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Rights and justice in international relations
Rights and justice in international relations

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5.5 Feminist critiques of international rights

The second source of criticisms that we would like to explore comes from feminist critiques. Some feminists argue that the universal notion of rights makes invisible the special problems faced by women as a group, and that, thereby, specific articles of the various human rights declarations and conventions reinforce traditional gender roles in the family and the workplace. This criticism comes in at least two forms.

The first is that rights for women (as for other disadvantaged groups) may be particularly difficult to enforce against the claims of the powerful and the dominant. An example is the poor pay and conditions, and isolation faced by women ‘home-workers’ in developing countries. Catharine MacKinnon (1993) documents forms of gendered ill-treatment and harm to women, including sexual and reproductive abuses, rape as a weapon of warfare, forced motherhood in Ireland, domestic violence against women as part of the honour code in Brazil and Italy, and suttee in India. Such human rights abuses are not prevented by universalistic human rights conventions. Further examples concern the sexualization of women's and children's bodies in international prostitution. Examples include the market for sex workers for tourists in the Philippines or Barbados, sex workers to service American bases, and the influx into Western Europe of prostitutes from Eastern Europe by mafia gangs.

The second form of this feminist criticism is more far-reaching, arguing that making effective a given right, say, the right to employment, may have different implications for men and women. In a context of pre-given unequal distribution of domestic and reproductive labour, equal employment rights for men and women may involve a transformation in childcare arrangements, for example. Without such a transformation, equal rights may perpetuate inequalities. The rights regime needs to recognise the impact of rights in structuring and maintaining inequalities.