Gender and rights-based approaches

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KIT Dossier Gender and rights-based approaches

Last update: Thursday 15 December 2011

From theory to practice

Since its emergence the rights based approach has been adopted by various UN organizations, donors, and NGOs. Many organizations have articulated a position on rights-based approaches and developed frameworks and tools. As a result a multiplicity of rights-based approaches has emerged with varied meanings attributed to what constitutes rights-based approaches.

The UN Common Agreement on Human Rights Based Approaches (2003) seemed to provide a template for the rights-based work of international multilateral and some bilateral agencies. The work of Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has been influential on further clarifying the basic principles of rights-based approaches and on pointing out that there is no one rights-based approach but rather agreement on principles. The ODI publication entitled ‘to Claim our rights: livelihood security, human rights and sustainable development’ by Moser & Norton (2001) provides a conceptual framework for addressing issues of empowerment and poverty reduction, by examining the links between human rights and asset and livelihood security as they relate to the issue of sustainable development. The framework developed is one of the most significant attempts to bring the two worlds – human rights and human development – together in a way that is useful for development practitioners.

Several reviews on rights based approaches and practice are now available, including the IDS Bulletin 2005 entitled ‘Developing rights’. From these reviews it is learned that , no matter how any organization or agency articulates its vision for a rights-based approach, it must be interrogated for the extent to which it enables those whose lives are affected the most by development interventions to articulate their priorities and claim genuine accountability from development agencies. Equally important is the extent to which the agencies become critically self-aware and address inherent power inequalities in their interaction with those people needs interrogation.

Rights-based approach and gender equality

Is the concept of a rights-based approach a useful framework or methodology for achieving gender equality and women’s rights?

The response of gender advocates, and feminists to the turn to rights has been mixed. Some women’s human rights activists have embraced the rights turn on the basis that gender and development, and especially the gender mainstreaming strategy, has not been effective in securing women’s rights (AWID 2002). Others remain sceptical. The rights-based approach has been critiqued by sections of the women’s movements as depoliticizing (Bradshaw 2005). The approach is seen to represent another instalment of contestation within the gender and development approaches thus further fragmenting the gender and development field (Tsikata 2004).

Two related shortfalls are observed. One, that the turn towards rights, participation and social inclusion in development discourses has often overlooked gender relations in investigating the distribution of rights, resources and recognition. Two, that rights based approaches in development have overlooked gender relations because they have been informed by universalistic conceptions about rights.


  • AWID (2002) 'A Rights-based Approach to Development' Briefing Paper, Association for Women's Rights in Development, Toronto
  • Bradshaw, S (2005) ‘Is the rights focus the right focus? Considerations of the utility of the Rights Based Approach for women’s movements in Nicaragua’
  • Moser, C & A. Norton with Tim Conway, Clare Ferguson, Polly Vizard (2001) ‘ to Claim our Rights : livelihood security, human rights and sustainable development ’ ODI, London
  • Tsikata, D (2004) The rights-based approach to development: potential for change or more of the same? Volume 35 Number 4 October 2004

(Based on: Maitrayee Mukhophadhyay (2007). Call for Contributors: Gender, Rights & Development. Unpublished document)

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