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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 10: Gender Justice, Development and Rights

13 Mar 2003

This paper examines the ways in which liberal rights, and ideas of democracy and justice, have been absorbed into the agendas of women’s movements and states in different regions. Twelve theoretical and empirical studies were carried out under the project. They look at three interrelated aspects of liberal rights agendas: (i) social sector restructuring and social rights in the era of neoliberal economic policy making; (ii) democratization and the politics of gender; and (iii) universalism and multiculturalism in practice.

The collapse of authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world in the 1990s gave democracy and human rights in general and women’s rights in particular a major impulse. The international women’s movement grew in size and influence. Transitions from authoritarian rule in many regions gave women’s movements an opportunity to press for political and legal reform at the national level.

In much of the world, however, advances in political and legal rights are not matched by significant progress in achieving greater social justice. Crime and violence accompany inequality and widespread poverty.
States are abdicating numerous responsibilities in the domains of economic and social policy, just at a time when they are most needed to play a co-ordinating function between public and private provision. Welfare delivery under the new schemes has been, at best, patchy.

The mixed record of the 1990s lies at the heart of the international policy agenda—an agenda founded on two central elements: the consolidation of a market-led development model, and a greater emphasis on democracy and rights. The extent to which the two can be reconciled, or conflict, is much debated.

The paper reflects on this ambivalent record and on the significance accorded to issues of rights and democracy in international policy. It invites debate on the nature of liberalism itself in an era that has seen its global ascendancy. The paper applies a “gender lens” to the analysis of political and policy processes, in order to illustrate the ways in which liberal rights, and ideas of democracy and justice, are absorbed into the political agendas of women’s movements and states. It also contributes a cross-cultural dimension to the analysis of modern forms of rule by examining the ways in which liberalism both exists in, and is resisted in, diverse cultural settings.

Maxine Molyneux is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London. Shahra Razavi is Research Co-ordinator at UNRISD.

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