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In recent years, "women's rights as human rights" has emerged as a new transnational approach to demanding women's empowerment. This article explores the advantages and limitations of such an approach to women's activism in Africa through a case study of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), a multinational African NGO that has been at the forefront of using "women's rights as human rights" to educate women throughout the continent about their legal rights, lobby for national legislative reforms, extend the scope of state accountability, and mobilize international support. Issues addressed include the tensions between universal human rights and national and local differences, the significance of a shift from the language of needs to human rights, the influence of transnational meetings and networks, efforts to reconcile internal social differences among members, and the constraints to such an approach.
The human rights of women and the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on the grounds of sex are priority objectives of the international community --Article 18, Vienna Declaration on Human Rights (1993)
In the late 1980s, a new transnational strategy for women's empowerment emerged, linking women's rights agendas to the increasingly vocal and visible international human rights campaigns. Articles by Bunch (1990) and others challenged the international human rights movement to address and incorporate women's rights, prompting extensive debate over and, eventually, restructuring of human rights agendas. In Africa, as elsewhere, this strategy enabled activist women to adopt new languages and strategies to circumvent and reframe enduring debates over women's empowerment mired in the potent, contradictory terms of "culture," "tradition," and "modernity." As part of a broader study of forms of collective action among African women, this article analyzes how the human rights agenda has informed the objectives, agendas, policies, and practices of one of the most prominent and successful groups of activist women: Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), a multinational African nongovernmental organization (NGO) formed in 1990 "to promote the development of strategies that link law and development to empower women."
As a case study, WiLDAF offers a unique perspective on how the "women's rights as human rights" strategy has shaped local women's activism. How successful has the strategy been in terms of improving female equality and empowerment in Africa? What are its advantages and limitations? In a 1992 conference about the relationship between international human rights and women's rights, several questions were raised about the approach:
1) Do legal rights really offer anything to women? Women's disadvantages are often based on structural injustice, and winning a case in court will not change this. (Cook 1994a:4)
2) Can women's rights be universal? Put another way, is the idea of women's international human rights, premised on the fact that women worldwide suffer from patriarchy, misconceived? Is the pervasive devaluation of women's lives enough to link women in the effort to add a gender dimension to international human rights? (Cook 1994a:5)
3) How can universal human rights be legitimized in radically different societies without succumbing to either homogenizing universalism or the paralysis of cultural relativism? (Cook 1994a:7)
As participants in the conference realized, these are not easy questions with clear answers. Instead, they are enduring challenges and sites of tension.
The case of WiLDAF, I believe, suggests how and why some organizations promote the "women's rights as human rights" framework as a useful approach for women's empowerment, and, furthermore, how these organizations negotiate and mediate the inherent challenges and tensions described above. Despite some inevitable setbacks, WiLDAF has used the "women's rights as human rights" paradigm to educate women throughout the continent about their legal rights and to work for national legislative reforms to protect and promote women's rights in such areas as marriage, separation, divorce, inheritance, property rights, reproductive rights, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. (1)
The International "Women's Rights as Human Rights" Campaign: An Overview
In a now famous 1990 article, Charlotte Bunch reviewed the long-standing exclusion of women's experiences and rights in international debates and statements on human rights. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, listed "sex" as one of numerous "distinctions" that would not be tolerated as grounds for refusing entitlement to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration, questions of gender were rarely addressed in international discussions. As Bunch explained:
When it is suggested that governments and human rights organizations should respond to women's rights as concerns that deserve attention, a number of excuses are offered for why this cannot be done. The responses tend to follow one or more of these lines: (1) sex discrimination is too trivial, or not as important, or will come after larger issues of survival that require more serious attention; (2) abuse of women, while regrettable, is a cultural, private, or individual issue and not a political matter requiring state action; (3) while appropriate for other action, women's rights are not human rights per se; or (4) when the abuse of women is recognized, it is considered inevitable or so pervasive that any consideration of it is futile or will overwhelm other human rights questions. (1990:488)
In particular, the narrow definition of human rights supported by many in the West as solely state violations of civil and political rights (so-called "first generation rights"), rather than economic and social rights, such as food, water, health, and education ("second generation rights"), limits their applicability to women (compare Butegwa 1995). (2) As Riane Eisler argues, "[T]he underlying problem for human rights theory, as for most fields of theory, is that the yardstick that has been developed for defining and measuring human rights has been based on the male as the norm" (1987:297, quoted in Bunch 1990:492).
In response, a global movement has emerged in the past decade to challenge such narrow, androcentric definitions of human rights by demonstrating "both how traditionally accepted human rights abuses are specifically affected by gender, and how many other violations against women have remained invisible within prevailing approaches to human rights" (Bunch, Frost, and Reilly 1998:1). As Bunch (1990:489) notes, "[S]ex discrimination kills women daily." The most egregious forms of violence against women include wife beating, incest, rape, dowry deaths, genital mutilation, and sexual slavery. Other forms of sexual discrimination include women's economic, social, and political subordination in marriage, child custody, inheritance, property ownership, access to credit, education, access to health services, and reproductive rights (compare Bunch and Carrillo 1991). Many of these gender inequalities are codified in customary, religious, and even state laws. According to Bunch and others, all these forms of discrimination and violence against women are related, since women's economic, political, and social vulnerability makes them especially susceptible to violent treatment and physical abuse.
Key moments in the campaign include the Third World Conference on Women (Nairobi, 1985), where ideas of women's rights as human rights were first debated among women in the NGO Forum and global networks of women's groups were crystallized; the second United Nations World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), where activist women and women's organizations from Africa and elsewhere successfully mobilized and lobbied for formal UN recognition of women's rights as human rights; and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), where the campaign gained further visibility, momentum, and sophistication. (3)
Throughout this period, the movement has been characterized by a dynamic interaction between local and global initiatives that seek to carefully promote women's human rights as a universal principle while recognizing and respecting national and local differences in agendas, priorities, practices and political/economic/social frameworks. In the context of long-standing Western political, economic, and cultural imperialism (including the paternalistic assumptions and practices of some Western feminists), (4) this delicate weaving of diverse local concerns into a global coalition and framework has been achieved through several means. These include ongoing, systematic caucusing of local women's organizations about their priorities and projects through local, regional, national, and international workshops and meetings; the use of newsletters, the Internet, and other media to publicize and share ideas, issues, and strategies; and organizing global initiatives that encourage and coordinate locally defined and controlled activities.
Like all social movements, the "women's rights as human rights" movement is dynamic, historical, and hardly immune to disputes and disagreements over the appropriate strategies, objectives, and agendas (see, for example, discussion in Charlesworth 1994). Moreover, despite their many accomplishments, advocates still confront numerous obstacles. As Charlesworth explains:
The structure and institutions of women's international human rights law are more fragile than their apparently more generally applicable counterparts: international instruments dealing with women have weaker implementation obligations and procedures; the institutions designed to draft and monitor them are under-resourced and their roles often circumscribed compared to other human rights bodies; the widespread practice of states in making …