Rights, Capabilities, Gender, and Education: Creating an Equitable Social Space

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By Jaime L. Jenkinson

Over the last 40 years, global labor markets have experienced a dramatic shift in their composition as women around the world began participating in formal labor en masse. This included millions of underprivileged, poor, and disenfranchised women in developing nations (International Labour Organization, 2004). However, this overly economic viewpoint on the shifting demographic disrupts our need to focus not only on trade and industry, but also social change. As society sifts through the multitude of values, morals, and rights that make up much of the social sphere, there should exist a level playing field in which to foster debate over these competing claims. This is a just and effective path to creating discourse, which will ultimately discover 'valued capabilities' (DeJaeghere, 2011) and collective ideals.

There is an undeniable nexus between the moral and legal domains. Operably, this means that moral rights, or rights we possess simply as a byproduct of moral truth, may not be mutually inclusive of legal recognition. This highlights the basis for differing interpretations of equality; and often, equality between the sexes/genders (Unterhalter, 2007, p. 56). Rights, in this sense, "...could be understood... as a form of welfare, ...as a dimension of social primary goods, ... or as an opportunity to advance capabilities" (p. 57). For these rival ideologies to engage one another, we have a responsibility to endow each individual with the means necessary to access social space, or space which bridges between the private and public spheres and that also creates an equal opportunity to participate in dialogue. So, what does this mean for education? And more specifically, what does this mean for girls' and women's education?

Legally, gender equality in education was espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 (Unterhalter, 2007, p. 61). Yet, "...this does not itself settle the question of the moral basis of gender equality in... education" (Brighouse, 2002, ibid). Enter the Rights-Based Approach, which will tell us that rights, like gender equality, are self-evidently valuable. This "moral basis" for rights-assertions can then unify the legal, social, and political domains to address rights claims (p. 72). But does this actually happen in practice?

Since previous frameworks for justice have been deficient in their abilities to address the "complexity of particular settings where people (are) diverse and the demands of justice nuanced by different histories" (p. 74), Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum developed the Capabilities Approach to examine gender equality. If all social cleavages have the rightful claim to participating in dialogue surrounding global social justice, how do we equitably secure their access to the discursive arena? Since gendered individuals are educated under differing pressures, conditions, etc., as well as under markedly different gendered social arrangements, a holistic approach must examine this more broad and complex system of inequity. Sen and Nussbaum contend that "...interpersonal comparisons should be made in terms of what a person is able to do or be, and evaluations should be made in relation to the freedoms that support the quality of life from which a person can develop reflection relating to what she or he has reason to value" (p. 75). This evaluation of education, which instead of looking exclusively at procedural inputs and outputs, assesses the "conditions" of being educated, including what sustains the condition and consequential/emergent values. Accordingly, education emerges as a "central capability", or "formal instruction", as Nussbaum highlights. Conversely, Sen focuses less on a general prescription of education and offers a means to transforming resources into capabilities. Education, in this sense, would empower women by widening their capabilities and reducing their gendered vulnerability, giving them more social freedom, and ultimately greater access to discourse and debate.

Turn to a case-study of non-majority ethnic girls in Vietnam; a group disadvantaged in terms of access to agricultural workforce participation (DeJaeghere and Miske, 2009, p. 148). This is accompanied by low-levels of educational attainment, malnutrition, and entrenched poverty. This contrasts the overall high levels of educational attainment in Vietnam, showing an underlying staunch inequality. Dejaeghere and Miske continue to use Sen's Capabilities Approach to understand the problem. "Poverty as capability deprivation is broader than income or an instrumental approach to poverty, which measures poverty by access to goods, resources, or real income. (It) is a lack of freedom to pursue well-being" (p. 151). Gender associations and ethnic customs, for this reason, can bequeath one gender with more capabilities than another by, for instance, distributing income unequally in the family unit if a family values the well-being of boys (and men) over girls (and women). Thus, strategies geared toward improving gender equality will have to consider existing traditions and identities, as well as other pedagogical roots of inequality.

Can education create more social space? And can it protect women's well-being in the discursive environment necessary for the capabilities approach to be meaningful? Nussbaum argues that unequal social and political conditions can manifest into unequal human capabilities, exacerbating the vulnerability of women in the social environment (Nussbaum, 2000, p. 1-2). She further argues that in order to conceptualize the acceptable "social minimum", we must first create a space for fair and adequate comparison of conditions. This is capabilities in the 'weaker' sense, to be juxtaposed to the 'strong' sense, which is a universal "threshold" level of capability, under which one would lose the ability for true human functioning (p. 6). The strong sense is much more useful in terms of making a case for women to be treated as an ends in and of themselves, rather than treating their perhaps subsequent capabilities or education as the means to another end. Nussbaum contends universal feminist philosophy should be employed by strategies aiming to improve education; that is, a philosophy "... committed to cross-cultural norms of justice, equality, and rights, and at the same time sensitive to local particularity, and to the many ways in which circumstances shape not only options but also beliefs and preferences" (p. 7). In merging the universal with the particular, Nussbaum problematizes our conception of the situation(s) of vulnerable peoples in a time of rapid economic change and fluctuation. New policies and tactics will have to not only employ moral-based rights, but also consider specific cultural resistance, in order to increase access to education, value of education, and participation in social discourse to produce and reproduce capabilities (in girls and women). So, finally, we must ask ourselves: Why is this important?

Women have arguably become the majority of the "new world working class", representing 60% of the world's 550 million working poor (International Labour Organization, 2004). Despite this unprecedented change in the world's labor force, gender is largely omitted during discussions of global cooperation/development, and women's participation in this specific discourse lacks monitoring. Subsequently, strategic outcomes may be rendered irrelevant or counterproductive in that they have failed to protect equitable social space.

To think more about this issue, remember experiences that have silenced you in the past. Were you ill-prepared to engage others? Were you ignorant of the forum? Were you too young, too old, or exhibiting another social quality that was not valued or undervalued by the group identity?

We must all remember that each voice is unique and vital. Only then can we truly protect the 'gendered' social milieu.



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). 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.

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The numerous matters revolving around the gender separation and rights, are still present, even in nowadays' much more developed society. Not to mention the social segragation still existing in the far less developed areas,as the example you are giving with Vietnam. The presented interrelation between suppresion of the females in less educated societies is out of question, but all present. And it is true that as more informed we are about the problems the rest are encountering as more we will be able to pass that forward!

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This page contains a single entry by JaimeLynn published on December 7, 2011 11:04 AM.

Masculinities and femininities was the previous entry in this blog.

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