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Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: The Structural Indivisibility of Rights

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: 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)

kpio897o. 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).