Gender Equality and the Economic Empowerment of Women

By McLaren, Margaret A. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Gender Equality and the Economic Empowerment of Women


McLaren, Margaret A., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Much of the feminist debate at the international level concerns the issue of human rights. In so far as human rights promote the fair and equal treatment of individuals regardless of gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religious orientation, feminism and human rights seem to be natural allies. Many feminists argue for the importance of fully including women in the scope and application of human rights. Clearly, women should be offered the basic protections and freedoms that men enjoy. Moreover, feminists argue that simply extending human rights to women does not go far enough because there are a number of gender specific circumstances, such as reproductive issues and domestic violence, that remain outside the scope of human rights as currently conceived. This approach to securing women's equality globally focuses on women's inclusion in the scope of human rights, and questions the gender neutrality of the concept of human rights.

In contrast to this feminist view, which I shall call the liberal feminist view, some feminists criticize the notion of universal human rights itself. They argue that rights are a culturebound construct that does not do justice to more relational understandings of self, or to communal cultures. They point to the history of human rights as originating in Enlightenment Europe. And they caution against applying the notion of human rights cross-culturally without attention to historical context or cultural particularity. Feminists who hold this view claim that the idea of rights is not only male-biased, but culturally biased, and so cannot simply be uncritically adopted by feminists. Recent work in feminist theory demonstrates that gender cannot simply be abstracted from culture, religion, nationality, ethnicity, race, and sexuality, but must be understood as intrinsically related to all these other aspects of social identity. Various feminisms comprise this approach, multicultural, postmodern, and postcolonial; here I shall refer to this position as the multicultural feminist position.

In this paper I shall argue that both the liberal and the multicultural feminist views inadvertently neglect economic issues, and so long as this is the case, current discussions of universal human rights have only limited benefit for poor women. Although no nation is immune from the deleterious effects of poverty, the unequal distribution of wealth and power among nations makes the issue of poverty particularly acute in less wealthy, less industrialized countries, so called "developing nations." (1) I suggest that feminists concerned with global women's issues and rights should prioritize economic and social rights, rather than political and legal rights. If someone's basic needs for food, shelter and health care are not met, they may not have the time or energy to concern themselves with gender equality under the law or in the political sphere. The granting of rights is empty without the corresponding ability to exercise those rights. The view that I put forward here may be called the socialist feminist view because of its emphasis on economic issues.

Although I believe that economic justice is foundational for other types of social justice, it alone cannot provide equality for women in the face of persistent gender stereotypes and women's devaluation. But economic power is linked to social power. Two organizations that I have researched, Marketplace India and SEWA (the Self-Employed Women's Association), illustrate the connection between women's economic empowerment and the resulting overall improvement of quality of life. Both are co-operatives that employ women as well as providing services and programs that promote women's leadership and empowerment. I believe that these organizations, both located in India, can provide a model for transnational feminism that links the economic with the cultural and social. They improve women's lives both individually and collectively through simultaneously teaching skills, providing employment, and teaching women to value themselves and each other, and to expect to be valued by others. …

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