6 Dec 2023 - by A4ID

Women’s rights and development: an exemplar of the rights-based approach to development

The reciprocal relationship between development and realising human rights is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than by women’s rights.

Women play a vital role in poverty alleviation, which they are only able to do fully if they are empowered to by being granted basic rights. The advantages gained from realising a woman’s rights to basic goods, education, political access and protection, etc. create positive ripple effects that help to ensure their children’s education, reduce the rate of child mortality, increase the economic productivity of the communities in which they live, and more.

The inherent equality of the genders and the positive relationship between achieving actual equality and development is broadly accepted at the international level. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the General Assembly in 1979  and ratified by an overwhelming majority of states is often described as an ‘international bill of rights for women’ and recognises the fundamental “equal rights of men and women”. Likewise, at the 2005 session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that “there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”. Two of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), goal 3 – to promote gender equality – and goal 5 – to improve maternal health – are explicitly linked to women; and gender equality is mainstreamed into all the goals with the expectation that they are achieved in a non-gender discriminatory way.

But whilst the role of women in development is recognised at an international level, the global failure to make a step-change in gender equality – typified by the woeful steps towards achieving MDG 5 – demonstrates a disconnect with actual progress. In this way, it demonstrates the fundamental difference, challenge and controversy of the rights-based approach to development. For it is not enough following a rights-based approach, to simply accept at an international level or in a donor country that the genders are equal and seek to ‘improve the lot’ of women; a true rights-based approach sees legal, social and attitudinal domestic change as a necessary condition of progress.

The recent developments in India represent a good example of how this change may look in practice. The Indian government ratified CEDAW in 1993, showing its international commitment to the rights of women. However, even before the 2012 gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year of student in Delhi, the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes, institutionalised and exacerbated by a lack of access to justice, demonstrated a domestic disconnect with the principles underpinning CEDAW. While some practical and positive steps in empowering women had been taken in the country – through women’s roles in microfinance, for example – their full capacity to both claim their rights and contribute towards combating poverty remained unfulfilled. The tragedy of the 2012 case and subsequent domestic outrage has provided pressure for legal change – such as the criminalisation of marital rape – in the country, however, that may lead to the fuller realisation of women’s rights.  In this way, the fundamental shift in attitudes (or at least a recalibration of the dominant socio-political view) towards women is driving forward progress.

Experiences such as India present a glimpse of the necessary steps that need to be taken for international development and help us to consider how those steps could be taken outside the context of a response to a national tragedy. The global experience of the disconnect between international commitments and the actual realisation of women’s rights in-country must be considered if the post-2015 agenda is to more effectively achieve gender equality in order to drive development.