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Rights-based approach

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • Too often, emergency response is limited to addressing practical, short-term emergency needs, through service delivery. Without minimizing the value of these services or their importance, they do not always fit within a framework that protects and promotes the rights of beneficiaries, like a rights-based approach would do. A rights-based approach is particularly important when working on VAWG, which cannot be addressed without working on basic gender equality rights and its root causes.
  • As demonstrated in the table below, a rights-based approach invests beneficiaries as ‘rights-holders’, creates an avenue for their voices to be heard, and enables them to play an active role in rebuilding and development—as opposed to providing support or services on an assumed needs basis and having no say in what action is taken. 



Works toward outcome goals

Works toward outcome and process goals

Emphasizes meeting needs

Emphasizes realizing rights

Recognizes needs as valid claims

Recognizes that rights always imply obligations of the State

Meets needs without empowerment

Recognizes that rights can only be realized with em­powerment

Accepts charity as the driving motivation for meet­ing needs

States that charity is insufficient motivation for meet­ing needs

Focuses on manifestations of problems and im­mediate causes of problems

Focuses on manifestations of problems and immedi­ate causes of problems

Involves narrow sectoral projects

Involves intersectoral, holistic projects and programmes

Focuses on social context with little emphasis on policy

Focuses on social, economic, cultural, civil and politi­cal context, and is policy-oriented

Source: UNFPA, 2012, Managing Gender-based Violence Programmes in Emergencies. E-Learning Companion Guide, page 90, available in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic.

  • A rights-based approach:
    • Integrates international human rights and humanitarian law norms, standards and principles into plans, policies, services and processes of humanitarian intervention and development related to violence against women.
    • Is multi-sectoral and comprehensive.
    • Involves many actors and stakeholders (state and non-state).
    • Must be addressed within the context of the prevailing political, legal, social and cultural norms and values in a country or community.
  • A rights-based approach also seeks to empower women and girls.  ‘Empowerment’ implies that women are powerful in the face of adversity and approaches must build on that. Empowerment programming involves building the tools and resources necessary on an individual and community level to strengthen women and girls’ ability to make life choices that affect their social and physical well-being. These choices include decisions regarding their sexual health, livelihoods, continuing education and the use and control of social and economic resources. This requires programmes to work with men and entire communities to create an environment where women and girls are supported to make these decisions safely. It also means building the capacity of communities to identify and change the structural environment that enables violence against women and girls to continue. It requires long-term engagement from the outset of an emergency through until peace and development have truly come to women and girls. Examples of empowerment programming include: ensuring access to information in the earliest days of the emergency, supporting women’s choice in using the family planning method they want to use, working with men in Village Savings Loan Associations to allow women to have more voice in the home and reduce violence, and creating a larger environment where women can move around safely (Source:  IRC FAQs, 2011).
  • Applying a rights-based approach to VAWG responses in conflict/post-conflict settings can strengthen the accountability of all humanitarian actors including the UN and governments by promoting participation and inclusion; in turn, this can reinforce a culturally sensitive and non-discriminatory response to emergencies. By understanding the social factors that influence decision-making during conflicts, and actively recognizing and analyzing changing roles and vulnerabilities of women and men, a rights-based approach can mitigate the short-term and long-term negative effects of a crisis situation (UNFPA and Harvard School of Public Health, 2010).  
  • Mechanisms for assisting ‘rights holders’ to claim rights include:
    • Sensitization/awareness of rights holders and duty bearers
    • Advocacy to duty bearers
    • Participation and empowerment of rights holders
    • Ensuring national legislation and legislative oversight mechanisms
    • Reporting obligations to UN monitoring mechanisms (narrative reports/data)
    • Civil society “shadow reporting” (for example, on CEDAW) (excerpted from UNFPA, Curriculum Guide GBV Coordination Course, p 81)


 UNFPA and Harvard School of Public Health. 2005. A Human Rights based Approach to Programming:  Practical Information and Training Materials. This Manual provides step-by-step guidance on how to apply a culturally sensitive, gender-responsive, human rights-based approach to programming in each of UNFPA’s three core areas of work: population and development, reproductive health, and gender. It also covers how to apply such an approach in the context of a humanitarian emergency. The pdf includes a facilitator manual.


Additional Resources

For more information on integrating a rights-based approach to addressing and preventing VAWG, see: