Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives

Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)

Edited by Niamh Reilly

Economic Discrimination and Exploitation

By Ursula Barry

Women are systematically disadvantaged within global, national and local economic systems. The search for economic justice is fundamental to all our lives but particularly to the lives of women, in every part of this island and internationally. We are all too familiar with the economic realities of women’s lives reflected in the facts of women carrying out the majority of the world’s work for a fraction of the world’s income and resources. This lack of recognition, the unpaid and undervalued nature of women’s work everywhere, results in distorted economic imagery, understanding and policies.

 Mainstream economic thinking and analysis excludes and marginalises women, their experiences and frequently their economic activities and contributions. Economic policies are male oriented, dominated by the interests of the economies of Western Europe and the United States, and obsessed with the promotion of markets and competition rather than the development and use of resources to meet human needs.

As Helen O’ Connell1 and Pauline Eccles2 document in their different papers included in the resource pack for this conference: 

Economic systems are not gender-neutral – the position of women within the world economy is the outcome of patterns of discrimination and exploitation fundamentally shaped by the subordination and inequalities imposed on women. At a global level, the policies of financial and monetary institutions, together with the policies of trade agreements, perpetuate gross inequalities and exploitation of whole regions of the world economy. This must be effectively challenged – at least in part because these are practices and policies which particularly disadvantage and discriminate against women within exploited regions and countries of the global economy. For individual women economic justice is tied up with economic, and consequently social and personal, independence. Economic independence would 

contribute to the liberation of women from sexual slavery 

facilitate the freeing of women from situations of personal, family and State violence 

enable women to pursue our own personal and creative expression 

allow women to determine our own sexual identity and sexual needs 

provide all sectors of women with the means to engage in the process of decision-making at all levels in society 

give women the resources to achieve the maximum control over our fertility and our health 

Socio-economic structures, constructed on the subordination of women, need to be fundamentally transformed so that women are recognised as independent, social and economic units entitled to their human rights both inside the family and outside.  

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights does clearly state a commitment to socio-economic rights – but this is a commitment rarely translated into practice or met by governments, States and international institutions including the Irish and British which govern this island – and with respect to women it is scarcely ever addressed. 

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights says 

Everyone as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to the realisation, through national effort and international co-operation, . . . of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for her/his dignity and the free development of her/his personality (Art. 22). . . . Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. . . . Everyone has the right to a standard living adequate for the health and well-being of her/himself and her/his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services (Art. 25).

Yet, across the globe, migrant women, women of indigenous peoples, women workers, women involved in unpaid economic activity, women trade unionists, women of the Third Worlds and women living in poverty are the subject of economic oppression and exploitation. Structural Adjustment Programmes (leading to cut-backs in education and health services in many debt-trapped economies) have been applied under the dictates of international monetary organisations, and accountable to no democratic process, have impoverished increasing numbers of women, undermining their economic and human rights. The life chances, options and choices of girls and women everywhere are circumscribed and subordinated within existing power structures where the interests of corporations, First World economies, establishment institutions, governments, dominant races and individual men dominate over the needs and interests of women. 

It is undeniable that the UN Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights is a flawed human rights instrument. The aspirations of this convention are undermined by a statement that economic, social and cultural rights are to be achieved ‘over time’. Consequently, violations of the convention, even where life-threatening, are not viewed as ‘urgent’ within the established human rights framework. In effect there is a hierarchy of human rights within which economic, social and cultural rights are right at the margins and de-prioritised. Gender-based economic discrimination and exploitation cannot be dealt with through the present system for redress. However, countries who are signatories to the Convention are obliged to produce Reports to the UN and submissions and counter-Reports from NGO’s or individuals can be submitted as part of this process. There is a lot more which we should be looking for, internationally and nationally: 

Ireland to ratify ILO Convention No 11, establishing the principle of non-discrimination 

We should also seek the active pursuit of economic and social equality in the legal, institutional and policy frameworks applied on this island and, in particular :


Ursula Barry is College Lecturer at the Women’s Education Research and Resource Centre, UCD.


1. Helen O’ Connell, ‘Going Global - Women and Economic Globalisation’ in Mary Van Lieshout (ed), A Woman’s World – Beyond the Headlines (Attic Press & Oxfam: Dublin, 1996).

2. Pauline Eccles, ‘ " …The Very Voices It had Silenced..."– Women and Development, ’ in Colm Reegan (ed), 75/25 Ireland in an Increasingly Unequal World (Dóchas: Dublin, 1996).

3. Pauline Conroy, ‘Women and the Inter Governmental Conference,’ paper presented to a seminar organised by Patricia McKenna of The Green Party in conjunction with the National Women’s Council of Ireland, 19 September 1996.


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