Trends toward understanding and applying human rights norms even more universalistically and toward broadening the concept of human rights have not been conducive to reducing gender inequalities because the language and the framework within which human ri ghts issues are discussed are flawed, and do not take into account the particular conditions that concern women's issues. This translates into policies that ignore women's rights, and may even increase gender inequalities.
Imposing human rights norms on another culture that is perceived to lack them has invariably sparked off heated debate over whether such values are universally shared. The debate gets even more intense when accusations of cultural arrogance are leveled at the richer North states, which have been the base for most human rights and women's rights organizations.
For example, Alice Mogwe contended that the rich North imposed its values on the poor South when it brought its western-style feminism "from a cultural experience alien to that of the African context" into Africa. For Western feminists, liberation involve d getting out of the home and into the public, male world. But this was not acceptable to African indigenous groups and the poor, where such feminism is viewed as a divisive factor for marginal groups struggling to survive (Mogwe, Human Rights in Botswana , 1994: 189,191).
But the relationship between the North and the South operates at an even more subtle level than that. The dialogue on human rights is based on the idea that certain rights, stemming from common values, are universal, as opposed to being culturally relativ istic, and thus merely particular to a certain culture. Thus holding certain rights "universal" such as the freedom of speech, gives human rights activists and governments legitimacy in maintaining an international human rights regime. However, such a con ceptual framework which puts universal values into one category and cultural values into another category is artificial, and was a product of the evolution of the academic disciplines, dominated by American academia. (Andrew Nathan, lecture and "Universal ism, A Particularistic Account" U6800 website, 1998:463,469).
Why this distinction matters for women's rights comes down to this. If one subscribed to this divide, then "the only human rights that are then universally valid are those on which all cultures agree". But rights that change relations of women and men are less readily applicable across cultures because women's roles are central to each culture's sense of identity and self-definition, so any attempt to give women an equal status across the board has often met with more resistance than any attempt to promot e gender-free rights. In this way, women's issues, always contentious, become peripheral to the human rights regime. (Nathan, 1998:470,471).
But this is troubling, as women's rights are then by their nature naturally excluded from the human rights regime no matter how "universalistically" human rights norms are applied. What further hinders the thinking in this field is the concept that cultur es are unified, in the sense there is no disagreement within them. Dissent within any community will show this is not true, and ignores the power relationships within the cultures (Nathan, 1998:473,474) which have typically placed women in subordinate pos itions. But this belief that cultures are "unities" persists, supporting the idea that some values are "universal" and some "relative". This drives women's rights outs of the realm universally-shared norms and into the culturally relativistic category.
One positive aspect of the increasing reach of the human rights regime is that women's struggles for equality have now gained support from the international community and this empowers their efforts. Nzomo (1993:62,67) notes how this emboldens Kenyan wome n to take a more active role in politics and make demands which they would otherwise not have done in the past. Women also link issues of gender subordination with struggles against oppression and other democratization issues, using democratization proces ses to change their status.
But this method can only have limited success was long as the view that women's issues are peripheral still permeate the thinking of international institutions which support the democratization process with economics reforms, which in turn support the eff orts to reform human rights. Maria Nzomo (The Gender Dimension of Democratization in Kenya, 1993:61,69) points out that the Structural Adjustment Programs implemented Kenya by the World Bank and the IMF, tended to hurt women more than men. The programs ig nored the inequalities of power and property faced by women and imposed austere adjustment policies that were largely borne by women. The policies supported the rich and powerful, mostly men. Jobs went largely to men, and women suffered even higher unemp loyment. Their attempts to make money off the informal economy were discouraged, as this threatened the male-dominated formal economy. Reduced health services meant that women had to share beds in hospital and go home prematurely. These programs were legi timized by macroeconomics policies which ignored the gendered division of labor by focusing only on GNP, export-imports and balance of payments, ignoring the unpaid economic tasks performed by women.
The application of human rights norms universalistically and the broadening of the conception of human rights will only be conducive to reducing gender inequalities when these norms and concepts framed differently to allow women's issues to enter the main stream of human rights norms.
For example, women in Africa (and elsewhere) are lobbying for the definition of human rights to be broadened to accommodate rights exclusive to women alone, such as violence against women, domestic battering and rape (Nzomo, 1993:66). This should happen, but only with a paradigm shift in the thinking in these issues. Few societies even now accept unqualified gender equality readily (Nathan,1998:472). But that should be no reason to marginalize women's issues. "Value issues are not matters to be decided b y popularity polls or geographic boundary lines. Value reasoning has its own sovereignty." To do otherwise places power before moral considerations. (Nathan, 1998:475). (963 words)