Economic Policy is a Women’s Rights Issue

Economic and social rights provide a fundamental standard of decency for evaluating our economic system and holding governments and private actors to account. These human rights are inalienable – individuals cannot have their rights taken away due to political changes or economic crises such as the one we are currently experiencing. The recent global economic crisis is evidence that the economic policies of the past three decades have not worked. In fact, they now threaten the security of basic human rights. The devastation that the crisis has already wrought on the most vulnerable households in the Global North and the Global South is a reminder that the formulation of economic policy and the realization of human rights have, for too long, been divorced from one another.

This is why on March 12th at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) in partnership with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) jointly organized a panel discussion focused on the status of women’s rights during the recent financial crisis, 20 years after the Vienna Conference on Human Rights was held. Although the theme for the 2013 CSW was on the elimination of violence against women, CWGL and OHCHR saw the need to reframe the discussion to include the ways in which economic policies can both support and undermine women’s rights and a life free from violence. The event was moderated by Savitri Bisnath, CWGL’s Associate Director and drew a standing room only crowd, demonstrating the importance of this type of discussion. Panelists made linkages between the economic crisis, budgets, militarism, migration, macroeconomic policies, and economic and social rights.

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In times of crisis, people’s access to basic human and financial resources becomes threatened. The linkages between the financial crisis and increases in violence against women were reflected on by Rashida Manjoo, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women its causes and consequences and the featured speaker at the event. As governments decrease spending on social services, there are fewer resources available for vital women’s crisis centers that seek to support survivors of violence and prevent future cases from occurring. She gave a specific country example from Cambodia in which the situation of violence against women is increasing and specifically domestic violence as a result of the financial crisis. Violence against women and austerity policies significantly impede the realization and enjoyment of freedom and equality for women.

Panelist Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng, the Executive Director of Isis-WICCE, an international women’s rights organization based in Uganda, noted the ways in which fiscal policies and budgetary allocations of a country in conflict/post-conflict impact women’s access to basic services. She spoke about the impact of militarism and violence on women’s livelihoods and their ability to achieve economic autonomy. One example she provided was that of a girl gang raped by 16 military men. As a result of the rape, the young girl had fistula and HIV which led her to being ostracized; she became homeless, and lacked access to water/sanitation and critical health provisions. “This situation is the same for thousands of women,” Ruth explained. Clearly, more funding is needed for women’s rights and not the military and as a result of these experiences CWGL has begun a project to redefine security. The security project seeks to collect data from women’s rights group worldwide and redefine security in an effort to demonstrate to governments that their budgetary allocations do not match up with the priorities of women.

Speaking from her experiences with WOREC in Nepal, Renu Rajbhandari, stressed the significance of ending impunity in seeking justice for women who experience violence at the hands of the local law enforcement. Renu also reflected on the life of migrant women and the continuous discrimination and exploitation they endure by state and non-state actors. It is the compounding of human rights retrogressions, neoliberal trade agreements, and pervasive violence as well as customary laws that keep women as second class citizens in Nepal and in the region. These cases are at the center of what is wrong with economic policy.

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Rather than securing the basic well-being of all, governments are putting forth austerity as a solution to the crisis which is not only unacceptable, but has been shown to not even produce the desired outcomes to reduce debt and increase growth. It is clearly time to assess economic policy using the ethical lens of the universally-recognized human rights framework and Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, on behalf of OHCHR, did just that in her presentation. She provided an overview of legally binding international human rights obligations to guarantee the realization of human dignity and those rights that promote dignity such as the right to food, housing, health, education and work. The framework which is articulated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), makes clear links to the human rights principles progressive realization and non-retrogression; and while 160 Member States have ratified this treaty, the existence of gross human rights violations is an enduring reality in all countries.

Finally, Radhika Balakrishnan, CWGL’s Executive Director, concluded the panel with a call for the UN and advocates alike to see macroeconomic policies as a women’s rights and feminist issue. Even amid plenty, levels of inequality persist and while countries rhetorically agree with human rights, policies and implementation practices remain weak. Fiscal policies and monetary policies impact available jobs and social spending which can increase levels of inequality and severely hinder the realization of economic and social rights. Radhika stressed that, “austerity is not working for us,” and although governments are committing to human rights, their practices are significantly undermining people’s ability to live with dignity as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The event provided a space to unpack the connections between economic and social rights, militarism, women’s rights and economic policy. Panelists explained the stark reality of people’s lives and the gaps between policy and implementation. If economic policy is not addressed when discussing the achievement of gender equality and financial resources are not allocated, then government’s actual commitment to women’s rights is naught.

by March Baruch, Economic and Social Rights Program Coordinator, Center for Women’s Global Leadership, Rutgers University

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