1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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The Last Word: Reply to Jacques Baudot

1 Sep 1999

In the last issue of UNRISD News (Number 20), Jacques Baudot contributed a reflective and inspiring piece on the challenges facing the global community as it seeks to implement the lofty goals of the Social Summit. The "spirit of the time", he rightly argued, renders impossible the fulfilment of many of the social objectives endorsed in Copenhagen by most members of the international community. The reduction of inequalities, in particular, has virtually disappeared from public debate during the last quarter of this century and a crude form of Social Darwinism pervades the modern ethos. The only notable exception to this general trend, according to Baudot, has been the emphasis on equality between women and men. "Gender equality has gathered significant political and sociological momentum, in part because it may be seen as compatible with the basic tenets of the neoliberal credo." This is a striking statement, and begs further reflection.

Gender equality has, undeniably, registered increasing legitimacy in global (and national) debates and arenas since the mid-1970s. But this has, in no small measure, been due to the pressure that individual activists, women's groups and specialized feminist NGOs have brought to bear on the powers-that-be—even under difficult circumstances in authoritarian and exclusionary regimes. At the recent global conferences, one could not help but notice the growth of an astute and regionally diverse cadre of advocates skilled in navigating the murky waters of global and regional policy and in moving through the circuitous corridors of influence. But is their success in keeping gender equality on the global agenda indicative of the compatibility of gender equality with the neoliberal credo?

Looking through some of the literature emerging from orthodox institutions like the World Bank, the reader will no doubt notice how some of the more digestible elements of the feminist discourse have been absorbed, reinterpreted and sometimes distorted to fit the neoliberal credo. In this line of reasoning, policy attention to women is often justified by framing gender justice in terms of the social and economic dividends it will produce (it is even argued that physical violence against women reduces the efficiency of their labour!). But this strained attempt to squeeze gender justice into the neoliberal straightjacket can hardly be seen as indicative of their compatibility.

In fact, in the case of developing countries, women's movements in general—and feminist movements in particular—have historically been associated with progressive agendas for social reform and redistribution. Many of the Southern feminist groups emerged from within left-wing political parties and radical student groups, and have retained a commitment to radical change in the "relations of production". A prominent tenet of their thinking and advocacy over the past two to three decades has been an emphasis on the inseparability of gender relations and class relations (and of the spheres of "production" and "reproduction"). It has repeatedly been argued that the struggle for gender equality is meaningless if it does not address other social inequalities (class, race) and align itself with broader social transformation.

In response to the neoliberal economic and social policies of the 1980s and 1990s, these advocates have underlined how restructuring of the social sectors in particular imposes a disproportionate burden on working women (especially those from the poorer social strata), who are forced to stretch their already long working days in order to compensate for the shortfall in public sector resource commitments. In other words, "the praise, in the contemporary ethos, of everything `private' and the contempt of everything `public'", which Baudot correctly sees as a central feature of the spirit of the time, has been at the forefront of feminist critique and advocacy in recent years. In their socially assigned roles as "carers" and "nurturers", women know—perhaps better than anyone else—what the new development agendas around welfare delivery and poverty alleviation really mean.

The fact that gender advocacy has gained strength at a time when policy arenas are dominated by a faith in money and markets, and by opposition to equality-based state interventions, is not because gender equality is somehow compatible with the basic tenets of the neoliberal orthodoxy. Many would consider the prominence of gender issues in the conservative decades of 1980s and 1990s to be a historical coincidence—an unfortunate one—that has generated a wide gap between the visibility of women's movements, on the one hand, and their ability to change the lives of considerable numbers of women in both North and South, on the other.

Shahra Razavi is Project Leader at UNRISD. She co-ordinates the Institute's work on Gender, Poverty and Well-being.