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date: 16 January 2018

Feminist Perspectives on Human Rights

Summary and Keywords

Feminism has provided some new perspectives to the discourse on human rights over the years. Contemporary feminist scholarship has sought to critique the liberalism on which the conception of formal “equality” in the international human rights laws has been derived on a number of grounds. Two of the most pertinent critiques for this discussion are: the androcentric construction of human rights; and the perpetuation of the false dichotomy between the public and private spheres. This exploration of the relationship between liberalism and women’s human rights constitutes a significant shift in which many feminists had realized that the emphasis on “sameness” with men was limited in its utility. This shift rejected the “sameness” principle of the liberal feminists and brought gender-specific abuses into the mainstream of human rights theory and practice. By gender mainstreaming international institutions and future human rights treaties, specific women’s rights could be defined as human rights more generally. Feminists have since extended their critique of androcentrism and the public–private dichotomy to the study of gender inequalities and economic globalization, which is an important systemic component of structural indivisibility. In particular, the broader women’s human rights movement has come to realize that civil-political liberties and socioeconomic rights are inextricable, though there is disagreement over the exact nature of this relationship.

Keywords: feminism, human rights, women’s rights, equality, international human rights laws, androcentrism, public–private dichotomy, economic globalization, civil-political liberties, democratization


Feminist critiques of human rights seek to dismantle several hierarchies present in the human rights regime. By critiquing the basic assumptions of human rights as they were formulated in 1945–8, feminists have revealed that these definitions are inadequate, that men and women have different relationships with the state, and that rights are not fixed and immutable. Rather, they are historically, socially, culturally, and economically contingent. This essay explores feminist contributions to the human rights discourse in several ways. The first half of the essay chronicles and analyzes the evolution of the “women’s rights are human rights” discourse as well as the development of the notion of the indivisibility of rights. The second half of the essay looks the feminist debates with regards to women’s human rights in three issue areas or contexts: globalization, democratization, and culture. The essay concludes with a discussion of the current challenges with regards to data collection in measuring the achievement of women’s human rights.

Although there are multiple feminisms, the terms feminist and feminism are used in a broad sense in this essay to connote a shared goal of seeking to re-articulate human rights in an effort to achieve gender equality, even though theoretical entry points into the discourse and resulting strategies may vary widely among feminists (Tong 2008). Similarly, the concept of human rights has been contested in many ways, but it is beyond the scope of this essay to delve into these debates. Rather, the focus will be on what feminists have understood human rights to be in theory and in practice.

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: Evolution of the Discourse

During the “first wave” of feminism (loosely defined as late nineteenth century to early twentieth century), theorists and activists paid particular attention to the gendered construction of citizenship that was employed to deny civil and political liberties to women and other minority groups. Writings by theorists and activists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony dominated early feminism. However, many of the debates that took place during the first wave also spilled over to the immediate post–World War II era, particularly during the process of creating the United Nations (UN) as well as the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The central liberal feminist tenet that carried over to the post–World War II period is that men and women are the same in rational ability and capacity for individual autonomy and self-determination and therefore should be afforded full citizenship and its attendant rights, protections, and opportunities.

Yet, there were others who argued that women should be conceptualized as a group marked by sexual difference and that special protection was needed to “level the playing field”; only in this way could women advance individual self-determination and self-governance (Rupp 1997:105; Lake 2001:255). For many first wave liberal feminists, the primary way to achieve sexual equality (or parity) was through legislative means, i.e., suffrage, education, labor rights, etc. The liberal feminist ideal of “sameness” laid the groundwork for the future of women’s international human rights in the institutional arrangements in the United Nations as well as the drafting of the UDHR in 1948. However, as we shall see, the theoretical tension between the competing feminist agendas of nondiscrimination and special protections had long-lasting effects in the women’s human rights movement.

The UDHR does not specifically address women’s rights but it does briefly address the idea of sexual equality in Article 2: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Those who insisted on the inclusion of “sex” in Article 2 hoped that it would address the inequality of women by putting them on an “equal footing” with men (Johnson 1998:61). There were, of course, others who felt the inclusion of the word “sex” was unnecessary given that the UDHR explicitly states the rights delineated in the document apply to “everyone.”

Although these may seem like minor occurrences and debates, they laid the theoretical groundwork for policy making within the UN Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR) for many decades. In the years that followed the creation of CSW and the ratification of the International Bill of Rights, liberal feminists paid particular attention to securing civil and political liberties for women. It is important to note that the emphasis on civil and political liberties was pervasive throughout the UN system, particularly by Western powers and those countries allied with the United States during the Cold War. Consequently, given the power of the United States in the international system during the 1950s and 1960s, it is not surprising that several other human rights conventions which specifically addressed the status of women, such as the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), emphasized civil and political liberties as the way to achieve sexual equality. Like the UDHR, these covenants emphasized “sameness” and did not take into account men’s and women’s qualitatively different experiences in the public sphere nor did they tackle structures that perpetuated gender hierarchies.

Contemporary feminist scholarship has sought to critique the liberalism on which the conception of formal “equality” in the UDHR and other international human rights laws has been derived on a number of grounds. Two of the most pertinent critiques for this discussion are: the androcentric construction of human rights; and the perpetuation of the false dichotomy between the public and private spheres. The public–private split “refers to the (artificial) distinction between home (private or reproductive sphere) to which women are assigned, and the workplace (the public or productive sphere) to which men are assigned” (Peterson and Runyan 1999:259). These concepts are connected with both the radical feminism and the socialist feminism of the 1970s that was a response to the perceived inadequacies of liberal feminism. The issue of the relationship between gender and the public and private spheres is briefly touched upon in the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was developed during the UN Decade for Women (1975–85) in order to have a “single, comprehensive and internationally binding instrument to eliminate discrimination against women” (UNDAW n.d.). However, it was not until the late 1980s that this relationship was fully theorized in terms of women’s human rights, development, and international law. The end result has been a major theoretical shift in both theory and practice.

Both androcentrism and the public–private split are embedded in patriarchy (another core theoretical concept of radical and socialist feminisms), understood here to mean the degree to which society is “male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered” (Johnson 1997:5). Many contemporary feminist analyses of human rights laws, institutions and practice are grounded in critiques of the broader construct of patriarchy. Since rights themselves are socially constructed in that they reflect a “distinctive, historically unusual set of social values and practices,” the context in which human rights were/are developed is an important analytical tool (Donnelly 1999:81). For example, Charlesworth (1995:103) suggests that

because the law-making institutions of the international legal order have always been, and continue to be, dominated by men, international human rights law has developed to reflect the experiences of men and largely to exclude those of women, rendering suspect the claim of objectivity and universality in human rights law.

The claim of androcentrism in the development of human rights is predicated on two issues that are raised by Charlesworth. The first surrounds the issue of the position of the speaker; it is important to evaluate who is making rights claims and on whose behalf (Rao 1995). In the case of human rights discourse, the historical record reflects that mainstream human rights has largely been influenced by masculinist liberal ideology, which reflects what is desirable or ideal, such as individual autonomy, in the social construction of human rights. Hence, the claim of objectivity must be questioned.

The second issue revolves around the liberal ideological foundations of human rights, inalienability and universality. These concepts are largely derived from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690), in which he argues for the natural and inalienable rights of human beings – rights one has simply by virtue of being human. Cast in this light, rights of individual humans appear to be universal and should take precedence above all else (Locke 1980). State governance should not be guided by the “greater good” principle because it encroaches upon individual “opportunity to make fundamental choices about what constitutes the good life (for them), who they associate with, and how” (Donnelly 1999:80). Embedded in this notion of the individual is the idea that individuals are rational enough to exercise these rights. During Locke’s era the “criteria” for rationality was ownership of private property, which excluded women, low-wage workers, and slaves from exercising rights, thereby severely undermining the notion of universality. Furthermore, since the principles of inalienability and universality were theorized in the context of elite male experience, the current traditional construction of human rights excludes the experiences of women and other marginalized groups. The male experience with, and definition of, human rights came to be accepted as the “norm,” and it is this social construction of human rights that feminists have sought to challenge and rearticulate.

The individualism and egalitarianism that are crucial to Locke’s liberalism may at first seem contradictory to patriarchy, which is predicated on gender hierarchies that presume that the subordination of women to men is based on “natural” characteristics. However, as Pateman (1989:33–57) observes, Locke also provides a theoretical basis for the exclusion of women from individualist arguments. Locke makes a distinction between the political power of the public sphere and paternal power in the private sphere of the family. This move is grounded in his view that women’s subordination to their husbands in the private sphere is natural and non-political, and perhaps also “pre-political” (Rao 1996:445). This “natural” subordination of women, which is condoned and supported by the state, suggests that they cannot at the same time be free and equal individuals. Therefore, Locke’s separation between public and paternal power effectively relegates women to the private sphere (Pateman 1989:33–57), where they have little ability to claim rights in the public sphere (Romany 1994). In this way, the state is able to protect both the public and private interests of men (Peterson and Parisi 1998:147).

The public–private distinction also rests on fundamentally different conceptions of citizenship for men and women that date back to the time of the ancient Greek polis and continue to be firmly embedded in liberal thought (Grant 1991:12–13). As a result, “human rights law was gendered male: it protected a male subject, who experienced violations primarily directed at men, in largely male spaces” (Friedman 2006:480–1). Since the public sphere is associated with masculinity, “the duties and activities of citizenship have strongly depended on manliness” (Voet 1998:7). As citizens, men are/were accorded certain rights that women, relegated to the private sphere, are/were not. The association of the feminine with the private sphere has historically identified and still continues to identify women as non-citizens, and, hence, as less than fully autonomous beings. For example, laws governing the nationality of children in countries such as Kenya, which deem that the citizenship of children is determined by the father’s citizenship (and not the mother’s), reinforce the concept of citizen as male. The association of the feminine with the private sphere identifies women as non-citizens, and hence, as less than fully autonomous beings unable to make claims to rights (Romany 1994).

The emphasis on the public sphere as the proper realm of human rights depoliticizes women’s experiences in the private and reinforces androcentric constructions of human rights. The artificial distinction between the public and the private spheres also allows for the appearance of the state as non-gendered, and masks how formal legal equality in the public sphere contributes to states’ complicity in facilitating gender hierarchies in the private sphere. In general, states are discouraged by international law from intervening in the private sphere given the primacy placed on the sanctity of the family and the right to privacy (Sullivan 1995:127). The result is that states are held accountable only for the human rights abuses they perpetrate and not for the conduct of individuals in the private sphere, where most gender-based violence occurs. Hence, gender-based violence in the home, until recently, was not considered to be a human rights abuse (Bunch 1990).

For example, marital rape has historically often not been considered a criminal act by the state, and this idea is still prevalent in many countries, such as the Bahamas and Zambia, where marital rape has yet to be criminalized. Although the International Bill of Rights guarantees the right of everyone to be free from torture and enslavement by the state, and explicitly prohibits rape of and assault against women in times of conflict, it does not guarantee women freedom from domestic abuse, which for many women is a form of torture and/or enslavement (Copelon 1994). The subordination of women in the private sphere is justified and naturalized as the patriarchal state, in accordance with the liberal maxim of individual freedom and the protection of private property, protects the private, individual interests of men. Under international human rights laws, states have often not been held accountable for their inaction (or inadequate action) that has enabled gender-based violence in the private sphere.

Due to feminist activism and scholarship in this area, gender-specific violence is now considered a legitimate human rights issue (Bunch 1990; Copelon 1994; Keck and Sikkink 1998; Joachim 2003; Merry 2006). As a result, there is now the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has further codified violence against women as a punishable offense. Although these are all very positive developments, many feminists, such as Ratna Kapur (2005), worry about the implications of the framing of women as primarily victims of violence. Kapur (2005:99) argues that while “the victim subject […] provides a shared location from which women from different cultural and social contexts can speak” and also “provides women with a subject that repudiates the atomized, decontextualized and ahistorical subject of liberal rights discourse, while at the same time furnishing a unitary subject that enables women to makes claims based on a commonality of experience,” the end result is a conceptualization of “women” that falls prey to gender essentialism, producing another type of “universal” subject that “resembles the uncomplicated subject of the liberal discourse, which cannot account for multi-layered existences and experiences” (Kapur 2005:99). Kapur, and others such as Mohanty (1991) and Narayan (1997), also argue that the focus on the victim subject results in cultural essentialism, which will be explored in more detail at the end of this essay.

Another implication of the feminist critique of the public–private dichotomy is the presumed heterosexuality of the family unit in the private sphere (Rao 1996; Peterson and Parisi 1998). The UDHR’s Article 16 protects the right of adult men and women to freely and consensually marry, and the right to found a family, “without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion” (UDHR 1948). Article 16.3 locates the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society and [it] is entitled to protection by society and the state.” Although the UDHR does not specify that marriage must be between a man and a woman or that families must be heterosexual units, Article 16 specifies nondiscrimination only on the basis of race, nationality, and religion and excludes sexuality. The exclusion of sexuality as the basis for nondiscrimination in marriage reveals a hidden (or presumed) heterosexist bias, and also raises the question of what types of families should be protected. However, the Western, liberal construction of the heterosexual family has prevailed as the dominant interpretation of Article 16 because it maps neatly onto the gendered dichotomy of the public–private split, and the “family is viewed normatively as an arena for something other than rights” since it is “pre-political,” “sentimental,” and “noncontractual” (Rao 1996:245). As a result, heterosexism has become naturalized and normalized in many mainstream international human rights documents, and this interpretation precludes protection of any other sexual identities by rendering them outside the “fundamental group unit of society” (Peterson and Parisi 1998). This positioning outside the protection of the human rights framework, as is well known, has had deleterious effects on sexual minorities in not only asserting their right to sexualities, but also in making claims to other individual and group rights (LaViolette and Whitworth 1994; Dorf and Perez 1995; Peterson and Parisi 1998).

At the Beijing conference, the issues of gender, sexual orientation, and the definition of family were hotly contested. The use of gender came under fire by conservative groups and states who rejected a social constructivist approach to the term in order to exclude sexual orientation from being read into the definition (Chappell 2007:515). Instead, “gender” in the Platform For Action (PFA), and other international documents since then, is now understood to mean “the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society” (ibid.). While there are numerous problems with this definition of gender, for the purposes of this discussion, it is important to highlight that the intense wrangling had two significant and related impacts on the PFA. First, all explicit references to sexual orientation in the document were dropped. Second, the use of the term family, rather than families, stayed intact. Thus, the naturalized, patriarchal, heterosexual family delineated in the UDHR is preserved. It was feared that the inclusion of specific rights for sexual minorities would result in not passing the PFA at all. Although the PFA claims the right of women to freely determine their sexuality and recognizes the family in “various forms,” for many this wording is too ambiguous and hollow given that it also acknowledges that cultural, religious, national, and regional particularities must be considered in the implementation of these rights (Steans and Ahmadi 2005:241). By invisibilizing sexualities, the PFA precluded the delineation of more explicit rights for sexual minorities with regards to property rights, children, and so forth.

Yet, at the same time, there has been considerable discussion about whether or not advancing of the agenda of sexual minorities in a rights based framework is useful and desirable (LaViolette and Whitworth 1994; Morgan 2001; Mertus 2007). Mertus (2007), in her study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) advocacy in the US, demonstrates the reluctance of many groups to adopt a rights based approach since it may require them to accept set identity categories. LaViolette and Whitworth (1994) identify a similar tension more globally. Finally, Morgan (2001) also asks whether or not it is at all desirable to fight for inclusion in a decidedly heteronormative system in the first place. This response parallels the concerns of radical feminists working to achieve women’s rights in a system that is inherently patriarchal and not worthy of being retained in their point of view (Brems 1997). Instead, it might be more productive to disrupt patriarchal and heteronormative systems rather than focusing on inclusion in them (Morgan 2001).

Ultimately, however, the exploration of the relationship between liberalism and women’s human rights constituted a significant shift in which many feminists (especially cultural feminists) realized that the emphasis on “sameness” with men was limited in its utility. The shift entailed focusing on gender relations as a category of analysis, a valuing of difference, and delineating gender-specific experiences (Brems 1997). This tactic rejected the “sameness” principle of the liberal feminists and brought gender-specific abuses into the mainstream of human rights theory and practice. By gender mainstreaming international institutions and future human rights treaties, specific women’s rights could be defined as human rights more generally (Bunch 1990).

The Structural Indivisibility of Rights

By the 1970s the limitations of the emphasis on civil and political liberties for women became increasingly clear as the UN struggled with the issues of poverty, malnutrition, and population as it began its preparations for the World Food Conference (1974) and the World Population Conference (1974). The failure of the liberal feminist assumption that the achievement of political and civil liberties would translate into economic opportunity for women prompted a re-articulation of the relationship between civil and political liberties and socioeconomic rights for women. The argument shifted to the idea that women who lack food, shelter, education, property, health services, etc. cannot fully enjoy and exercise their civil and political liberties (Parisi 2002). In addition, the publication of Ester Boserup’s (1970) Woman’s Role in Economic Development, in which she documented the negative consequences of modernization programs on women’s lives, influenced liberal feminists to expand their focus on rights to include economic and labor issues. This approach eventually became known as “Women in Development” (WID) and it marked the beginning of the UN Decade for Women (1975–85).

Yet, the WID approach was roundly criticized by socialist-Marxist feminists and third world feminists for its adherence to the liberal framework of “sameness” discussed earlier by promoting an “add women and stir” model of development aimed at achieving gender equality. This approach fails to examine the structures that caused and perpetuated this inequality in the first place. In response to this critique and to the lack of a more cohesive vision for women’s rights and well-being, the fledgling “global” women’s movement began to develop an explicit vision of the indivisibility of human rights. This vision was ultimately reflected in the theme of the UN Decade for Women: “Equality – Development – Peace” (FLS 1985: paragraphs 11–13). The three objectives formed a more sophisticated basis for women’s human rights and were, and still are, viewed as “internally interrelated and mutually reinforcing, so that the advancement of one contributes to the advancement of the others” (Pietilä and Vickers 1996:49). The first attempt at encapsulating these ideals resulted in the World Plan of Action (WPA) that in turn provided an impetus and basis for the drafting of CEDAW, which passed in the UN in 1979, and entered into force in 1981. (For a comprehensive history of the events leading up to the UN Decade for Women and of the drafting of CEDAW, see Fraser 1999.)

CEDAW extends women’s rights provisions in the International Bill of Human Rights in that it created an “international bill of women’s rights” that defines and addresses all forms of discrimination against women and is guided by the principle of what Otto (2001:54) calls “structural indivisibility.” Structural indivisibility stresses “interconnections between the political, economic, environmental, and security priorities of the international order and violations of human rights” (ibid.). This vision is somewhat different than Bunch’s (1990) emphasis on the necessary interconnectedness between political, civil, socioeconomic and cultural rights in that it takes into account the systemic factors which link and influence the achievement of these rights.

The majority of the 30 articles of CEDAW are concerned with social, economic, and cultural rights embedded in the liberal feminist WID and non-discrimination framework that relies heavily on the principle of equality before the law; only four articles deal explicitly with the political and civil liberties of women. However, the preamble and some of the articles of CEDAW address additional concerns important to third world feminists, Marxist feminists, and radical feminists. For example, it reiterates the call for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) to tackle global economic inequality and demands the right to cultural self-determination and the end of imperialism, colonization, and racism. CEDAW also affirms the right of women to space their children – a victory for radical feminists involved in reproductive rights movements. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it acknowledges the contributions to society that women make in the home, thus breaking down the distinction between the public and private spheres (the personal is political) and highlighting how traditional gender roles can be a source of women’s oppression.

The mission behind CEDAW is to recast women as subjects rather than objects of development, recognizing them as fully autonomous beings entitled to human rights widely enjoyed by men, yet at the same time recognizing that there are indeed differences between men and women, such as the ability to bear children, that have historically served as justification for discrimination against women. CEDAW is thus cast in a seemingly paradoxical framework that uses both the “measure of man” as a benchmark for equal rights and correctives to move the discourse from being gender-neutral to being gender-specific (Kaufman and Lindquist 1995; Friedman 2006; Arat 2008). As a result, feminists challenged the patriarchal and androcentric way in which mainstream human rights treaties had been conceptualized, which largely ignored the experiences of women and other marginalized groups, but also reaffirmed some of the androcentric conceptualizations of human rights. However, in acknowledging the contributions to society that women make in the home, CEDAW breaks down the artificial distinction between the public and private spheres (the personal is political) and highlights how traditional gender roles can be a source of women’s oppression. This important claim in CEDAW has been crucial in the CEDAW committee’s ability to identify and broaden the scope of violations of women’s human rights and to redress them through their general recommendations (Arat 2008)

Gender and Human Rights in the Context of Globalization

One important systemic component of structural indivisibility is economic globalization. Feminists have extended their critique of androcentrism and the public–private dichotomy so pervasive in the human rights discourse to the study of gender inequalities and economic globalization (Youngs 2000). Although there are many issues that fall under this area of study, this section will focus exclusively on the topic of the relationship between gender inequality in socioeconomic rights and economic globalization. The next section deals with democratization and will make the link between socioeconomic and civil and political rights. Feminist human rights scholars have been concerned with how the deepening of capitalism affects the state and the state’s ability to fulfill its human rights obligations. However, the crucial point of departure in this literature is its explicit focus on how this transformation is gendered and has gendered consequences (Lothian 1996; Sen 1997; Sassen 1998; Peratis et al. 1999; Bayes et al. 2001; Rittich 2001; Elson 2002). More explicitly, economic globalization not only produces gender inequalities, but also maintains and relies upon these inequalities in a variety of contexts in order to deepen capitalism, as well as to rearticulate the state.

As Rittich (2001:96–7) notes, there are several concerns to address when assessing the relationship between the state and the achievement of women’s human rights. One issue is the recognition that the women’s rights discourse and movement was and still is deeply embedded in and reliant upon the state-centered model of human rights. Even though feminist critiques of both the human rights regime and the state have revealed both their androcentrism and their complicity in preserving the public–private split which is profoundly gendered, the solutions posed by many feminists depend on the state to change its perspective, and consequently its behavior. As such, Chappell (2000:245) suggests that feminists have moved to a middle ground with regards to the state, viewing it neither as “inherently patriarchal and oppressive” nor as “gender neutral,” but rather the emphasis is now on the “interaction between the state and gender,” in which each shapes the other. For example, Weldon’s (2002) research on cross-national variations of state policy responsiveness with regards to violence against women issues shows that strong, autonomous women’s movements have significant influence on state policy change.

Regardless, the state becomes the primary agent in promoting and implementing effective strategies to eradicate gender inequalities. Yet, implicit in this design is the assumption of an economically prosperous, democratic state or, at the very least, an effectual one that subscribes to a neoliberal economic agenda. Although the international covenants on human rights allow for “progressive realization” of human rights, this concept also hinges on the notion that states will consistently and persistently search for ways to reallocate resources to further the enjoyment of human rights. For feminists, this means taking seriously the ways in which the state contributes to gender inequality through its social policies, and relying on the state to correct itself.

This perspective, of course, is not unproblematic. As Sassen (1998:94) suggests, the state is still viewed as the legitimate representative of the population in the international law arena, diminishing the contributions and limiting the participation of other nonstate actors. Furthermore, access to and influence over state policies is not uniform among women’s rights and human rights groups, and states are also subject to lobbying from other special interest groups, which may or may not be supportive of human rights based initiatives (Rittich 2001:97). In addition to these problems, as Chappell (2000:246–7) notes, there is a historic disjuncture among women’s rights activists in the first and third worlds, who have quite different views regarding the utility of achieving rights through the state, given the wide variation of states with regards to resources, effectiveness, and openness/repressiveness. However, given that the Beijing PFA (1995), which now operates as the dominant referent in international women’s rights law, places responsibility with states to realize and protect women’s rights in the face of potential negative consequences of globalization (rather than challenging globalization itself), and the increasingly “economistic turn” in the gender and development literature that conceptualizes “empowerment” as economic empowerment (Marchand 1996:580), it appears that the “national-management framework” (Bergeron 2001:993) is the primary one in place in both the first and third worlds, as an interactive site of resource allocation and resistance.

It is important to note, however, the framework utilized by the PFA has been challenged on many fronts, most notably by indigenous women, who, in their response to the PFA, roundly criticized globalization as recolonization and responsible for environmental degradation and continued poverty in indigenous lands and nations (Vinding 1998). They are explicit in their rejection of the strategy of trying to mitigate the negative effects of globalization, which is embedded in the interlocking systems of oppression of capitalism, patriarchy, and colonization (Kuokkanen 2008). Rather, for many indigenous women, there needs to be not only recognition of the structural violence that globalization perpetuates and sustains, but also a recognition of how the PFA and the contemporary discourses on women’s rights are complicit in maintaining this system.

A second, highly interrelated issue is markets. As Elson (2002:80–1) suggests, the traditional neoliberal orthodoxy that began in the 1970s and prevailed in the 1980s, “presumes that the best way to give substance to human rights is to reduce the role of the state, liberate entrepreneurial energy, achieve economic efficiency, and promote faster economic growth.” The neoliberal emphasis on the retrenchment of the state as the best way to ensure the fulfillment of human rights seems contradictory to the human rights regime’s insistence of proactive state involvement in meeting its human rights obligations. Yet, as Bayes et al. (2001:3) note, both economics and politics are linked through the rhetoric if not the practice of neoliberalism, which defines the current period. They argue that in theory, neoliberal economics assumes a separation between states and markets, in which markets operate with little intervention from the state. Brodie (1996:384) suggests further that this theoretical relationship between states and markets is actually one of the public and private, in which the private is made up of two realms that are presumed to be out of the “natural” purview of the state: the capitalist economy and the patriarchal family.

However, as discussed earlier, the notion of a rigid public–private divide in the human rights regime has largely been deconstructed by feminists, and in using a similar line of reasoning, feminists suggest that the globalizing neoliberal capitalist world economy rests not on a division between the state (public) and the markets (private) but rather that economic globalization, in its current form, requires an interconnection between states and markets to further its goals. That is, economic globalization requires governments to “provide for the free movement of capital, the free movement of goods, unrestricted labor markets, responsible banking systems, stable monetary policies, limited fiscal policies, attractive investment opportunities, and political stability” (Bayes et al. 2001:3). Through these practices, the “family and other aspects of private life [are subjected to] new forms of state scrutiny, regulation, and assistance” (Brodie 1996:385). Thus, the “boundaries” of the public–private are renegotiated, rearticulated, and blurred through the interaction of states (especially liberal democratic ones) and markets.

Although state entrenchment with regards to the economy may be a conscious and pro/re-active strategy on the part of governments as a route to economic prosperity that in theory promotes the progressive realization of socioeconomic rights through more resource allocation, the neoliberal ideology effectively shifts the responsibility away from states to markets as the guarantors of rights. Markets have little accountability and regulation in the human rights regime, insofar as multinational corporations, a major force behind globalization, have little oversight in international law and, in many cases, national law. This development poses particular challenges for feminists, who argue that the neoliberal democratic state, coupled with international human rights law, represents the best hope for the redistribution of resources guided by prioritizing the goal of gender equality. This is not to imply that feminists view the neoliberal democratic state as “gender neutral” or unproblematic. Rather, as the earlier discussion of the human rights discourse reveals, many feminists find the liberal democratic state profoundly gendered.

Another major point of feminist theorizing about globalization is that economic globalization not only produces gender inequality but also requires gender inequality to flourish and to sustain itself. Indeed, there appears to be a general consensus that globalization exacerbates gender inequality, and thus the fulfillment of women’s socioeconomic rights in relation to men’s, in important ways. There are numerous other areas in which feminists have examined globalization’s impact on gender inequality and rights, such as household relations (Kromhout 2000; Gonzalez 2001; Sircar and Kelly 2001; Soni-Sinha 2001), migrants/migration (Anderson 2000; Chang and Ling 2000; Kofman 2000), sex work/trafficking (Pettman 1996; Hanochi 2001), informal labor (Prügl 1999; Benería 2003), resistance (Runyan 1996; Karam 2000; Lind 2000; Rowbotham and Linkogle 2001; Naples and Desai 2002) and identity (Peterson 1996; Kuokkanen 2008). However, these topics are beyond the scope of this project and, as such, will not be discussed in depth here.

As noted earlier, in order for states to remain economically competitive, they adopt strategies that increase the power of the private sector at the expense of the public sector. The result is the weakening of “many institutions that in the past have assumed responsibility for human welfare – while passing on to others burdens they cannot be expected to bear” (UNRISD 1995:128). For many women, this situation is especially problematic because in order for states to uphold their obligations under CEDAW and the Beijing PFA, they must allocate resources for social welfare programs.

There have been two major responses by states facing the choice of economic competitiveness or guaranteeing socioeconomic rights. Industrialized countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have deregulated the labor market and wages and cut social welfare programs in order to stimulate economic growth and employment (UNRISD 1995:131). Developing countries have often adopted structural adjustment programs that implement severe economic austerity measures with the aim of jump-starting the economy at the expense of “non-profitable” public service programs. Feminist economists have shown that structural adjustment programs (SAP) have a differential impact on men and women in that women tend to absorb most of the shock of SAPs by increasing their domestic labor (through caregiving, altering the household consumption habits, subsistence farming, informal economic activities) and by entering the labor force to provide more income for the family (Elson 1991; Bakker 1994; Benería 2003; Çagatay 2003). As a result, there has been an increase in women’s poverty and economic inequality, and this constitutes a violation of women’s socioeconomic rights (Sadasivam 1997).

A second, interrelated issue is how economic globalization depends on a gendered sexual division of labor. The international sexual division of labor is predicated on the public–private split in which men’s work is considered to be “human” or real work, and women’s work is determined by their “nature” (Mies 1999:46). Work is defined as a public masculine activity and women’s work (or non-work) is defined as a private sphere activity. However, women’s work in the private sphere is extremely important to the functioning of the capitalist system, yet despite this important role, women are undervalued in both the public and private spheres because of their identification as housewives, rather than as “workers” (Mies 1999:116). Indeed, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that “the non-monetized invisible contribution of women is $11 trillion a year” (UNDP 1995:6). This identification with the home as a site of “non-work” for women is also complicit in the violation of the rights of women who do work in the home for monetary gain, such as piecework. Because it is conducted in the “private sphere,” there is little international labor regulation around home based work, with the exception of the 1996 International Labor Organization Convention on Homework (Prügl 1999). However, only five countries have ratified it, which underscores the pervasiveness of the masculinized ideal of real, productive work that takes place only in the public sphere.

The sexual division of labor and its resulting sexism also helps maintain capitalism as system (Wichterich 2000; Campillo 2003). This has important consequences for women, because even when they do work outside the home they are usually cast in unequal terms. The implication is that capitalism necessarily depends on a certain amount of low-wage and unpaid labor to keep it functioning (Peterson 2003), as the “labor input in non-wage work ‘compensates’ the lowness of the wage-income and therefore in fact represents an indirect subsidy to the employers of wage laborers in those households” (Wallerstein 1988:8). The identification of women with the private sphere helps keep capitalism’s costs low and at the same time provides a justification for this strategy.

The end result is limited economic opportunity for women since their labor is in the form of underpaid or unpaid labor in the capitalist system of profits and capital accumulation. Many labor sectors have become feminized, particularly the garment and electronics industries. Women are the preferred “workers” because they do not have to be paid as much as men. This is due in part to the devaluation of women’s labor (or the seeing of their paid labor as a natural extension of the private sphere) and the assumption that their wages are used for “extras” rather than to support the family (Mies 1999:116). The state is complicit in perpetuating this sexism because of its need to stay competitive in global markets. Many women have their basic economic rights, such as the right to safe labor conditions and pay equity, denied because states would find it too costly to provide these opportunities to women. If the cost of production of goods increases, products would be less competitive on the international market. States are reluctant to hold multinational corporations accountable for their labor practices because the pressure for revenue is too great and the threat of relocation by multinational corporations (MNC) is real (Sen 1997).

The bottom line for many feminists is that economic globalization, operating within a neoliberal frame, both produces and exacerbates some forms of gender inequality. States are responding to globalization by shifting the burden onto women (and other marginalized sectors of society) to create their own social safety net. However, because women’s work is usually undervalued or unpaid given their identification with the private sphere, meeting basic needs requirements of food, shelter, health care, and clothing becomes especially challenging. In light of these gendered inequities, some feminist scholars, such as Elson (2006:3) have suggested applying a gendered and rights based approach to the analysis of government budgets in order to “identify gender inequalities in budget processes, allocations and outcomes; and assess what States are obliged to do to address these inequalities” as a way to keep states accountable and responsive to women in the context of globalization.


While the broader women’s human rights movement is in tacit agreement that civil-political liberties and socioeconomic rights are inextricable, there is disagreement over the exact nature of this relationship. Furthermore, if one takes the notion of structural indivisibility seriously, a rather complex picture of the relationship between the liberal democratic state, democratization processes, globalization, socioeconomic rights, and gender emerges. Utilizing Huntington (1991), some feminist analyses of democracies and democratization reveal that one important factor to consider with regards to gender equality is whether or not the state in question is in a period of democratic transition or of democratic consolidation (Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Bystydzienski and Sekhon 1999; Hawkesworth 2001; Yoon 2001; Goetz and Hassim 2002). Many, but not all, of these studies show that women fare better in the transition phase (shifting from a nondemocratic type of government to a democratic one) than in the consolidation phase, which involves the establishment of rules, institutions, and political culture. However, there are also cases, such as in the post-communist states, where women have lost considerable economic and political power during the democratic transition phase (see, for example, Wolchik 1998).

Hawkesworth (2001:223–6) suggests that the democratic consolidation phase in conjunction with liberal capitalist development has deleterious effects on gender equality, and thus the achievement of women’s rights, for two main reasons. First, developing countries, through modernization programs, are pressured to adopt a neoliberal capitalist model of development. This connects to the earlier discussion of economic development in the sense that modernization theory presumes that the adoption of capitalism will in turn produce a liberal democratic state, partially because liberal democracies are necessary to guarantee the private property rights that are crucial to global capitalism. A further assumption is that the combination of the deepening of capitalism and the consolidation of a liberal democracy will in fact elevate human rights fulfillment for the citizenry.

However, and this is Hawkesworth’s second point, the dominant model of Western liberal democracy that many countries seek to emulate has a weak record in achieving gender equality. With the exception of the Scandinavian countries, which Hawkesworth argues are more properly thought of as “social” democracies rather than liberal, women in advanced industrialized countries are still vastly underrepresented in the upper echelons of the public sphere. Although the advanced industrialized democracies guarantee equal rights for women and minorities, in reality the consolidation process has worked to produce and institutionalize a patriarchal elite class that undermines the principle of government for the people by the people. As the democratic consolidation process is coupled with the deepening of capitalism, political participation becomes the privilege of those who are economically empowered.

In her analysis, Hawkesworth (2001:224) concludes that “democratization produces gendered redistribution of resources and responsibilities that make women worse off.” Given this scenario, it is not surprising that some feminists have linked the twin processes of globalization and democratization as detrimental to the achievement of human rights for women. Although one consequence of globalization is that more women are in the paid labor force, women have not been able to translate this into political empowerment because these economic “opportunities” are the result of having to make up for states’ inabilities to provide for basic needs. And, as noted earlier, gendered notions around work preclude the idea that more women in the labor force is a sign of increasing gender equality (Elson 2002). In short, globalization disempowers women economically, which in turn disempowers them politically by leaving little time, money, or energy to fully exercise civil and political rights.

Why, then, the insistence by the broader women’s human rights regime that the liberal democratic state remains the best hope for the achievement of gender equality in human rights? There are several answers to this conundrum that shed light on the further complexity of globalization, democratization, and women’s human rights achievement. First, no country has completed the process of democratic consolidation, and given that many of the countries do in fact guarantee civil and political rights, there are potential avenues to reshape the consolidation process to demand accountability. For example, feminist scholars have tracked the global diffusion of two notable policies: (1) the adoption of gender quotas in electoral processes, which more than fifty countries have done as a way to increase women’s participation in public life (Bauer 2008; Dahlerup 2008; Krook 2008; Sacchet 2008); and (2) the development of women’s policy agencies within the state (also known as “state feminism”) in over 165 countries (True and Mintrom 2001; Lovenduski 2005). While there are significant disagreements among feminists about the quality of women’s representation in these spheres as well as about the utility of both of these developments for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights, they are cautiously viewed as positive developments nonetheless.

Second, and closely related to the first point, although globalization has had negative consequences, it also opens up spaces for women’s informal and formal political empowerment (Sassen 1998; Moghadam 1999; Bayes et al. 2001). Sassen (1998:94) suggests that “globalization is creating new operational and formal openings for the participation of non-state actors and subjects,” which in turn provides for the possibility of reshaping ideas about representation, power, and authority. Third, although the role of the state appears to be diminishing or transforming in the wake of globalization, the unevenness of globalization has also ensured that human rights are a part of the permanent global agenda, and thus states are still crucial actors in this regard.

Fourth, and finally, as Rittich (2001:96) observes, “human rights are now often mentioned in the same breath as market reform and development.” Some feminists have recognized this linking of human rights and markets as an opportunity to press for a refined state-management approach coupled with collective global governance to mitigate the negative effects of the global economy. However, others, such as Bergeron (2001), are skeptical of this approach because of the way feminist appeals to the state for “protection” frame the subjectivities and agency of women. Bergeron (2001:995) suggests that when women are depicted as victims of globalization, an unintended consequence can be that the state will move to adopt “the traditional masculine role of protecting women and families.” This result is ultimately contrary to many feminist goals in achieving rights, and further points out the limitations of “victimization” rhetoric, as mentioned earlier, in accomplishing such goals.

Feminists have utilized the idea of indivisibility to challenge embedded gender hierarchies in the human rights regime to greatly expand the inclusiveness and, therefore, universality of rights (Otto 2001:54–5). In particular, feminists have shown how the private and public spheres are interconnected, suggesting that economic, social, and political rights are necessarily linked – each one is key to the enjoyment of the other. Feminists have also identified international structures, such as security regimes and the global economy, as key variables to be examined, understood, and accounted for in relation to gender inequality in human rights. The “structural indivisibility” framework easily extends to all contemporary human rights regimes in that it provides an analytic tool for evaluating the impacts of globalization on gender inequality and socioeconomic rights.

The Question of Culture

The topic of cultural practice, traditions, and customary laws has occupied a central place of importance in feminist critiques and understandings of human rights. A central, well-known tension is between universal and cultural relativist positions on human rights. The universal position decrees human rights as inalienable and held by all members of the “human family,” whereas the cultural relativist position argues that “members of one society may not legitimately condemn the practices of societies with different traditions, denying that there can be valid external critiques of culturally-based practices and that no legitimate cross-cultural standards for the evaluating the treatment of rights exist” (Mayer 1995:176). Many justifications for the denial of women’s human rights are framed in cultural relativist terms, and often positioned as an anti-Western, anti-imperialist response (Rao 1995; Brems 1997; Narayan 1998; Shacher 2001; Kapur 2005; Winter 2006; Bovarnick 2007). This paradoxical position frequently results in conflict between women’s individual rights and group cultural rights. Women may agree with the right of their cultural group to practice their culture, while at the same time disagreeing with how these cultural practices affect their personal autonomy and agency. Winter (2006:385) notes that cultural relativist arguments are disproportionately deployed on the question of women’s rights, in that “those articles in UN treaties in favor of religious and cultural rights and the elimination of race discrimination do not appear to be as problematically ‘Western’ as those which defend women’s rights.” The literature on the topic of culture is vast and complex, and due to space constraints, there will be only a cursory and oversimplified overview of it here.

An important contribution of the feminist literature in this area is a deconstruction of the term “culture” itself. Rao (1995:173) argues that culture is “a series of constantly contested and negotiated social practices whose meanings are influenced by the power and status of their interpreters and participants.” By identifying culture as a dynamic, political practice, it allows for a move away from cultural essentialism, or the idea that culture is somehow a homogeneous, static, internally consistent, natural, prediscursive given. Cultural essentialism, as such, is a form of cultural relativism in that it often positions itself as “traditional” and “authentic” and therefore not subject to critical examination. Furthermore, cultural essentialism can also mask “synecdochic substitutions” in which “‘parts’ of a practice come to come to stand in for a whole” and obscure the harmful nature of these “traditional” practices (Narayan 1998:95). By defining culture as an ongoing process, feminist human rights scholars have revealed the gendered power dynamics embedded in the construction and perpetuation of cultural and religious practices. As Rao (1995:168) notes, by understanding culture in this way, one can ask to what degree members of a cultural group are able to participate in the defining of culture as well as who benefits from a particular version of culture.

There is also considerable emphasis on the tension between universalism and cultural relativism (Brems 1997; Okin 1998; Bovarnick 2007; Freedman 2007; Steans 2007). Some feminist scholars suggest that the application of universal human rights has had little applicability in non-Western contexts. Bovarnick’s (2007) study of rape in Mexico and Pakistan reveals important insights into the question of cultural context and particularity when assessing whether or not universal human rights are useful in addressing violence against women. Positioning Mexico and Pakistan as non-Western countries in this study, her analysis reveals that while discourses around violence against women in both of these countries are in fact quite particularized, there are transcultural connections that can be made through the commonalities of “how traditional social mechanisms legitimize and reproduce violence against women” (Bovarnick 2007:61). Despite their vast cultural differences, the two countries appropriate and regulate women’s bodies and sexuality in a similar fashion, highlighting the importance of addressing the global mechanism of which these different manifestations of violence against women are a part (Bovarnick 2007). Bovarnick seems to be suggesting that there are other transcultural universals emerging out of non-Western contexts that need to be taken into account in order to render a potentially different understanding and potential acceptance of universal rights.

Narayan (1998), however, suggests that for feminists to even use categories such as “Western” and “non-Western” is a culturally essentialist move in itself that can play right into the hands of third world fundamentalists, who often use cultural relativist and anti-imperialist justifications to deny women’s human rights, as well as of “Western cultural supremacists,” who support the idea that the West is morally and politically superior to all “Others” (Narayan 1998:97). Furthermore, she takes issue with the notion that “equality” and “human rights” are inherently “Western values” to begin with. Narayan (ibid.) argues that “as a result of political struggles by […] various excluded groups in both Western and non-Western contexts […] doctrines of equality and rights have slowly come to be perceived as applicable to them, too.” For Narayan (ibid.), conceptualizations of rights and equality are not just products of Western imperialism but can be considered as products of struggles against internal and external forms of Western imperialism.

Many other feminist scholars are also currently engaged with trying to reconcile universalism with cultural particularism as a way to move past this polarizing dichotomy and to advance the goals of women’s human rights and gender equality. Nussbaum (2000:100) argues for the capabilities approach which focuses on “what people are actually able to do and to be” rather than on what rights or resources individuals have, as one way to traverse this dichotomy. She builds a very complex argument that is oversimplified here due to space constraints, but at the crux of her work is development of the capabilities model, which is informed by the work of Amartya Sen, Marx, and Aristotle and others. Nussbaum argues that her list of basic human functional capabilities (life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; control over one’s environment) are cross-culturally recognizable and desirable as well as necessary to the flourishing of human life (2000:78–80). She suggests that by using capabilities, rather than rights, as the goals to be achieved, we will have the tools for developing a cross-cultural consensus for “determining a decent social minimum in a variety of areas” (Nussbaum 2000:75). In her view, the capabilities approach is universal but not ethnocentric, for “ideas about activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do, what opportunities they have for functioning” (2000:100). She further buttresses her claims by applying the capabilities criteria to the lives of two Indian women, and concludes they are already thinking, speaking, and acting in accordance with the language of capabilities (2000:106–10). She also argues that capabilities can be realized in multiple ways according to context, etc., and that by positioning capabilities as the goal, the choice is left open whether or not to pursue the accompanying function (2000:105). Nussbaum does not reject human rights discourse altogether, which she also suggests is not exclusively Western, even though it is often thought to be. Rather, she sees human rights frameworks as an important way to achieve capabilities because rights discourses can recognize and justify human capabilities, make claims of entitlement vis-à-vis the democratic state, and emphasize individual choice and autonomy.

To be sure, there have been many critiques of Nussbaum’s work, and I will address only a few critiques in cursory way here. Phillips (2001) worries that the capabilities approach takes us too far from an agenda of equality, which has been a central preoccupation for many feminists working in the human rights arena. Phillips warns that the capability approach is too focused on the question of freedom of choice, and this can result in unequal outcomes between the sexes. Phillips concludes as well that that there would be little redress for gendered inequalities that the capabilities approach might produce, if in fact a minimum standard of capabilities was in place for everyone. This does not imply equal capabilities but rather relational ones that could be fundamentally premised on sustaining gender inequalities.

Others, such as Quillen (2001) and Charusheela (2008), trouble Nussbaum’s attempts at developing a non-ethnocentric universal ethic by which to conceptualize the “human” in the capabilities model. Quillen (2001:89) argues that Nussbaum’s adherence to liberal humanism actually undermines her project because it is an inadequate framework for understanding the intersections and sources of structural oppressions as well as for analyzing the self (see Nussbaum 2001 for her response to Quillen’s critiques). Charusheela (2008) argues that Nussbaum’s arguments for universality are in fact ethnocentric, due to their location in modernism, which posits a normative ideal based on Western liberal conceptualizations of the democratic state and capitalist system, and their attendant institutions, as the best way to deliver on capabilities. For Charusheela (2008:13) the capabilities approach therefore rests on “an underlying set of assumptions about human nature that masquerades as universal – cognition expressed in particular ways, decisions made in specific ways, reason and voice deployed in ways appropriate to these institutions” (emphasis in the original). Both Charusheela and Quillen suggest that we should be utilizing postcolonial feminist theories as the way to build a more collective response to social inequalities.

Some feminist human rights theorists are looking to social activism as a way to resolve the tensions between the particular and the universal. Ackerly (2001) argues that women’s human rights activists generate a cross-cultural theory of human rights that both invokes and contributes to the universal human rights project while at the same time being able to advocate these ideals in locally appropriate ways. Steans (2007) makes a similar point in her analysis, highlighting the role that conflict, contestation, and reflection play in feminist transnational advocacy networks in forging new understandings about the basis of collective identities and “shared” interests. She suggests that rather than challenging the notion of universal human rights for women, the conflict generated over cultural differences in feminist transnational advocacy networks serves to buttress universality as these conflicts potentially lead to resolutions that are “both more inclusive and better reflect the actual diversity of women” (Steans 2007:17).

Reilly (2007) approaches this question through the lens of cosmopolitan feminism and argues that this theoretical perspective rejects the notion that women are united by a common identity or common experience, and can serve as a transformative political framework. Offering up the ICC NGO Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice and PeaceWomen Project focused on the passage and implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (which gender mainstreams security issues) as examples, Reilly suggests that cosmopolitan feminism is a “process-oriented framework wherein the direction and content of feminist practice is determined in cross-boundaries dialogue within and across women’s movements” (2007:182). Reilly suggests that through this framework, a global feminist consciousness can be developed that challenges “false universalisms” predicated on false, but powerful, binaries that construct and maintain gender, race, and class inequalities (2007:187). In challenging these binaries through an intersectional framework, cosmopolitan feminism can “critically [reinterpret] universal values such as the rule of law, human rights, and secular democratic politics” (2007:193).

The feminist cosmopolitan approach is not without its critics, however. Both Kaplan (2001) and Grewal (2005) argue that the global feminism envisioned by feminist cosmopolitanism produces a new type of Orientalism that is heavily predicated on rescue discourses, which serve to maintain, rather than transform, existing power inequalities. For example, Kaplan (2000:222) suggests that the “cross-cultural dialogues” central to feminist cosmopolitanism are predicated on the view that “patriarchy and other forms of oppression are […] largely overcome in the metropolitan centers of the West,” necessitating a shift “to the spaces of ‘tradition’ and ‘barbarism’ in the margins – the ‘orient’ or the Third World.” Using Hillary Rodham Clinton’s appearance at the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women as a focal point of her analysis, Kaplan illustrates how cosmopolitan feminism and its attendant discourses on human rights (which Kaplan argues are still primarily liberal in theoretical orientation) “travel” (literally and figuratively) to “other” parts of the world to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue, which ultimately feminizes and positions the third world as space that needs to be saved, or rescued (Grewal 2005).

As a result, “the ‘West’ is uncritically assumed to embody ‘equality’, ‘democracy’, and ‘freedom’ despite its serious involvement and investments in […] systems of oppression and power” (Russo 2006:573). These critiques are amply demonstrated in two case studies of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s (FMF) work in relation to Afghani women’s rights, in which the FMF relied on rescuing and saving discourses while simultaneously highlighting its work with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) as a project of global (cosmopolitan) feminism throughout its Campaign to End Gender Apartheid (Farrell and McDermott 2005; Russo 2006).

Grewal’s (2005) and Kaplan’s (2001) contention that the cosmopolitan feminist women’s human rights framework constructs difference and produces particular discourses of power and subjects in ways that exempt the West from critical interrogation of their roots in creating and maintaining interlocking systems of oppression are important points to consider in light of Reilly’s arguments, above, in terms of intersectional frameworks. How is difference in terms of intersecting identities as well as agency understood? And, does this approach enable the transcendence of binaries, or recast them, (re)producing both old and new inequalities? Finally, assuming these binaries are contested and transformed, whose “universal” values will be reinterpreted, by whom, and for what ends?

Feminist Futures: Measuring the Achievement of Women’s Human Rights

This essay points to a number of controversies, such as issues regarding culture, sexuality, and neo-imperialism, which need further consideration by feminists. However, the essay has not addressed methodological issues, which are also important for the study and achievement of women’s human rights. Data collection is an important component for a variety of methodological approaches and, as such, deserves further scrutiny here.

During the UN Decade for Women, feminist transnational networks argued for the need to collect sex-disaggregated data. Although heralded by many feminists at the time as a major breakthrough, this has increasingly come under scrutiny. First, there are many provisions in both women’s rights and human rights documents that guarantee a wide range of civil and political liberties and socioeconomic rights but there are actually few data to measure these particular rights. As argued in this essay, feminists conceptualize human rights as something far more complex than the equitable distribution of the presumed benefits and resources of economic development, globalization, and democratization, such as individual empowerment and capacity building, which are difficult to quantify.

Second, because human rights data are often outcomes based and reflect the performance of states, they are actually defined by the public sphere (as are data focused on legally based indicators). As noted earlier in this essay, one of the key insights of feminist human rights scholarship on gender inequality has been its insistence on the interaction of the public and private spheres, and the rejection of this binary as mutually exclusive. That is to say, what happens in the public sphere has ramifications for gender ideology and roles in the private sphere. As such, these measures simply cannot capture the gendered dynamics of the private sphere, which have ideological, physical, and material consequences for the achievement of rights. Because of their inability to capture gendered interactions between the public and private spheres as well as gendered relations within those spheres, the data are at best capturing sex discrimination within the confines of the neoliberal global order rather than the structural feature of gender oppression. In this case, sex is operationalized as an empirical category and gender is an analytical one; yet the sex-disaggregated data are being used as a substitute for “gender.”

Many human rights indicators (though not all) use male experience as the norm, and the achievement of women’s human rights is seen as relative to the rights that men have already achieved. Thus, the typical human rights data show that women are discriminated against in so far as they have not achieved the same rights as men, despite the efforts put forth by many feminists to expand and reframe notions of rights that take into account the difference of women’s and men’s lived realities. Barriteau (2006), in her study of the Commonwealth Caribbean, argues that composite human rights indicators, such as the Gender Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), place too much emphasis on the material relations of power (and empowerment) to the exclusion of the social and ideological relations of power. Thus, the high score of the Commonwealth Caribbean countries on both the GDI and GEM masks the daily realities of gender based oppression in many women’s lives. Because of this, it looks as if women’s human rights have been achieved, and therefore it is very difficult to mount a critical challenge against the indicators. Many feminists are concerned that this type of outcome creates “an impression that women no longer require assistance and that men are now much more needy beneficiaries” and as a result, there will be a “re-masculinization” of both the development and human rights discourses (McIlwaine and Datta 2003:375).

Adding to these concerns about the type of data used to measure the success or failure of gender mainstreaming human rights, Wood (2005) raises the important point that the overall ideology of gender mainstreaming human rights in fact homogenizes both men and women and that this homogenization is often mistaken for commonality. Wood argues that the cost of the homogenization of gender in the policy process, even though it is an efficient and expedient way to gender mainstream human rights and development, is the neglect of “difference” within these homogenized categories of men and women. This is a crucial point because the rationale around gender mainstreaming is to understand how certain social and economic policies impact men and women differently, and the data constructed to evaluate this difference reflect this focus. Wood argues that in order for gender mainstreaming to be more effective, more attention must be paid to the differences among women (and by extension among men) in terms of class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. By this logic, data collection would have to be transformed. For example, it is not enough to point to the increased numbers of women in parliaments and call it gender mainstreaming human rights success. Additional data need to be known about which women are in these positions, which women are not, and why. This would also tell us something about how patriarchal systems can accommodate a certain amount or type of women seeking power while excluding others (hooks 2000).

Gender inequality is not separate from class, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual inequalities. Yet, given the current construction of data, we are forced to construct and evaluate gender equality and the achievement of human rights in very narrow and rigid ways. Though this is already happening to some degree, a future task for feminist scholars and activists is to conceptualize and advocate for human rights data that can capture gender inequality in multidimensional and intersectional ways.


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Special thanks to: Brooke Ackerly, the editor of the FTGS section’s contribution to the compendium, and Andrea Gerlak, Managing Editor of the ISA compendium, for their encouragement and support; Zehra Arat, for her helpful suggestions and coordination of the reviewers’ comments; the two anonymous reviewers, whose comments helped sharpen and deepen this essay; Shannon Mcleod, for her editorial and research assistance; and Mindy McGarrah Sharp, for her administrative assistance. All remaining errors and inaccuracies are, of course, attributable solely to the author.