Can development take place in societies where the human rights of women are systematically abused?



 An MA candidate

International development studies

Dalhousie university











During March 2008, in my position as Resettlement Assistant in UNHCR Tehran, I was assigned to visit Afghan refugee camps located in central Iran, accompanying UNHCR Community Service Assistants who were monitoring the progress of various projects; my mission objective was quite different. UNHCR’s Protection Unit in Iran had been trying to gain access to the refugee camps for several years without success.  Only now, with the stated objective of identifying suitable cases for resettlement were local Protection staff-members, as distinct from Community Services, allowed to visit the camps.

In all the visits it was clear that the human rights of women were systematically and routinely abused, coupled with a clear and apparently sincere denial from both the Iranian government state managers and the Afghan patriarchal tribal leaders that there was anything amiss with the situation of women. Rights violations ranged from domestic violence and forced and child marriage to denial of primary education to girl children (the Sunnis leaders did not allow them to attend classes with male teachers), and denial of access to contraceptives (the Sunni patriarchs declared that contraceptives were forbidden in their religion). Although UNHCR aid was made available based on the condition that women should participate in local decision-making, in all the visits, there was a solitary, silent woman occupying what was evidently a largely decorative status on the local committees.  The attempts of my colleagues to draw her into discussions were pointless. It was difficult to determine whether this was more frustrating, or UNHCR’s apparent inability to do anything about it.

This situation perfectly exemplifies the seemingly unbridgeable gap between development projects devised with the best of intentions and for the large part founded and funded by Western countries, and a brick wall of patriarchal culture, tradition and ultimately abuse which surrounds these exact issues of rights’ abuse of women in various countries.  The purpose of this discussion is emphatically not to indulge in a demonization of Islam, but a more interpretive exercise: to try and make sense of these sorts of experiences, which must be shared by development practitioners all over the world. To try and answer such questions as why, after so much aid has been poured into Afghanistan[1] and after the plight of Afghan women has received so much world-wide media attention (Hesford, 2005),  yet still violence against women is on the rise; still, incidents of self-immolation is increasing[2] 

By referring to principles from international instruments comprising the UDHR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, I will attempt to establish the links between development and the basic human rights of women articulated in the above-mentioned instruments. Once these linkages are clear and evident, it will be argued that lack of respect or abuse of these rights will affect the ground-level implementation of development projects, to the extent that they risk losing their significance and efficacy. Such projects can at best be “band-aids for cancer”(Kabeer, 1994): short-term solutions to long-term problems,  contingent upon budget constraints and lacking real staying power and the ability to change.

Since September 2004, I have copy-and-pasted this phrase as the last few lines of at least two thousand Resettlement Registration Forms (RRFs)[3]:

And thus, the resettlement of Ms. X and her family into a country where the full range of her political, civil, economic, cultural and social rights will be respected is strongly recommended by UNHCR Tehran.

All the RRFs followed a similar pattern: X was a refugee based on one of the Convention grounds; their human rights had been abused, or there was a reasonable possibility to believe they may be abused if they return to their country-of-origin. Therefore it is necessary to resettle them in a country which guarantees (through its adherence to human right norms) that such abuses will not occur.

So it was with something of a surprise that I realised the concept of human rights has not been traditionally intertwined with development theories and that development was not necessarily considered to be about the implementation of rights. In fact, economics was the motivating force. Colin Leys, tracing the “rise and fall of development theory” outlines a general history of the phenomenon of development from the 1950s and states clearly: “The first formulations of development theory were the work of economists”. The impulse for development has its roots in the process of decolonization, as the former colonists pondered how to render their ex-colonies productive (Leys,1996). James Ferguson takes this argument further and identifies two broad interpretations of development, both of which is based in economics, and can be summarized in very simplistic terms thus: development as a force of “good”, assisting “backward” states to become modern and progressive, or development as a force for “evil”. This latter interpretation postulates that development is merely a tool for promotion of imperialistic capitalism: “The purpose of development is to aid capitalist exploitation in a given country.” (Ferguson, 1980) In neither interpretation are development planners concerned with implementing human rights norms and standards. In the first case, it seems to be generally assumed that democracy and associated rights will somehow by default be established in parallel to achieving the desired level of economic efficiency and productivity. In the second interpretation, such considerations will obviously not figure at all on the agenda of development agencies which are seen as mere pawns furthering the financial interests of the powerful capitalist regimes of the world.

With the appearance of women in the development picture, the lack of attention to basic human rights becomes even more apparent. Indeed, there seems to be a clear intuitive link between the failure or the limited success of so many development projects and this inattention.

I have witnessed such frustrating failures in the very recent past, observing that in refugee camps, where patriarchal Afghan leaders and the Iranian bureaucrat managers of the camp work in harmony with UNHCR staff on issues such as building water pumps or electricity networks, the Afghan patriarchs became hostile and Iranian managers indifferent when it came to “women’s issues”. Arranging the occasional carpet display or embroidery classes raised no objections. But as for protection needs for women, they simply do not exist. Women, whether girls, wives, or widows are taken care of by their family and kin (there were no divorcees in the camp). The lone female presence on the committees concurred. It is economics and development all over again, only in 2008 instead of 1970: “Liberal neo-classical economics has always played a central role in the formulation of development studies. It can be credited with the persisting emphasis give to economic growth as the primary goal and meaning of development.” (Kabeer, 1994) As the microcosm of a refugee camp thirty kilometres from nowhere in the desert vividly illustrates.

Over thirty years have passed since the first attempts to place women on the development map, Women in Development. WID, much like the Afghan patriarchs, the Iranian bureaucrats, and sadly enough the UNHCR in our desert camp, paid little attention to the issue of human rights for women, and with fair enough reason. WID has been identified as taking place in the early nineteen-seventies, and Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of Rights of Women was adopted as the main legal instrument setting out women’s rights in 1979. So, in line with the base described above, WID targeted women as primarily economic recipients of benefits. However, this was not simply a natural extension of the economic foundations of development theory, it was also in response to the political climate of the era:

In the 1970s, AID/WID consciously tried to come below the radar, offering programs that provided cultural benefits for women without setting off a cultural backlash in the host country. The WID office did not fund projects which emphasized “consciousness-raising” in order to avoid the charge that it was promoting Western-style feminism. Its emphasis on economic rather than political participation made sense in the 1970s and the early 1980s when a majority of the world’s states were controlled by authoritarian governments. (Jaquette, 2006)

But by the mid-1980s WID became the target of fierce criticism, not directly for the lack of regard to human rights for women, but in recognition of the fact that such politically-castrated development agendas lack teeth; they address only the symptoms of women’s oppression and suffering, and that in a timid, neutral manner, while skirting the real causes; they do not deal with the institutions which maintain and perpetuate the continuing inequalities between men and women and the continuing discrimination against them.

Gender and Development was one of these critiques, and perhaps the most influential one in terms of having a lasting impact on the way major development and aid organizations reassessed, at least on paper, their attitude towards women and made a genuine effort at gender mainstreaming. Caroline Moser, in laying out the GAD framework, defines “strategic gender needs” and “practical gender needs”. And perhaps it was because of the ceaseless repetition for the need to safeguard the “full range of rights” as described in the opening paragraphs above that the close parallels between these two types of needs and, respectively, political and civil rights, and social, economic and cultural rights struck me. When Moser defines gender needs in the GAD framework, she is in fact talking about human rights for women. (Moser, 1989)

Strategic needs rise out women`s subordination to men, and include, inter alia, “…the establishment of political equality, freedom of choice over childbearing and the adoption of adequate measures against men‘s violence and control over women…” (Ibid) Note the parallels between these and the Articles from the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights on the “equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant”, which include the right to life, to be free of subjection to torture or cruel and degrading treatment (Art. 7), to take part in public affairs (Art. 25) and to be free from “arbitrary or unlawful interference in privacy or family”. (Art 17.1) (UN, 1979)

And practical gender needs, which encompass basic survival needs are strongly related to those human rights set out in the International Covenant of Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, most noteworthy being the right to work and gain a decent living (Art. 7), and the right to enjoy social security (Art. 9) (UN, 1979) In other words, any measures which are put in place to fulfill strategic and practical gender needs will also meet the rights of women as set out in the ICPCR and ICSECR.

These parallels clearly establish the connection between human rights and Gender and development discourse. They go further, making clear that development work, to have lasting, significant effect, and to break out of the mould of distributing yet more sewing machines and carpet shows should deal with the social and political institutions which make the sewing machines and carpets necessary in the first place.

While development discourse had been shy about using the terms of rights, fearful of adverse impact on their aid work, human rights activists have not displayed similar hesitancy:

Achievement of equality meant the removal of discriminatory treatment of women vis-a-vis men, and this meant setting standards that would serve as indicators for non-discriminatory treatment of women. In 1970, the UN put resolution IX “Measures to promote Women`s Rights in a Modern World” in a development format. The actions proposed and the goals of the program were woven into a rights framework. This is an instance of how the legacy of equal rights for women…was consciously intertwined with development interventions…(Jain, 2005) (italics mine).     

Jain goes on to describe to the targets: elimination of illiteracy and achievement of equality in literacy between the sexes; facilitation of acceptance of the principle of equal pay for equal work, substantial increase of the number of women participating in public and government life, provision of maternity protection and family planning. These targets can all be described using the terminology of gender needs under GAD, for they all require a long-term transformation in the social and political roles of men and women through provision and modification of appropriate institutions as necessary steps towards establishing equality.

Resolution IX was set in 1970; UN bureaucrats find it necessary today to continue affirming the link between effective development and gender equality. “In December 2005, experts came together to examine how changing development policies are affecting efforts to promote gender equality and women’s rights.” (Bianchi, 2005) UNIFEM was concerned that a “new aid architecture” in which “aid allocation is increasingly driven by the partnership between donor and recipient countries, and ownership by the recipients of aid”, would overlook women’s rights. Thus, there was need to develop strategies to ensure that women’s right was central to this new architecture: “UNIFEM will be trying to ensure that…new aid flows reach women at country level through country-driven development strategies”. (Ibid) It can be seen that although the linkage between development and human rights may appear intuitive, to the extent that one cannot take place without the other, yet there are strong, valid concerns that this linkage will be ignored or even denied in practice.

What was offered so far was a discussion of the evolution of the nexus of rights and development, from the point of view of development bureaucrats, practitioners and theorists. From this general position, it may be deduced that the violations of specific rights of women will adversely affect development in specific contexts. For example, in 2007 the former UN Secretary-General “noted that violence against women continues to persist as one of the most heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world. Our efforts towards promoting human rights, development and gender equality will have a gaping void if we are not able to urgently and effectively end this threat to all women.” (Migiro, 2007, italics mine)

What is the obstacle which prevents the full merge of development and human rights for women, despite close to forty years of work rendering purely economics-based development rendered obsolete? Why are aid workers concerned that new aid architectures which involve “ownership” of aid by recipients may result in loss of women’s rights? What is the causal link between violence against women and development work, so that perpetuation of one will result in a “gaping void” in the other? These questions are interlinked, and point to a common answer.

Miguel Szeleky, discussing the challenges facing achievement of Millenium Development Goal on promoting gender equality and empowerment of women, says that the third MDG “challenges cultural norms and traditions and requires deep changes in day-to-day individual behaviour and practices, which are normally regarded as a “private matter.” This feature is also the main challenge for implementation.” (World Bank, 2007) He goes on to specify:

On the one hand, changing the role of women and empowering them modifies household arrangements substantially, and in many cases this is not regarded as a desirable change for specific family members. On the other hand, identifying effective public policies for promoting gender equality is especially difficult in the context of deeply entrenched traditions and cultural patterns … Moreover, the enactment of specific policies may generate intense resistance from different sectors of society. (Ibid)

In other, words, the achievement of gender equality in developing countries is fundamentally prevented by cultural and traditional norms.

And since these norms are handed down from generation to generation, and are deeply embedded in our daily practices, measures such as legislative reforms of government policies to expand the coverage of services for women cannot have long-term effectiveness in reaching gender parity, and indeed, Szekely argues, may have inverse effects on women. Although such measures are a necessary condition, they are not sufficient. What can be most effective in the long run is to challenge long-held beliefs and traditions about the role of women in society: the value of their work in the household, their ability to be productive, and the provision of private assets to vitalize this productivity. Szekely describes information-generating and awareness-raising campaigns publicizing data about the productivity of women which together with microcredit and investment schemes have had remarkable results in Mexico –noted for its machismo culture and misogynist views of women- in reducing gender disparity.

Such measures may well be effective in addressing certain types of development needs and human rights; however, they seem to address those which primarily fall under the category of practical gender needs and relate to the economic matrix of women in society and their employment and equality in labour and production. Two points are to be made here: as demonstrated by Naila Kabeer[4], fulfillment of economic needs is no guarantee that strategic gender needs are also met. As her study of women working in Dhaka shows, there are some situations where fruitful employment opportunities for women have led to a reversal of their social and political status and thus adversely affected their strategic gender needs. Therefore, rather than only focusing on improving the conditions of women`s productivity, measures to meet both sets of needs should be implemented in coordination. Second, it seems slightly optimistic to assume such measures would have the same success in meeting strategic gender needs in societies where cultural/traditional norms loaded against women are more than an expression of insecure machismo mentality. In some places the inequality and inferiority of women is couched in religious and spiritual terms, taking a far more fundamental aspect to the identity of the believers. Attempts to generate information or raise awareness on issues which run contrary to these fundamental beliefs can have a precisely opposite effect in cementing those beliefs, and provoking even more hostile outcries.

To revert to the ever-present discussion of violence against women, there is a vast qualitative difference between incidents of domestic violence in impoverished areas in a country which already has a set of laws against domestic violence up and running, and gender equality is not just de jure, but to a great extent de facto, and systematic cases of violence against women in societies where women have no recourse to local legal mechanisms, which are sympathetic to the perpetuators, and hold such violence to be in accordance to their tribal and religious belief systems. Freedom from violence and adequate legal recourse is a strategic gender need as well as a fundamental human right. It is in this vein that some scholars argue for the establishment of a rights-based consciousness to empower women and fulfill their needs. In acknowledging of the importance of culture, it is conceded that human rights should be “vernacularized”, to become part of the local level of consciousness. But: “This is the paradox of making human rights in the vernacular: in order to be accepted, they have to be tailored to the local context and resonate with the local cultural framework. However, in order to be part of the human rights system, they must emphasize individualism, autonomy, choice, bodily integrity…the core values of human rights systems endure even as the ideas are translated” (Merry, 2006) After all, it is admitted that human rights discourse, is essentially a “challenge to patriarchy”. Engle seems to be suggesting that a local wrapping should be used to somehow disguise this challenge, while properly insisting that the disguise should not detract from the essence of human rights.

In this regard, the situation of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the nexus of “rights, development and gender” post-Taliban presents a much more telling example than the Mexican case study mentioned above, as well as a test run of the feasibility of disguising human rights discourse in local cultural wraps. Alison Long, after presenting the economic origins of development, discusses the “nascent” human rights-based approach (HRBA) to development, which various UN and aid organizations have attempted to implement in Afghanistan.

“For women, rights and development are very closely intertwined… the removal of legal discrimination and institutional discrimination is a clear rights issue. The role of development then is to support the process of legal reform and to support education and awareness campaigns… on women’s rights and men’s responsibilities…” in order to support the improvement in the position and conditions of women (Moon 1996, 31-32, quoted in Long, 2007).

Long somewhat cynically implies that once Afghan women turned out to be the focus of the Western media as releasing them from the Taliban regime became one of the major justification of the military campaign in that country, the goal of improving the standard of women’s living through HRBA development in the women-as victims format became the pivotal focus of UN work and documents pertaining to Afghanistan. (Ibid)[5] However, it seems that they underestimated the strength of the culture of patriarchy and religious beliefs in Afghanistan, where even female aid workers claim “that while they were keen to have rights, they wanted those rights within the ‘framework of Islam’ and not as a cultural imposition from the West.” (Ghosh, 2006)

So what development practitioners eventually do on the ground in Afghanistan is, not surprisingly, similar to what is happening in the Afghan refugee camps: using the language of rights to donors and the international community in order to get funding and push through approvals for projects -a “political pressure” to insert rights language in documents- but using an entirely different language for the beneficiaries and the Afghan community. For local NGOs, this might be a religious, Quranic language, when, for example, talking of the right to education. But there are even more unexpected and complicated manifestations as well: using arguments of economic efficiency to justify human rights adherence.

…we tried—together with the government –to use a HRBA and the Beijing Platform and CEDAW to address basic [human] rights. But not much came about. You need to do an economic argument—not a rights-based argument—because that [the former] is the convincing one, to both donors and Afghans alike. To say, it is a woman’s right to have access to health, that is less appealing than “the economic cost of high birth rate is X, Y, and Z to the country…” …Even with the fight for women’s right to be protected from violence, the UN must talk about statistics. Saying violence against women violates their rights, to whom does that appeal? But when you say, violence against women is causing this much health expenses, and this much legal expenses and decreases global productivity this much, well, then it is logical and it appeals to donors and the Afghan people in general. Maybe talking about rights is too radical or brings connotations with communism or too many obligations (UNIFEM Employee #2. Email Interview. 22 July 2006) (Ibid)

While such economic arguments certainly wrap up human rights agendas for easy digestion, one assumes these are not exactly the kind of wraps that Merry was talking about above.

This essay has traced the beginnings of development theory and its interaction with human rights, moving from the economic origins of development to the gradual incorporation of rights language in both academic and administrative texts (such as UN documents) on development. In particular, there is a strong connection between GAD discourse and human rights for women. While there continue to be theoretic concerns regarding the validity of inserting human rights in development (and indeed regarding the validity of any development and intervention measures in general[6]), it can be concluded that rights-based development, at least on paper, is gaining more and more acceptance, and development is increasingly viewed as a tool to bring about full implementation of human rights for women, and that inversely, sustainable development cannot take place without such implementation. As Molyneux and Cornwall point out:

Given that in many parts of the world women experience the consequences of a lack of equal rights to men in continuing gender-based discrimination, unequal and poor pay, high levels of violence and continuing exclusion from political arenas, they arguably have the most to gain from a rights approach to development… (Cornwall, 2006)


They go on to question whether a rights-based approach to development is indeed the most effective form of achieving gender justice, concluding through selected examples that while `rights-based development` or RBD has indeed given a certain dynamism, visibility and prominence to development work, the challenges of working with human rights in development remain huge. This is partially because of the inherent tensions in this concept which allow for selective interpretation by the various structures of states or agencies, resulting in wide gaps between “principles and applications” of rights, as well as highly controversial and divisive subjects such as reproductive and sexual “rights” of women.

More radical critiques argue these divergences stem from the gender biases embedded in the notion of the human rights themselves: “In major human rights treaties, rights are defined according to what men fear will happen to them, those harms against which they seek guarantees. The primacy traditionally given to civil and political life by Western international lawyers and philosophers is directed towards men within their public life – their relationship with the government.”(Charlesworth, 2006) Such critiques lend a powerful explanation of the current shortcomings of development work insofar as human rights for women are concerned.

            As the variety of experiences both personal as a UNHCR caseworker and documented by other practitioners[7] confirms, the wide gap between development work and human rights threatens the significance of development projects. While development workers have updated their theories and discourse, and while many successful instances of the transformative effects of human rights implementation in development work exist[8], there are still too many actual practices and projects which are reminiscent of the nineteen-seventies and WID, in particular in countries and communities where the prevailing culture is particularly hostile to human rights for women. The difference now is that aid workers have to perform several verbal and conceptual acrobatics to convince donors of their sincerity and success in implementing human rights standards and norms. The economic efficiency argument for implementation of human rights is a particularly ironic instance of such contortions, as it leads us back into a full circle of using economic justifications to promote development.

Yet the very fact that such justifications have to be used, the very fact that rights language has permeated development discourse to this extent, the fact that aid is been linked to conditions of women’s participation and empowerment seem to point to the general widespread recognition that without attempts to fulfil the human rights of women, parallel attempts at development will fail. The general consensus in the answer to my question posed at the beginning of this essay is that it cannot, and indeed should not be done. Human rights for women must have a place in development. As the case studies show, however, it is a battle, which is not made any easier by the well-documented and well-recognized tensions embedded within the concept of human rights.  



[1] During the past six years, Afghanistan was consistently amongst the top 10 countries receiving humanitarian aid, and the total aid it received in 2006 was 4% of the global aid, 1% up from 2005.  Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance 2007-8, available at


 2 Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Afghanistan: Self-immolation on the rise among women, 9 September 2008. Online. UNHCR Refworld, available at: 


[3] UNHCR completed RRFs for each refugee family and submitted them to third countries for resettlement consideration. They included comprehensive biodata for all family members, detailed narrative background, reasons why the family were Convention refugees and why they were in need of resettlement.  (personal experience of author)

[4] A full discussion fo this issue is set out in her book The power to choose : Bangladeshi women and labour market decisions in London and Dhaka. (2000). London ; New York: VERSO.


[5] It might just as well be that since Afghan women had some of the poorest global indicators that they became the natural focus of aid and development work.

[6] Examples of such critiques can be found in The Post-development Reader. edited by Majid Rahnema with Victoria Bawtree New Jersey : Zed Books ; Halifax : Fernwood, 1997.


[7] There are some interesting case studies which describe development projects falling apart in Parpart, Jane (2002) “Lessons from the Field: Rethinking Empowerment, Gender and Development from a Post-(Post-?) Development Perspective in Feminist Post-Development Thought: Rethinking modernity, postcolonialism and representation. London: Zed Books.

[8] As described in Merry, 2006


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