1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development, Governance

Gender Justice, Development and Rights

  • Project from: 2000 to 2002


The end of the Cold War signalled a more confident assertion of economic and political liberalism, but also a greater emphasis on human rights. In the 1990s a wave of UN Summits sought to place issues of democracy, justice and rights on the development agenda. In the context of the worldwide process of democratic consolidation that characterized the decade, a transnationalized women's movement was able to focus its attention on issues of rights and democracy and sought to take advantage of a favourable policy environment to press for a greater measure of equality between the sexes.

Issues of democracy, rights and justice were both revitalized and radicalized in this process, as social movements used the language of rights to press governments for social reforms. If the 1990s were an extraordinary period for international policy making and standard setting, they also saw substantial legal and political changes at the national level. These were most evident in post-authoritarian states.

The papers commissioned under this project analyse the implications of these political and legal developments, looking at how, within contrasting national contexts, women's movements engaged the language of rights and the practice of democracy with varying degrees of success. While they show how democracy and legal reform have the potential for achieving greater gender equality, they also highlight the significant limits and difficulties of rights-based work.

The commissioned papers explore, from a gender perspective, how issues of rights and democracy have been taken up in a variety of regional contexts-Chile, Iran, Malaysia, Peru, Poland and South Africa, among others. The papers fall under three thematic areas.

The first thematic area is broadly concerned with the interface between basic needs, social rights and the delivery of welfare. It considers how the currently dominant economic agenda is being articulated with social policies and with the "care economy", and the extent to which this has enhanced or undermined women's capabilities and social rights in different national settings.

Rights of any kind depend on prior political conditions. Without political and civil rights there is no guarantee that other rights, even when they are inscribed in laws and constitutions, may be made effective. The absence of powers to make governments accountable and responsive to their citizens is one of the greatest obstacles to rights-based agendas, and those rights and powers are normally associated with democracy.

The second thematic area therefore focuses on the political arena and the constraints on women's representation in political parties and in national legislatures. It also assesses the role, capacity and strategies of national women's movements during periods of regime change, their success in cultivating a constituency and in forging alliances with other political forces.

A related, and perhaps the most politically sensitive, issue surrounding rights-based strategies is whether and how such strategies might find a universal application without denying cultural specificity. This topic is dealt with under the third thematic area of the project. Multiculturalism represents an important recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples to their cultural identity. It also raises a number of important questions about the interpretation of indigenous cultural and customary law. What traditions are essential to preserve the integrity and sovereignty of nations and cultures? And what happens when those "traditions" infringe on women's rights and contradict their self-identity?

The commissioned papers have been published in a book Gender Justice, Development, and Rights, edited by Maxine Molyneux and Shahra Razavi (OUP, 2002). For more information, click on "Publications" on the right.

This project is co-ordinated by Shahra Razavi. Funding for the project has been provided by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).