A Rights Based Approach to Gender

What is Gender?

Gender refers to the socially constructed roles of women and men. These depend on social, economic, political and cultural contexts. Women and girls are the most affected by gender discrimination. In many parts of the world, their voices are stifled in the public and private sphere. In this way, women and girls are denied the right to a voice, to education and sometimes the right to play.

Boys also suffer from gender discrimination in many ways. For example, they can be sent to work at a young age and are more likely to be recruited by armed groups. In some societies violent and promiscuous behaviour is seen as a sign of masculinity. Teenage boys who do not demonstrate this behaviour can be vulnerable to discrimination.

Human rights standards

Rights-based approaches to gender reflect internationally agreed human rights principles in policy and practice. The human rights principles most relevant to gender issues are non-discrimination, participation and equality of opportunity. These are all recognised rights for children in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and underpinned by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

What can be done?

Working with both men and women to overcome gender stereotypes is key to the realisation of children’s rights.

Our work should emphasise the need to reach young girls whose voices have been marginalised and boys whose behaviour is determined by their sex. Gender discrimination and stereotypes faced by children are not the same depending on their age, their social status and/or where they live. One way to assess this is to differentiate data not just by sex, but also by age, ethnicity, economic status and geographic origin. This can help to eliminate disparities in legislation, social policy and resource allocation caused by social disadvantage.

By empowering all girls and boys with their human rights, we can alleviate some of the worst kinds of abuse of children. Forcing a girl to give up her education just because she is a girl, or forcing a boy to fight in armed conflicts are affronts to basic human rights principles. Children would not be treated this way under a rights based approach.

Altering deeply ingrained ideas about gender roles will not happen over night. However, over time, rights based approaches can go a long way to effecting behavioural change and promoting respect between men and women for each others’ rights, dignity, diversity and equality.


Example: Girl soldiers

An analysis by the humanitarian news agency, IRIN of the programmes for the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of former child soldiers shows that they fail to meet the needs of girl soldiers.

While girls are often thought to be used only as sex slaves within armed groups, in reality they serve an array of highly valued roles, including acting as combatants, spies, domestics and porters.

But because of a lack of awareness of this, DDR programmes are ill-equipped to address the needs of former girl soldiers, who, while considered as equal to male combatants within the groups, face gender discrimination and stereotypes upon their return to society, which can eventually result in exclusion and poverty.

Notably, while girls represent 40 per cent of child soldiers around the world, they make up only five per cent of child soldiers in enrolling in DDR programmes. Full story