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Human Rights and Feminist Perspectives in Social Work


Social work is based on the recognition of human needs and the analysis of the systems by which people are impacted throughout their lives. Thus, this profession cannot view each individual’s case as separate from the influences of the world, culture, location, and other factors. Here, such perspectives and human rights and feminism are necessary to build a foundation for assistance and advocacy. It can be argued that both frameworks have a variety of overlapping principles and goals.

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For example, the strive towards equality is explicitly described in both ideologies, with the emphasis on gender-based discrimination as a root for other adverse outcomes and a barrier for change (Alemany & Sen, 2019). Furthermore, one may see that human rights and feminism are perspectives that can aid social work in creating long-term change and understanding the issue of each person as a systemic problem that requires an in-depth view.

Human Rights and Feminism

To understand the connections between the narratives of human rights and feminism, one has to review the main principles and aims of these perspectives. First of all, human rights can be described as a set of activities and beliefs that every human being has the right to perform (Keeney et al., 2014).

The phrase “human being” is essential in describing the framework as it opposes the outdated use of the word “man” in the meaning of “human.” This distinction, made by the creators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), demonstrates the underlying issues that the perspective of human rights has attempted to acknowledge from the very start (United Nations, 2018). Human rights must be available to every person, and their introduction to the world is a response to numerous injustices performed against vulnerable populations.

Among these groups, one can consider women, children, the elderly, non-white, and non-heterosexual individuals. This separation of people into different populations is necessary for the analysis of human rights to identify the problems that exist not on a personal, but a systemic level (Ted-Ed, 2015). For instance, discrimination based on gender often puts women at a higher risk of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, lowers their status, and limits their employment opportunities (Yates & Rai, 2019). Human rights aim to combat this underlying issue, demanding people’s equal access to work and safety from discrimination-related dangers.

It is vital to consider, however, that the current perspective of human rights struggles to address the dependence of vulnerable communities on the actions of dominating populations, especially in the process of removing barriers and supporting equality. This pertains to the economic discrimination and unfair labor conditions, where some countries cannot adequately address the issue of poverty without the financial help of developed nations.

This problem is discussed in the critique by Pogge and Sengupta (2016), who examine the vague wording of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They find that the lack of countries’ equal participation and clear goals do not grant societies equal human rights, thus contrasting the foundational beliefs for the project. Therefore, the human rights perspective needs to recognize the pitfalls of its underlying assumptions and evolve continuously.

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Similar to this perspective, feminism also structures its argument on the idea that women’s place in the world and their daily lives are affected by systemic factors that lead to discrimination and limited opportunities. In comparison to human rights, feminism prioritizes women’s and girls’ positions in the world, providing a more in-depth insight into their place in society and the issues that they face.

However, while the early waves of feminist activists did not consider other aspects of women’s lives, the current theory surrounding feminism is intersectionality. Introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw at the end of the twentieth century and popularized in recent decades, this term describes the interconnectedness of various characteristics that affect one’s life (Yates & Rai, 2019). For example, while all women may experience similar problems related to their gender, white and black women, rich and poor women, heterosexual and homosexual women’s issues are not the same. Similarly, an affluent, married, white woman with a job may not fully understand the struggle of a disabled teenage girl.

Here, the connection between the perspectives of feminism and human rights can be found – the experiences of vulnerable groups are not viewed in separation, being recognized as a system of intersectional links instead. This approach makes the perspectives of human rights and feminism directly related to one another, showing that the struggle of women to combat gender-based discrimination is further affected by their culture, race, religion, sexuality, and class. Thus, it underlines the necessity of human rights projects addressing all issues in combination, eliminating poverty and introducing anti-discrimination laws, while also educating new generations and fostering a culture of equality.

Social Work

The connections outlined above should build the foundation for social workers across the globe. One of the central strategies of social work is the recognition of environments in which an individual exists. This is a required part of understanding the influences and motivations of people as well as their origins. According to Akesson, Burns, and Hordyk, (2017), social environments and geographical locations are both important in examining one’s issues.

For instance, a person whose identified problem is financial instability may have specific barriers to proper work or social benefits that lead to an unstable situation. Here, the human rights perspective may reveal a systemic problem that affects all poor communities in the country, but targets some groups specifically, such as women and older adults.

The basis of social work “person-in-environment” analysis aligns with the notions expressed by intersectional feminism – various factors create the conditions for problems and their progression. Furthermore, the perspective of intersectional feminism can be useful in non-Western communities that do not have the same cultural backgrounds or values that are outlined by Western theorists.

The analysis presented by Gideon, Leite, and Alvarez Minte (2015) shows that, in Brazil and Chile, religion and traditional gender roles play a significant role in women’s reproductive and sexual rights. This example demonstrates that, while women from different countries may face limited access to healthcare, this particular instance is guided by religious and cultural issues. Here, a social worker needs to remember the limitations of the current human rights initiatives and use all available resources to unravel the links between systemic discrimination and individual outcomes.

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The development of the feminist perspective has moved it closer to the ideas outlined in the philosophy of human rights. Women’s issues cannot be viewed separately from other factors, such as class, race, or sexual orientation. All elements, while having their specific barriers, create different outcomes in combination, thus requiring a more nuanced approach. This position can be used by social workers to understand the case of each client. Furthermore, it is vital to recognize that most issues cannot be solved by addressing one systemic injustice. Human rights and feminism advocacy should evolve with people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of problems that arise due to the various levels of otherness.


Akesson, B., Burns, V., & Hordyk, S. R. (2017). The place of place in social work: Rethinking the person-in-environment model in social work education and practice. Journal of Social Work Education, 53(3), 372-383.

Alemany, C., & Sen, G. (2019). SDG 5 – Advancing women’s rights and strengthening global governance: The synergies. Web.

Gideon, J., Leite, M., & Alvarez Minte, G. (2015). What is hindering progress? The marginalization of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Brazil and Chile. Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy, 31(3), 255-270.

Keeney, A. J., Smart, A. M., Richards, R., Harrison, S., Carrillo, M., & Valentine, D. (2014). Human rights and social work codes of ethics: An international analysis. Journal of Social Welfare and Human Rights, 2(2), 1-16.

Pogge, T., & Sengupta, M. (2016). Assessing the sustainable development goals from a human rights perspective. Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy, 32(2), 83-97.

Ted-Ed. (2015). What are the universal human rights? – Benedetta Berti [Video file]. Web.

United Nations. (2018). Beacon of hope – Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Video file]. Web.

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Yates, H. T., & Rai, A. (2019). A scoping review of feminism in US social work education: Strategies and implications for the contemporary classroom. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 16(2), 117-129.

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