Conference News: Gender Justice, Development and Rights: Substantiating Rights in a Disabling Environment
1 Jun 2000
This one-day public workshop, held by UNRISD to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session for the Beijing+5 review, examined three dimensions of "rights-based" development: the relationship between needs and rights; whether democracy has empowered women; and women's rights and multiculturalism.
In many countries, the formulation of formal rights has not been matched by an improvement in the quality of life of the majority. Moreover, workshop participants expressed concern that political rights have been granted at the expense of social rights. Yet rights of any kind depend on prior political conditions, and 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. In many countries, women's organizations and female members of political parties have lobbied to increase women's representation, notably through quotas. This pursuit of numerical representation begs many questions. Are "representatives" accountable to their constituents? Are they effective in promoting gender-equitable change? In general, participants felt that women's accession to political power in recent decades had resulted from a particularly favourable context, and the gains made may be more fragile than they appear.
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 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. Conference participants expressed the view that the West has no monopoly on ideas of rights and justice. Whether they arise from indigenous traditions or through a historical process of transnational dissemination, such ideas have 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.