Everyone Seems To Be Talking Women's Rights These Days, So What's The Problem?

This International Women’s Day has highlighted a growing interest in women’s rights from all quarters. However, much of it is focused on women’s rights as a way to bring about economic growth. I would question whether this is really progress. 

Back in 2006 the World Bank’s gender unit proclaimed that ‘gender equality is smart economics’ and this is now mainstream mantra throughout the Bank. Similarly, the Department for International Development (DfID) published a new policy on gender equality in 2007, making the case that tackling gender inequality would increase women's productivity, reduce poverty and hunger, and that educating girls and women would help them lift them and their families out of poverty. And more recently, the Girl Effect proudly states that ‘an educated girl will invest 90% of her future income in her family, compared to 35% for a boy… so as long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change’.

So some powerful institutions – many of whom are often the targets of our campaigning - are now focusing on women and girls as a way to address poverty. What’s not to like?

Well first of all, whatever happened to promoting gender equality and women’s rights as an end in itself? Rather than taking an ‘instrumentalist’ approach that presents gender equality as an investment and a route towards achieving something else – typically economic growth – surely our starting point should be that women's rights are human rights? It is an injustice that women and girls are denied their rights to education, health or a livelihood on the basis of their gender. This is the change we should be calling for.

Secondly, the risk of promoting women’s rights in order to bring economic growth is that it can neglect the root causes of why women are denied these rights in the first place.A strategy built around achieving economic growth ignores the role that the growth agenda has actually played in creating and exacerbating inequalities between men and women. Thirdly, it also results in a narrow focus of advancing women’s rights that is limited to the economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.

Effective campaigning relies on having simple and compelling messages supported by clear demands for change. The key challenge therefore is how do we effectively communicate the multiple causes and dimensions of gender inequality and the limits of an instrumentalist approach to change, whilst at the same time presenting the complex pathways to women’s empowerment? Trying to cram all this in could be a sure-fire way of turning away supporters and campaign targets alike.  It seems so much more tempting to say ‘educate a girl and we can change the world’ than ‘actually we need to address the patriarchal system and neo-liberal agenda that lie at the heart of women’s disempowerment (but I’m afraid we don’t have any quick fixes or easy answers of how we go about it).’

Obviously our campaigning needs to be rooted in addressing the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality. Otherwise our work is just skating over the surface and missing a valuable opportunity to bring about long term sustainable change in the lives of the women we work with. But this requires tough conversations, often about controversial issues, and the need to build public understanding and support for women’s rights in and of itself. For me, one starting point is to show how our work supporting women’s rights has already made a difference, why it has made a difference, and why realising women’s rights is the real end game.

What do you think? Is there a case for making instrumental arguments for change? If so, where and how can they be made? If not, how can we make rights-based arguments attractive within an instrumentalist-dominated environment? And is it always a case of either-or?


Lucy Hurn, ActionAid