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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009), Governance (2000 - 2009) | Event: Gender Justice, Development and Rights: Substantiating Rights in a Disabling Environment


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

  • Date: 3 Jun 2000
  • Location: Henry Labouisse Hall, UNICEF House, 3 United Nations Plaza, New York
  • Speakers: Shahra Razavi, Maxine Molyneux, Rosalind Petchesky, Veronica Schild, V.K. Ramachandran, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Shireen Hassim, Aída Hernández Castillo, Aili Mari Tripp
  • Project Title: Gender Justice, Development and Rights

Summary of Issues


The United Nations General Assembly Special Session for the Beijing + 5 review, Women 2000: Gender Equality Development and Peace for the 21st Century, is taking 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 is 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 and discourses.

Yet at least one important question remains open: What institutional and political arrangements are conducive for ensuring the fulfilment of human rights? 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. And much the same can be said of democratization. The gap between global principles and on-the-ground outcomes is particularly glaring 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, UNRISD is focusing its contribution to Women 2000 on three related dimensions of "rights-based" development. These are: (1) "basic needs" and "social rights": the changing face of social service provisioning, (2) women in contemporary democratization, and (3) multiculturalism and universalism. Ten papers have been commissioned for this purpose. Two of the commissioned papers are theoretical, while the other eight will be based on specific national experiences. Some of the issues that will be explored are outlined below.

First, as was noted above, in a significant number of countries the formulation of formal rights has not been matched by substantive rights, or by an improvement in the quality of life of the majority. Recurrent financial crises have stalked the 1990s and the growing gap between rich and poor countries and peoples casts a shadow over the visions of the decade. Of particular significance in some cases is the abdication by national governments of their responsibility to provide social services such as health care and education. Often this coincides with a tendency by diverse actors without political accountability — such as charitable groups, commercial interests and NGOs, including women's NGOs — to fill the gap. In assuming this role in social service provisioning, are women's NGOs abetting privatization, as some critics allege? What mechanisms of public scrutiny and accountability are needed to ensure equality of access, quality of service and adherence to human rights norms in social service provisioning? Such mechanisms are essential if women in particular are to emerge as right-bearers vis-à-vis the heterogeneous actors (private, charitable, public, etc.) now providing social services. Does NGO "partnership" with the government and the private sector compromise NGOs' capacity to advocate on behalf of those whose voices are not heard?

Second, while many of the problems afflicting the new democracies (such as lack of intra-party democracy, the failure of the state to guarantee civil and political rights or make a significant dent in poverty) affect all citizens, they are experienced in gender-specific ways. Women's persistent exclusion from political office, in particular, raises a number of specific questions about how to reform democratic institutions, since these institutions are not automatically gender-equitable. In many countries women's organizations and female members of political parties have vigorously lobbied to increase women's representation, through quotas in particular. This pursuit of numerical representation ("getting women in") does, of course, beg many further questions. Are the "representatives" accountable to their constituents? Who are their constituents? Are the representatives effective in promoting gender-equitable change? While some women representatives may have neither the ability nor the inclination to address gender inequalities, their cumulative weight does seem to impact on deliberations in national assemblies. Moreover 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.

Third, although women's civil society organizations have shown their collective ability to win recognition of gender perspectives and human rights in international rhetoric and policy, they have come up against powerful conservative forces. Ironically, some of those who have opposed globalization have done so in the name of values and traditions that strongly oppress women. These conservative groups have been very vocal at the international level. In the global conferences of the 1990s they sought to present themselves as champions of the South, defending the "needs" of Third World women, while systematically opposing women's self-determination and the women's rights agenda. This presents a challenging scenario for women's groups. How can they bridge the divide that some countries and groups have tried to create between economic justice and gender justice? What kinds of strategies and alliances are needed?

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. 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. 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?

For more information on these issues, the Background Note can be viewed by selecting one of the pink options on the right.