The rights-based and capabilities approaches can be both universal and revealing of trends that country-level data hide. However, how beneficial can such a broad yet detailed approach be in ensuring gender-respective education? Nussbaum (2000) proposes that the philosophical underpinnings of the capabilities approach can have practical political value to gender issues that "cannot be filled by other more empirical types of inquiry" (p. 10). Unterhalter (2007) goes further and dissects the moral ontology of this and the rights-based approach, especially as it relates to education. Exposing the fragmentation of "rights" (as they are created both by the individual and through the international community) forces one to consider the actual ramifications of the approaches from both a legal and moral perspective. For example, what if one's chosen or given rights encroach or infringe upon another's? Using these perspectives, DeJaeghere and Miske (2009) examine the capabilities and rights of ethnic minorities in Vietnam as they relate to schooling, exposing inequalities otherwise invisible to policymakers. While Nussbaum's call for the using the capabilities approach to achieve gender equality is attractive through its appeal to our common humanity, this is not enough to create meaningful policy change in and by itself. Keeping this narrative in mind while also undertaking qualitative inquiry, the rights-based and capabilities approaches can uncover micro- and meso-level systems of inequality for which policy options can be targeted.
First, it is important to note that Nussbaum believes that rights, as supply-side constraints, can be considered part of the capabilities approach. It seems she would agree with Unterhalter's characterization that
Needs do not arise from bilogy. Meeting needs derives from rights. The notion of 'fundamental human rights' signals that the moral basis of rights is either something fundamental to humanness or can be presumed to be derived from a social contract between humans (p. 69).
Nussbaum goes further and draws a moral line in the sand by saying rights, which she defines as central capabilities, "may not be infringed upon to pursue other types of social advantage" (p. 14). Unterhalter, however, says this universalist approach, especially as codified in international declarations and conventions, creates inherent contradictions. For example, women who pursue the right to education at the expense of personal safety or marriageability are infringing on their own rights to be free from these constraints (p. 60). Nussbaum does not intend to universalize because people are the same but because it unites us (pp. 20, 32). It is hasty to take this point of view. One can still believe in the fundamental humanness of the capabilities and rights approaches while allowing for the innumerable complexities involved. The key is not to divine the truth, but to unpack how and why one choses to define their own moral obligations - and needs - and use this as a basis for understanding or action.
DeJaeghere and Miske are informed by these approaches, and demonstrate concrete ways to shift discourse in the way Nussbaum's political philosophy calls for action. In examining four ethnic minorities in Vietnam, DeJaeghere and Miske "illustrate how macro-level discourses affect local sites, and how local sites construct and react to these discourses" (p. 151). Nussbaum would call this the "argument from culture, by stressing that cultures are scenes of debate and contestation" (p. 13, emphasis original). The purpose in doing this, DeJaeghere and Miske write, is to reveal how the negotiation of the myriad forces affecting girls' education (such as gender, ethnic traditions, and poverty) provides them agency (p. 153). Instead of asking "what politics should be pursuing for each and every citizen" (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 33) and by moving beyond "interventions and institutional building," focusing on negotiation reveals where and how capabilities can be developed (DeJaeghere & Miske, 2007, pp. 177-178). This is important because while data can show improvements towards equality, it ignores the range of inequalities still present, such as, in this example, among ethnic minorities. Even gaining these capabilities may not be enough. "[T]he capabilities gained through education... while important, may not reflect the reality of the difficulties to convert education as a capability into other capabilities" (DeJaeghere & Miske, 2007, pp. 176).
The rights-based and capabilities approaches can inform policy as it specifically relates to educational access and quality. While there are important moral arguments to make for providing education as a right or otherwise, and international legal structures and documents exist that espouse this right (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Conventions on the Rights of the Child, and Education For All), these are not accompanied by obligations, and the local political economy may not allow for these rights to be recognized (Unterhalter 2007). The same goes for progressive laws and constitutions, such as India's, which Nussbaum and Unterhalter explain are not followed in practice. Using the capabilities approach can illuminate the multifaceted barriers preventing access to and continuation in education, and further promote agency to overcome these hindrances.
DeJaeghere, J. & Miske, S. (2009). Limits of and possibilities for equality: An analysis of discourse and practices of gendered relations, ethnic traditions, and poverty among non-majority ethnic girls in Vietnam. In D. Parker & A. Wiseman (Eds.). Gender, Equality and Education from International and Comparative Perspectives (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Volume 10), (pp. 145-183). UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and human development. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Unterhalter, E. (2007). Gender, schooling and global social justice. New York: Routledge.