The "Capabilities" Advantage to Promoting Women's Human Rights

Martha Nussbaum Martha Nussbaum

Women in much of the world are less well nourished than men, less healthy, more vulnerable to physical violence and sexual abuse. They are much less likely than men to be literate, and still less likely to have pre-professional or technical education. Should they attempt to enter the workplace, they face greater obstacles, including intimidation from family members, discrimination in hiring, and sexual harassment—all, frequently, without effective legal recourse. Similar obstacles often impede their participation in political life, and in many nations women are not full equals under the law. Often burdened with the “double day” of taxing employment and full responsibility for housework and child care, they lack opportunities for play and the cultivation of their imaginative and cognitive faculties. All these factors take their toll on emotional well-being: women have fewer opportunities than men to live free from fear and to enjoy rewarding types of love—especially when, as is often the case, they are married without choice in childhood and have no recourse from a bad marriage. In all these ways, unequal social and political circumstances give women unequal human capabilities.

In order to highlight these inequities and provide a rationale for their redress, I have been developing the “capabilities approach” to understanding women’s human development. This approach measures the presence of basic opportunities by looking at what individual women are actually able to do and to be. It provides an alternative to crude and inadequate aggregate measurements, such as per capita Gross National Product, which were and still are being purveyed by development economists and policymakers. Of course the capabilities approach supplies norms for human development in general, not just for women’s development. Women’s issues, however, have been at the heart of the approach from the start, both because of their urgency and because the dire situation of women around the world helps us see more clearly the inadequacy of various other approaches to development. The capabilities approach is featured in the influential Human Development Reports of the UN Development Programme, and many development agencies around the world now conduct their own country-based analyses of capabilities. My version of the approach introduces a list of central capabilities that can be used to establish a basic social threshold that should be met for all people [see box, page 11]. The list can also be used to determine entitlements that could, for example, be embodied in constitutional guarantees.

Why use the capabilities approach rather than the well-established framework of human rights to address issues of social injustice for women? After all, the list of capabilities includes many of the liberties that are also stressed in the human rights framework. And capabilities play a similar role to human rights in providing both a basis for cross-cultural comparison and the philosophical underpinning for fundamental constitutional principles.

But unlike capabilities, the idea of rights has been understood in many different ways. Difficult theoretical questions are frequently obscured by the use of rights language, which can give the illusion of agreement where there is deep philosophical disagreement. People differ on whether rights are prepolitical or artifacts of laws and institutions and about whether rights belong only to individual persons, or also to groups. The relationship between rights and duties is also disputed. If A has a right to B, does this mean that there is always someone who has a duty to provide B, and how shall we decide who that someone is? What are rights to be understood as rights to? Rights to resources with which one may pursue a life plan? Rights to certain opportunities and capacities with which one may make life choices?

In contrast, the capabilities approach has the advantage of more clearly articulating the motivating concerns and ultimate goals of social justice, and provides a benchmark with which to measure what it means to secure certain rights. The right to political participation, the right to free religious exercise, the right of free speech—these and others are best thought of as “capacities to function.” In other words, to secure a right for citizens in one of these areas is to put them in a position of capability to function in that area. By defining rights in terms of capabilities, we make it clear that a people in country C don’t have the right to political participation just because this language exists on paper: they have this right only if there are effective measures to make people truly capable of political exercise. Women in many nations have a nominal right of political participation without having this right in the sense of capability: for example, they may be threatened with violence should they leave the home.

As compared to material and economic rights, the capabilities approach enables us to set forth clearly a rationale for spending unequal amounts of money on the disadvantaged or creating special programs to assist their transition to full capability. If we think of the right to shelter as a right to a certain amount of resources, then we encounter difficulty: giving resources to people does not always bring differently situated people up to the same level of capability to function. Giving a woman money to build shelter does little if she is too ill to build or maintain it, or if her male relatives can take the money from her on the basis of social custom or even law. A utility-based analysis also encounters a problem: traditionally deprived people may be satisfied with a very low living standard, believing that this is all they have any hope of getting. A capabilities analysis, by contrast, looks at how people are actually enabled to live.

Unlike the human rights approach, the capabilities approach reminds its users to think at all times of the material basis of human freedom. It directs attention to connections that might otherwise be less clear: for example, between access to credit and freedom of expression; between land rights and meaningful access to political participation. Women who can get a loan have an economic independence from male relatives that makes it possible for them to speak out, even controversially, without fear; women who have some property in their own name are able to engage in political activity without worrying that withdrawal of male support will leave them destitute. The capabilities approach both focuses on human freedom and reminds us that freedom is not possible without wide-ranging material and institutional change. In an era in which globalization tends to push policymakers toward an impoverished and narrow account of their goals, the capabilities approach reminds all parties in the enterprise of development that their work is a human matter.

The capabilities approach has one further advantage over that of human rights: its language is not strongly linked to one particular cultural and historical tradition, as the language of rights is believed to be. (This belief is not very accurate: although the term “rights” is associated with the European Enlightenment, its component ideas have deep roots in many traditions. Nonetheless, the language of capabilities enables us to bypass this troublesome debate.) When we speak simply of what people are actually able to do and to be, we do not even give the appearance of privileging a Western idea. Ideas of activity and ability are everywhere, and there is no culture in which people do not ask themselves what they are able to do and what opportunities they have for functioning.

If we use the capabilities approach, do we also need human rights? The language of rights still plays many important roles, despite its unsatisfactory features. Rights remind us that people have justified and urgent claims to certain types of treatment backed up by the simple fact that they are human. To say, “Here is a list of things that people ought to be able to do and to be” has only a vague normative resonance. To say, “Here is a list of fundamental rights” is more rhetorically direct. In the areas where we disagree about the proper analysis of rights talk—where the claims of utility, resources, and capabilities are still being worked out—the language of rights preserves a sense of agreement that entitlements should exist and are based on justice while we continue to deliberate over how these entitlements should be further analyzed.

Finally, rights also have value because of the emphasis they place on choice and autonomy: everyone is endowed with certain rights, but they are not compelled to act upon all or any of them. Indeed, my list of capabilities adopts the language of rights in order to communicate this very idea. There is a big difference between pushing people into functioning in ways you consider valuable and leaving the choice up to them. Some women may say that certain capabilities are not for them, but the capabilities approach ensures they have the option to choose. The capabilities approach thus fundamentally relies on human rights and provides a way of understanding and implementing the urgent claims captured by the language of rights. But we cannot secure human rights until we have secured to them a wide range of human capabilities.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Women's Rights

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