This Friday, I’m taking a little break from writing. Instead, I’m going to upload a paper I recently submitted to a class in human rights I just completed. I got a good grade on this paper, so I’m comfortable sharing it! It’s a bit long, but I hope it will be interesting for anyone who wishes to read it through. I don’t think it’s too academic; I try to write so that anyone could read one of my papers with no background knowledge at all and understand the points I am raising. I found it interesting to research, and I enjoyed writing it!
BECAUSE WE ARE WOMEN: WHEN HUMAN RIGHTS ARE NOT ENOUGH
“Human rights have not been women’s rights – not in theory or in reality, not legally or socially, not domestically or internationally. Rights that human beings have by virtue of being human have not been rights to which women have had access…”
– Catharine A. MacKinnon
Despite the hard work of feminists over the past several hundred years, ours is still a patriarchal society. This paper will look at the status of women worldwide under patriarchal social, economic, and legal systems. I will argue that since women do not have status equal with that of men, special rights ought to be adopted and enforced to support and empower women. As the quote from Catharine MacKinnon reveals above, human rights are not enough: special protections for women are needed in response to the special types of harms to which women are subjected under patriarchy. I will discuss the position that women and men do not have equal status, despite the fact that many countries have legislation that protects the rights of women and forbids discrimination based on gender, using the examples of economic marginalization and gender-specific violence. I will discuss the inherent problems with human rights as based on a libertarian model of autonomy. Finally, I will discuss why women should be afforded special protections, using a framework of relational autonomy and distributive justice.
A Theory of Biology, A Theory Of Socialization
A major contributor to the unequal status of women is biological determinism, the idea that men and women are inherently different due to biological differences between the sexes. Biological essentialism is very popular and is constantly reinforced and supported by science, medicine, and the arts; for example, the mid-1990s best seller, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus pointed out the many ways in which men and women are so different they might as well be from different planets, while ignoring the ways in which men and women are socialized in specific ways that lead to these differences. This framework for looking at the behaviours of men and women informs much of human social life in intricate ways.
Marilyn Frye argues that gender is a social construct built on biological sex, and that gender involves intricate sets of rules that humans are taught through socialization. Frye’s view stands in stark contrast to the popular biological approach under which society operates; on this view, gender has little to do with biology and everything to do with human socialization.
Women and Economic Inequality
The biological approach underlies the traditional division of labour between the sexes that persists in most societies, with women still doing the majority of unpaid care work and domestic labour. Because women are seen as physically inferior, and because women undergo pregnancy and childbirth, women are seen as “natural” candidates for care-giving and poor candidates for work under conditions of strenuous labour or competition. Nirmala Erevelles discusses how the naturalization of care-giving as feminine supports patriarchy, using the example of a voluntary organization in southern India called DOST, which provides residential, educational, and rehabilitation services for poor disabled children. In her example, the care workers are all women, and all have personal backgrounds of poverty and social marginalization; these women believe that care work was “the only option they had that would save them from starvation or sexual exploitation.” The pay (room and board and about $80 per year) is far below the international measure of extreme poverty, set at $1 per day, and the education level of the care-givers is often about the same as the children for whom they provide care. These women are socialized to believe that it is “natural” for them to undertake care work because of their gender, and that other options for work are not open to them.
In the west, businesses have justified paying women less because women have a “natural” liability – women are biologically responsible for gestation. Because women become pregnant and give birth, and require time away from the workplace to do so, and because there is a social expectation that women have children and be the primary care-givers for those children, business sees this as an obstacle to employee productivity. This liability is reason enough to justify lower wages for women than for men. Women are seen as unreliable workers whose attentions are divided between work and family in ways that preclude “normal” workplace performance, where “normal” refers to the performance of men. Ann Cudd argues that the lower economic position of women is a vicious cycle: women are paid less because they are considered unreliable, and because of this, when a married woman becomes pregnant, the decision for her to take parental leave rather than her husband is often made on the basis of her inferior economic status: “if there is a wage gap between men and women… and if they consider only family income in making their decision, it is clear that they will decide that [the woman] should specialize in child-care and [the man] in wage work.” Thus, the myth of women being unreliable workers who deserve lower wages becomes true. Indeed, it is difficult for women to advance their careers under the overwhelming social expectation to have babies and be responsible for their children’s care: for example, in 2003, only eight Fortune 500 companies were headed by female CEOs, and currently, a mere 64 of 308 Members of Parliament in the Canadian House of Commons are female. It is important to note that the economic oppression experienced by women happens because they are women.
Libertarian thought, which emphasizes the individual as the locus of autonomy and decision-making and on which Western legal systems are based, sees the quandary women face as quite simple: a woman may either have a successful career, or she may have a well-nurtured family, but she may not have both. Indeed, the women who do become CEOs of major companies are held up as examples of women who really wanted to be successful, and are used to support libertarian ideals based on reward for hard work. Libertarians would say that women have the choice to become mothers and give up their careers, or the choice not to have children. Unfortunately for women, the choice is not quite this simple. These practices are common despite human rights legislation forbidding the use of gender as a justification for wage disparity.
Because care work is largely unpaid or under-paid, this enforces women’s economic reliance on men through interpersonal relationships under the patriarchal marriage system, or through male-dominated economic contribution to social welfare programs. As a result, “women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,” a problem that has increased thanks to globalization.
Women and Violence
Women encounter specific forms of violence, such as rape and domestic abuse, and encounter specific health concerns as a result of these. Sexual violence is a main factor contributing to the spread of HIV to women worldwide. One in three women will experience violence in her lifetime, and violence against women has been declared a public health emergency by the Council of Europe: “In a World Bank report, it was estimated that violence against women was as serious a cause of death and incapacity among women of reproductive age as cancer, and a greater cause of ill-health than traffic accidents and malaria combined.” Women’s reproductive freedom is denied throughout the world, including North America: recently, South Dakota’s senate passed a bill banning all abortions that are not deemed medically necessary, even in cases of incest and rape; the bill must still be signed by the state’s governor, a known abortion opponent.
One of the most devastating international problems for women is genocidal rape. In countries torn by war, genocide is gaining momentum as a tool of war. Wiping out the enemy is the chief goal of many wars in this age. From WWII, to the Serbian-Croatian conflict, to Rwanda, and currently the Congo, genocidal war movements have killed millions of people and displaced millions more. War is always a time of terror for the people involved, but for women, the terror is two-fold. Not only are women killed alongside men, but increasingly women are brutalized through rape. Male soldiers rape women in order to breed the unwanted race of people off the face of the earth; the children who are products of these acts of genocide are considered to be a new generation of the aggressors, who have been “ethnically cleansed.”
Catharine MacKinnon writes on the subject of genocidal rape during the Serbian-Croatian conflict of the early 1990s. She says, “In this genocide through war, mass rape is a tool, a tactic, a policy, a plan, a strategy, as well as a practice.” The victims were targeted because they were Muslim or Croatian, but the act of genocidal rape could only be committed because they were women. As MacKinnon points out, genocidal rape is seen as either rape, or genocide, but not both. But it is both: these women are raped for the purpose of genocide. It is rape not as merely spoils of war – it is rape as war, “rape as ethnic expansion through forced reproduction” in which the victims are used as another weapon against their people. During the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, MacKinnon reports, women were imprisoned in concentration camps where they were kept alive only so long as they could be “passed from man to man in order to be raped.”
In areas where it is not possible to terminate a pregnancy, women who are victims of genocidal rape are made into vessels for achieving the goals of their enemies and torturers. They are raped in front of their husbands, children, and families, often multiple times in the hopes of ensuring impregnation. Many cultures see rape as a dishonour to both the woman and her family, and rape victims are often turned out of their homes with no money and nowhere to go. In some cases, they are killed by their own families to save the family from disgrace. If they become pregnant, not only must they carry the fetuses and give birth to the babies, they must then raise the children who are reminders of the brutality they experienced, reminders of the life they once had before their families scorned and abandoned them. These women often contract HIV, which is often passed onto the fetus, and both die young. If medical help is available to the women, it is often concentrated on preventing the transmission of HIV from mother to fetus, and the woman’s own health is abandoned once the child is born.
MacKinnon discusses the added depth to the problem of genocidal rape in the Serbian-Croatian conflict: United Nations troops were reported to have participated in the sexual assault of Croatian women, through rape, prostitution, and the production of pornography. She sees this as a perfect example of the underlying problem this paper is discussing – these men, the UN soldiers, were supposed to be protecting the victims of warfare, including the women who were being sexually abused, and were instead colluding with the aggressors. This illustrates perfectly how women have no protectors against harms inflicted by men because the protectors and the perpetrators are men.
Women and Human Rights
There is no question that women continue to exist under conditions of inequality and inequity. The question that remains is what to do about it. There have already been guidelines established to eliminate gender discrimination: The UN website lists 12 international instruments and treaties on women’s rights, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and the Equal Remuneration Convention. However, these treaties and conferences have not eliminated discrimination against women, because they have not eliminated patriarchy. In fact, the global position of women is so poor that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals specifically include two initiatives directed at women: promoting gender equality and empowering women, and improving maternal health. The other six have much to do with women as well, including improving education for all children, reducing child mortality, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and combating HIV/AIDS and other illnesses. Considering that the UN has committed to advancing women’s empowerment for the past 60 years, the Millennium Goals highlight the disparate state of women worldwide compared to men. The details of “promoting gender equality and empowering women” are “eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015,”  while “improving maternal health” has as much to do with delivering healthy babies as with the health of the pregnant woman. While these are admirable goals, they seem to have little to do with improving the situation of women who are living under patriarchy right now. If UN member countries actually took the various international instruments they have ratified seriously (CEDAW is the second most highly ratified convention, with 181 out of 191 States parties), these basic goals would have already been achieved.
A Relational Theory of Distributive Justice
Human rights have been based on a model of individual autonomy and libertarian equality. By this, I mean that humans are conceived as detached, independent individuals rather than members of a complex web of intersecting groups who are influenced by the relationships they have with other people. Libertarian equality is based on the notion that all people have the same inherent value by virtue of being human. The problem is that this has led to the belief that all people are the same, and that all people have the same opportunities if only they exercise their individual autonomy, which is conceived as being a matter of individual free will. This perspective becomes a framework under which women and other oppressed groups are marginalized because of their “inability” to perform to the same standards as the “norm” – the “norm” being those who belong to the class that experiences no oppression, or milder degrees of oppression. So, the problem with human rights is that they put the same value on everyone; while this sounds like the best possible situation, where differences between people don’t matter and everyone is judged based on their personal merit, it leaves out too much. The truth is that human differences DO matter. Everyone is different, and therefore, treating everyone the same, according to the same standards, ignores relations of power and privilege among and between different social groups. When human rights are conceived as one-size-fits-all, they are simply not enough.
Relational autonomy theorists argue that humans are not independent individuals, but develop personal autonomy within the contexts of relationships. On this view, autonomy, so central to the idea of rights, is a set of skills that are nurtured within social contexts, and importantly, oppression is seen as an obstacle to autonomy. Susan Sherwin and Carolyn McLeod write, “Oppression tends to deprive a person of the opportunity to develop some of the very skills that are necessary to exercise autonomy by restricting her opportunity to make meaningful choices and to have the experience of having her choices respected.” This framework is necessary for breaking down the problematic traditional libertarian model of human rights that paints all humans with the same brush, denying the variegations present within human experience. With relational autonomy in mind, we can begin to acknowledge and value the unique experiences and perspectives people from different backgrounds can offer, as well as provide contexts in which people of all backgrounds can develop autonomy skills. Iris Marion Young argues for this approach in acknowledging groups: “A relational understanding of group difference rejects exclusion. Difference no longer implies that groups lie outside one another… Different groups are always similar in some respects, and always potentially share some attributes, experiences and goals.”
Distributive justice looks to redistribute privileges enjoyed by powerful groups to groups with weaker socio-political positions. One model of distributive justice that has been used to eliminate obstacles to equal opportunities experienced by members of marginalized groups is affirmative action. Affirmative action programs provide marginalized groups with employment opportunities equal to those enjoyed for so many years by elite white heterosexual able-bodied males. Young argues that in social movements such as the civil rights movement and feminism, once a group achieves some degree of social recognition and are given formal equality, this does not mean social differences are eliminated. It does not do to simply assimilate socially disadvantaged groups into mainstream society, because “assimilation always implies coming into the game after it is already begun, after the rules and standards have already been set, and having to prove oneself according to those rules and standards… the privileged groups implicitly define the standards according to which all will be measured.” Affirmative action programs are a way of levelling the playing field so that each player has an equal opportunity to succeed.
In conclusion, it is my contention that human rights must be reconceived. Rather than expressing libertarian ideologies around individual freedom and autonomy, human rights should express relationality as a way to develop personal autonomy. Rather than taking a universal approach to equality, human rights should acknowledge the importance of group membership and group difference and support the elimination of conditions that allow the perpetuation of discrimination and injustice, and provide protections for women to compensate for oppressive social forces. These protections should impose a duty on governing bodies to remove barriers to gender equality, as well as stringent requirements that support equal opportunities for women to gain a better economic position in society. Additionally, special protections for women should include severe penalties for states and individuals who commit crimes against women because they are women, such as rape. Finally, human rights protections for women must include measures to reduce oppressive forces, such as always including a gender-based analysis of policies prior to their institution, and measures to increase women’s ability to speak out against injustices without fear of persecution. Until such time as oppressive patriarchal conditions no longer exist, and women no longer suffer harms just because we are women, special protections must be in place to prevent gender discrimination.
 MacKinnon, Catharine. “Rape, Genocide, and Women’s Human Rights,” in The Philosophy of Human Rights (Hayden, P., editor). © 2001, St. Paul: Paragon House.
 Feminism is generally noted to have begun in the mid-18th century, although feminist writings date back as far as the Enlightenment. Wikipedia, “History of Feminism.” Accessed March 27, 2006 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_feminism
 Gray, John. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: A Practical Guide to Improving Communication and Getting What You Want in Your Relationships. © 1992, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
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 Cudd, Ann. 1994. “Oppression by Choice.” Journal of Social Philosophy 25 (1994): pp 37.
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Parliament of Canada website, “Women in the House of Commons.” Accessed March 29, 2006 at http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/about/people/house/WomenHofCidx.asp?Language=E&Hist=N
 Canadian Human Rights Act, Section 11. Accessed March 29, 2006 at http://lois.justice.gc.ca/en/H-6/243963.html#rid-244002
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 Certainly men can also be victims of domestic abuse and rape, but the overwhelming majority of these crimes are female.
 UNIFEM website, “Halting the Spread of HIV/AIDS.” Accessed March 27, 2006 at http://www.unifem.org/gender_issues/hiv_aids/at_a_glance.php
 UNIFEM website, “Facts and Figures on VAW [Violence Against Women].” Accessed March 27, 2006 at http://www.unifem.org/gender_issues/violence_against_women/facts_figures.php
 Nieves, Evelyn. “S.D Bill Takes Aim At ‘Roe,’” Washington Post, February 23, 2006, pp A01. Accessed March 27, 2006 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/22/AR2006022202424.html
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 Lewis, Stephen. 2005. Race Against Time, pp 113. © Stephen Lewis Associates Ltd. And the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.
 Sherwin, Susan and McLeod, Carolyn. “Relational Autonomy, Self-Trust, and Health Care,” Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self (MacKenzie, C. and Stoljar, N., editors), pp 262. © 2000, New York: Oxford University Press.
 Young, Iris Marion. “Social Movements and the Politics of Difference,” Moral Issues in Global Perspective (Koggel, C., editor), pp 178. © 1999, Peterborough: Broadview Press.
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*please note: this paper may not be used in full or in part in any form without the express permission of the author*