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How Feminist Activism Can Make States More Accountable for Women’s Rights

31 Mar 2015

How Feminist Activism Can Make States More Accountable for Women’s Rights
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Despite the gains made on women’s rights since the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, we still have a long way to go in terms of enjoying a gender-equal world. We also need to be vigilant against sliding back on progress already made. This article recognizes the crucial role women’s organizing plays in holding states to account on obligations made under international agreements. Drawing on examples from Brazil and Egypt from the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme, the article demonstrates the contribution of women’s organizing to: mobilizing around injustice, harnessing the power of ratified agreements to bring about change in legislation, working on the design of progressive laws, and then ensuring the laws are effectively implemented. In order to be truly successful, however, women’s organizing needs to be matched by responsive, effective government. It is only when citizen voice works in unison with the state that commitments made on women’s rights can be comprehensively achieved.

Andrea Cornwall is the director of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme and is Head of the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme at the Institute of Development Studies.

How feminist activism can make states more accountable for women’s rights

2015 marks a key juncture for women’s rights. Twenty years on from the Beijing Platform for Action, women’s and feminist movements internationally have achieved major gains. These include putting the issue of violence against women on the public policy agenda, raising awareness of the economic significance of women’s paid work and unpaid care, and highlighting gross disparities in the representation of women in leadership positions. Yet for all these gains, women still face exclusion and marginalization from political power, rising economic inequality, gender-based discrimination in the workplace, and are disproportionately affected by violence. Of around 196 states in the world, only 22, or 11%, have women heads of government.

Women’s and feminist movements have been key to advancing women’s rights. This think piece draws on examples from research conducted by the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme. Pathways is interested in understanding how positive change in women’s lives happens. What we have found has confirmed the power of organizing, across a range of issues and contexts. Here we share two examples where feminist activism has brought about greater state responsiveness to women’s rights, and reflect on what we might learn from this.

Passing a law: One step on a long road

Brazil’s Lei Maria da Penha, one of the most comprehensive pieces of domestic and family violence legislation in the world, was passed in August 2006. Its passing marked the culmination of three decades of women’s and feminist activism on domestic violence, reframing the issue from one of private to public concern.

The struggle for a law that would tackle the impunity enjoyed by violent and abusive men in their domestic and familial relationships gathered momentum around the case of Maria da Penha Fernandes. Maria had been left paraplegic after being shot by her violent husband in 1984, and despite a long court battle, 14 years later she was still left unsuccessful in her search for justice. In 1998, Maria and representatives of the Centre for Justice and International Law and CLADEM-Brazil (Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights) placed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The petition addressed Brazil’s obligations under the Belém do Pará Convention, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, which had been ratified by Brazil in November 1995. The Convention includes a definition of violence against women and holds the state responsible for protecting women from violence. In 2001, the Commission found the Brazilian state responsible for negligence. It recommended that a law be drafted to address violence against women in Brazil to include measures such as simplifying judicial procedures, training legal personnel and increasing the number of police stations for women, specializing in the policing of domestic violence. This landmark case was the first time the Convention had been applied and that a country had been found to be responsible for domestic violence under its provisions.

A number of feminist and women’s rights organizations worked together to draft the Maria da Penha domestic violence legislation. They reviewed examples from other countries, studies of violence against women in Brazil and undertook national consultations. The law’s design creates a formal connection with the Convention on the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW) and the Belém do Pará Convention and considers violence against women as a human rights violation. With its clear specification of the different forms of domestic and family violence, its focus on prevention, on-going research and monitoring, and the obligations it places on the government to be fully involved in implementation, the law is widely considered one of the most comprehensive pieces of domestic violence legislation in the world.

Even with the passage of the Maria da Penha Law, women’s movements recognized that the struggle was not over. As the law’s implementation falls to state and municipal agencies, there is a danger that it could be obstructed by residual patriarchal attitudes or lack of resources or political will. Recognizing the need for robust monitoring of how the law was applied, the national Secretariat of Politics for Women put out a call for civil society organizations to conduct a monitoring exercise. Cecilia Sardenberg, Pathways Latin America Hub Convenor, and a network of feminist activists working on violence against women came together to initiate the Maria da Penha Law Observatory (OBSERVE). OBSERVE aims to raise awareness of the law, collect information about its impact and identify obstacles to and successes in its implementation.

Findings from OBSERVE have been used to inform procedures within police stations and to formulate policies for cross-agency coordination. Studies from OBSERVE suggest a series of transferable lessons for making domestic violence legislation effective, including training at all levels, cross-agency collaboration, raising public awareness, promoting monitoring and evaluation by civil society, and crucially providing adequate budgets at all levels of government for effective implementation (Sardenberg et al. 2010).

The example of Brazil’s Maria da Penha Law demonstrates what strong, well-resourced and persistent women’s and feminist movements can do to hold their states to account on ratified agreements. But to be effective in bringing about change, more is needed than vocal citizen voice. This needs to be matched by responsive, effective government. In the case of domestic and familial violence, this calls for an active and well-resourced Ministry of Women. As an example of this, in contrast to Brazil, the implementation of the domestic violence law in Ghana has been hampered by a lack of resources and capacity within the women’s ministry, lack of coordination amongst state agencies and a lack of support for monitoring (Manuh and Dwamena-Aboagye, 2013).

Partnerships with feminist and women’s human rights organizations have done much to strengthen the capacity and reach of the state in Brazil. Sardenberg and Costa (2010) describe these relationships as "participatory state feminism".

Opening doors, sustaining change

As the example of Brazil's domestic violence law shows, a strong relationship between the women’s ministry and the women’s and feminist movement is vital. However, for all the efforts in the post-Beijing era to enhance women’s political representation, it has become evident that there is no automatic connection between a ‘critical mass’ of women in legislative bodies and the kind of ‘critical acts’ that secure legislative change in favour of women’s rights. As Claire Annesley (2010) points out, while feminists have placed great emphasis on electing more female representatives, it is access to power in the right places that drives changes in women’s rights. We need to focus attention on feminist actors with political power resources, those Annesley calls “gate openers”.

The Egyptian conditional cash transfer programme was helped to fruition through one such “gate opener”. An Egyptian woman politician visited Chile’s Solidario CCT programme and came back inspired. Hania Sholkamy, convenor of Pathways Middle East Hub, was invited to prepare a proposal to present to the ruling party conference in 2006. The proposal was framed as an anti-poverty intervention that could offer the party substantial popular support. Aided by Pathways and DFID Brazil, Sholkamy drew on expertise from Latin America and Europe to design a feminist CCT scheme with women’s entitlements as citizens at its core. The policy sought to achieve transfers that would enable women to secure decent work, with dignity and awareness of their right to have rights as women and as workers (Sholkamy 2011).

Using participatory research carried out as part of a pilot, researchers arrived at a list of women’s wishes: for cash to make up shortfalls in household income; for schools that children could go to, stay at and do well in; for information about services and opportunities; for shelter and decent work. A key insight was the crucial role of frontline workers as agents of transformation. One of the most striking effects reported from the programme was a decrease in domestic violence. About a third of women who had previously suffered domestic violence reported that it had ceased. Why? The cash had taken the stress out of domestic relations, women no longer had to ask men for money, and there was less pressure all round.

Crucial to the success of this initiative were alliances, constituency-building, resource mobilization and framing. The convergence of the political opportunity of the politician’s enchantment with the Chilean CCT with the capacity to make the most of the opening that it offered, drawing on transnational feminist networks to do so, provided the basis for the design of what has arguably been amongst the most progressive CCT programmes internationally. Sadly, this social policy experiment was terminated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood administration in 2012, with the rationale that it was illegal to target resources at women. It is now up and running again, funded and adopted by the State, with some 20,000 women registered in Upper Egypt.

Making a difference

Delivering on commitments to women’s rights means working to enhance both citizen voice and state responsiveness. Women’s and feminist movements have vital contributions to make, both as advocates and organizers within civil society and as actors within the state (Nazneen and Sultan 2014). Pathways research also highlights the little-recognized but hugely important role that is played in international and national governance spaces by ‘femocrats’ (feminist bureaucrats) in securing not just stated commitments to women’s rights, but the budgetary and institutional means to make change happen (Eyben and Turquet 2014). These “gate openers” within the state play a crucial role, in alliance with the women’s movement, to frame issues in ways that governments will see as advantageous.

Designing innovative and comprehensive programmes and policies, and ensuring those involved in their enactment are engaged from the bottom to the top: it is vital that a well-resourced Ministry of Women fulfil this role while working together with the women’s movement in order to make progress on women’s rights. Yet the story is the same in many parts of the world: crippling under-funding and lack of capacity circumscribe what those on both sides of the equation are able to do. There are some well-rehearsed and simple lessons here. More of the substantial funding that is available for work on women’s empowerment should be channelled, through women’s funds, to women’s organizations. And states should be encouraged to adopt practices such as gender budgeting to ensure sufficient state funding is available to deliver on commitments to gender equality and women’s rights - rather than waiting, as in the case cited above of Ghana’s domestic violence legislation, for foreign government donors or banks to pick up the bill for implementation.

Money is, though, only part of the picture. Recognizing the role of the visionary bureaucrat who draws the mantle of the state around her as she pursues her work as an agent of change or the frontline worker who embodies the interface with a state that can and does deliver, is a vital part of this. Knowledge of what might make a difference and the ability to put this know-how to use is just as important. Learning about new ways of doing can bring about new ways of seeing, extending the horizons of the imagination and the boundaries of the possible. Rather than blue prints, we need stories of change that inspire and inform not because they offer a recipe, but because they show how something was done – and with it, what others might take up, experiment with and make their own.

Annesley, Claire. 2010. “Gender, Politics and Policy Change: The Case of Welfare Reform under New Labour”, Government and Opposition, 45.1: 50-72.

Eyben, Rosalind. 2012. “The Hegemony Cracked: The Power Guide to Getting Care onto the Development Agenda”, IDS Working Paper 411, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Eyben, Rosalind and Turquet, Laura, eds. 2013. Feminists in Development Organizations: Change from the Margins. Rugby: Practical Action.

Manuh, Takyiwaa and Dwamena-Aboagye, Angela. 2013. “Implementing Domestic Violence Legislation in Ghana: The Role of Institutions.” In Feminist Activism, Women’s Rights and Legal Reform, edited by Mulki Al-Sharmani, 203-234. London: Zed Books.

Nazneen, Sohela and Sultan, Maheen, eds. 2014. Voicing Demands: Feminist Activism in Transitional Contexts. London: Zed Books.

Sardenberg, Cecilia et al. 2010. Domestic Violence and Women’s Access to Justice in Brazil, Salvador, Bahia: NEIM.

Sholkamy, Hania. 2011. “How can Social Protection Provide Social Justice for Women?”, Pathways Policy Paper. Brighton: Pathways of Women’s Empowerment.

Pathways is the collective initiative of a global network of activist-researchers, with hubs in the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia, West Africa and the UK. Funded by DFID from 2006-2011 and by Sida from 2011-2014, Pathways has conducted extensive multi-disciplinary research on women’s economic and political empowerment, on the role of feminist activists and bureaucrats as change-makers, and on changing narratives of sexuality.

    Andrea Cornwall is the director of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme and is Head of the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. She is a social anthropologist who specializes in the study of gender and development, sexuality and the anthropology of democracy. Recent publications include Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure (co-edited with Susie Jolly and Kate Hawkins, Zed Books, 2013) and Feminisms, Empowerment and Development: Changing Women’s Lives (co-edited with Jenny Edwards, Zed Books, 2014).

    Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme at the Institute of Development Studies. She studied Cultures and Communities at the University of Sussex and her dissertation was on the politics of stepmothering as portrayed in children’s literature. Her interests are in the issues of gender stereotyping, particularly in popular culture, and women’s political representation. With Andrea Cornwall, she co-edited Feminisms, Empowerment and Development: Changing Women’s Lives, Zed Books, 2014.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.