14. What is discrimination?

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What is discrimination?

Equality and the protection from discrimination constitute structural principles of human rights.

Discrimination takes place in different dimensions, direct and indirect. Direct discrimination may be the intended or immediate consequences of state actions due to real or ascribed particular characteristics (like origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation etc.). A prominent example is when law excludes women from the right to vote. But human rights law also entails protection from indirect forms of discrimination. These are regulations which appear to be neutral, but nevertheless have a de facto discriminating impact on a certain group of people. This is the case, for example, if school education is provided in a language that linguistic minorities have no command of.

Some types of discrimination are particularly challenging: imagine the consequences of a combination of individual behavioural patterns, social rules and/or institutional procedures. Taken together, this may create disadvantages for some groups of the population in central areas of life and may lead to social exclusion of whole sections of the population like e.g. indigenous groups. This is called structural or institutional discrimination.

Yet another form of discrimination is called multiple or multidimensional. In multidimensional discrimination several characteristics add up. Indigenous women, for example, are often discriminated against on grounds of their ethnic identity and on grounds of sex and gender.

Further Reading

Reading Tip

Deutsche Geschellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (2013): Promising Practices - On a human rights-based approach in German development cooperation. GIZ, 26 p.

Deutsche Geschellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (2011): National Human Rights Institutions. GIZ, 10 p.