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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


Helen O'Connell, One World Action

This seminar has an ambitious title; but at this time, when we are all very much involved in the Beijing process, it is perhaps a good opportunity to try to think beyond Beijing and consider what the future might bring. Women and development, as an issue and a discipline, has been on the international agenda since the early 1970s. Gender and development, gender analysis, and gender planning have gained international acceptance since the early 1980s. CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, was opened for ratification in 1979. It is time to assess what progress we have made, how women have gained or retained their rights.

Much has been achieved. Very many women can now exercise more fully their civil, political, socio-economic, and cultural rights. Many have improved access to education and training of reasonably good quality, and control over income, property and other resources. In most countries, women are taking decisions in local and national structures and in political, commercial, civil, and social organizations. In almost all countries, there are strong women's organisations and international networks linking them. There is a wealth of good research. We have improved government and multilateral policy statements, with at least some recognition that the conventional development approach, integrating women into the development model, is no longer valid, that gender relations are at the core of social, economic, political, and cultural life, and that those complex relations are inequitable in almost all aspects.

Yet, in all countries, progress towards genuine equality and equity is slight and precarious. There has been no significant redistribution of resources, nor any real sharing of power. Poverty among women, as among many men and children, is at appalling levels. There are ever-widening disparities in wealth, employment, and productive resources. Disregard of women's rights is commonplace. Moreover, the ground gained by women at UN conferences only a few years ago is now having to be defended. What was agreed at the UN Conference on Human Rights at Vienna in 1993 was questioned at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. What was agreed at the Population Conference in 1994 is now under serious threat in the process leading up to the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing.

The free-market model of economic development has reached new levels of universality and sophistication with the new liberalisation policies of the 1980s and 1990s, linked to the debt crisis. This economic model, despite all its obvious shortcomings and its inherent contradictions and inconsistencies, is still dominant worldwide. We have a new World Trade Organisation, but it shows the same old lack of representation and accountability. Integral to the market economy is a challenge to the very concept of social solidarity which is the foundation of our welfare systems in Europe and of such welfare systems as exist in other countries. We are told that we can no longer afford universal benefits.

There are other threats: religious fundamentalism of all persuasions poses a serious danger to women's rights, as do racism, nationalism, ethnic conflict, and regressive immigration policies. Conflict has become yet another issue high on our agenda: not only military conflict but also civil conflict and conflict over dwindling natural resources. This conflict has produced many millions of refugees. The changes in Eastern and Central Europe add another new item to our agenda; they have not only brought about dramatic differences within Europe but have also changed the whole balance of relations between what we used to call the North and the South.

However, there are a number of policy areas that offer some possibility for progress towards equality in gender relations. First of all, there is the whole policy area of human rights. CEDAW has been very poorly implemented and monitored. Some very good statements came out of the Human Rights Conference in Vienna in 1993, but, again, they have been very poorly implemented and monitored. The whole process of negotiations in the run-up to Beijing has revealed the weakness of many international institutions and has shown how little attention governments, even those who have ratified it, actually give to CEDAW.

Aid policy is undoubtedly relevant to women, yet all types of aid - NGO aid, bilateral and multilateral aid - are widely discredited. The inefficiency of most, though not all, UN agencies is public knowledge. UN-led military and humanitarian interventionsin in, for example, former Yugoslavia and Somalia, have fallen far short of expectations. Bilateral aid budgets from the UK and elsewhere are diminishing and as they diminish, the priorities underlying aid, such as trade and commercial interests, become all the more obvious. NGO development cooperation is also facing problems. We have spent 45 years giving assistance to communitybased organizations and support to local initiatives; yet, if we are honest, we have generated very little long-term change, particularly for women. We NGOs are in a difficult position: on the one hand, we find ourselves forced to defend aid and to argue for increases in aid budgets of all kinds, while on the other we also know there is a serious problem with the quality of aid; yet somehow quantity considerations usually seem to outweigh those of quality in the debate.

I feel that we need to move beyond the aid debate and the aid mentality. Aid has become less and less significant as an element in international relations. Relations between the so-called donor countries - Western Europe, North America, and Japan - and the poor countries of Asia, the Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America are increasingly determined by trade and investment considerations. We need to find a way of broadening our focus correspondingly.

The aspect of aid that is potentially most positive, as I see it, is good governance. Good governance conditionality, for all its shortcomings, and however cynical we may be about the reasons for its introduction, offers some very valuable concepts and room for negotiation. It raises issues of respect for human rights, accountability and transparency, competent government, and the importance of a strong civil society. These principles should guide not only aid but all national and international relations. The challenge for us is to make the good governance debate meaningful at a time when there is widespread disenchantment with political processes.

A fourth area of possibilities - and by far the most difficult area- is alternative development. This is currently being much discussed and debated and is producing many new ideas. Questions are being asked about the role of the state and of the market; social clauses in trade agreements; how to regulate TNCs; how to reorganise the UN; how to get a better balance between social and economic affairs. Women's rights need to be at the centre of these discussions.

A fifth, slightly different, area is the issue of coherence in international relations. We must work for coherence between CEDAW and other relevant human rights conventions, together with all other national and international legislation, including immigration law. We must work for coherence between aid and development cooperation objectives and trade, agriculture, debt cancellation, structural adjustment; and the operation of transnational corporations and international financial institutions. And the basis for coherence must be respect for human rights and respect for women's rights.

The sixth area is an area in which everyone here is an expert: gender and development itself. Gender analysis has assisted enormously in advancing our thinking and our perspective. Research shows undeniably that nothing is gender-free and that no initiative, no subject matter, can be adequately addressed unless the gender dimension is included. But how do we move the gender and development debate forward? The objective of today's seminar is to provide an opportunity for us to think about this question, and to discuss the policies we should press for and, perhaps most importantly, the strategies for putting policies into practice.