01/12/2012 12:02 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Hillary's Women's Rights Problem

Hillary Clinton is well known for her statement that "women's rights are human rights." So it would seem that the last place she would expect resistance to her foreign policy agenda would be from women's rights organizations. Heading into what she insists will be her last year as Secretary of State, Clinton has improved the lives of women around the world, made gender a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, and spread the message that developing countries should promote gender equality to unleash economic growth.

In working to "increase women's economic opportunities," however, Clinton runs the risk of undermining her women's rights agenda. Unfortunately, all too often "economic opportunity" translates to "working in a sweatshop" or in some cases, others forms of exploitation.

Although rights' advocates have welcomed the attention that Clinton has brought to gender equality, many have objected to her "focus on promoting women as vehicles of economic growth, rather than rights holders." A statement issued by a group of such dissenters at a recent Forum on Aid Effectiveness in South Korea -- which included the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), the Association for Women's Rights in Development, and the African Women's Development and Communication Network -- read:

We are not able to endorse... [Clinton's plan because it] does not sufficiently promote the enjoyment of fundamental human rights and substantive equality... Women's rights will not be fully enjoyed by women... simply by facilitating entrepreneurship of women.

The narrative of investing in women to empower them is hardly Clinton's making, and not all such "investments" are equally controversial. For instance, it is undeniable that providing more funding for the education of girls is, as described by Larry Summers while chief economist at the World Bank, "one of the highest return investments available in the developing world." Organizations from the UN Foundation in its GirlUp campaign to Nike Foundation with its launch of the "Girl Effect" movement have successfully galvanized this growing consensus, thus far with remarkable results.

The narrative of women as instruments of economic growth, a message of not only Clinton but also the World Bank and IMF, on the other hand, is more problematic. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, 85 percent of sweatshop workers are young women between the ages of 15 to 25, and women who move from rural to urban areas seeking work are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. In addition, as recounted at the South Korea Forum, "micro-credit, community loans and other schemes [often add] to the burden of women whose plates were full but were going hungry."

Clinton's objectors' deeper point is more philosophical than practical, namely, that gender equality is an important goal regardless of its impact on economic development. In the words of Kate Lappin from APWLD, "Commitments [to gender equality] should be driven by a real commitment to the enjoyment of women's rights and to strengthen their autonomies, not a desire to generate economic benefits." It's hard to imagine that Clinton would disagree.

Throughout her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton has made incredible strides to advance women's rights from the Middle East to Africa to China, and has made gender central to U.S. foreign policy.

While investments in girl children are an unqualified good, increasing women's integration into the labor force often leads to more exploitation than empowerment. To combat these pitfalls, Clinton should make decent work conditions and equal ownership over land and wages as central to her agenda as equal access to economic opportunities -- and should root these arguments in women's inherent equality to men. By stating in no uncertain terms that women deserve equal treatment because of their inalienable, integral and indivisible rights, Clinton will solidify her record as one of the most influential advocates for gender equality the world has ever seen.