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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Governance (2000 - 2009)

Gender Justice, Development and Rights: Substantiating Rights in a Disabling Environment

Date: 3 Jun 2000

  • Time:
  • Location: Henry Labouisse Hall, UNICEF House, 3 United Nations Plaza, New York
  • Donor(s): Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida)
  • Project Title: Gender Justice, Development and Rights


The United Nations General Assembly Special Session for the Beijing + 5 review, Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century, took place in a markedly different ideological environment from that of the 1995 World Conference on Women. In the wake of the recent financial crises, the neo-liberal consensus was in considerable disarray.

At the same time, human rights are seen as an inseparable part of the quest for stable democratic rule, and a significant number of the world's governments have made a commitment to observe them. These political changes, as well as new legal instruments, have provided opportunities for civil society organizations to press for the implementation of formally acquired rights. They have also led to a shift in the priorities and practices of many NGOs. One example of this shift has been the widespread adoption of rights-based strategies.

Despite the dynamism of the human rights movement, a wide gulf remains between the articulation of global principles and their application in many national settings. Much the same can be said of democratization. The gap between global principles and on-the-ground outcomes is particularly striking in the case of women's rights.

In order to explore both the consequences of these ideological shifts for women's political mobilization, and the diverse factors affecting the promotion of democracy and human rights that embraces gender justice, the UNRISD workshop examined three related dimensions of "rights-based" development:

· The relationship between needs and rights
· Has democracy empowered women?
· Women's rights and multiculturalism

Reconciling Needs and Rights

In a significant number of countries the formulation of formal rights has not been matched by an improvement in the quality of life of the majority. Financial crises stalked the 1990s and the growing gap between rich and poor countries and peoples cast a shadow over the visions of the decade. At the same time there has been a global shift in the consensus over the role of the state in welfare provision. This has entailed the down-sizing of public services and the re-allocation of service delivery to commercial interests, charitable groups, NGOs and families.

A paper on Chile argued that this devolution of responsibility to civil society for managing welfare and development projects was double-edged. On the one hand, it was associated with a renewed emphasis on participatory approaches which have the potential to give voice to the marginalized and the poor in processes of development planning and decision-making. Many women active in NGOs and grassroots organizations have applied these approaches to positive ends. On the other hand, there is a danger of even further reliance on women to perform low-paid or unpaid care work as NGO workers and members of families and communities. Other concerns were raised about the degree and forms of accountability that civil society organizations might have in regard to the communities that they serve.

More generally, as old models of welfare provision are being dismantled and the coverage of new ones is patchy and inadequate, workshop participants from different regions expressed concern that in all too many cases political rights have been granted at the expense of social rights. The extent to which even political rights can be exercised in the absence of adequate social provisions was a question that several speakers and participants raised. Were rights being pursued at the expense of needs? And of crucial importance, how could rights be made more operational? This in turn poses the question of who has responsibility to fulfil those rights — the state, the NGOs or the private sector?

A paper on female educational deprivation in India addressed this question of state responsibility and that of how to make formal rights operational. It argued that even if the state recognizes a right in principle, it has a responsibility to adopt appropriate policies to ensure the universal realization of that right. Where the state has a clear mandate from its citizens in regard to human rights it needs to recognize those responsibilities. Civil society organizations often play a useful role in monitoring progress and pressing for the fulfilment of that mandate, but they cannot substitute for the state.

One of the panellists considered the charge that "rights" are being pursued at the expense of "needs". In the global conferences of the 1990s some conservative forces presented themselves as defending the "needs" of Third World women, while systematically opposing women's self-determination and women's rights agenda. Women apparently have needs, but no need for rights. This is an astonishing exemption of women from international human rights norms that are otherwise deemed universal. To see needs as necessary but not rights is to assume that they are unrelated. Yet, this is a false separation: without rights to legal representation how can women obtain justice in land claims, divorce settlements or other cases of dispute? And without literacy how can they know what rights they have? If women are to enjoy the right to have the number of children they wish they must also be able to depend upon health services to meet their needs.

An appreciation of the indivisibility of rights helps to reconcile the apparent opposition between needs and rights. Rights can be usefully seen as the codification of needs, reformulating them as ethical and legal norms and thus implying a duty on the part of those in power to provide all the means necessary to make sure those needs are met. In other words, the language of rights enables individuals or social groups to make official claims in defence of their needs.

The cold war separation of economic/social rights from political/civil rights has been surpassed by the conviction that rights are in fact indivisible. Yet in discussions of women's rights these old dichotomies have re-surfaced with new vigour. The arguments in favour of the indivisibility of rights are even stronger when applied to women. Women's ability to act as full participants in their societies depends as much on economic and social resources as upon their legal rights. Rights and needs are intimately linked, as are economic/social rights and civil/political rights.

Women in Contemporary Democratization

Rights of any kind depend upon prior political conditions and we might say that 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 responsible to their citizens is one of the greatest obstacles to rights-based agendas, and those rights and powers are normally associated with democracy.

The 1990s saw considerable advances for women in terms of political representation, albeit from a shamefully low base. From representing a global average of 6 percent in parliaments in the 1980s, the figures more than doubled over the next decade. In many countries women's organizations and female members of political parties have vigorously lobbied to increase women's representation, notably through quotas. This pursuit of numerical representation ("getting women in") does, of course, beg many further questions. Are "representatives" accountable to their constituents? Who are their constituents? Are representatives effective in promoting gender-equitable change?

The paper on Iran raised some issues in regard to the role of women's movements in periods of regime change. In contemporary societies women have become active in many domains of public life, including politics, whether at the grassroots or within institutional politics. Movements that are promoting greater democracy in political life must take account of women's needs and concerns in order to grow in strength and vitality. Democracy is not just a question of how well the institutional arenas perform, but of the quality of democratic life more broadly. This depends crucially on the character of civil society itself, and the extent to which it embraces democratic principles and notions of gender justice.

The paper on South Africa showed that women have achieved increased representation through activism within the ANC, the responsiveness of party leadership, and the support of an active women's movement. It argued that while some women representatives may have neither the ability nor the inclination to address gender inequalities, their cumulative weight does impact on deliberations in national assemblies. Once women are elected, they are called upon by women's groups, NGOs and other civil society organizations to channel women's demands into the policy process. Quotas, sometimes seen as a mere form of tokenism, have in practice served to genuinely enhance more effective representation of women's interests in the policy process. In some countries where women have registered electoral gains, the initial concern with women's numerical representation has matured into concerns about the quality of women's representation, and about representatives' accountability to women's interests. Increased representation, quotas and cross-party collaboration by women representatives in national parliaments in many regions of the world have secured important legislative gains for women, such as that concerning violence against women. However, little, if any, progress has been made with regard to making macro-economic policies more responsive to women's needs and interests. Indeed there is an increased risk that as macro-economic decision-making becomes more concentrated in Ministries of Finance and Central Banks, parliaments could lose their capacity to influence macro-economic policies.

In general participants felt that women's accession to political power in recent decades had resulted from a particularly favourable opportunity context, and the gains made may be more fragile than they appear. These gains can be reversed by a change in government or political leadership. The problems that limit women's ability to serve in parliaments (inadequate facilities especially crèches, lack of training, long working hours and the masculine culture) persist.

Multiculturalism and Universalism

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. While the language of rights and citizenship has a broad appeal, and is politically acceptable and effective in some countries, others may respond to it with suspicion. The claim is sometimes made that universal rights and norms are a form of Western hegemony and are inappropriate for other cultural contexts. This raises particular problems for women. Women have often served as signifiers of cultural difference and as guardians of traditional cultural practices. Where this infringes on their rights and contradicts their self-identity, tensions have arisen between those who define such cultural practices as necessary and those who are expected to comply.

The presentation on Mexico noted that the constitutional definition of the Mexican state as multicultural represented an important recognition of the rights of indigenous people to their cultural identity. This, however, raised a number of questions about the interpretation of indigenous cultural and customary law. The example was given of a particular case where a husband murdered his 12-year old wife for "disobedience" and then justified the crime on the grounds that it was sanctioned by customary law. Indigenous women's groups contested the claim while other indigenous movements have sought to redefine their rights more in accordance with international and national norms which treat women as equals.

There are many difficult issues concerning what traditions are essential to preserve the integrity and sovereignty of nations and cultures. Is there some way of reconciling such traditions with a quest for gender equality? The paper on Uganda noted that women's movements had challenged cultural practices that were harmful to women, such as female genital mutilation. They had more success when, rather than openly confronting community authorities, they were able to enter into dialogue with them based on an understanding of the prevailing cultural norms and values. The evidence showed that culture was more adaptive than was sometimes claimed and that cultural identity did not have to depend upon practices that harmed women.

Conference participants expressed the view that the West has no monopoly on ideas of rights and justice Whether arising from indigenous traditions or through a long historical process of transnational dissemination, ideas of rights have a wide moral appeal and they have served as the basis for collective and individual claims for justice across the world. If there is to be a meaningful international consensus on rights, and especially on rights for women this can only be achieved as part of a process of dialogue in which women's voices are heard.