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human rights, women's rights, Workfare


In every society, the work that women do is undervalued and unrecognized. Political and social tensions behind conceptions of work, motherhood, and equality can ignite movements that threaten the human rights of women. One such movement is underway in the United States where recent “Workfare” provisions specifically target and punish the most vulnerable members of society under the guise of reform and morality. This critique of Workfare aims to demonstrate some of the dynamism and power of a human rights framework, and to lay the groundwork for effective action to improve the plight of the single mothers who rely on Workfare.

In this Article, I argue that The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 violates the human rights of poor single mothers through its attempt to define and restrict their roles as mothers and workers. To identify and understand these violations, I construct and apply a methodological framework for addressing human rights violations against women, incorporating both domestic and international human rights instruments. In order to contextualize Workfare and the human rights criticisms of its provisions, this Article explores the concepts of work, motherhood, family and citizenship embedded in Workfare and the surrounding rhetoric their human rights implications. For most women on welfare, a human rights framework is meaningless until it can be practically applied to the reality of their lives. This Article provides current examples and illustrates the utility of using human rights standards in domestic work.

This article concludes by making four proposals for the improvement of Workfare: the broadening of the education exception, elimination of punitive and arbitrary practices, the support of motherhood and the affirmation of the worth and dignity of all people. These recommendations provide outlines of change in the direction of reform. The article concludes that a true reform of Workfare in accordance with human rights principles must be implemented in a more far-reaching and extensive manner.

Publication Citation

33 Columbia Journal of Law & Social Problems 393 (2000).


Human Rights Law | Law and Gender