Human Rights-based approach to MDGs [Archives:2006/935/Reportage]

April 6 2006

By: Nisha
Are human rights and development two separate approaches or can they be used complimentarily? In context of women's human rights and development, my view is that human rights approach is essential for achieving development. Human rights approach recognizes that all human beings irrespective of the boundaries that divide them, including gender, are entitled to certain fundamental rights that are prerequisites to secure human dignity and fulfil basic needs. Let's take the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to understand this. The Millennium Declaration includes eight MDGs and six commitments that the state and other parties make to uphold and promote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, democracy and good governance, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the rights of migrant workers and families, inclusive political processes and freedom of the media and people's access to information. The eight goals and six commitments taken together represent a good combination of economic and social rights. In principle, they show the shift from poverty eradication approach towards development to a recognition that without human security and empowering people, and making a social intervention to address existing inequalities human development is not possible.

Now let's talk about the way we are trying to achieve the MDGs. In Yemen, like most other developing countries, MDGs are currently being implemented using frameworks which are mainly economic. So while one hears of the eight goals one does not hear of the six commitments. In common manner of speaking, the tendency is to bring up the goals separately from the Millennium Declaration. The implication of this way of approaching the goals is that it may end up only with the analyses of gender needs (read women's needs) in economic terms but may not lead to the integration of a gender perspective into all policies, programmes and projects. A consequence of using only economic framework to implement MDGs would be that the social aspects of women and men's interests and needs will remain out of focus and additional initiatives to enable women to articulate and express their perspectives and to participate in decision-making processes will not be either thought of or taken up.

In order to achieve the MDGs in true spirit of the Millennium Declaration, it is essential to link the goals beyond macro level economic analyses and policy process. It is critical that the initiatives to achieve MDGs encompass human rights based interventions that make it possible for the individual to feel empowered to participate and make decisions, that attempt to change cultural norms and practices preventing women from participation and decision-making, and that provide facilitative environment to women at institutional and organisational levels. Without such interventions, the traditional and structural causes of gender-specific discrimination that violate women's human rights will continue to obstruct women's equal involvement in the development of Yemen. And without women's equal and active involvement in development processes, MDGs cannot be truly achieved.

The eight MDGs and six commitments must go hand in hand because certain human values and standards like non-discrimination; extra efforts to ensure participation of the marginalized groups including women; rights to conducive environment for free mobility, participation in the public sphere and economic self determination; etc are particularly significant in addressing the problem of poverty. Also, from the perspective of gender development poverty should not be construed only in terms of income whether of household or of individual. Women's unconstrained ability to access, own and control resources whether their own income or family assets with the support of state legislation and without the fear of family and social reprisal are keys to their ability to enjoy economic and social rights as well as to contribute to the country's development. But social norms in Yemen and legal frameworks not only place constraints on women's social mobility and economic participation rather also make women more vulnerable to family violence. Linking women's ability to enjoy the full range of human rights with development is essential if development is meant to be egalitarian and for the benefit of the entire population. In other words, there is a need to integrate human rights approach in the MDGs related policy and programming processes.

Embedding a broader understanding of poverty and gender responsive programming that take into account socio-political, cultural and human rights considerations affecting women and men would make development programmes more context sensitive, responsive and effective in achieving MDGs. Adoption of a broader understanding of poverty implies that poverty may be interpreted differently in Yemen. It may require different set of strategies and timeline to achieve the goals here. This flexibility will ensure that the MDGs once achieved will be longer lasting. The guidelines and recommendations to achieve MDGs, which are heavily economic in nature, should not be treated as prescriptive but must remain what they are, guidelines and recommendations. That means depending on the context they could be modified and adapted to ensure an inclusive process.

Nisha is an Indian activist working in development and gender. She is a campaign and advocacy expert and has published many research papers around the world.

Research in Yemen by the UNICEF, Women's National Committee, Oxfam GB and many other development organizations has demonstrated that the two most significant obstacles to girls' education are stereotypical socio-cultural perceptions of women's roles and practices that prevent girls and women from accessing and benefiting from opportunities. Among the most frequently identified perceptions and practices are low estimation of girls' worth, early marriage, early pregnancy and unpaid work. These issues are related to rights of girl children and women, which the Yemeni government must ensure if it is committed to achieving MDGs 2 and 3.

In Yemen, girls of any age could be married lawfully if their parents think it is in their interest although the same law suggests 15 years as the right age. Many people in Yemen usually begin considering a girl as a grown up woman when she has her first menstruation. The gaps in the law and poor understanding of girls' physical and sexual health among a large number of people suggests that the condition needed for achieving universal primary education and eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education is far from being realized. Unless the Yemeni government and the people of Yemen realize that low estimation of girls' worth, early marriage, early pregnancy and unpaid work not only preclude girls from school, but also violate their rights as children and women. Early marriage is an especially noteworthy reason behind young girls pushed to be adults and therefore denied the rights they should have as children, including the right to education.