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18 January 2017

Series "heroines promoting women's rights": Elisabeth Selbert (1896-1986)

In Germany the principle of equality has been anchored in the constitution since 1948. However, the principle was not originally in the Basic Law: its inclusion was largely due to the recalcitrance of one woman, Elisabeth Selbert. She was a lawyer from Kassel and one of the four women in the Parliamentary Council who were later known as the “Mothers of the Basic Law”. The council had twice rejected her proposal so she turned to the public, gained a positive response and found supporters.

“Men and women shall have equal rights.” Article 3, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law can be regarded as the greatest achievement for women’s rights in post-war Germany. The committed SPD politician Elisabeth Selbert was already convinced that gender equality was one of the basic human rights. So when the constitution-drafting Parliamentary Council rejected this for the second time, she decided to publicise that and seek support for her intention. This resulted in the council being deluged with complaints from women’s associations and protest letters from individuals.

“I had not thought that in 1948/1949 we would actually still need to debate equal rights and overcome such significant resistance!”

(Elisabeth Selbert)

In the end, in their meeting on January 18, 1949, the 61 men and 4 women of the council (“The Mothers and Fathers of the Basic Law”) adopted the principle of equality as an inalienable constitutional right. This included a commitment to adapt previously adopted legislation to reflect the principle of equality – decisive progress for women’s rights in Germany.

Equal rights in Germany: Putting theory into practice

In Germany today, equal rights are generally viewed as being beyond debate. However, do you remember that it was not until 1993 that a woman (Heide Simonis) first became Minister President of a German federal state? Further dates and facts illustrate the long path from theory to practice. In post-war Germany until 1958, the law enshrined the right of the man to decide for his wife and children. For another 12 years after that married women still could not open their own bank account. In 1977 – only 40 years ago – a law was enacted to permit either spouse to freely seek employment: previously women were only allowed to work “insofar as it is compatible with their responsibilities in their marriage and family”. Another fact which most people are unaware of: Rape within marriage only became a criminal act in Germany 20 years ago.

Article 2 of the Basic Law includes an important additional clause: “The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.” However, this was not added until after German reunification. What does this mean for employed women today? Recently, on January 11, 2017, the Cabinet of Germany passed the draft law on the “Promotion of Transparency in Salary Structures”. This did not occur unopposed, since the intention behind it is to finally (!) put into practice the right women have had in theory for over 50 years to receive the same pay for the same work.

“Now we have to work towards putting equal rights into practice in their entirety.”

(Elisabeth Selbert)

Women’s rights in our project countries

medica mondiale works towards women taking active parts in developing conflict resolution strategies, advancing peace processes and drafting laws. We do this by empowering activists working on women’s politics and supporting relevant networks. At a project level, too, medica mondiale supports active participation of all the women involved. The key concept here is “empowerment”: not doing things for them but enabling them in their own achievements. Our partners in war and crisis zones encourage women and girls to identify and expand their own room for manoeuvre, change power relationships, and in this way improve their life situations.

In Afghanistan, for example, quite a few things have changed for women and girls since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. In the constitution, the government has committed itself to enacting women’s rights. Maternal mortality has fallen by about half and the number of schools for girls has risen to some 10,000. Almost one third of the members of parliament are female. However, their influence is still very low, since only a few of them occupy a position involving important decisions.

“Women’s rights are used as a ‘label’ during the peace talks. Women are not mentioned there; there is not a single woman participating; there is no meaningful contribution by women to that process. There is only a ‘label’, which is used because international politics want to mainstream this issue. In reality, it is just a symbol. However, we do have women in Afghan institutions now, for instance in the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defence or Ministry of Education.”

(Saifora Paktiss, Deputy Director Medica Afghanistan)

It is therefore even more important for women’s rights organisations such as Medica Afghanistan to work persistently and courageously for the rights of women. Existing laws to protect women and girls from violence have to be applied and enforced, and perpetrators need to be punished. Delays cannot be allowed for the further reforms needed. In the tradition of Elisabeth Selbert, we remain tenacious.

Background of our focus series "heroines promoting women's rights"

Truly equal rights for women and men are still not reality – anywhere in the world. But without them there cannot be an end to sexualised wartime violence and there will not be peace – anywhere in the world. During the year we will present remarkable women and men from many different countries who have been or are active in the fight for the rights of women. We do this to pay tribute to their individual efforts and achievements, and also to remind us all that active commitment is still needed if we are to achieve gender justice and an end to sexualised violence.