The missing link in women's human rights

Gender incompetent policies and hierarchical understandings of rights dominate global economic governance programmes. Integrating a feminist political economy into the analysis reveals the interconnections of structural inequalities that underlie women’s subordination.

Yakin Erturk
6 March 2015
Book cover. Author Yakin Erturk.

Violence Without Borders: the paradigm, policy and practical aspects of violence against womenThe continuation of the war on women in an escalated and violent fashion in many parts of the world has provoked me to write a book reflecting on my human rights monitoring experiences of the past two decades. One of the central challenges of the book, Violence Without Borders, has been to unpack the hierarchy of rights that deny women access to critical resources so needed in enhancing their capacity to resist transgressions on their rights. This article stems from a chapter of the book which argues that introducing a feminist political economy approach into the analysis can unravel the missing link in women’s human rights.

The problem

The recognition of violence against women (VAW) as a human rights violation was a turning point in the human rights movement. The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women affirmed that “…violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and … violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position…”.

Since the adoption of the Declaration, violence against women rose to prominence on national and international agendas at the expense of compromising its feminist content as the responses to the problem became dominated by a welfare oriented approach. Thus VAW is treated in a selective, compartmentalized and isolated manner, largely disconnected from gender inequality and women’s socio-economic rights, which impedes their capability to escape violence.

Although Article 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urges states to ensure women’s enjoyment of their economic and social rights, governments have failed to adopt measures to enhance women’s empowerment and access to productive resources. The detachment of VAW within the human rights movement from the broader struggles for social and economic equality, eradication of poverty and unemployment, livelihood security etc, reduced women’s human rights issues to one of ‘protection’ and women into victims in need of being saved.

Feminist economists’ and women’s rights advocates for long have emphasized the importance of women’s economic autonomy and called for integrating a gender perspective into macro-economic policies. This has become particularly urgent under neo-liberalism and the international financial crisis. The likely adverse impact of the crisis on women’s employment, livelihood security, the realization of the full range of their rights, including the potential for increase in violence against them as well as on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to slash poverty, hunger, infant and maternal mortality, and illiteracy by 2015, has occupied the debates.

The exposure of socio-economic rights as the missing link within the women’s human rights movement made integration of a political economy perspective into the feminist approach to women’s right compelling. Political economy offers a materialist understanding of society that reveals the interconnections among the economic, political, and cultural/ideological spheres and incorporates race, class, and culture into feminist analysis. Such an analysis; (i) goes beyond mere distributional aspects of access to economic and social rights; (ii) identifies discriminatory policies, practices and entitlement structures that determine the gendered manifestations of these rights; and (iii) draws attention to the feminist critique of the hierarchy of rights resulting from the differential treatment of ‘first generation’ and ‘second generation’ rights, i.e. the Twin Covenants. 

The assumption that violation of rights, poverty, and exploitation is not random, but embedded in structural inequalities, is the central principle of the feminist political economy perspective.

Unravelling structural hierarchies

Power operates not only through coercion but also through the structured relations of production and reproduction that govern the distribution and use of resources, benefits, privileges and authority in the home and the society at large. Identifying how the institutional and ideological formations of society shape gender identities and statuses and where the boundaries of rights and freedoms are drawn provides viable entry points for altering and re-configuring these structures towards achieving equality.

Applying a political economy approach to women’s rights has been particularly useful in unraveling three interrelated structural factors that underlie women’s subordination and heighten the risk of violence against them.

The first factor is sexual-division of labour within public and private spheres, with corresponding patriarchal gender ideologies. Within this context, women are held primarily responsible for unremunerated and often invisible work in the household, thus undermining their bargaining power vis-à-vis men and other women acting on behalf of male power. Similarly, care related work in the labour market, where women are concentrated, is also devalued. Globalization has extended sexual-division of labour to the transnational realm and as women from developing countries migrated to provide care services for families in wealthier countries reproductive work became internationalized.

The strict division of roles in the domestic sphere constrains women’s public sphere participation and limits the economic opportunities in domestic or transnational markets, thus entrapping many women into potentially abusive and violent environments.

The second structural factor concerns neo-liberal market forces. In the contemporary global era, capitalist competition has fuelled the demand for cheap, flexible and unregulated labour to maximise profits locally and transnationally. Within this context, the relocation of industries to the periphery disrupted, at times destroyed, local economies and unleashed a ‘free-floating labour-force’ in search for alternative sources of livelihood. Markets, intersecting with gender hierarchies in developing countries encountered dislocated young women and drew them into wage employment in export processing zones or in the care/service sectors of global cities on a scale unseen before.

This phenomenon, often referred to as “feminization of migration” and “feminization of labour-force”, had contradictory consequences for women. While women became empowered by gaining independence and autonomy from the family, due to the volatile nature of work conditions new vulnerabilities and risks confronted them. At the same time, women’s integration into the labour market, more often than not, destabilized the patriarchal family and created a crisis in masculinity, increasing the risk of domestic violence. 

Neo-liberal policies also created an enforcement gap in both property rights and labour contracts as state capacity to regulate the labour market and to tax profits eroded. Lack of enforcement coupled with the withdrawal of the state from social services created a vacuum in human security at large. Unskilled and marginalized women, who lack access to resources and basic capabilities, became particularly burdened and poverty stricken.

Community based enforcement and support mechanisms were quick to respond to the vacuum left from the withering away of the welfare state, thus strengthening communal/tribalizing tendencies and allowing non-state actors to seize the opportunity for legitimate representation of identity politics as well as monopolizing service provision  to impoverished groups. These trends have reinforced the culture/religion-based discourses that challenge the universality of human rights norms and reject women’s claims for rights and equality.

The third structural factor is related to the gendered dimensions of war, peace and security, which are intimately connected to patriarchy and the neo-liberal global economy.  Violent conflicts, often arising from contestation over land, resources and power are indicative of shifts in hegemonic relations locally as well as globally. When warfare strikes, VAW by state and non-state actors, perpetuated with impunity, becomes heightened, generalized and the norm. Sexual violence as a weapon of war became a salient feature of recent conflicts.

 Women alone, no doubt, bear the burden of war, which is often indiscriminate of sex, age, color or creed. However, it is the systematic, patterned and odious ways, in which they are targeted, both within the community and by the “enemy” side, is what makes their case in need of scrutiny.

Values that motivate war do not necessarily preclude women as soldiers, just as the fact that the ‘motherhood’ motive does not rule out war-prone acts. Women are known to have chosen to take up arms for various reasons, including protecting their children and themselves.

Conflict and war and the security agendas impose trade-offs between military spending and spending for development and human rights protection, particularly that of women. In the post-conflict phase investment in reconstruction projects are prioritized over human security concerns and may involve privatisation of public services and infrastructure that often threatens household survival and places greater burden on women’s labour.

A political economy analysis unveils the intimate link between peace and justice; peace without justice is not sustainable. The prioritization of national security and electoral machinery by governments over human security in many post-conflict situations has proven to be destabilizing in the long run. When women are excluded from access justice, physical security and socio-economic rights, the distinction of war and peace may not be all that meaningful. The war on women transcends conventional notions of  war and peace.

Hierarchy of rights

The preferential treatment of civil and political rights (ICCPR) over economic, social and cultural rights (ICESCR), stands as a major constraint to transforming the conditions that underlie gender inequality and VAW.  The Committee on ICESCR noted at the 1993 Vienna Conference that, “…states and international community as a whole continue to tolerate all too often breaches of economic, social, and cultural rights, which, if they occurred in relation to civil and political rights, would provoke expression of horror and outrage and would lead to concerted calls for immediate remedial action”.

States continue to perceive civil and political rights as “obligatory” and economic and social rights largely as “aspirational”. It is assumed that the latter can only be progressively realised depending on the resources available to a country, where as the former rights must be guaranteed immediately without compromise. Critics have argued that progressive realization also applies to civil and political rights as both Covenants impose positive duties on governments in their effort to comply with their obligations without discrimination. Budgetary implications of the implementation of human rights norms cannot excuse a state of non-discriminatory compliance with its obligation to improve the socio-economic conditions of people within its jurisdiction, or to adopt macro-economic policies that might undermine the requirements of the ICESCR.

Shared responsibility for women’s human rights

Despite these human rights obligations, states in responding to violence against women (VAW)  have tended to focus more on reforming juridical and legal structures, and less on altering economic and social structures. Combating VAW and ensuring women’s human rights imposes a positive obligation on states to effectively comply with their obligations under the Twin Covenants. In the context of global restructuring and financial crises, economic and social rights are particularly crucial - not only to women’s enjoyment of their rights, but also for preventing the deepening of gender disparities.

While patterns of economic destabilization associated with neo-liberal economic policies that facilitate the integration of global markets have varied from country to country, inequalities and vulnerabilities for women, including opportunities for their access to paid work have shown similar cross-country trends. Gender inequality, unequal entitlement structures, economic insecurities of global capitalism, as well as weakening state capacity for regulation and distributional justice have to a large extent determined how women experienced globalization. Poor women who are systematically denied access to economic social rights are particularly at risk of greater hardship and abuse. 

It is important to note here that globalization has increased the role of corporate power over macro-economic processes. This calls for expanding the concept of positive obligation to include these transnational non-state entities. Sovereignty in the new global order must be understood as shared responsibility of states, the international community and non-state actors alike. The promotion and protection of a holistic view of women’s human rights must be pursued transnationally.

Yakin Erturk's new book, Violence Without Borders: the paradigm, policy and practical aspects of violence against women, was published in Turkish by Metis Publishers, Istanbul, in April 2015. It will be published in English by Women's Learning partnership in March 2016.


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData