Human Rights and Poverty: A Gender Analysis

Published on 1 January 2001

Within development discourse, the debates on human rights and on poverty have tended to evolve separately. Nevertheless, there are linkages, specifically in attempts within human rights discourse to extend the remit of international rights to economic and social spheres, and in the focus within poverty debates on legal and political aspects of poverty, as well as, increasingly, in the shift from needs to rights arguments in favour of addressing poverty. However, in both areas, cultural relativism has questioned the universalisability of definitions of rights and of poverty.

Gender issues have also entered the debates on human rights and on poverty. Feminists have been critical of the assumption that human rights apply equally according to a sex-neutral norm, and have argued successfully that women are subject to specific forms of human rights abuse. They have also suggested that gender inequality cannot be subsumed within poverty concerns and should be treated as a question of human rights. However, the importance of formal legal entitlements in reducing women?s vulnerability to poverty is limited by non-legal, informal systems of rule-making and enforcement, which operate to reinforce gendered social norms. This suggests a need for greater understanding of the interplay between formal and informal rules and institutions, to support the effective promotion of women?s rights.

The contingent nature and poor enforceability of women?s rights, in the home, over property and in the labour market, mean that women are more vulnerable to poverty than men. Poverty drives women into situations where they become vulnerable to harassment and abuse, in their attempts to secure a livelihood, when they are perceived to have transgressed legal or moral codes. Economic insecurity may constrain women to stay in situations where their rights are being violated, for example, through domestic violence. Women are particularly affected by feelings of ?powerlessness? in the face of abuse, and conventional channels of legal redress often are, or seem, inaccessible or ineffective, to poor women.

In as much as current donor assistance strategies to promote human rights address poverty, the main focus is on making existing laws and legal systems more accountable and accessible to the poor, on promoting democratic political systems through elections and on support to NGOs. Human rights instruments and development aid can have negative impacts on poverty, through attempts to impose human rights conditionalities on aid or trade, or by strengthening individual property rights, where poor people have ill-defined or insecure rights of tenure.

Gender analysis suggests the need for greater focus in donor assistance on the use of human rights and legal instruments to secure women?s economic and social rights and on the implementation and enforcement of existing legal and human rights of relevance to women, at international, national and local levels. Alongside legal reform, there is a need to promote the participation of women in debates on legal and constitutional reform; and for support to existing NGOs working with poor communities, to provide gender-sensitive legal awareness, advocacy and aid, as well as human rights education.

Publication details

Oxaal, Z and Baden, S
1 85864 342 2


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