What is the relationship between a human rights-based approach and gender mainstreaming?

A human rights-based approach to development and gender mainstreaming are complementary and mutually reinforcing, and can be undertaken without conflict or duplication.

Gender mainstreaming calls for the integration of a gender perspective in development activities, with the ultimate goal of achieving gender equality. A human rights-based approach integrates international human rights standards and principles in development activities, including women’s human rights and the prohibition of sex discrimination. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has analysed comprehensively and in depth how inequality affects women’s lives; this is a valuable input for development policymaking and programming. When backed by national accountability systems, a human rights-based approach can greatly reinforce progress towards gender equality.

Gender mainstreaming and a human rights-based approach to development have much in common. Both rely on an analytical framework that can be applied to all development activities (for the former, the different situation experienced and roles played by men and women in a given society; and for the latter, a normative framework based on entitlements and obligations). Both call attention to the impact of activities on the welfare of specific groups, as well as to the importance of empowerment and participation in decision-making. Both apply to all stages of activity (design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation) and to all types of action (legislation, policies and programmes). Finally, both require the systematic adoption of new and different approaches to existing activities, as distinct from developing new and additional activities.

In most organizations, gender mainstreaming is a more familiar concept than human rights mainstreaming. Structures and processes set up to ensure gender mainstreaming can be emulated or adapted to facilitate the introduction of a human rights-based approach to programming more generally. But, equally, there is a need to learn from situations where gender mainstreaming has failed. If staff perceive mainstreaming gender (or human rights) as a bureaucratic or technical requirement without real implications for their own work, and if internal incentive structures are weak and lines of accountability unclear, the approach may have no impact.