How We Do Our Work

Friday was Human Rights Day, a day established in honor of the General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Each year, our calendar is filled with such commemorative dates -- World AIDS Day, Equal Pay Day, Women's Equality Day, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. On these days, proclamations are made, thought leaders gather for panel discussions and press conferences, and Facebook and Twitter accounts buzz with videos and changed profile pictures. For those of us in the business of changing the world, these days also offer us an opportunity to reflect on how we do our work.

Fifteen years have passed since Hillary Clinton reminded a global audience at the Beijing Conference for Women that women's rights are human rights. Yet advocates worldwide continue to face challenges in convincing policymakers and political leaders of this fundamental truth. As Human Rights Day approached, the National Council for Research on Women invited thought leaders to weigh in, not only on the connection between women's rights and human rights, but the emerging importance of recognizing gender and sexual rights.

Traditional civil rights frameworks have been criticized by scholars, activists, and scholar-activists for their limited scope. Civil rights frameworks are built on a theory of change that focuses on legal advancement but not necessarily on social, economic and cultural change. At the National Council for Research on Women, we know that change is often premised on fierce partnerships, knowledge building, and creative problem-solving. Although policy change is important, it is only one piece of the puzzle. One of the problems with using traditional civil rights frames is that rights can be extended only to those who fit within limited categories. In other words, many marginalized people must earn their civil rights by proving that they fall into discrete protected categories as defined by such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disability Act passed in 1990. If you experience discrimination that does not fall under such predefined categories -- such as discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- you may not receive protection or recourse from the existing legal structure.

A human rights framework bypasses these problems. Rights do not have to be earned. Due to the virtue of being human -- with all our beautiful, complex identities -- we should have the right to opportunities for economic security, access to education, affordable healthcare, etc. This is not to say that a human rights framework is perfect. All frameworks have their shortcomings. A recent edition of the Barnard Center for Research on Women's webjournal, Scholar and Feminist, tackled issues of sexual and economic justice. In one article, Duke Professor of Women's Studies, Ara Wilson wrote:

Some long-term consequences of UN-NGO organizing have been the bureaucratization of political language with UN shorthand (such as MDGs for Millennium Development Goals) and an emphasis on negative rights, that is, freedom from harm, like trafficking in women or sexual violence. The major organizations concerned with global queer sexual rights -- the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), and Amnesty International -- have yet to advance robust arguments about the material dimensions of sexuality or the links between economic justice and sexual justice.

As we advocate for the rights of women, gender and sexual minorities, and other marginalized populations, we must not stop with legal rights. We must make the connection between legal change and social change, and economic, social and cultural rights. And whether we choose a civil rights frame, a human rights frame, a social justice frame, or some other frame for promoting positive change, we must both celebrate the framework's advantages and acknowledge its limitations. I hope you will join us in taking some time to reflect on how you press forward with the important work you do.