Half the WorldWhy advocate for women’s human right? [Archives:2005/867/Culture]

August 11 2005

By Nisha
Women's rights have always attracted all kinds of attention, ranging from cynicism, abhorrence and distrust to passion and inalienable faith. In the midst of recent global political upheavals, particularly US led democratization of the world which has often used women's conditions as one of excuses to perpetrate violence, the issue has become more contentious. At one end it has intensified dialogues on the issue and on the other it has provoked numerous critiques of the concept of women's human rights. A general reaction among civil society organization, both national and international, to the growing contestations that been to play safe – separate rights claims and rights advocacy from the issues of socio-economic and political growth. This is specially so in societies which are viewed as traditional and closed. The standard justification of adopting this position is that taking a human rights perspective on gender-equality issues will obstruct and endanger development work.

But are women's human rights and socio-economic and political development really static entities that they can be divorced from one-another without any implications? I do not think so. I see a complex relationship between women's human rights and egalitarian development of any kind. In some societies, in a short run, I do see the scope of the rights activism to foreclose women's participation in the public sphere. But that is not a good enough reason to stop rights advocacy. If rejection of a concept or an issue in the short term were to be used as a reason to stop all efforts, most countries in the Southern hemisphere would still be under the control of colonial powers, slaves would not have been free, bonded labour would exist without any fear of sanctions, apartheid would continue to reign, dalits would continue to be crushed in the caste system and genocide of indigenous people would never stop.

On the basis of the examples that I have used here, I would suggest that rights advocacy offers us the potential to advance and sustain egalitarian socio-economic and political development. I see rights consciousness coupled with sensitivity to diversity in all human aspects leading to better articulation of socio-economic and political needs and to community organizing and envisioning of shared development goals. Recognition and respect for women's rights and opportunities to realize the rights is an affirmation of the fact that women are, first of all, human beings entitled to equal rights and some special rights which are needed to address certain biological needs and social disadvantages that are women-specific. It is also an acknowledgement of the fact that rights have to be formulated not only from the perspectives of men but also from women's perspective. Women's human rights discourse and advocacy has the potential to encompass individual and communal values. It can be a means for a woman to develop a sense of self and for a group of women to develop a collective sense of their situation in a given context.

The ability of women's rights advocacy to foreclose women's participation in development in the short run or to advance and sustain egalitarian development depends upon the particular climate, both national and global, in which it is being carried out and the particular time at which it is introduced. However, one of the prevailing trends in the civil society organizations is to use the need for the right climate and time as an excuse not to raise the issue of rights at all. So instead of working towards creating that climate and using opportune time to advocate rights, they act as gatekeepers, resisting and obstructing changes in the gender status quo.

Two of the arguments that are often used in resisting women's human rights are 1) that it is a Western concept, and 2) our society is communalistic rather than individualistic and that human rights are focused on the individual. First of all, anything that traditionally has not been a part of our societies does not automatically become a 'Western' notion. Demands for women's human rights do arise from the feminist movement which first gained ground in the West. But this should not take away the fact that it has been women from the South who, for years, have lobbied with the UN and other international agencies, pressurized their own states to recognize and respect their rights, and endured severe community reprisal for raising the issue of women's rights. To dismiss the women's human rights as a 'Western' notion is to dismiss the hardship and struggle that own sisters have gone through. Further, Western or local, the concepts of human dignity and respect which are so intrinsically linked to the women's human rights are universal values and their entitlement should not be dependent on where they were advocated first in the modern world. Second, women's human rights advocacy leading to women's organizing can emphasize the interdependence of women's empowerment and legal autonomy, and community development. It helps women develop an identity as women whose needs and circumstances are different from those of men and it also assists them to connect to one another and their communities in ways that are more just. Women's human rights advocacy, therefore, is a tool of development – it contributes to women's human potential development and assists in the collective development of a society.

Women's human rights have been formulated through a process of dialogue of women's and men needs and awareness-raising about various forms of discrimination and violence women endure because of their sex and traditional gender roles. Discourses on these rights have enabled women to develop a sense of selfhood and collective identity as women. It has also enabled them to analyze the connection between individual and community and the role that socio-political systems play in maintaining a particular status quo. Women's human rights advocacy has been a means of bringing out, understanding, and building women's communities which are more aware of the issues within their larger communities. Reconstruction of gender roles in various socio-political systems that women's human right stipulate is a direction towards social justice. It is important, therefore, that instead of isolating women's collective identities and their enhanced understanding of social situations, the civil society organizations work towards creating environments in which these can be used for the benefit of the society.