In 1986, the U.S. Army launched a new ad campaign that targeted an audience of people who perhaps felt they were not reaching their full potential in their current situations. Their new slogan, "Be all that you can be," ended up being one of their most successful mottos of all time, remaining the main recruiting tool of the Army for nearly fifteen years. Much like the old U.S. Army slogan, the capabilities approach to gender development seeks to help people, specifically women and girls, achieve all that they are capable of achieving.
By "protecting and enhancing the freedoms that allow for a wide capability set" Unterhalter argues the main idea of the approach "is that what should be evaluated are capabilities, that is people's freedom to achieve what they have reason to value"(Unterhalter, 2007, p.74). This is an important distinction. What sets capabilities approach apart from an approach focused on rights or achievement of basic goods as an end goal is that "capabilities are the opportunities or choices that one values" (DeJaeghere & Lee, 2011, p.29) The breadth capabilities should be all inclusive, especially including "educational opportunities that relate to the multidimensionality of girls lives" (DeJaeghere & Miske, 2011, p.147). Unterhalter borrows from Sen (2003) when she talks about achieving gender equality, education and opportunities, and not simply the outcomes that education can provide (Unterhalter, 2007). These outcomes can vary between gender, class, and ethnicity. It is important to keep in mind that simply because a young girl is provided access to schooling, it does not mean she is given an equal opportunity at an education as a boy her age, or as another girl from a higher economic situation.
Furthermore, if the value of a girl's education is deemed low, then labor will increase in value, which can cause young girls and boys to abandon or be removed from school (DeJaeghere & Miske, 2011). This is a problem because it might "also suggests that other barriers exist within the society, such as job discrimination, that prohibits non-majority ethnic groups from utilizing their education to a full capacity for their well-being" (DeJaeghere & Miske, 2011, p.150). The capabilities approach also is a response to other forms of development theory, such as the human capital approach. Capabilities approach is concerned with making social changes, not simply economic changes (Unterhalter, 2007). It is interested in making women an end to themselves, and not as a type of tool for others to use (Nussbaum, 2000).
The idea of women and girls being an end themselves is echoed in a rights based approach as well. As Unterhalter points out, "Rights are claims humans make because they are human, not because this is efficient or will result in growth," again, trying to problematize a human capital approach (Unterhalter, 2007, p.66). However, as Unterhalter also details, a rights based approach is not without its difficulties. For example, a libertarian perspective on rights would assume a set of rights based on self-ownership, and an obligation from others not to interfere with those rights. Meanwhile, a more liberal view of rights might expect an obligation to deliver an end state (Unterhalter, 2007). To put in more familiar terms for this audience, think about the argument revolving around the educational "rights" of Americans today. There are some who believe the American government is obligated to educate their children, while other believe the government is obligated to let them choose their own method of schooling. Who is right? To look at it another way, do we as Americans have the right to bear arms, or do we have the right to walk in the park without fear of being shot?
Another problem with a rights based approach is whether the rights being discussed are truly universal rights. Do these rights established by Western entities take into account different value systems across all cultures? Unterhalter states that, "The implicit question is how important are culture and history in formulating a theory of human rights and in considering gender equality in education as part of such a theory" (Unterhalter, 2001, p.61). Stop and think about how much difficulty we as Americans have interpreting the rights set out for our country only two hundred some years ago. Now imagine trying to discuss the rights of a culture over one thousand or even two thousand years old. Despite these problems, the rights based approach at least useful in that it moved the discourse away from a needs based approach, signaling a tactical change rather than a philosophical one (Unterhalter, 2007). The key point is that needs are derivative of rights. It might help to think of it this way: by meeting the educational needs of girls, you will fulfill their basic human right to education. If we can do that, if we can satisfy those needs, then, and only then, will they be able to realize what they are truly capable of.
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DeJaeghere, J. & Miske, S. (2009). Limits of and possibilities for equality: An analysis of
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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). 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.