CCCI - Flash
Fall 2008

Human Rights

There is more we can – and must – do to promote women’s rights and gender equality
By Robert Fox


Promote women's rights and gender equality

Biona Ranja, India. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, carers, and farmers - women are demanding their right to be recognized for the work that they do.


The women of the world aren’t looking for more work. They’re looking for more power.


Yet too many development projects add to a woman’s burden without adding to her ability to fully exercise her human rights – to control her body, reap the benefits of her labour, express her views and enjoy her fair share of authority. Projects that support women’s access to assets or training without addressing her social position may just be adding one more job on top of an already overburdened day.


As a community, we know that the gendered nature of power plays a central role in creating and perpetuating poverty, vulnerability and inequality. The most persistent and pernicious predictor of poverty and powerlessness is gender. It cuts across race, religion, ethnicity, caste or class.


Women and girls are more likely to earn less, to own less, to control less. They are less likely to get an education or to be elected to a leadership role. They are more likely to be denied services, to be infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, and to be marginalized in efforts to prevent or recover from humanitarian disasters. Gender-based violence cuts across all strata of society, North and South, and has a huge impact on women’s power and participation.


Women as change agents


When you are tackling taboos, you need frank talk from respected elders. And when you are looking at the role of gender-based violence in accelerating the rate of HIV infection in Southern Africa, it is the aunts and grandmothers who can talk openly and honestly about sex and power with young women and men.


Working within their own communities and traveling from village to village, women in rural Zimbabwe are teaching young people to wear a condom and to demand one, to refrain from violence and to denounce it, to respect rights and to defend them.


Supported by the MUSASA Project and the Matabeleland AIDS Council, these women are leaders and critical actors in empowering women and confronting attitudes that endanger them.


Many are themselves HIV positive and have been victims of violence. But in the crisis wrought by the political, economic and social situation, they recognize that a change in gender relations is essential if there is to be a sustainable future for their children and grandchildren.

But while we know this, we also know our collective efforts in tackling the root causes of this inequality have fallen short. The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) has documented the shortfall in funding for women’s rights and gender equality.1 Gender Action has highlighted gaps between discourse and practice at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.2 And closer to home, we know that for many NGOs, mainstreaming gender has resulted in its dilution; that when everyone is responsible no one is accountable.


Strategies that substantively address women’s role and women’s access to and control over resources are proven to have a tremendous beneficial impact for women, their families and their communities – to the advantage of all. Strategies that fail to take women’s rights and gender equality into account are most often destined to fail – or result in greater inequality.


Yet too often in our analysis and in our work women are invisible. Or, they are counted so we can fill in a box on the application or report. Or, they are treated as victims. Or, they are seen as trustworthy, competent and compliant conduits for program delivery who will guarantee results without confronting underlying inequities.


There is more that we can – and must – do to promote women’s rights and gender equality. But to have a lasting impact we need to be prepared to support women’s right to equality wherever power comes into play – in the bed, in the home, in the streets, in the fields and in the workplace, in the market, in the courts, in the legislature, in the media, in multilateral fora. Whatever the issue – climate change, public services, rural livelihoods, HIV/AIDS, ethical purchasing, peace building, migration – women and girls are on the front lines and should be recognized as central actors in building a response. Only when the gender dynamics that create or exacerbate these concerns are challenged will we begin to make real progress in resolving these issues.


By putting gender equality at the centre of our work we are supporting transformative, redistributive strategies that tackle powerlessness and inequality at its core, promoting forms of sharing power, producing wealth and stewarding the commons that are just and sustainable. By tackling this most thorny of issues, we are addressing a fundamental barrier to achieving human rights for all.


Let’s take the example of climate change. For too many Canadians climate change is seen as a future threat looming on the horizon. Yet, for millions of women and girls in Africa it is a present danger that has a huge impact on their lives. They spend ever larger portions of their day walking ever further in the search for fresh water needed for drinking, cooking, hygiene, garden plots and livestock. In doing so, they are diverted from other vital roles, denied opportunities for education and left increasingly vulnerable to violence. While they are the least responsible for climate change, they are the first and most affected – with limited resources to adapt. As a result, they increasingly find themselves displaced from their lands, forced to migrate in search of food, work, survival.

Young men rethink traditional roles


For young men in Nicaragua treating women with respect and as equals requires strength and self-confidence. The Men’s Association against Violence organizes workshops for teens on “the meaning of being a man”. Using discussion groups and film nights, they encourage debate about gender roles, gender-based violence, responsible paternity and justice for women.


The young men who participate in the series of workshops confront myths and prejudices – about women’s roles and about what it means to be a “real man”. But it’s not easy. They are often subject to pressure or ridicule within their community and may find themselves shunned or victimized.


But the young men and their families note a change in their beliefs and behaviour and the Association plays an important role as an ally with the women’s movement as it fights to promote equality and protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights.


But they are also mobilizing, adapting, agitating; reverting to forms of agriculture that are less dependent on technology and imported inputs and more sustainable on a local scale; demanding action from governments North and South and advancing alternatives.


A gendered approach to addressing this issue would start with people, rather than systems or emissions or technology. It would look at how we secure the rights of the women and men, girls and boys most affected. It would look at how we organize production and consumption, starting at the level of the household, the community and the nation (reversing a dynamic which seems predicated on the imperative that high-technology, high-subsidy and high-carbon globalized markets are the only viable option). It would look at how we conserve and protect biodiversity and build upon the community’s assets.


It would look at the whole, examining how we create greater equality of outcomes and distribute costs based on responsibility and capacity.



Around the world, courageous and creative groups of women – working at the grassroots in women’s organizations and with men in producers’ and community groups – are tackling this critical question: how do we survive and thrive while protecting the planet?


But they see that this question includes within it questions of how we protect a woman’s sexual and reproductive rights; how we secure her right to her lands; how we ensure she can access health care and education; and how we respect a woman’s right to love whom she chooses.


On these contentious issues, women’s service organizations and women’s movements continue to play the lead role, often coming into conflict with governments and entrenched interests. As a result, funding for these organizations can be even more precarious than for grassroots groups, and the importance of independent, diverse funding – to support critical voices – is all the greater. 


In this respect, we need to strike a balance in our programming. For most agencies, priority will be given to support initiatives that help women secure their right to have their basic needs met.


But we also need to support efforts to ensure there are laws, policies and programs in place that protect women’s rights and meet governments’ obligations under the UN Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international commitments.


Legislation isn’t enough. Resources are required to implement the policies and to fund the programs, the services, the monitoring and enforcement. Again here, funding and support to women’s organizations and women’s movements that advocate for these resources is crucial.


Changing social conditions and position


Residents of Holeta, Ethiopia have made real progress in improving their standard of living and strengthening social cohesion, employing an asset-based community-driven (ABCD) approach to development with advice from Hundee Grassroots Development Initiative.


The detailed mapping of the community’s assets has made women’s contribution to the community and economy more explicit. And building on their knowledge, the community has implemented a series of initiatives that have improved livelihoods and access to services.


Women’s work has increased as a result of these changes but so has their social, economic and political power. One indication is the decision of the community to outlaw early marriage, female genital cutting and inheritance of brothers’ widows. Another is the rise in the enrolment of girls in school as women use increased cash to pay their daughters’ school fees.

Equally important, ongoing work is required to change attitudes and behaviours at the individual level. Building women’s self-esteem, making explicit their leadership, encouraging non-traditional roles, providing education and access to information; these are just some of the ways that groups, at the grassroots and nationally, are helping change ideas, beliefs and patterns of behaviour.


Men’s groups and men within community-based organizations are also beginning to play a more active role in challenging stereotypes that subordinate women. Around the world, we see pioneering efforts, particularly engaging young men, which promote respect for women’s rights and tackle responsible sexuality, traditional assumptions about masculinity, men’s roles in child-rearing and community building, and gender-based violence as it affects both women and men.


These efforts at the individual level also need to be echoed at the societal level, working to transform culture and norms.3 Whether the “culture” is traditional and indigenous or it dates from colonial times or it’s a by-product of Western consumerism or the latest hip-hop fad, this is delicate, painstaking work that needs to be supported at different levels and by different means – working with traditional leaders and healers, using mass media, campaigning and educating.


This work is all the more fraught given the rise of fundamentalisms and the risk that support for women’s rights and gender equality is seen as a Western or neo-colonial plot. For that reason, it’s even more important that we be clear that our work is rights-based and that we work with groups that share our values and are themselves committed to transforming gender relations within their own societies.


To be credible, it’s important that we not ignore gender inequality within our own society. While we work in partnership and solidarity with women and men in the global South and around the world to promote women’s rights and gender equality, we have a special responsibility to support change here at home. As Canadians, we fall short of many of our CEDAW obligations and we have seen cuts to funding and social programs as well as the Court Challenges program, which has played such an important role in protecting the rights of women and minorities.


As a community, we must also examine our own policies and practices. Oxfam Canada has undergone an extensive gender audit which has identified many strengths, but also many areas that require attention. Our success in working to ensure women are empowered with the capacity, tools, legislation and enabling environment to promote and defend their rights depends on our ability to walk our talk. 


As we deepen our understanding and adapt our approaches to address women’s rights and gender equality in a more substantive and rigorous way, there is every reason to believe we can increase the impact of our efforts, making a real difference in the lives of women and men, girls and boys the world over.


Robert Fox is Executive Director of Oxfam Canada. In 2007, Oxfam Canada adopted a six-year strategic plan entitled “Walking the Talk on Women’s Rights” which identifies capacity building on women’s rights and gender equality as the strategic focus for Oxfam’s program, campaign and advocacy work.


Find Out More



  1. AWID, “The Second Fundher Report: Financial Sustainability for Women’s Movements Worldwide”, Joanna Kerr, June 2007
  2. Gender Action, “Gender Justice A Citizen’s Guide to Gender Accountability at International Financial Institutions”, Gender Action, July 2007
  3. The four areas of work addressed in this article are drawn from an integral framework developed by Gender at Work, adapted from the work of Ken Wilber. See Rao and Kelleher, “Is there life after gender mainstreaming?” in Gender Development and available at


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