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Occasional Paper Gender Policy 9: Neolibs, Neocons and Gender Justice: Lessons from Global Negotiations

18 Nov 2005

  • Author(s): Gita Sen


The United Nations conferences of the 1990s - on environment, human rights, population, social development, women, habitat, children, HIV/AIDS, small island states, food security, racism - and their five- and 10-year reviews have provided a unique opportunity for negotiating a progressive social agenda in a systematic and ongoing way.

But even as such an agenda was being spelled out, the global economic policy terrain was almost entirely subordinated to neoliberal economic thinking dominated by the Washington Consensus. The author reflects on this environment - the context in which the struggle for gender justice has taken place in the global arena. Sen goes on to comment on the implications for gender justice of the shift to a unipolar world order and, in particular, the movement from the neoliberal era to the neoconservative one.

As an illustration, the author traces the struggles for sexual and reproductive rights in the neoliberal economic environment, and describes how the terrain altered in the neoconservative-dominated era after 2000.

According to the author, some of the countries that were most vocal in their support for sexual and reproductive rights were also the most hard-nosed in South-North economic negotiations. Despite this, she contends, considerable advances were possible on reproductive and sexual health and rights during the 1990s because of the limited control over state power by religious fundamentalists. But Sen argues that this scenario has undergone a major change in the neoconservative period, with much stronger control over key levers of state power by religious fundamentalists on the one hand, and the rise of neoconservative political economy on the other.

Even as feminists have worked to insert concerns for gender justice in a globalized and fundamentalist world, the author writes, their opponents have made common cause across traditional religious and other divides. In some ways, this points to the rising power of women’s movements and feminist agency. Without a doubt, feminist voice has altered the global discourse in the last two decades. And for this, the space provided by the United Nations, despite limitations and weaknesses, has been invaluable, and must be protected and strengthened. As we move forward to protect the gains made and to promote progressive change, the lessons of the 1990s and of this decade need to be interrogated, assimilated and consolidated.

Gita Sen is Sir Ratan Tata Chair Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India.

Order from UNRISD; 16 pages, 2005, $12 for readers in industrialized countries, $6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.