Equity or equality is a current debate among women’s groups from around the world as they link up and prepare for the great UN debates and decisions that are taking place with regard to Sustainable Development Goals, the Post 2015 Development Agenda as well as the forthcoming celebration of Beijing plus 20 in 2015. Through the emails that are circulated on the subject, one can see the debates among women on the usefulness of supporting the concept of equality versus adopting the use of the concept of equity. The latter is seen as based on the principle of fairness and as addressing inequality and the realities of women’s lives; while the former is seen as merely promoting equal or same opportunities as that enjoyed by men. The conclusion is that equality may just continue to perpetuate inequality.
I would like to add to this discussion. In the debates by the women’s groups, the meaning that is given to the concept of equality is outmoded. The concept of equality that the CEDAW Convention prescribes and as used by the CEDAW Committee is substantive equality. This concept of equality goes beyond equal opportunities or what is known as formal equality.
Those who prescribe the concept of equity over equality do so because they say that equity requires that each person is given according to their needs; they believe that if you speak of equity instead of equality it will be clear that the objective is not treating women the same as men but more importantly, giving women what they need. Equality on the other hand they say, stops at giving same opportunities to women and men but does not guarantee that women will be able to access these opportunities due to pre-existing/ existing inequalities that women experience. This shows a misunderstanding of what equality means especially since the advent of the CEDAW Convention.
Under this Convention, substantive equality is the goal to be achieved in all spheres. To achieve this, the obligation of the State extends beyond a purely formal legal obligation of equal treatment of women with men. In fact under article 2 of the Convention, states have the dual obligation of incorporating the principle of equality in the law (formal equality) and ensuring as well, the practical realization of the principle of equality. Hence a purely formal legal approach is not sufficient to achieve women’s de-facto equality with men, which is substantive equality. It is not enough to guarantee women treatment that is identical to that of men which is the provision of equal opportunities. Rather, biological as well as socially and culturally constructed differences between women and men must be taken into account and under certain circumstances, non-identical treatment of women and men will be required in order to address such differences. This includes a redistribution of resources and power between men and women favouring women. (CEDAW Convention article 4.1 and General Recommendation 25) If this is not done then such inaction or neutral or identical treatment of women and men is discrimination against women under article 1 of CEDAW as the practical enjoyment of equality as a right would have been denied to women. Discrimination includes any treatment that has the effect of nullifying the enjoyment of human rights by women in all spheres, though such discriminatory effect was not intended. (Summary of article 1 of the CEDAW Convention).
Equality and the practical enjoyment of it by women, is a universal value, a legal standard and goal and a human right. In fact, without equality, human rights would have no meaning. It is equality that demands that human rights is for all regardless of sex, status, origin, descent, location, sexual orientation and gender identity. Equity is a not a standard or a goal. It is subjective, discretionary and arbitrary. It is fragile as a policy if used as a stand-alone concept without it being linked as a means to achieve the goal of equality.
It can also be used against women. During the debates when the Beijing Platform was drafted in 1994/1995, Muslim countries and the Holy See and its followers from Latin America strongly argued for the use of the term equity and resisted the term equality. For them, women and men could not be valued equally. They demanded the use of the term equity, as in their view, this term justified greater resources and power skewed in favour of men on the basis of their god-given and immutable responsibilities as providers and leaders. Equity was used to give men according to their “need”. The determination of need itself is political and value driven. But the conservative forces did not get their wish during the Beijing Platform debates as the Human Rights Caucus argued heatedly and long against the term equity. The Beijing Platform adopted the term equality. We will be retracting the hard won conceptual gains made in our understanding of equality twenty years ago if we now say the concept of equality is not useful. Equity cannot stand alone or be used interchangeably with equality.
(For an elaboration of this subject see “Equity or Equality for Women? Understanding CEDAW’s Equality Principles”. IWRAW Asia Pacific Paper Series. No.14. http://www.iwraw-ap.org/publications/doc/OPS14_Web.pdf)
Reprinted with permission from the author.