cultural context and are affected by other factors including race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and age. Gender roles are learned and vary widely within and between different human societies, and change over time.
We are socialised from the moment we are born. We develop, grow and learn about how to behave according to the expected norms of the society we live in, influenced greatly by our family, school, workplace, media, new information technologies and popular culture. Socialisation is an important process for becoming functional members of a group of people. However, not every message that we receive as part of our socialisation can be considered to be of benefit to ourselves, or to society. Gender socialisation may limit boys and girls in exploring their talents and interests to their full potential. Furthermore, the often unrealistic and contradicting expectations can cause internal conflicts, psychological problems, and not wanting or not being able to meet those expectations can lead to certain forms of punishments by others.

Gender identity refers to the gender to which persons feel they belong, which may or may not be the same as the sex they were assigned at birth. It refers to each person's deeply felt internal and individual experience of gender and includes the personal sense of body and other expressions, such as dress, speech and mannerisms.

Transgender is an umbrella term which is often used to describe a wide range of identities and experiences; it usually refers to persons who have a gender identity which is different from the gender assigned to them at birth and those people who wish to portray their gender identity in a different way from the gender assigned at birth. Transgender people are individuals whose gender expression and/or gender identity differs from conventional expectations based on the physical sex they were born into and which was legally registered for them at birth.

Sexual orientation describes a pattern of emotional and sexual attraction to males, females, both or neither. Sexual orientation is not linked to gender identity; for example, a transgender man may be heterosexual or gay in the same way that another man may be heterosexual or gay. However, these two aspects of identity are often linked by people and affect how lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals are treated and perceived.

Couple raise a "genderless" child

In Sweden, a couple decided to bring up their two-year-old child "genderless". They did not tell anyone whether Pop was a boy or girl except for a few people who had changed Pop's nappy. They wanted the child to be able to grow up freely and without being forced into specific gender moulds.2

Question: What do you think of the couple's decision to keep the sex of Pop a secret?

Human rights issues relating
to gender and sexuality

Gender equality is a fundamental human right. However, people often have their human rights violated on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Some of the key issues relate to participation, gender-based violence, armed conflicts, and poverty, as well as sexual and reproductive rights.


Discrimination based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation is widespread across the world. It especially limits the extent to which women and LGBT people are able to participate in society. Significant barriers to full and equal participation exist in education, employment and political and public decision making.

Worldwide, girls have less access to education than boys; 60% of countries have fewer girls than boys in primary and secondary education.3 Although in most European countries there are equal numbers of boys and girls in education – and in fact often more women in tertiary education – gender parity is only one step towards full gender equality. There are often other barriers to the full participation of girls. Girls may be encouraged to study certain subjects (for example the arts and humanities over science and engineering) seen as more fitting to dominant gender stereotypes. It is very likely that this leads to differences in attainment. For example, across Europe girls achieve lower grades in science and technology and boys underachieve in reading ability.4 Sexual bullying and harassment in schools is widespread.

Although great progress has been made over recent decades in legislation promoting gender equality in employment, particularly in Europe, in practice we still have a long way to go in stamping out discrimination in the workplace. Women are often discriminated against in terms of what jobs they can access, how much they are paid, and whether they are promoted to leadership roles. For example, in the European Union men, on average, earn 17.5% more than women for the same job.5 Women may also experience sexual harassment and bullying in the office or have to put up with sexist jokes and attitudes from colleagues. Some women are passed over for promotion or not recruited because of pregnancy or maternity. Family responsibilities are not shared equally between men and women, and as a result women have more career breaks and work part-time more frequently then men. This can affect their pension rights at retirement.

Question: In what ways are girls/boys or women/men treated differently in your community?

Women are significantly underrepresented in the political process. Despite making up approximately half of the world's population, only 18.4% of national parliamentarians and 17 heads of state or government worldwide are women.6 In February 2011 there were only two female heads of state and two female heads of government in the European Union, and the gender balance in national parliaments was 24% women and 76% men7. Women make up only 3% of presidents of Europe's largest companies.8

Only when women participate fully in policy-making and institution building will their perspective be truly integrated. The concept of democracy is only truly realised when political decision-making is shared by women and men, and women's full participation in institutional re-building is guaranteed.
Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights9

LGBT people experience discrimination and are stigmatised because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Homophobic and transphobic attitudes are common and LGBT people are often bullied in schools, discriminated against in the workplace and invisible in public and political decision making. LGBT people may also be portrayed as harmful to national identity, the family or religion by national media or local and national community leaders. LGBT groups and organisations are sometimes prohibited or prevented from organising, expressing their views or demonstrating. Transgender people experience significant obstacles in having their preferred gender officially recognised.10

"X" is now a gender option in Australian passports

Australian passports will now have three gender options – male, female and indeterminate – under new guidelines to remove discrimination against transgender and intersex people, … Intersex people, who have ambiguous biological characteristics, will be able to list their gender on passports as "X". Transgender people, whose perception of their own gender is at odds with their biology, will be able to pick whether they are male or female if their choice is supported by a doctor's statement. Transgender people cannot pick "X."11

Question: What is your opinion of the Australian passports allowing putting "X" as your gender?

European countries provide varying degrees of marriage equality. Some states stopped the preferential treatment of heterosexual couples, whereas others only provide limited or no possibility for marriage-like arrangements for same-sex couples or couples where one or both persons are transgender so they can be considered of the same sex. Adopting the partner's biological child as a second parent, or adopting as a gay parent continues to have obstacles, even though the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2008 against France in the case of E.B. v. France, where the Court found that France had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to assess adoption by a lesbian in the same way it would a single heterosexual12. It is common practice to consider a non-heterosexual adoptive parent to be automatically unfit.

Question: If gender discrimination in places like schools and work is illegal, why does it persist?

"Violence against women" means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women

Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence includes, but is not limited to, violence against women and girls. Violence against women is one of the most serious forms of gender-based violence in Europe. Women and girls experience many different forms of violence, including domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), "honour"-based killings, trafficking, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions. Violence against women and girls persists in all societies in the world and affects all social groups. Transgender persons are extremely exposed to gender-based violence due to their looks, clothes, and other characteristics which are often non-conforming to society's expectations of men and women.

Domestic violence, which may take the form of emotional, physical or sexual abuse, is particularly common and affects not only the women and men involved, but also the children in the family who witness it or themselves become primary victims through mistake, revenge of the abuser or because they try to protect their mother.

Sobering statistics

At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, with the abuser usually someone known to her.14
Depending on the European country concerned, between 20% and 50% of women are victims of domestic violence.
An estimated 100 to 150 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM, a practice involving the partial or full removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It has many harmful health consequences and is internationally recognised as a violation of women's and girls' human rights.15

Question: A large portion of gender-based violence is still considered a "private matter". How does this attitude affect targets, perpetrators and witnesses of violence?

Violence in teenage relationships is a serious concern across Europe; for example, recent research in the UK indicated that 25% of girls and 18% of boys between 13 and 17 had experienced some form of physical violence in a relationship.13

Prostitution continues to be a controversial issue even within the women's rights movements. It is considered as a form of violence by many, whereas others lobby for prostitution to be fully acknowledged as a profession with all legal consequences. A similar split exists in policy level. Some countries, such as Sweden, outlawed prostitution as a crime, with the prostitute considered a victim, and the buyer, as well as others who benefit financially, to be the perpetrators. In several other countries, prostitution is listed as a service and it can be practised under certain legal limitations.




Spotlight on human trafficking

Every year, millions of people are victims of trafficking worldwide, a modern form of slave trade. The majority of victims are young women and children who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. It is a major problem in Europe. There has been an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into the European Union from central and eastern European countries. At any given time more than 140,000 victims are trapped in human trafficking in Europe, with no sign of that figure decreasing.16 
The Council of Europe's Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings came into force in February 2008. By September 2011, the Convention had been signed by 43 member states. The Convention established a Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), which monitors the implementation of the Convention through general and country specific reports.

Due to its mostly hidden nature, research on prostitution is still relatively scarce. Studies, however, have established that over 90% of prostitutes have answered that they would immediately quit prostitution if they could – clearly establishing strong external pressure to stay on this "job". Also, in the majority of cases, going into prostitution is not an adult's informed decision: over 90% of women in prostitution have been sexually and/or physically abused as children, and the average age for getting into prostitution is 14 years.

A whole generation of young men had no idea who they were without a gun in their hands. Several generations of women were widowed, had been raped, seen their daughters and mothers raped, and their children kill and be killed.
Leymah Gbowee19

Violence against LGBT people is also prevalent. Women may be raped to "cure" their lesbianism; individuals are beaten by police or become victims of violent attacks on the street, which the authorities fail to prevent or punish. Violence is also directed at people who are perceived to be other than heterosexual.

Question: What are the impacts of gender-based violence on the targeted individuals?

Armed conflicts

In today's armed conflicts around 90% of casualties are civilians, most of whom are women and children. In addition, women face particular forms of human rights abuse during conflict, including specific and devastating forms of sexual violence (including war prostitution and forced pregnancies), often deployed as part of the political or military strategy.

A Nobel prize for non-violence and the safety of women

Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in mobilising women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia. She led women in protests against war and violence and organised a sex strike that lasted for some months in a bid to bring the warring men to their senses, and to put an end to the armed conflict.
The Nobel Peace prize was shared with Tawakkul Karman, a journalist and activist from Yemen, for her leading role in the struggle for women's rights, and for democracy and peace in Yemen, and also shared with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also for her role in peace building and promoting women's rights.
The Nobel Committee cited UN Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, which states that women and children suffer great harm from war and political instability and that women must have a larger influence and role in peace-making activities.

Wartime sexual violence has been one of history's greatest silences.
Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, authors of the UN report "Women, War, Peace"

Gender-based violence in armed conflicts is often targeted at entire communities as it aims to humiliate, dominate and instil fear in all members of a certain group. Although women and girls are the majority of victims of such gender-based violence, men are also specifically targeted. For example over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in the Srebrenica genocide in 1995.18 Armed conflicts compound gender stereotypes in societies, reducing masculinity to "defender", "protector" or "aggressor" and femininity to "victim" and "vulnerable."

Question: Why do you think gender-based violence is so common in armed conflict?


Women perform 66% of the world's work, produce 50% of the food, but earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the property.

Economic equality is crucial to achieving real gender equality. However, according to some estimates, women make up over 70% of the world's poor. Women tend to do lower paid jobs and often work in insecure jobs in the informal economy with few rights and low income. Lack of equal access and quality of education means they tend to have few qualifications and skills, which affects the type of work they can secure. Economic dependency can also play a key role in relationships and can be related to domestic violence. In households of couples or families, more or all of the unpaid household chores are the responsibility of the adult women and the older girl children. In fact, married men are considered to be the most reliable workforce, which has to do to a large degree with the fact that employers assume that married men have practically no household or family duties, because their wives are responsible for those. Through higher salaries and better career options, it is the men who are financially rewarded for the unpaid household work of their female partners.

Question: What could be the reasons for poverty having a disproportionate effect on women?

Sexual and reproductive rights

Reproduction is used, consciously or not, as a means to control women, to limit their options and to make them subordinate to men.
Dr. Nafis Sadik, UN Population Fund

Securing sexual and reproductive rights is essential to realising gender equality. Too often women have little or no control over their sexual and reproductive health. Male control over women's bodies is fought for in all societies and is a key way in which male social, political and cultural dominance is achieved and maintained.

Lack of control over these rights results in grave human rights violations, for example forced marriage, being forced to keep pregnancies, or forced abortions and sterilisations. Transgender persons are also forced to get sterilised in order to have their new legal gender recognized by states when they transition from one gender to another. Women are also often denied access to reproductive health services, including abortion services for women who have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy poses a grave risk to their health or life. Access to safe, affordable maternal health care and information about sexual and reproductive health are essential to paving the way for real gender equality.

Gender and youth work

Gender Matters
Gender Matters is a manual addressing gender-based violence with young people, published by the Council of Europe. The experience of using the manual shows that human rights education is an effective tool in addressing issues of gender equality, and more specifically gender-based violence.

Youth-work settings often provide a unique and crucial safe space for young men and women to discuss and share their thoughts and experiences on gender and sexuality. Young people are often not able to ask questions frankly and debate such sensitive topics with their families, and may not be encouraged to in formal education settings. Open and aware youth-work settings may provide a supportive learning environment to empower and challenge attitudes.
It is essential to be aware of gender issues that will almost certainly exist in any youth group. For example, someone may have direct or indirect experience of domestic violence, or another may be confused about their sexuality or bullied because their actual or perceived gender identity does not fit the accepted social norms. Having to hand a list of organisations and sources of advice on these issues is important. So is being prepared to challenge discriminatory attitudes towards women or LGBT people exhibited by young people in sessions. It is also important to use gender mainstreaming as a tool when making decisions on the topics, participants, and methods to be used.21

A very important step is moving from rights recognition to rights empowerment. Human rights educators need to honour the differences amongst individual women's needs and responses. Without such sensitivity, human rights education could become just another form of manipulation or oppression of women. Education is a key target for gender equality, since it involves the ways in which societies transfer norms, knowledge and skills.

Many international youth organisations in Europe have organised study sessions in co-operation with the European Youth Centres that have focused on various aspects of gender and gender equality. Study sessions allow young people to explore issues in depth and gain useful competences in order to work effectively on the issues further within and outside of the organisation they represent.22

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence

If you want to do something against gender-based violence, you can start by joining the international campaign, 16 Days Against Gender Violence, launched in 1991. Participants chose the dates 25 November – International Day Against Violence Against Women – and 10 December – International Human Rights Day –  in order to symbolically link violence against women and human rights, and to emphasise that such violence is a violation of human rights.  Over 3,700 organisations in approximately 164 countries have participated in the 16 Days Campaign since 1991.23

Question: How would you address discriminatory attitudes based on gender or sexuality in your group?

Protecting human rights related to gender

Homophobic hate crimes and incidents often show a high degree of cruelty and brutality. … They are also very likely to result in death. Transgender people seem to be even more vulnerable within this category.
OSCE Repor17

All international human rights treaties apply equally to men and women. However, recognising that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. CEDAW defines discrimination against women and sets out what should be done by national governments to combat it. 187 countries in the world have signed up to this treaty, including all European countries.

UN Women is the United Nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women. It supports intergovernmental bodies and governments in developing gender-responsive policies and standards and implementing them in practice. UN Women prioritises five issues on the basis that these are fundamental to gender equality, and progress in these areas can unlock progress across the board. These areas are violence against women, peace and security, leadership and participation, economic empowerment, and national planning and budgeting.

The UN is becoming increasingly vocal in support of LGBT human rights. There is no legally binding international treaty on LGBT rights. However, in 2006 a group of international human rights experts produced a set of principles on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Yogyakarta Principles address a broad range of international human rights standards and set out how they apply to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Gender equality and combating discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexuality are central to the Council of Europe and the EU. The Council of Europe took a significant step in opening for signature the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence24 in May 2011. This Convention is the first legally binding instrument in the world creating a comprehensive legal framework to prevent violence, protect victims and end the impunity of perpetrators. It defines and criminalises various forms of violence against women, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation, stalking, physical and psychological violence and sexual violence. It also foresees the establishment of an international group of independent experts to monitor its implementation at national level.

Non-governmental organisations also take an active role in protecting women's rights and LGBT rights, both at international and national level. Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) is a European umbrella organisation with members from most countries in geographical Europe. It maintains a European online database of NGOs, which can be searched by geographical location, area of expertise and field of activities. The European Women's Lobby (EWL), another umbrella organisation, is also a good starting point for finding relevant information, research results or contacts to regional, national or local NGOs working on different areas of women's rights or gender issues related to women.

Co-operation of civil, state and private partners to reduce domestic violence

Within the framework of its community responsibility programme, Vodafone Hungary, in co-operation with NANE Women's Rights Association, the local Police, and two other private companies providing technical support, launched a programme to prevent acts of domestic violence. The pilot programme, starting in 2011, will make use of 30 devices that will send an emergency signal and the exact position of the woman in danger at the push of a button through Vodafone's network. As a result, women affected by some form of intimate relationship violence can expect swifter police response.

LGBT-related organisations include social and support groups as well as professional  organisations and advocacy groups within mainstream religious organisations or political parties. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organisation (IGLYO) is a peer-led membership-based network with more than 50 member organisations. It works to promote values of acceptance and non-discrimination, and to increase participation of young LGBT and queer people in democratic decision making, and co-operates with other youth organisations, such as national youth councils, European student organisations and European political youth organisations. IGLYO organises study sessions and conferences, but is also active in lobbying at the political level.


1 Discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in Europe, CoE, June 2011;
2  Read more:
3 Global Education Digest 2010
4 Gender Differences in Educational Outcomes: Study Taken on the Current Situation and Measures Taken in Europe 2009
5 European Commission
6 UN Women (statistics as of 2008). 
7 European Commission 
8 European Women's Lobby 
9 Speech to mark International Women's Day 2011;
10 Ibid.
11 "X" now a gender option in Australian passports, 15 September 2011;
12 More information:,8599,1706514,00.html
14 UN Women
15 World Health Organisation
16 Factsheet on Human Trafficking, UN Office on Drugs and Crime based on 2010 figures;
17 Hate Crimes in the OSCE Region – Incidents and Responses, Annual Report for 2006, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, 2007;
19 Leymah Gbowee, Mighty Be Our Powers (New York: Beast Books, 2011), written with Carol Mithers, p. 168.
20 Gender Equality – The Big Picture, UNICEF, 2007.
21 A resource on gender mainstreaming: Gender Equality and Education, Ulrika Eklund in Coyote, Issue No. 2., May 2000
22 Reports on these study sessions are available here:
23
24 For the full text of the convention see

Related activities
Key Date
  • 8 MarchInternational Women’s Day
  • 17 MayInternational Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia
  • 19 NovemberInternational Men’s Day
  • 25 NovemberInternational Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women