Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: An Argument For A Rights Based Approach To Foreign Policy

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Hillary Rodham Clinton coined the now-famous phrase “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all,” more than 20 years ago at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The international development space has had over 20 years of policy making to put some truth behind this hopeful statement, and yet the world still struggles to provide justice and equality for all. Women around the world are raped, abused, make less doing the same job, victimized by the system and denied basic human rights because our global society and governing bodies do not treat women’s rights as human rights.

When men are released from prison after severing outrageously short sentences for heinous crimes such as raping and murdering women in the countries from the United States to India and Afghanistan, it is a clear indication that the majority of legal systems do not see women’s rights as human rights.

When a Polish politician stands up in Parliament and argues that “women must earn less than men, because they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent,” women’s rights are not human rights.

When the global pay gap rises instead of decreases and will take 170 to close completely at the current rate, women’s rights are not human rights.

So why does progress on women’s rights falls short? There are cultural, religious, and economic explanations that allow the world to deny women justice and equality.

Take for example the subject of “women’s economic empowerment.” In 2013, UN Women reported that the male employment-to-population ratio stood at 72.2 percent, while the ratio for females was 47.1 percent. Closing this participation gap would add an estimated between USD 17 trillion to 28 trillion to the global economy.

The problematic part of this argument from international development entities such as UN Women, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum is the way in which they justify women’s economic empowerment. Often, these entities argue for investing in or implementing policies on women’s economic empowerment are utility based, not rights based. The argument they make is that “women can add 17 trillion dollars to the economy, and shouldn’t we all invest in women so that we can all be richer?”

But this is not the reason why we should invest in women’s economic empowerment. We should invest in women’s economic empowerment because women are human. Women are equal to men. Women deserve equal opportunity to participate in the global economy. Women have human rights.

International development organizations have to stop making the argument for investing in women’s participation as a means to achieve a larger goal, rather than the goal itself. This is easier said than done. Often, UN Women, the World Bank and others use this argument to gain support and investment in women’s economic empowerment because it achieves results. We live in a global cultural environment that does not value women’s rights equally to human rights — i.e. the rights of men- so the argument becomes one of usefulness and utility. But when organizations, governing bodies, and individuals in their home repeatedly reiterate this utility-based argument, it becomes a way of life and we forget that women’s rights are human rights. All we can remember is that women’s economic empowerment means we all get richer, and nothing else.

This is how we end up with an endless news cycle reporting on another rape, another murder, and another sexual harassment in the work place. Economic empowerment may mean that husbands decide not to beat their wives because doing so will threaten her ability to earn an income, but many of these women are still subject to psychological abuse because societies perpetuate the notion that she is not his equal and does not enjoy equal human rights. This is also how we end up with a new nonprofit in the United States promoting micro-finance programs aimed at getting women to work in order to lift an entire community out of poverty, not because a woman has the right to work in her own right as a human being.

Changing the argument from a utility-based approach to a rights-based approach will take effort from all, especially international development policy makers and governing bodies that set the global rhetorical agenda. UN Women, the World Bank, and congresses and parliaments globally need to stop focusing on the ability of women to contribute to national and global economies as the primary fight. It’s a short-term win with long-term adverse consequences. The only way the words of Hillary Clinton’s speech will ring true is if international organizations and governing bodies take the lead and truly make an effort to make women’s rights into human rights.