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



The 1990s, a landmark in the international human rights movement, saw positive changes in women's rights and in human rights more broadly. The collapse of authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world gave issues of rights and democracy a major impulse. The decade saw growth in the size and influence of an international women's movement, linked through regional and international networks and able to collaborate on issues of policy and agenda setting. At the same time, the transitions from authoritarian rule in many regions presented women's movements with an opportunity to press for political and legal reform at the national level.

In much of the world, however, these advances in political and legal rights were not matched by significant progress in achieving greater social justice. Rising income inequality and widespread poverty in many countries have been accompanied by record levels of crime and violence. States are abdicating numerous responsibilities in the domains of economic and social policy, just at the moment when they are most needed to play a co-ordinating function between public and private provision. Where not starkly inadequate, welfare delivery under the new schemes has been patchy.

The mixed record of the 1990s lies at the heart of the international policy agenda - an agenda founded on two central elements: the consolidation of a market-led development model, and a greater emphasis on democracy and rights. The extent to which these two elements can be reconciled, or conflict, has been the subject of much scholarly and political debate.

The collection of theoretical and empirical studies on which this paper is based reflects on this ambivalent record, and on the significance accorded in international policy since the end of the Cold War to issues of rights and democracy. The studies engage with some of the most pressing and contested of contemporary issues - neoliberal policies, democracy and multiculturalism - and in so doing invite debate on the nature of liberalism itself in an era that has seen its global ascendancy. These issues are addressed from two perspectives that cast contemporary liberalism in a distinctive light. First, the studies apply a "gender lens" to the analysis of political and policy processes, in order to illustrate the ways in which liberal rights, and ideas of democracy and justice, have been absorbed into the political agendas of women's movements and states. Second, they contribute a cross-cultural dimension to the analysis of modern forms of rule by examining the ways in which liberalism - the dominant value system in the modern world - both exists in, and is resisted in, diverse cultural settings.

Social sector restructuring and social rights
If states have a duty to create the material and institutional prerequisites that can best secure the enjoyment of human rights, then social provision must be recognized as a key arena of state action. Yet the nature and extent of public sector responsibility for social provision is highly variable even in the welfare states, let alone in developing and post-transition countries. While a fuller picture of welfare reform in diverse regions would require far more comprehensive comparative empirical research than is currently available, the case studies on Chile, India and Poland raise some serious concerns. In these countries, economic and social policy reforms are reconfiguring women's economic and social rights in distinct ways. In some contexts, policy reforms threaten to undermine the social gains that women have already made - although there is often resistance to such reform measures. Elsewhere, they deny even the prospect of the progressive realization of non-discriminatory allocation of decent jobs and public services, and broad-based social security systems.

While there are some positive aspects to the new welfare regimes, such as the involvement of civil society in welfare delivery, poverty relief often depends upon a predominantly female unpaid or poorly paid and unregulated workforce. Furthermore, there are questions as to the adequacy of the coverage and the quality of service delivered. Some fear that it may effectively split the "universal" welfare system into a patchwork of services that would continue to penalize the socially disadvantaged and do little to correct the inequalities that are endemic within the system.

Democratization and the politics of gender
The central instrument for the protection of rights has been, and must remain, the state. As women's movements turned their attention in the 1990s to rights issues, they were drawn into engagement with the state as rights activists and as participants in government. Yet as the case studies of Iran, Peru, Uganda and South Africa show, this incorporation was partial and sometimes resulted in the co-option of women's movements by authoritarian regimes. Under what circumstances, then, can women's access to political office and the promotion of policies for gender equity be institutionalized? Whether states advance or curtail women's rights cannot be explained in terms of any single variable, although democratic institutions and procedures generally allow greater voice and presence to social forces pressing for reform. Yet, while many countries now identify themselves as democracies, and have established institutions of representative government, the degree to which democracy has been consolidated and institutionalized is highly variable.

In the diverse contexts of the commissioned studies, women have in recent years become a visible political force both as individuals and as a social group, even under conditions that deny them full - or indeed, at times, any - political voice and representation. Where the latter occurs, however, there is a danger that women's movements may be co-opted by states and thereby lose their ability to represent their constituency and to advance programmes of radical reform.

Multiculturalisms in practice
Three case studies commissioned by the project - Malaysia, Mexico and Uganda - invite us to consider the pertinence for developing countries of debates that, to a considerable degree, have been conducted in the different conditions of liberal democracies. In the latter the issue has been how to accommodate ethnic minorities' claims for recognition within the terms of liberal principles of equal opportunity, tolerance and non-discrimination. Where these principles are enshrined in law, it is reasonable to expect policies that are consistent with them; and if this does not occur, then the processes of democratic demand-making can serve to create or correct them. However, in ethnically segmented societies ruled by authoritarian elites, such legal and political conditions do not normally prevail: here multicultural policies can serve to hinder equality claims rather than to advance them.

Feminism and multiculturalism may converge in their critique of "difference-blind liberalism", but the extent to which their advocates can accommodate their respective claims varies. It is to some degree contingent on their political force and interpretative powers. In recent years, both feminism and multiculturalism have brought their often-divergent interests to bear on international human rights law and other areas of policy. The points of convergence between these two positions suggest some basis for a productive dialogue. In practice, however, the potential for dialogue depends on political factors: the ample scope allowed in the interpretation and implementation of these various laws can indeed facilitate a productive dialogue in the formulation of policies, but it can also lead to seemingly irreconcilable conflict over core principles.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Jan 2003
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD