Human Rights Defender special issue on women's economic and social rights


Editorial from the current issue of the Human Rights Defender:

Women are more likely to live in poverty than men and have less access to work and the economy. Only half of the world’s women are in the labour force compared to three quarters of the world’s men.[i] Much of women’s work is located in the informal sector and in part-time and precarious work and in unpaid domestic and care work. In almost all countries women work more than men, when taking account of this unpaid work, and accrue half as much income as men over their lifetimes. Women have less access to housing, land, resources and services and face greater barriers to education. While there has been an increase in girls’ education worldwide this has not translated into a reduction in the gender wage gap.[ii]

Persistent gender inequality based on social and cultural expectations explains some of these differences between women and men’s outcomes. Violence against women that is so prevalent in all countries of the world has a direct impact on women’s economic and social opportunities and experiences. Women’s lack of access to public and private decision-making also impacts on their access to the resources and benefits of the society. Certain groups of women are particularly vulnerable to poverty such as migrants and refugees, single mothers, women with disabilities, and women in minority communities.

Social and economic rights that offer to address poverty have special significance for women facing such disadvantages.[iii] But this means that social and economic rights cannot be understood as gender-neutral or they will fail to address the specific dimensions of women’s poverty.[iv] These rights need to be interpreted and developed with the needs of poor women in mind. This issue of the Human Rights Defender gives detailed attention to a range of social and economic rights that must be deepened and strengthened to support women.

We are privileged to have contributions by two United Nations experts on women’s social and economic rights. Frances Raday unpacks the findings of a report by the Expert Working Group on Discrimination against Women that focussed on women’s economic and social life in the context of economic crisis. Related to this, Virginia Bras Gomes looks at women’s experiences under recent government austerity measures and the requirements to ensure that such measures are consistent with human rights.

The diverse but related experiences of women and girls around the world are discussed in Faranaaz Veriava’s article on the legal rights of pregnant school students in South Africa while Susanne Schmeidl details the harsh realities facing displaced Afghan women following the conflict in that country. Nahed Odeh considers the legal and social standing of Palestinian women and the violations they face in everyday life.

Here at home, Alison Aggarwal analyses the state of women’s economic and social rights in Australia, some of the gaps in their realisation and what responses there might be to address these gaps. Our interview with Human Rights and Discrimination Commissioner, Helen Watchirs, provides insight into the successes and limits of the Human Rights Act for women in the Australian Capital Territory.  

A number of articles provide a more global perspective on specific social and economic rights. Priti Darooka looks at the relationship between women and food security and how women’s empowerment is central to access and sustainability of food for all. Cristy Clark highlights the need for development of the right to water for women at the international and domestic levels. Lucie Lamarche and Dianne Otto both discuss women’s right to social security and the related right to social protection with Lamarche emphasising the particular challenges facing women migrant workers.

All of the articles in this issue demonstrate the pervasive and deeply embedded economic and social disadvantage suffered by women around the world. However these contributions also highlight the opportunity for change by ensuring that human rights focus on gender equality.[v] We hope this issue of the Human Rights Defender stimulates thought and discussion about ways of developing, advancing and realising women’s social and economic rights.



Beth Goldblatt is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney and is a Visiting Fellow of the Australian Human Rights Centre. She is the Managing Editor for this edition of the Human Rights Defender.

Michaela Vaughan is the Student Editor for this edition of the Human Rights Defender.


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Photo  ©  Fernando Moleres 

[i] UN Women (2015) Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, UN Women, at 74.

[ii] Ibid, at 81.

[iii] See 'Montreal Principles on Women's Economic, Social and Cultural Rights' (2004) Human Rights Quarterly 26: 760.

[iv] Beth Goldblatt and Kirsty McLean (eds) Women’s Social and Economic Rights (2011) (Juta: Cape Town).

[v] For further discussion of this topic see: Sandra Fredman and Beth Goldblatt (2015) ‘Gender Equality and Human Rights’ produced for UN Women's flagship report Progress of the World's Women 2015-2016 and released as part of the UN Women discussion paper series: