Blog Archives

Individual Rights: At What Cost for Women?

I was just reading an article comparing US and Mexican abortion laws, and the author, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, made a really good point that I think we need to keep reminding ourselves of as we fight for our liberal values.  We can talk about individual autonomy and choice all we want, and that perspective can be great, but choice doesn’t mean much if you can’t access the choice.  Often choices require financial privilege or other means that not everyone has.  While some forms of privacy/autonomy are easy for governments to ensure (negative liberties that don’t require the government to take action, only to refrain from it), positive autonomy requires resources.

This is where I go all socialist on you, but I really think we have a lot to learn from forms of government (and on a smaller level, forms of community activism or tribal systems) where the focus is on the group rather than the individual.  Yes, this form can hurt women when they are blended into the group as a whole, but it also can provide guarantees of community support.  The individualist system often claims to give all individuals a choice, autonomy, etc., but if the individuals do not have the resources to exercise these rights, then those individuals (often women) will suffer.  The challenge is to find a balance, where women are not marginalized, not erased, and not harmed in between the lines of the law.  It’s probably a challenge that can never be fully realized, but it’s a good goal.

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Categorizing “Worlds”

We were talking today in my human rights course about the “First/Second/Third World” system of categorizing countries, and also about the “Fourth World” of marginalized groups such as indigenous people.  Obviously, using the number system means you’re making a value judgement, but I also object somewhat to the use of the terms “developed” and “developing” to create a dichotomy that I also feel is value-based.  I use those terms sometimes when it comes to economics, but I’m uncomfortable with them.  It’s not just that we’re calling some nations undeveloped or underdeveloped, but more that we assume “developed” is a good thing.  The right to the development presupposes that everyone wants the kind of development that we have reached in our society, as I mentioned in a previous post, and ignores not only “side effects” but also the kind of broad conceptual/perceptual shifts that are inherent in this terminology.  

So what are the alternatives?  A lot of people use the terms Global North and Global South, which are a little more “accurate” than East/West, but they still ignore the vast differences among “Global South” countries.  Another problem to any form of geographic or value-based classification system is that it ignores disparities within a country.  Some scholars, for example, have pointed out that labelling the U.S. or European countries as “developed” ignores the right to development that women living in poverty in these countries have to seek development on their own terms.  When you frame development in this way – the right to seek out your own well-being and ways to earn a living on your own terms – I think we’re really hitting on something.  

This relates to another point that I made in my law of war seminar last week, related to the question of whether the international community should have been involved in Rwanda or not.  One student repeatedly stresssed that based on state sovereignty, we should only intervene if the country wants us to – “If they ask us.”  My problem with this, is that though I think culturally appropriate tribunals and decisionmaking are a good thing, I also think that we need to be wary of using this vague “they.”  There is no “they” in a situation like that.  When women were being subjected to mass rape, and many were traumatised and extremely fearful, it is difficult to say that we should simply ignore the situation because “they” don’t want us to get involved, or because women have forgiven the perpetrators.  Perhaps they have, but I do think that it if women have no resources, no medical help, don’t feel safe, etc., we need to ask if the “forgiveness” claimed by men in power is genuine.  I’m not saying that paternalism is a good idea, but I am saying that it’s important to consider the varying experiences within a culture and to take those experiences into consideration when offering “development” or other assistance.