March 30, 2022


Digital Entrepreneurship: What does it mean in the Digital Age?

Kisito Futonge Nzembayie explores how in the digital age, the micro-level activities of digital entrepreneurs in new venture creation continue to digitally transform and disrupt economic systems at macro-levels.

Pervasive digitization has raised significant implications for entrepreneurship in the digital age. Virtually all sectors of the economy have been affected by digital technologies to varying degrees. Not surprisingly, therefore, digital technology-based firms are today the main drivers of economic value creation. Among the top five companies by market capitalization in 2021, four were digital technology-based companies – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet (Google). These companies have one thing in common – they are digital platform-based organizations.

However, if we journey back 15 years, the opposite is true. Traditional organizations such as ExxonMobil, General Electric, and Citigroup were among the top 5 companies, with Microsoft being the only digital technology-based company. What this shows is a seismic shift in the basis of economic value creation in about a decade. We are indeed in a Second Machine Age or Fourth Industrial Revolution, marked by the ‘digitization of just about everything’ as pointed out by MIT and Stanford scholars Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. In this new age, ‘software is eating the world,’ as Marc Andreessen figuratively puts it.

But does pervasive digitization imply that all new venture creation in the digital age is somehow digital entrepreneurship? Our answer to that is a resounding No! However, we are sympathetic to the fact that the blurring of lines between digital and traditional forms of entrepreneurship presents both conceptual and practical difficulties for those looking to engage with the subject. So what is digital entrepreneurship?

Digital entrepreneurship specifically refers to entrepreneurship in which digital artifacts and digital platforms (software-based products and systems) form the core of new venture ideas and market offerings. It manifests in two main typologies – pure and hybrid.

But what is the significance of making distinctions between typologies of entrepreneurship in the digital age? Without critical distinctions, we risk arriving at misleading generalizations in research and offering the wrong advice to aspiring digital entrepreneurs. In fact, upon realizing that traditional entrepreneurship models are not reflected in practice, digital entrepreneurs began to develop innovation models such as the Lean Startup, Agile Development and its variants such as Scrum, XP and Kanban, Customer Development and Design Thinking, which more accurately speak to practice in their world. The academic world found itself playing catch up. To understand why we must examine digital entrepreneurship in its own right, it is important to begin by identifying what unites all forms of entrepreneurship.

So, What is Common to all forms of Entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is a complex, multidimensional process whereby individuals initiate ideas and act to pursue them as opportunities, leading towards various outcomes. Action, called new venture creation, is central to this process. It leads to outcomes such as new market offerings – manifested in new products, new organizations, and new markets. Higher-level outcomes may also result in new societal norms and behaviors. New venture ideas are often externally enabled by changes in the environments in which entrepreneurs are embedded – changing technology, consumer behavior, regulation, environmental and ecological conditions, and others. Entrepreneurs need not be fully aware of external enabling changes in order to initiate new venture ideas or to take action. Additionally, ideas are often motivated by the need to solve problems for segments of society through the creation of a product or service combination. Problems are therefore the needs and wants of consumers or customers. Given this problem-solution motive, the purpose of all productive forms of entrepreneurship is to create value for society.

There are several moving parts in this conceptualization – hence the complexity. But focus your attention on two main concepts here: New Venture Ideas and External Enablers. These concepts in the entrepreneurship literature refer to the objective WHAT of most entrepreneurial processes. Anyway, let’s return to digital entrepreneurship.

So, How is Digital Entrepreneurship Different?

  • The New Venture Idea – Digital Artifacts & Digital Platforms as Core

The new venture idea is a major differentiator of various typologies of entrepreneurship. It is that on which entrepreneurs act. New venture ideas are metaphors for new market offerings. Digital entrepreneurship is uniquely differentiated by the fact that digital artifacts and digital platforms form the core of digital business ideas and market offerings. When something is core instead of peripheral to an entity, it means that entity cannot exist without it.

Digital artifacts is a collective term for software-based products and objects. By ‘software-based,’ we mean software itself, such as mobile and desktop applications, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning algorithms, and more. It also refers to by-products of software such as media content and other types of digital content such as eBooks, infographics, and the rest. Meanwhile, a digital platform is a software-based system designed to host complementary offerings. Digital platforms are matchmakers. They match producers and consumers.

When entrepreneurship is based on the creation of software-based products and services, the HOW of traditional entrepreneurship gets upended. In fact, many business schools continue to teach entrepreneurship with underlying assumptions of the creation of physical and tactile offerings – with their corresponding spatial and temporal limitations. Such spatial and temporal constraints are seen to impose rigidity and undue linearity on entrepreneurial processes. However, when software-based offerings form the core of entrepreneurship, those limitations either evaporate or are greatly minimized. For these reasons, we need to place digital entrepreneurship in its own category and examine it differently.

The reasons for this distinctiveness can be explained by examining the characteristics of software-based objects and their implications for new venture creation. As we shall see, these characteristics translate into agility and extreme flexibility in new venture creation, which are possible but less feasible when creating physical products and tactile services. It, therefore, questions our core logic of how to bring such products and services to market and what constitutes success. For instance, do you begin new venture creation with a deliberate business plan or experiment towards an emergent one?

Software-Based Offerings and Implications for DigitalEntrepreneurship

Software-based products are digitized goods and services. By this, we mean they exist merely as bits of data in the form of ones and zeroes. Digitized goods are highly modifiable and instantly distributable over cyberspace. Together, these characteristics allow products and services to remain incomplete by design and subject to infinite expansibility. It explains why your software-based products tend to have an endless number of updates – Windows 8, 9, 10, 11, and so on. Also, software-based content such as eBooks or videos can be continuously edited, updated, and distributed at will over the internet. Compare that to a physical book or print media, which, once printed, is hard to edit without enormous costs. Physical products lack such extreme modifiability. Plus, they also suffer from the tyranny of distance – i.e., they need to be stored and shipped, and that takes time and added costs. Compared to software-based offerings, the result is limited flexibility regarding how new venture creation can unfold and how business models can be innovated.

Moreover, digitized goods are also decomposable and re-combinable. This is a product of the extreme modularity and granularity of the technology and its standardized protocols. Extreme modularity and standardization allow software-based components to be broken down into the tiniest possible bits and then re-combined later to form a finished product. This decomposability and re-combinability allow multiple participating actors to co-create a product concurrently. Furthermore, since decomposed components can be instantly distributed over cyberspace, multiple participating actors can create a software-based product at a time that suits their availability. The result is extreme agility, flexibility, and dynamism in new venture creation, unlike traditional entrepreneurship, based on the creation of physical and tactile offerings. Such instant, location-independent, and geographically dispersed co-creation supported by digital infrastructures (more on this later) enable digital entrepreneurs to concurrently enact new venture creation at velocities not observed in traditional forms of entrepreneurship.

Wait! It gets better. Software-based goods are characterized by non-rivalry. Non-rival goods can be consumed by many people simultaneously without being depleted. When you watch a YouTube or Netflix video, for instance, multiple people watch at the same time, yet the video is not being used up. That’s non-rivalry for you! Moreover, non-rival goods can be reproduced at nearly zero marginal cost. By contrast, physical goods such as a car and even your cup of coffee can only be consumed by a limited number of people at any given time. Non-rival goods may even get better as they are consumed as virality enhances their value. The more people watching that ‘Despacito’ video by Lius Fonsi on YouTube, the more valuable it gets (over 7.7 billion views as of this moment!) – more on network effects later. Similarly, the value of a digital platform improves when consumed. Software-based products never expire or perish like your groceries or medication.

What the non-rivalry of digitized products offers entrepreneurs is extreme flexibility in business model innovation. We are all too familiar with many software-based products being given away for free as part of a business model that captures revenue from advertising and other models. Try giving away too many free copies of your physical products, and you will soon be out of business. Physical products are characterized by rivalry and expensive costs of reproduction, storage, and distribution. Thus, the economics of physical products, unlike software-based products are different, leading to differences in business models and limitations on business model innovation. Furthermore, since software-based products are usually knowledge-intensive, costs tend to tilt in the direction of acquiring or coordinating individuals with relevant software-based knowledge and skills – programmers, graphic designers, digital marketers, and more.

Additionally, software-based products are traceable and interactive. Traceability is the ability to find digitized goods over cyberspace. This is usually done by specialized software-based products such as search engine algorithms. Search engines such as Google and Bing interact with, trace, and locate digital artifacts across the internet. Interactivity allows functions of digital artifacts to be activated without changing their underlying code. These characteristics together, assist in unlocking their value through data-driven operations. Similarly, human users can interact with digitized goods without changing their source code. For instance, when playing a computer game, you interact by dragging and dropping objects and so on. Usually, every interaction leaves a digital trail that can be traced, tracked, and analyzed. Data logs may reveal the journey a digital object takes through cyberspace and how it has been used. Traceability and interactivity are, therefore, the reason digitized products promote data-driven operations, which can unlock more value than the sale of standalone software. This, in turn, translates into flexibility in business model innovation that creates and captures more value. Typically, physical products are hard to trace once distributed. As such, their value creation potential gets limited to a single service and single transaction. Unless we turn them into smart connected products such as IoT devices. So valuable are the characteristics of software-based products that hybrid typologies of digital entrepreneurship increasingly seek to merge software and hardware to create ‘smart’ connected products that unlock greater value. Think about how your smart grid and smart metering help optimize electricity consumption and reduce waste. 

The characteristics of digitized goods and their implications outlined above, challenge our assumptions of new venture creation and performance. Speaking of performance, other metrics relating to network effects become more important at early phases than traditional growth KPIs such as profitability, break-even, and the number of employees. Network effects refer to the idea that the value of a service is enhanced by the number of people consuming it. If you were the only one with a phone, that phone’s value will be greatly diminished. Indeed, network effects drive some 70 per cent of the value of software-based companies. Facebook, for instance, derives much of its value from the over 2.7 billion active monthly users accessing the service. Data-driven value allows advertisers to target potential customers with pinpoint accuracy. The value for advertisers is the reduction in marketing costs and a potential higher return on investment (ROI). Consequently, growth in user base leading to positive network effects is often more of a priority than profitability at early stages, with the software being used as bait to gain traction. Companies such as Amazon and Uber grew their user base unprofitably for several years before turning a profit. Moreover, with disruptive innovations, first-mover advantage and market dominance are critical to ensuring that future profits can be harvested. Indeed, the digital environment promotes winner-take-all market dynamics. Digital marketing skills become critical to driving venture growth through network effects. Therefore, the skills we emphasize in digital entrepreneurship education also need to be carefully considered.

Digital Infrastructures as External Enablers

Now let’s turn to that other important concept in all forms of entrepreneurship called External Enablers. They are the result of changes in the environment that have the capacity to elicit a response from discerning actors. So digital entrepreneurs create and distribute software-based products. But software-based products cannot be created without enabling digital tools and systems. Digital infrastructure is the collective term for several enabling technologies such as the internet, broadband, 5G networks, microprocessors and storage, cloud computing and computing devices, and open technical standards. They are the primary external enablers of digital entrepreneurship. However, they are also external enablers of all typologies of entrepreneurship in the digital age. Today, almost every business is enabled by computers and the internet, but that does not automatically suggest that they are digital ventures. Of particular interest today is the role of cloud computing as a primary infrastructural enabler of current and next-wave digital entrepreneurship. It is one technology change that has truly democratized access to critical computing resources which were previously beyond the reach of under-resourced digital entrepreneurs. There is more to talk about on this subjectbut let’s just leave that for now and move on to discuss hybrid typologies of entrepreneurship.    

Hybrid Typologies of Entrepreneurship in the Digital Age

Yes, those hybrid typologies do blur the lines between pure digital and pure traditional forms of entrepreneurship. Software is indeed eating up the physical world. We identify two main hybrid typologies of entrepreneurship in the digital age – hybrid digital and hybrid traditional. Hybrid digital entrepreneurship combines software-based products with physical artifacts and tactile services to jointly form the core of new venture ideas and market offerings. Your smartwatch, such as Fitbit, Garmin, and similar IoT (Internet of Things) devices, make good examples of new ventures that emerged under this typology. Likewise, we have services such as Deliveroo and Just Eat in the food industry. These ventures are digital platform-based innovations that tightly couple a software-based service with a physical operation of food delivery which jointly forms the core market offerings.

As for hybrid traditional entrepreneurship, there is a subtle distinction in terms of the significant but peripheral development of software-based products, which mainly enhance the core traditional offering. For example, the traditional bank has leveraged software-based products such as a banking app and platform to deliver operational efficiencies for itself and its customers in a significant way. Similarly, a conventional technology such as a car has today been enhanced significantly by software-based services such as Android Auto and Apple Car Play, as well as AI-powered driving assistants. In these examples, the software-based component is significant but remains peripheral – meaning, without it, the essence of the core product remains intact. At the end of the day, your Tesla Model Y or S is still fundamentally a car in spite of its significant software ‘bells and whistles’. But when cars become fully autonomous, will that be hybrid digital or hybrid traditional entrepreneurship? That’s a good one for debate, isn’t it?

Under hybrid traditional and pure traditional forms of entrepreneurship, the main research interests include digital transformation and digital disruption. Such transformation is the result of software-based products ‘eating the world’. Today’s digital new venture ideas are increasingly motivated by the need to develop and apply software-based solutions to existing traditional industries, thereby rendering them efficient. There are all sorts of implications for the economy and society, which opens up new avenues for research. Take Uber as an example – a software-based new venture sets out to render more efficient, the process of hailing a ride, and an entire market system gets upended as a consequence. Even our vocabulary is changing. We no longer ‘grab a cab’, we ‘grab an Uber’. Likewise, we ‘google’, not just search online. Digital entrepreneurship has far-reaching consequences for society, making it paradigm-shifting and therefore research-fertile.

Summary and Conclusion

Through this short blog piece, we hope that we have helped you to begin wrapping your head around the complexities of digital entrepreneurship and, more importantly, to understand how it differs from other typologies of entrepreneurship in the digital age. In sum, digital entrepreneurship is new venture creation based on software-based products and services. However, like all forms of entrepreneurship in the digital age, it is externally enabled by digital infrastructures such as the internet and computing capabilities. By unbundling the role of the different types of digital technologies in entrepreneurship, conceptual fuzziness gives way to further clarity. As such, our framework gives academics and practitioners alike, an accessible approach to the digital entrepreneurship phenomenon.

Digital Entrepreneurship: Disruption and New Venture Creation by Kisito Futonge Nzembayie and Anthony Paul Buckley is out now

Read chapter one free here

Read more on the authors’ site here

February 11, 2022


Do Sanctions Work?

Peter A.G. van Bergeijk gives an analysis on this question.
Continue reading…

February 3, 2022


Boris, Bristol, and the Rule of Law

By David McIlroy

The rule of law was much in the news in the UK in January 2022. The British prime minister was accused of attending, organising and approving parties in Number 10 Downing Street, his official residence, at a time when government restrictions prevented more than 2 people gathering. At the same time, a jury acquitted four people, who tore down the statue of the slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol as part of a Black Lives Matter protest, of causing criminal damage. 

The rule of law means that the same rules apply to everyone. By encouraging and participating in social gatherings, the British prime minister at the very least gave the impression that he did not think the rules applied to him. His behaviour stands in stark contrast to that of the Queen, sat alone at the funeral of her husband of more than 70 years, Prince Philip.

The rule of law also means that the rules have a certain quality, that the rules are made for the good of the people. The common law polices this requirement through its insistence that serious crimes may or must be tried by a jury. For more than 350 years, juries in England have had the right to refuse to convict an accused if they consider it would be seriously unjust to do so. This right was first established in Bushel’s Case in 1670. Edward Bushel was one of a jury which had found William Penn (the future founder of Pennsylvania) and William Mead not guilty of a breach of the Conventicle Act (which prohibited religious assemblies of more than 5 people). The judge hearing the case had imprisoned the jury for failing to return the correct verdict, but Bushel successfully petitioned the Court of Common Pleas for their release.

So, whilst the acquittal of the “Colston Four” was criticised by some commentators as suggesting that demonstrators can take the law into their own hands, it is justifiable as signifying that Edward Colston no longer deserves to be publicly venerated. Its symbolic removal signifying a rejection of Britain’s slave trading past is an affirmation that the common law failed for so long as the rule of law did not apply to black people. 

I’ve explored these different ways of thinking about the rule of law in my book, The End of Law: How Law’s Claims relate to Law’s Aims (2019). In it, I argue that rulers don’t have to govern according to the rule of law, and when they do, they often do so only for the benefit of certain groups and not others. The rule of law doesn’t guarantee justice by itself but it does exclude certain forms of injustice. It is precious and the price of its continuance is constant vigilance.

David McIlroy, Barrister, Forum Chambers and Distinguished Fellow and Visiting Professor, University of Notre Dame (USA) in England.

David’s book, The End of Law: How Law’s Claims Relate to Law’s Aims is available on our website, read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline

February 2, 2022


“Win in State Court, Lose in Federal Court.” The Lament of the Aviation Plaintiff Litigator.

By David Cluxton

“Win in state court, lose in federal court.” The lament of the aviation plaintiff litigator whilst crying—not always metaphorically speaking—into their beer at the end of another frustrating day battling before the federal bar. It is no secret that U.S. state courts are generally regarded as being pro-plaintiff, while the U.S. federal courts are seen as pro-defendant. This is a reality that makes itself felt in any number of ways and can, not only be of great significance to the litigation of a given case, but often also outcome determinative. This is especially true in the litigation of aviation passenger claims, that are, by the nature of air transport, more likely to involve a foreign element, and thereby expose the case to issues of competing jurisdiction and conflict of laws.

For instance, if we take a hypothetical crash occurring in Colombia of an Irish-registered aircraft, operated by a U.S. airline, and involving death or personal injury to a passenger of French nationality, these circumstances could offer the plaintiff a choice of several forums in which to pursue a claim. In such cases, it almost goes without saying that the plaintiff will elect to sue in a forum within the United States; it being the forum of choice for the litigation of aviation passenger claims. The United States has long been the center of gravity for such litigation. Many factors make trial in the United States desirable, such as the availability of contingency fees, wide-reaching rules of pre-trial discovery, highly experienced law firms specialized in aviation litigation. But, above all, it is usually the quantum of damages likely to be awarded by in a U.S. forum that is the decisive factor in choosing to sue in the United States.

Where some element of an aviation passenger case touches the United States, the plaintiff lawyer will seek to bring that case in a U.S. court. But where that case involves an international component that also provides for the possibility of suing in an alternative foreign forum, then the plaintiff lawyer seeking to sue in the United States must wrestle with the problem of a common law doctrine called forum non conveniens. Simply put, the doctrine of forum non conveniens (FNC for short), permits the chosen forum (i.e., the court to which the plaintiff has brought their claim) to decline jurisdiction over the case, at the behest of the defendant, where an alternative forum is deemed to be more appropriate or convenient in the circumstances. For example, in our hypothetical example above, the defendant may argue that Colombia is the more appropriate forum for resolving the claim, because, as the location of the accident, a Colombian forum would have better access to evidence, and/or that there is a greater public interest in the litigation in Colombia than in the United States, and/or that there is existing litigation of other actions occurring there pertaining to the same accident; the possible reasons are legion.

The specter of FNC dismissal of an international aviation passenger claim is one such area where the difference in treatment between U.S. state courts and U.S. federal courts is most conspicuous and influential. This is because there is a much greater likelihood of FNC dismissal from a U.S. federal court than from a U.S. state court. The more conservative leaning and pro-defendant tendencies of U.S. federal courts mean that they are more likely to side with the defendant who is seeking dismissal on grounds of FNC. For this reason, the plaintiff aviation litigator will attempt to avoid federal court entirely by pleading their case exclusively on state law. However, there are a number of pitfalls to be avoided if one wants to keep a case in state court, e.g., federal question matter.

When it comes to claims to which the Warsaw Convention 1929 or the Montreal Convention 1999 apply, keeping a case in state court has proven a Sisyphean task. These conventions (these are multilateral treaties) govern the liability of the carrier for international carriage by air of passengers, baggage, and cargo. They contain uniform rules pertaining to matters of such as liability, jurisdiction, defenses, time limitations, and so on. Thus, where a passenger is killed or injured in an aviation accident to which one of these conventions applies, an action for damages (e.g., a wrongful death action) must be brought against the carrier subject to its provisions.

Where the Warsaw Convention 1929 or Montreal Convention 1999 apply, if a plaintiff sues in state court, pleading a state-law cause of action for wrongful death, the immediate response of the defendant carrier will be to seek to have the action removed to federal court. When the plaintiff then seeks remand back to state court, the defendant carrier will argue that the applicable convention provides the cause of action, and, since it arises under the law of the United States, the federal courts have jurisdiction. What is more, the defendant will argue that the cause of action under the applicable convention is exclusive and completely preempts of any causes of action under state law. Thus, even where the plaintiff’s well-pleaded complaint reveals only a state-law cause of action, that cause of action is effectively converted into a federal cause of action. Unfortunately, many federal courts have proved indulgent of these arguments by defendant carriers and have endorsed the doctrine of the exclusivity of the cause of action of the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions.

Is this conversion of a state-law action into a federal one the result of juristic hocus pocus, or some arcane legal alchemy? Whatever its true nature, the practical result is that aviation passenger cases that are brought first in state courts are routinely removed to a federal forum. Once there, the likelihood is that the defendant will seek dismissal on grounds of FNC, arguing that a foreign forum is the more appropriate or convenient forum for resolution of the claim. Of course, the reality is that the defendant’s motivation is seldom, if ever, appropriateness or convenience; instead, it is the desire to avoid a U.S. forum in preference for a foreign forum where the ultimate quantum of damages likely to be awarded will be much less. In most cases, once the litigation of the claim in a U.S. forum has been averted, the parties will elect to settle out of court.

Is it fair to plaintiffs to deprive them of their choice of forum in this way? The answer to this question is largely dependent upon establishing whether or not the cause of action of the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions is indeed exclusive. Was it the intention of the drafters of those treaties that they should be a one-stop-shop for the passenger claims, excluding reference to national law causes of action; or, were the drafters satisfied with merely laying down the conditions upon which national law causes of action could be exercised? The titles of those Conventions both refer to the “unification of certain rules”, i.e., not all rules. This would suggest that the drafters intended the latter, not the former. In which case, the drafters would not have objected to a plaintiff basing their claim on state law and pursuing it to a conclusion in a state court. If, as I argue, the doctrine of exclusivity of cause of action is doctrinally unsound and is in fact the result of decades of mistaken interpretations, overlooked distinctions, and exaggerated conceptions, we must seek out the true motivation for its creation.

In the specific context of aviation passenger litigation, why should the U.S. courts seek to deprive the plaintiff of their choice of forum? As is demonstrated in my book, the reason lies in the United States’ refusal to ratify an amending protocol to the Warsaw Convention 1929, i.e., the Hague Protocol 1955, and the resulting difficulties that this produced and that, in turn, gave rise to the latent, compelling policy justifications for indulging the concept of exclusivity of cause of action. These policy justifications are, however, no longer salient. This is especially so in the context of the Montreal Convention 1999, that is, after all, a modernization and consolidation of the Warsaw Convention System, and, furthermore, encapsulates a new balance of interests favoring the plaintiff passenger (qua consumer) vis-à-vis the defendant carrier. In spite of this, the unsound doctrine of exclusivity of cause of action persists, continuing to prejudice the interests of plaintiff passengers in favor of the interests of air carriers, their insurers, and the wider air transport industry. Ensuring the equitable and speedy resolution of international aviation passenger claims is one of the purported purposes of the Montreal Convention 1999, and the desire to strike a new, fairer deal for the plaintiff passenger was voiced by the drafters as a key goal during its gestation. However, the U.S. federal courts continued endorsement of the doctrine of exclusivity of cause of action is undermining those goals. It is my hope that my book might provide ammunition to those who seek to overturn the current consensus and banish the doctrine, or at least prompt legislators to remedy the situation.

Aviation Law Cause of Action Exclusivity in the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions by David Cluxton is out next month. The book is available for pre-order on our website.

January 31, 2022


Women’s Rights: A Contemporary Look

By Rosa Celorio

Women and gender equality issues are today deeply embedded and present in global and national human rights concerns. They find expression in many legal instruments. They are reflected at the national level in many countries in Constitutions, legislation, and national policies. They are addressed in case judgments by Supreme, Constitutional, and lower courts. There is also an international law framework designed to govern the human rights of women with direct and comprehensive obligations for states, still led by the promise of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereinafter “CEDAW”). The efforts of this global system are greatly complemented by active regional human rights protection systems in the Americas, Europe, and Africa, and emerging regional approaches in Asia and the Middle East. There are also many bodies created at the global, regional, and national levels with the objective of advancing the protection of the rights of women.

Despite these advances however, women still experience daily violations of their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted in 1995 reaffirmed women’s equality as a basic human right and the paramount nature of their rights to live free from discrimination and gender-based violence. More than twenty-five years later, women still face formidable challenges to see their human rights fully respected, protected, and fulfilled. One hundred years have passed since the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote, but the struggle continues to see their full citizenship rights respected, and for women to fully and effectively participate in public and political life.

Women and girls still constitute the vast majority of gender-based violence victims, suffering widespread domestic violence, sexual violence, psychological, and economic harm. They also experience forms of intersectional discrimination, racism, inequality, and exclusion. Women still carry most of the unpaid work at home, caring for children, the elderly, and the sick. Women are also affected by poverty, and constitute a large component of workers in the informal economy, lacking many social and employment protections. Women are still largely absent from decision-making positions in the political, civil, social, and economic affairs of their countries. Women and girls moreover face significant restrictions to access the information necessary to make autonomous decisions concerning their sexual and reproductive lives, and daunting barriers to access health services they only need due to their biological differences. Women human rights defenders still lose their lives and suffer forms of harassment and violence for voicing concerns and defying social expectations. We live in societies in which equality for women and a full protection of their human rights is still a distant dream. A gender perspective is still lacking from most decision-making.

The study of the rights of women is made more intricate in the present by the fact that many new social developments greatly impact the way women exercise their human rights. These include the COVID-19 pandemic, the MeToo movement and its aftermath, environmental degradation and climate change, unregulated business practices, and the strength and influence of non-state actors. Women in different circumstances still face structural and intersectional discrimination, racially-motivated bias and violence, hate speech, xenophobia, and violence in the internet, technology, and social media spaces. Critical advances in the area of sexual and reproductive rights face severe backlash and are under threat.  Sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics have become major elements in the way we define women and how human rights concerns impact them. The study of women’s rights today involves contemplating the present-day contexts in which these rights are limited, but also exercised. 

This makes necessary to combine and reconcile the history of the human rights of women with its modern scenarios and manifestations, and to adapt the current legal framework to the contemporary challenges that women face to see their human rights fully protected.  As we begin the year 2022, the world is still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has tested women in their resilience, stamina, and survival skills. All of their human rights have been challenged in some way during this crisis. Women, however, have also been key in addressing the pandemic. Women constitute a large component of the health workers who have been risking their lives daily to fight the disease and care for those affected. Some of the most visible country leaders fighting the pandemic have been women, and with successful results. Women also compose a large group of the journalists, human rights defenders, and researchers who have brought information daily to the public of the magnitude and spread of COVID-19. In the author’s view, this is a moment with an important legacy in the way we perceive the development and effectiveness of human rights norms concerning women, and how they are applied when our humanity is tested.  It is a moment that allowed us to see women as multi-dimensional beings, in many roles beyond victimhood, as political leaders, doctors, nurses, teachers, scientists, and heads of household.

A watershed moment like the COVID-19 pandemic can end up transforming the way women work; lead; participate in education and public, political, and family life; and use technology in the future. International law can provide an important roadmap and structure for these transformations, and can evolve itself to respond to contemporary times and the challenges faced by women.

Foremost, a contemporary look of women’s rights issues requires viewing women not only as ongoing victims of gender-based violence and discrimination, but also as leaders, shapers, and influencers.  Women are key to resolve many of the most important human rights issues affecting the world, such as climate change, intersectional and racial discrimination, extreme poverty, food and water shortages, armed conflicts, ongoing violence, and barriers to access technological advances.  Many legal standards related to the rights of women have been developed considering women solely as passive subjects of rights and as victims. It is only recently that women are increasingly perceived as active participants, leaders, agents of social change, and shapers of culture.

A legal approach guided by the goals of autonomy, dignity, personal liberty, and effective participation is a precondition to see the full realization of women’s rights in the present and the future.  

Women and International Human Rights in Modern Times

By Rosa Celorio, Burnett Family Associate Dean and Professorial Lecturer for International and Comparative Legal Studies, George Washington University Law School, US

Out now, available on our website. Read Chapter 1: Discrimination against women: doctrine, practice, and the path forward, free on Elgaronline.

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