Womens Human Rights as Terms of Reference for Womens Struggles for Social and Gender Justice

 By  Christa Wichterich


 May, 2004;


This conference takes place at the eve of the 10th anniversary of the BPfA and the 10th  anniversary of the WTO  - at a point of time where we experience a clash of two global governance systems: the human rights paradigm and the neoliberal agenda of cooperate driven globalisation, commercialization and privatisation. The key question of the conference is: how can we advance the globalisation of womens rights, in order to achieve social and gender justice.


WIDE had conceptionalised the conference in a way that we had hoped to get many ideas, tactical hints and strategic reflections from yesterdays presentations. I must admit that after listening to the presentations and comments, in the end I felt at a higher level of confusion and in a painful political void. Should womens movements at all stick to the human rights paradigm as terms of reference or as strategic tool in its struggle for social and economic justice? After hearing quite some UN bashing,  should womens networks reconsider whether the UN are still worth investing so much political energy and hopes? What tactics and strategies do we have to counter the rollback, the neoliberal attac on womens livelihood and the constant threat to womens rights?


But before reflecting some of the contradictions and dilemmas of yesterdays presentations I would like to start with a positive note:


1) The relationship between the so called international womens movement and the human rights framework in the nineties started as a kind of functional marriage, then it became a love affair and definitely a success story. The womens rights discourse with its redefinition of human rights was functional for the globalisation of the womens movements, on the other hand the international womens movements were instrumental to the globalisation of womens human rights at a normative level. The gains made were firstly in terms of visibility and recognition of women as moral and juridical subjects who claim entitlements to economic and social justice, secondly in terms of recognition for the womens rights movement as vital political actor, who undertakes legitimate interventions into global governance regimes. The womens human rights discourse opened new spaces to negotiate the relation between women and the state, between women, culture and identity, - under the precondition that democratic entrypoints and corridors were open to women.


2) Reviewing the past decade the womens human rights movement appears to be trapped in a scenario of contradictory developments. While in many countries progress in terms of legal and constitutional gender equality and formal rights has been achieved, the real and practical impact on womens lives and livelihood was limited and not very substantive. A huge gulf exists between the articulation of global normative principles and moral values in international conventions or UN action plans and their application in local, national and regional conditions. UN covenants remain often enough toothless tigers because they lack the power to apply sanctions and compulsory measures. Womens rights movements gained on a normative and symbolic level but womens rights still are not tangible.


On the ground, the enforcement of womens social and economic rights is blocked and threatened from two sides: We heard from different regions how the ongoing liberalisation of the economies, the economic and social policy reforms, the downsizing of public services and the privatisation of social provisions end up in a deregulation of markets and rights, in a dumping of wages, social security and human dignity. Additionally, various conservative and fundamentalist forces, and sometimes a restoration of patriarchy infringe upon the womens rights discourse with reference to cultural identity and traditional values.


On top of this, we face the political cynicism and moral obscenity that military intervention, war and occupation from Bosnia to Iraq are legitimised in the name of the protection of human rights, in the case of Afghanistan even in the name of the liberalisation of women. This upsite down logic of the self-appointed champions of freedom and human rights actually delegitimises and dismantles human rights.


3) Based on the gains made and the many stumble blocks, constraints and the resistance womens rights movements faced, we have to learn our lessons, in terms of revisiting the validity of the womens human rights concept and revisiting our strategies. No doubt, that the language of rights is a powerful tool of expressing justice claims, claims in defence of womens needs, and a useful tool in contesting those in positions of economic and political power. But we know by now that the womens human rights paradigm, the formal gender equality claims and the related strategies of lobbying and gender mainstreaming are not sufficient to bring about the political and economic changes needed to achieve social and gender justice.


We advanced in the UN-arena in terms of policy of recognition at a point of time when the UN lost their credibility - as Devaki Jain analysed - and degenerated to a kind of development nurse and a facilitator of neoliberal restructuring of economies and policies. When they felt this, some womens organisations shifted their focus of attention to other global players and other policies, e.g. WIDE from development policies to trade policies, and accordingly, to the WTO and to the EU. But what did we achieve in other multilateral arenas? And did we progress in terms of agenda setting within other social movements? Did we progress in terms of alliance building and broadening our base?


After years of investing a lot of our political energy in attempts to intervene into governance regimes, the strategic key question remains: how to make womens social and economic rights operational? 


This is the leading question for the workshops this morning. Discussing this we cant ignore the ambivalences and limitations of the womens human rights approach and the concepts and strategies adopted by womens movements we heard about yesterday.


A tension within the human rights paradigm exists between individual claims and the much needed social transformations. The womens human rights discourse reconfigured the development thinking from a feminist perspective. It forged a shift from a need based approach to a rights based approach. However, Devaki Jain rightly pointed out that the orientation on legalised human rights implied an individualisation within the gender and development paradigm, and a distraction from structures which must be changed.


The individualism and formalisation of human rights are in perfect compliance with the liberal concept of rights and freedom in the market economy. Rights in the neoliberal market secure the freedom of the homo oeconomicus, in particular the property owner to function in his or her own interest and to compete with other players in the market. The individual rights approach matches well with the devolution of responsibilities which goes along with the downsizing of public services. In the market system and in neoliberal policies, human rights get hollowed out and stripped naked from the promise of social and economic justice. Instead of being instrumental in the redistribution of wealth, resources and social security they generate social exclusion and an increasing inequality in all societies.


Accordingly, at present development policies focus on a residual concept of poverty reduction not on a redistribution of wealth and power and the MDGs are the McDonaldisation of this paradigm. If we talk seriously about poverty eradication and womens livelihood we cant be silent about the concentration of wealth and power. If our objective is social and gender justice we have to challenge the neoliberal logic of economic growth, efficiency and competition, as well as the power structures of unequal distribution and polarisation. When WIDE phrased the title of this conference we changed from confronting poverty to confronting unequal development because we wanted to highlight that our task is to address the systemic root causes and the neoliberal logic of injustice and inequalities.


With regard to the phrasing of the title of the conference I would like to add another explanation: we talk about the globalisation of womens human rights instead of universalism of moral standards. Universal approaches erase differences. Yesterday, we learnt how important it is to respect different and multiple identities, and at the same time agree on a set of principles and objectives. We still believe in global womens human rights which represent values that traverse particular cultures and have a meaning in our transnational struggles.


This brings us to another dilemma: Devaki phrased a strong plea for unity while Gina Vargas said that in the new social justice or alter-globalisation movements a diversity of movements people, movements and struggles converge, and we have to accept that each of the ongoing struggles and movements is as relevant as the other. We have to make additional efforts to balance unity and diversity, and use both as empowering concepts. And we have to make additional efforts to take the intersections of gender, class, ethnic identity, age etc into account.


My conclusions from yesterdays discussions are:


Firstly, we need a more critical and a more political notion of human rights and womens rights which aims at social transformation. Based on a critical analysis of power relations, we have to develop a more radical concept of entitlements which merge individual rights claims with the need for structural change.


Secondly, we have to go beyond the human rights concept and search more reference points for claiming social and gender justice. Claudia named livelihood and global public goods as reference points. I would like to add the whole concept of commons and public goods.


Thirdly, we have to contest the ideology that basic needs and human rights can be met best through market mechanism, we have to contest the myth that there is no alternative to the Washington consensus and our speakers on various concepts such as local or regional autonomy, the diversity approach and the social justice movements yesterday identified already some alternatives. We have to define and practice more proactively alternatives.


After transnational womens networks generated so much political expertise as well as strategic creativity in the nineties, I simply resist to be pessimistic at the eve of those two 10th anniversaries. The four capacity building seminars were already a real empowering experience. Building on this, I would like to encourage you to discuss strategies, approaches and initiatives in the four forthcoming workshops.


How can womens organisations demand and negotiate economic and social rights and entitlements? How can we make multilateral institutions, states, corporations or civil society responsible for respecting, protecting and substantiating womens rights? Whom can we hold accountable for the enforcement of womens social and economic rights? How can we navigate within gobal governance regimes, and within broader social movements, and how can we intervene? How can we exceed more pressure towards the needed structural changes?


In the plenary in the afternoon, we expect reports from the four workshops on the following questions.

a)       What are the key issues we should address or what are the crucial positions we should take in the context of WTO, UN, EU, and social justice movements?

b)       What are the core competencies of womens organisations relating to WTO, UN, EU, and social justice movements?

c)       Which strategies or methods of advancing social and gender justice do you identify for the near future vis-à-vis the WTO, UN, EU, and social justice movements?

d)       Please, formulate some strong strategic recommendations for WIDE for 2005 how we could celebrate the 10th anniversary of the BPFA and the WTO.