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close this bookWomen's Rights and Development (Oxfam, 1995, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWomen in the new world order: Voices of workers from the Third World
View the documentA development agency as a patriarchal cooking pot the evaporation of policies for women's advancement
View the documentGender and development in European development cooperation
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentPanel session: The future agenda of the women's movement in relation to national and international structures
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentStrategies for achieving a women's rights policy agenda: over new of working groups
View the documentClosing remarks
View the documentParticipants
View the documentSeminar programme

Strategies for achieving a women's rights policy agenda: over new of working groups

All four working groups looked at the same topic, but produced a variety of responses. Reflecting the breadth of the topic, discussion was very wide-ranging in all groups. All groups spent some time recapitulating and developing further issues raised in the morning. In particular, consensus was not reached on whether the concept of rights is in fact the most useful foundation on which to build strategies for women. Many questions remained open, including that of the different ways rights are perceived in different cultural contexts and between South and North. There were also differences of opinion on how (or whether) it is possible to develop strategies for women in the current context of economic liberalization.


There was continued discussion about the discourse of rights in the context of economic liberalization. This proved to be a thorny question. While some participants argued that the focus on human rights as a legitimizing discourse for many of the activities of development practitioners has shifted attention away from issues of poverty and development, another view was that, in Latin America for instance, the discourse of development is fully embedded in the discourse of rights, and this perspective underpins the activities of most development activities on the part of NGOs and women's organizations. According to this view, the dichotomy between development needs and rights is a false one. It was agreed, however, that this conceptualization of development needs in terms of rights might not occur in all regions of the world. Land, for instance, is seen in terms of rights in South Africa but in terms of labour or kinship in other parts of Africa.

A third view was that even in the abstract, the notion of rights is itself empowering, providing people with dignity, a sense of themselves as universal subjects, and goals. One group noted that the idea of rights could be useful in allowing national organizations to feel justified, on grounds of universality, in putting forward their demands. However, the women's movement has not always, or everywhere, used the idea of rights as a justification for its demands. Women's movements in India and the United States, for instance, have used rights as a basis for demands more effectively than women in Britain.

Possible contradictions between women's individual rights and collective gender rights were explored, as were contradictions which arose when respecting some rights could infringe others. Women's rights can be seen as conflicting with the rights of other groups, even separate groups of women. Perhaps it is clearer to start with obligations, since rights do not exist in any real sense unless they are matched by obligations, which make them operational. For example, the existence of the right to freedom from hunger, in the abstract, is irrelevant if there is no food available.

On the other hand, an agenda based on women's human rights was seen by some participants as having value as a unifying agenda for all women in an economic and cultural context - including the growing trend towards fundamentalisms of various kinds - that tends to divide women. The evolution of the gender and development agenda from one of basic needs to one of rights is positive. All groups stressed the importance of the enforcement of rights and the need for mechanisms of enforcement and implementation.


Two groups considered the concept of globalization and what it means in terms of understanding and putting into practice universal notions of rights. One discussed whether globalization is a unifying or a fragmenting process, or whether it promotes both tendencies. Are people in different countries living increasingly different or increasingly similar lives? Are the commonalties greater than the differences, and what do these factors imply for the building of international alliances around a gender agenda?

The other group focused on whether gender fair development should take place inside our outside the dominant model. Is there any possibility today of operating outside the dominant model? To what extent, for instance, do small enterprises within the dominant trend of privatisation embody strategies for creating an economic model that benefits women? Are there different economic alternatives to suit different national or regional experiences?


Analysing power, and getting rights implemented by those who have the power to implement them, requires a very dear picture of where the locus of power is situated and where institutions or agencies are located in national or international power structures. Globalisation has moved the centre of economic and political power away from nation states and into the hands of international capital or finance, which states cannot control, undermining the autonomy of both states and individuals. However, powerful organizations like the World Bank pretend to be powerless. This is part of the myth that the free market is apolitical and that its institutions therefore do not have to be accountable to people.

At the same time, many gender policy targets have been about getting more women into national bureaucracies; but, once they are there, they find that national bureaucracies are no longer the centres of power. Where has the power gone and how is it exercised? How should policy be reorientated to get women into positions of real power? Or is the main question one of reconstructing the system of power itself?

Despite the new language, power still rests overwhelmingly with men. The gender and development agenda is in danger of being coopted by male-dominated 'powers that be' such as multilateral agencies, and becoming a safe, technical issue. Can the discourse of rights repoliticise gender and development and return it to the feminist agenda?

North and South

There was discussion of the changing South/North dynamic, which is in part impelled by globalization processes. While these processes frequently set South and North in clear competition - for example, in the transnationalised labour market, where the relocation of industrial jobs to the South is contributing to the feminization of poverty in the North - there is also growing potential for the development of international movements to defend livelihoods everywhere. There is a growing awareness of 'the North in the South and the South in the North' and a sense that the only way to hold out against the uncontrolled global movement of capital is through some form of internationalism, perhaps built around international labour standards.

Many gains made by the women's movement, for instance at Vienna, have been devalued or undermined by the South/North divide. On the other hand, participants did not agree that the discourse of rights has been imposed by the North on the South. The success with which a group of Asian NGOs had argued their support for universal human rights at Vienna was cited as an example of Southern commitment to the concept of human rights. However, the application of human rights conditionality to aid by Northern aid donors has made it seem as though the North owns the concept of human rights. This cooption of the discourse of rights should alert us to the need to question conditionality in the aid 'partnership'.

Within the women's/GAD movement, the South/North divide must be bridged; not to bridge it plays into the hands of male power. The importance of alliance-building, solidarity, and networking cannot be too highly stressed. One participant gave as an example of practical North South solidarity the idea that Northern and Southern women could lobby in collaboration for the release of unspent European Union development cooperation funds.

The role of NGOs

In a discussion of NGOs' work in seeking to influence and shape UK development cooperation policy, it was noted that NGOs trying to influence the policy process are curiously coy about markets, which inhibits their political effectiveness. The myth that the market is an apolitical force must be exploded. NGOs should be able to provide links in a process of globalization which is also very localizing.

The value of alliances between NGOs and development academics and researchers was reconfirmed. Research findings can help to provide the evidence needed to call institutions to account. But NGOs also need to be made representative and accountable.


There was a general sense that before formulating strategies (especially at the international level) we need first to define a shared women's vision, and common policies on development and women's rights. However, that vision should leave room for a healthy variety of strategies appropriate to different circumstances. Indeed, the need is for multiple and combined strategies and a readiness not to confine ourselves to working for one goal at a time.

Some strategies which have been tried before can be reapplied to different situation, and new ones can be developed. There was recognition that a strategy applicable in one context (for example, affirmative action) may not work in another. However, it should be possible to define broad principles within which the strategic approach can be varied according to context. Our commonalties and differences can be used creatively to build a coalition on broad issues such as political participation.

Participants also recognised the need for a holistic approach and for a certain systematization of strategies, sharing successes and failures and learning from our own and each others' experience. The following strategies were suggested by the working groups:

Making people aware of rights and bringing rights onto the agenda. To give one example of how this is being done, where governments have ratified agreements, such as CEDAW, women's organizations are helping women to invoke CEDAW in taking certain issues of discrimination to court. Information and public education are also crucial.

Organisation of women in all contexts, as workers, right down to household level. People are not given rights by states; rights are only won by struggle in organised groups. Therefore any strategy has to begin with mobilising women in organizations. Formal sector workers who are women are in a better position to be organised; but how do we reach the mass of women who are not activists, such as domestic, unpaid, informal-sector workers?

Broadening the base of the women's and gender movements, bringing in new sectors of women.

Gaining entry for more women into political systems, while being aware of the constraints. To get more women into formal politics, a great deal of previous work must be done to empower women to stand for office (for example, by increasing the time they have available for political work). We need to create conditions for a political, economic, cultural base for women. This idea was not accepted as useful by everyone. The problem of cooption was acknowledged. Some participants thought quotas for women were meaningless, especially in government institutions whose legitimacy is currently being severely eroded. The suggestion of creating women's political parties and caucuses as an alternative was floated.

Decentralisation of political power, encouraging and organising women to use their voting rights to gain power and resources at a local level. This was seen by many as a key strategy, and one which might avoid some of the pitfalls of increasing women's participation in centralised government structures. However, political participation, even at the level of exercising voting rights, means very different things and can have a very different force in different countries. Whereas 75 per cent of women voted in the most recent elections in India, only 30 per cent of women did so in the United States, indicating the different value women in the two countries set on the effectiveness of their vote. One participant warned that it is dangerous to assume that there is a homogeneous 'women's vote'; unity can only be built through information and public education.

Affirmative action. Opinions were divided on the effectiveness of affirmative action as a strategy; but it can play a catalytic role.

Identifying where the power is in any structure and challenging it. This can involve confrontation, even direct action. Ultimately, empowerment means self-empowerment. But there is the risk of backlash and even repression.

Building gender parity into any new institution. Patriarchy is self-perpetuating, so care must be taken not to allow replication of old structures or models. Institutions need to be studied systematically in order to propose a model of the gender-fair institution.

Exposing and confronting poor practice by development institutions, especially failure to meet policy commitments, lip-service, cooption and avoidance strategies. This also applies to ourselves as NGOs and academic institutions. We should be transparent and open about the ethical values we believe in as individuals and as a movement. We should discuss our hidden assumptions and so help ourselves to realise our potential.

Holding a rights audit, which measures a government's actual practice against what an international convention theoretically enjoins upon it. This has been done in the UK to gauge the government's compliance with the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A rights audit on CEDAW would provide an invaluable lobbying tool.

Lobbying for enforcement of our demands and maintenance of gains already won. There needs to be constant, upward pressure by women's and gender-sensitive groups on male-dominated institutions.

Monitoring and evaluation of the development process and development institutions. This activity, while valuable, does not on its own necessarily lead to change. The system can absorb criticism and make cosmetic or meaningless changes. Monitoring and evaluation should be considered more as a process than an outcome. If interpreted simply in terms of meeting numerical targets, it is easily subverted, putting an emphasis on quantity rather than quality. New, qualitative evaluation tools and models are needed.

Partnership, between women and men, donors and recipients. Since these relationships are unequal, and there are varying degrees of readiness to part with power, constructing such partnerships is problematic. Many women's projects in the South are hijacked by men who have had more training in GAD than women themselves- Tactical partnerships with men in order to get access to power structures for women are risky: women in many revolutionary or liberation movements have fought beside men on the basis of promises of equality, only to lose that equality under the new order. Northern NGOs should be honest and self critical about the inequalities inherent in development partnerships.

Alliances, solidarity and networking: to give mutual support, share experiences and strategies; to advance institutional learning, to bridge the North/South divide. One group felt more creative, innovative methods were necessary to bridge some of our differences.

After Beijing: the momentum must not be lost. One group particularly highlighted the danger that the donor community might lose interest in women after Beijing, so that there will be no resources to implement what international agreements have proposed.