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  • Yes, But: How Human Rights Helps End Women’s Subordinate Economic Status
  • Susan Deller Ross (bio)

Professor Moyn’s book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, makes an impassioned closing argument for the human rights movement to change its central focus to ending — or at least lessening — the great economic inequality between the richest and poorest among the world’s citizens. He urges us to “relearn the older and grander choice between socialism and barbarism” and to make advocacy for socialism the “global project it has rarely been.” Only in this way, he says, will human rights “return to their defensible importance.” His concern for achieving both “sufficiency and equality” is admirable and timely indeed, and working toward sufficiency for all is important both morally and politically, as he concludes.

I want to turn, though, to a broader point that he sometimes acknowledges but spends little time exploring in depth. Human rights as applied in practice, by local activists around the world, have been used successfully to win greater economic equality within countries. I refer to the battle to win equal economic rights for women, economic rights that have been — and still are in many countries — reserved almost exclusively for men.

To describe this winning struggle for equality, I want to place it within the context of actual human rights treaties. When countries ratify these important treaties — the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),1 the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),2 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)3 — they make this promise: they will change their laws and practices to give their citizens the promised human rights. By design, then, these countries promise [End Page 99] to change only their own situation. There is no universal promise to work to achieve economic equality for all the world’s citizens, as Not Enough seems to imply.

But they do promise, when ratifying these treaties, to give women equal rights with men in each of the areas covered by the treaty. The ICCPR goes even further. Its Article 26 applies to all laws in a country, not just those about ICCPR rights. Article 26 requires states to ensure people equal rights and equal protection without sex-based discrimination; thus, all laws must treat men and women equally.4 So if a law gives greater economic rights to men than to women, the law must be changed to give women the same rights. In an early example, the Human Rights Committee, which enforces the ICCPR, issued a decision that required the Netherlands to give married women the unemployment benefits it gave all married men but had withheld from wives who were not either the chief breadwinner or separated from their husbands.5 It specifically rejected the Dutch argument that since the ICESCR covered social security, the ICCPR right in question, Article 26, could not be used to require equal treatment for men and women.6

CEDAW represented another great step forward because it named all the many areas where laws gave men greater economic rights than women. The treaty ensured that women would now have equal rights with men to education, employment, health care, and economic and social life; indeed, all laws would have to treat them equally with men, including all the laws concerning marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The last was particularly important because such laws often deny women equal economic rights. For example, husbands may have the sole right to own and administer all property acquired during marriage. Inheritance laws may decree that men inherit far more than women do. Laws that do so violate CEDAW.7

If we take into account all the ways countries, throughout history and even today, continue to grant men greater economic rights than women, this is a powerful tool to win greater economic equality for women. But the effort begins in each country, where activists use their courts and legislatures to win the rights that for so long have been reserved solely for men. They urge their legislative bodies to enact laws giving equal rights to women because the country committed to doing so in ratifying [End...


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