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Journal of Social Policy, review on "Gender Justice, Development and Rights", edited by Maxine Molyneux and Shahra Razavi

18 Oct 2004


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  • Title: Gender Justice, Development and Rights
  • Author(S): Marjorie Mayo
  • Date: 29 Oct 2003
  • Publication: Journal of Social Policy

Over the last two decades debates on democratic and participatory governance and human rights have been revitalised. Yet human rights, in general, and women’s rights, in particular, have been constrained, in practice, as the ascendance of neo-liberal agendas has been accompanied by regressive economic and social consequences. This timely volume on Gender Justice, Development and Rights explores these paradoxes, both in theory and in the contexts of country-specific case studies.

The essays have grown from a two-year research project at the United Nations Research Institute of Social Development (UNRISD). Some of the commissioned papers were presented to the UNRISD Workshop in New York to coincide with the Beijing Plus Five Review in 2000, bringing together feminist research from a range of related academic disciplines to contribute to international policy development. How might the application of a ‘gender lens’ contribute to a critical understanding of the ways in which liberal democratic rights have been taken on board with the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern and Central Europe and authoritarian governments in Latin America and other parts of the world? How far have women – and men – gained in terms of political rights and how far have these gains been offset as a result of the impact of neo-liberal economic policies? How have these processes varied cross-culturally? And how have the politics of gender related to the politics of multiculturalism?

Molyneux and Razavi’s Introduction sets the scene, posing the central questions. Does the ‘much-heralded global turn to democracy and human rights’ represent a ‘new form of Western hegemony, the sweetener for the bitter pill of neo-liberal adjustment and rising inequality? (Molyneux and Razavi, 2002: 3–4). The Introduction provides a cogent guide to the theoretical chapters that explore differing ways of approaching this question and the empirical chapters that explore the implications in terms of social sector restructuring and social rights, democratization and the politics of gender and multiculturalisms in practice.

The chapter by Nussbaum distinguishes between two differing strands within liberal political thought, the ‘negative’ approach epitomised in neo-liberal critiques of state interventions as infringements of individual freedom of choice and the more ‘positive’ strand, building upon the work of John Stuart Mill, T. H. Green and T. H. Marshall, emphasising the potential contributions of the state. Drawing upon Amartya Sen’s work, Nussbaum develops the notion of capabilities, what people are actually able to do. For women to achieve gender justice they need the capabilities to benefit from economic and social development, including, for example, capabilities such as ‘those related to health and education the markets do not deliver well to people’ concluding that ‘other forms of state action are required’ (Nussbaum, 2002: 71).

Elson develops the arguments in relation to neo-liberal economic policies, exploring the contradictions in terms of human rights and gender equalities. Whilst recognising that market-led economic development has increased opportunities for paid employment for many women, she also points to the negative effects, including the loss of jobs for women as a result of the vicissitudes of the market. As Elson also points out, markets need to be complemented by other kinds of entitlement, if women’s welfare needs are to be met, concluding by arguing the case for universal state entitlement to key services such as health and education.

Phillips concludes the theoretical section by engaging with debates on multiculturalism and feminism, exploring the tensions and complexities as well as the potential for alliances between the two. Whilst addressing critiques of universalism, Phillips challenges ‘the paralysis that sometimes sets in when we are confronted with cultural claims’ and cultural relativism (Phillips, 2002: 129). The final section of this collection examines some of these tensions and complexities in practice, including case studies of women’s challenges to customs and cultural practices that reinforce traditional inequalities.

The key themes set out in the first section are developed in the following sections, drawing upon case studies to explore ‘Social Sector Restructuring and Social Rights’, ‘Democratization and the Politics of Gender’ and Multiculturalisms in Practice’.

The second section on ‘Social Sector Restructuring and Social Rights’ has particular relevance for Journal of Social Policy readers, although there are powerful resonances with social policy debates in other essays too, across these sections. In addition to exploring changing approaches to the role of the state and increasingly targeted – rather than more universalist – forms of welfare provision, these sections include critical reflections on the varying impact of policies to promote citizen participation. ‘Partnerships’ between the state and civil society too often rely on what Elson refers to as the unspoken and invisible safety net of women’s unpaid work and grass-roots organisations can be demobilised and incorporated, a danger which was identified in a number of chapters from different national contexts.

The chapters refer to each others’ arguments, reinforcing the coherence of the collection as an entity. The case for a holistic approach to women’s rights is powerfully argued, and empirically evidenced, together with the case for universal state provision to guarantee key social rights. Gender Justice, Development and Rights is an extremely relevant contribution to social policy debates internationally as well as more locally, in the British context.

by Marjorie Mayo, Goldsmith’s College, UK.

This review is posted with the permission of the "Journal of Social Policy", Cambridge University Press (CUP), Volume 32, Issue 04, October 2003. Copyright © CUP.