Feminist Economics and the Fight for Human Rights – OHCHR

International Association for Feminist Economics Annual Conference
29 June-1 July, Graduate Institute, Geneva
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Michelle Bachelet

I am pleased to join you today in this important and timely exchange.

Despite much talk about the indivisibility of human rights, many still see the agenda of civil and political rights as disassociated from the work on economic, social and cultural rights.

In 2018, when I began my mandate as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, it was my objective and my vision to end that artificial divide.

In order to do so, we needed to better understand and explain the links between three key areas:

  1. economic, social, cultural rights;
  2. the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which the whole UN was pushing for, with the 2030 Agenda;
  3. the prevention of instability and conflict.

Concretely, this involved a need to better understand the role of economics in human rights promotion and protection, and vice-versa and also how to translate this into actions by authorities. As a result, for more than two years my Office has been expanding and deepening its country level work and partnerships in how human rights can inform economic policy at the macro and micro levels.

This focus and the call for – what we in my Office term – a human rights enhancing economy is even more crucial today.

The socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, growing poverty and inequalities, debt distress, inflation, climate change, pushbacks against human rights (particularly against women’s rights), raging conflict, including – but certainly not only – the war in Ukraine, make it clear that we are at a critical juncture.

The global economy is facing fragmentation and divergence, alongside calls for reform of an international financial system that many say is no longer fit for purpose.

According to the UN Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance, chaired by fellow panellist Rebeca Grynspan, 60 per cent of workers have lower real incomes than before the pandemic and 60 per cent of the poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it.

With little fiscal space, these countries are navigating currency devaluations as the prices of commodities increase. Without reform of the debt architecture, many governments will have to make the difficult decision of either paying for health, social protection or other rights or servicing the debt.

Worldwide, more people are experiencing existential, famine-like conditions, facing the grim dilemma of hard choices of survival – especially between food, medicine and education.

And the multiplier effects of hunger on health and education outcomes are well documented.

As we know all too well, vulnerable and marginalized groups in general, such as racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous people or informal workers, bear the brunt of these realities. Women and girls belonging to such groups are disproportionately affected.


Your analyses of the current economic moment, with its complexities, opportunities and challenges, are essential to help inform transformative economic solutions.

Feminist economists have long questioned gender-blind economic policies and helped design solutions to increase equality and tackle discrimination.

You have also pointed out the limits of the mainstream economic model, which is producing untenable social costs, fuelling instability and amplifying mistrust towards institutions.

You are convinced – as am I – that greater collaboration between human rights specialists and feminist economists is key to building economies that work for everyone through investments in human rights.

Human rights provide an essential framework for designing and implementing macro- and micro-economic policies that are more fair, just and equitable.

As such, we need to design budgets that work for everyone, including those who have the least and have been left furthest behind, and rectify gender inequality.

As such, a government’s budget is one of the most important economic policy tools to facilitate the fulfilment of human rights.

And yet, in most countries, budget documents do not sufficiently reflect human rights standards and obligations in their financial content. According to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Member States are bound to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the core content of economic, social and cultural rights even in times of crisis.

However, social spending often fails to reflect the evidence-based needs of populations. Many of you have written about the detrimental role of austerity measures in cuts to social spending. Low- and middle-income countries invest an average of one third of their government expenditure in education, health and social protection, while their debt payments tend to crowd out such spending.

If national budgets integrate States’ human rights obligations and allocate sufficient resources to cover at least minimum essential levels of economic and social rights for all, they can be a powerful lever for equality and SDG progress.

National spending in social sectors that focuses on accessibility, affordability, and quality of services as well as non-discrimination, including based on gender, strengthens livelihoods and erodes inequality. Increasing such spending keeps more children in school and protects and raises the health and overall standard of living of the population. This is society’s most effective tool to build resilience.

And transparency is critical. When I was President of Chile, I promoted public participation in the local budget process. Free, active and meaningful participation –- requires fiscal transparency and enables accountability and builds social cohesion – all human rights principles.

When rights holders are given the opportunity to follow the money, the level of corruption goes down and trust in government goes up.

Colleagues, friends,

How do we build and expand our evidence base in relation to economic, social and cultural rights, especially for marginalised groups, to advocate for all human rights for all?

How can we fairly recognize and account for all economic contributions made, including those in the informal economy and by unpaid care work? In this regard, I recall that the human right to development entitles everyone to contribute to, participate in, and enjoy development, and the fair distribution of its benefits.

How can we better prove that investments in social spending have multiplier effects for prosperity and trust?

As part of my Office’s growing work in this field, together with other UN agencies, and with National Human Rights Institutions and civil society, we are helping governments establish evidence-based, human rights centered and gender-responsive social protection systems; prioritise healthcare budgets; and ensure participation by women and men in communities in implementing social protection and water and sanitation measures.

For example, my Office worked with Southern African Development Community on its Model Law on Public Finance Management. We provided guidance on human rights-based social sector investment, and made recommendations on domestic resource mobilization options, including progressive taxation. This law can, we hope, serve as a benchmark for national Parliaments to reinforce their domestic legal framework on public financial management.

In Nepal, my Office is also helping cost the minimum essential levels of the right to reproductive health care for the most marginalised women workers, including domestic and sex workers. Sex workers are willing to pay three to four times more by going to distant private clinics rather than local public hospitals. The economic cost of stigma and criminalisation of certain forms of livelihood options is debilitating.

At the global level, my Office is supporting the discussion at the Human Rights Council on the transformation of care and support systems based on human rights, to make them more gender responsive and inclusive.

We need strong partnerships for these efforts to yield positive results, in the long term. For instance, work could focus on developing evidence-based, context specific, analysed by sector, of the cost of not investing in economic and social rights.

Economic growth alone isn’t a tide that lifts all boats.

Your contributions to the limits of current development performance metrics are fundamental, whether in the area of care work, the informal sector or the environment, and will continue to be so.

The UN Secretary General is challenging the UN System to suggest additional metrics to measure the development performance of countries. He has also called on us to transform how we view and value nature.

What we measure shapes what we collectively strive to pursue – and what we pursue determines what we measure.

Our systems need to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being, including the enjoyment of economic and social rights.

The current moment challenges us to create new models and tools for a human rights-enhancing economy. You are in a unique position to guide future generations of economists to contribute to a more equal and just world, and thereby transform global governance towards human rights and social justice.

I am convinced that by joining forces, anchored in our shared principles, we can meet this challenge.

Thank you.

Leave a Reply