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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

Panel session: The future agenda of the women's movement in relation to national and international structures

A panel of five speakers gave short, five-minute presentations to stimulate discussion on tile future agenda of the international women's and GAD movement.

Naila Kabeer, of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, narrated three short anecdotes illustrating the way institutions see development and gender.

The first story was inspired by students at IDS, who had pointed out that recommended reading in Development Studies is overwhelmingly written by Northern academics and published by academic publishers or journals, primarily in the North. This defines the nature, style, language, and address of articles and books considered suitable for publication: in particular, personal and experiential accounts are not seen as appropriate.

For similar reasons, the institution's staff recruitment criteria operate against women and people from the South, because they are less likely than Northern male academics to have published this kind of work. This bias in the kind of knowledge that is regarded as legitimate is one of the ways in which the institution reproduces itself in its present form. At IDS, this is particularly discouraging, because IDS is not a purely academic institution; it is policyorientated and activist, and should therefore offer scope for encompassing a variety of different experiences.

Naila felt this exclusivity in language could be countered by changing the language considered appropriate for development studies at the training stage. However, this can only be done if institutions are opened up to different kinds of experience and language. Academic language in many ways denies the reality and validity of ordinary people's experience. What a Development Studies institution calls 'development', people living in a Third World country call life. But, because life comes packaged in a particular way in the academic discipline of Development Studies, people who are trained in such a discipline see the developing world only through that very narrow frame.

Examples of this narrow and compartmentalised vision were provided by Naila's second and third stories, in which, in different contexts, she had encountered women development professionals who were unable to make the connection between life as it is lived and 'gender and economic issues' as a theoretical or professional terrain. To mainstream economists, 'the economic agent has no body', so issues of incest, abuse, violence, and the like are considered irrelevant to economic concerns and are never included, for instance, in the training that is meant to equipyoung women economists for work in the World Bank. Similarly, the ways large development agencies work do not encourage holistic thought or analysis of the different issues - such as caste, class and gender, in the case of India - that come together to define and determine inequality and poverty. Development agencies want cut-and-dried procedures and measurable interventions: their accounting procedures require them to be able to tick off 'fools for women' rather than make a deeper analysis of what a particular national context might require or of the broader set of social relations of which gender inequalities are a part. Change is therefore needed in the ways people are trained to think about development and gender.

Devaki Jain of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) put forward some proposals for a political agenda for the international women's movement, starting from the conviction expressed by DAWN in their recent strategy meeting that 'the women's movement is the most significant social movement in the world today and has the greatest potential to become a significant political actor in global governments'. Devaki emphasised the need for the women's movement to develop a programme and goals, and offered three points for consideration.

First, she proposed a very narrow, minimalist agenda for the worldwide women's movement. The experience of many working-class movements has taught that solidarity is best built around a one- or two-point programme. She proposed three points arising out of the Indian and South Asian experience:

· Deepen mg women's exercise of political rights This is fundamental: first, because it enables adoption of the advocacy and the belief of women that women's rights are human rights, and second, because it enables women to command and redirect the global political economy towards justice. The underlying assumption is that the choices made by women, especially poor women, about development can determine that alternative development to which we all aspire. One way of deepening women's exercise of political rights is to use the electoral process, that is, to develop in women voters the negotiating power to argue for their agenda, lobbying for women by women. Next year, the Indian Association of Women's Studies will be carrying out this process of empowering the woman's vote making the woman's vote a vote for women nationwide.

· Local self-government with affirmative action. Again, experiences from India and Bangladesh can be drawn on. Devaki proposed, in answer to Sara Longwe's analysis, district-level implementation of social development, Reconstructing bureaucracy and replacing it with feminist political leadership.

· Trade policies and women UNIFEM has recently held a seminar in South Asia on women and trade and plans to hold others in all the regions of the world. Looking at economic blocks all over the world - OPEC, NAFTA, ASEAN - we can ask whether there is another form of economic cooperation between regions which brings justice and more for the poor. Can women network to make this happen?

The second item in Devaki's proposal was the reversal of South-North hierarchies. Women's alliances could reverse the hierarchies observable both in the state and in the male-dominated alliances described by Sara Longwe as the 'patriarchal pot'. Another positive reversal would be that of the slogan 'Think globally, act locally'. We should, rather, be thinking locally and acting globally. Local experience has much to teach the macro level, and here the worldwide women's movement can provide solidarity to the learning done from below. This is an intellectual and conceptual exercise, in which grassroots activism needs to be backed up by support from the other world of reasoning and writing.

Lastly, Devaki looked at the question of the women's movement in relation to national and international structures. At the national level, she felt that the focus should be on local politics and how women's access to local politics can reach right up to international politics. At the international level, DAWN is involved in an alliance, coalition, or network of networks, incorporating an elected core group. Within it, a multitude of meetings would be held around the proposed minimalist agenda, across and within nations and regions and in many intellectual fore, thus building up an understanding which can ultimately provide the basis for women to become a political force nationally and internationally. This cannot be achieved on the basis of a very broad wish-list like the Forward Looking Strategies. But such a network of networks, working on a minimalist political agenda, would have the potential for generating energies and reverberations in the international women's movement that would last beyond UN milestones.

Ines Smyth (Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics) suggested the following areas - some of them raised by the morning's presentations - for further questioning and reflection:

· The need to develop new forms of understanding and intervention in relation to women in situations of war and conflict: In the post-cold-war period, conflict has taken on new connotations which have a different and more serious impact on women and girls. We need to go beyond emotionally charged reactions to this and to think clearly, in effective, analytical, and practical ways, about how to prevent and limit these impacts and how to lessen their consequences for the physical, mental and social well-being of women and girls. This is an urgent issue, but it also has a long-term perspective.
· Moving beyond international conferences: As academics and activists, we need to take a clear and honest look at the real benefits of participation in successive international conferences. Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing, and their various preparatory meetings, offer unprecedented opportunities for women's advocacy and for feminists to flex our muscles in the sites of power. However, they have also been the cause of much work, of wasted time, money, and energy, and have produced a new set of personal, organizational, and strategic dilemmas. 'UN conference fatigue' is a real constraint to our general effectiveness. It is important to reflect carefully and calmly on how we will want to take part in these glamorous but all-consuming events in the future. Such participation raises questions about the use of resources, the danger of cooption, political instrumentality, new forms of networking, new forms of participation and leadership. Above all, we need to take a more proactive stance and seize more control over these activities and the extent and kind of participation in them we want, so as to avoid being swept along by the annual tide of the UN conference.

· North-South relations in the women's movement: These relations, and the discussion around them, reach beyond issues like trade and economic relations, important as these are. What do feminist movements mean to each other? What is the relevance for the South of analysis developed in the North, and vice versa? What do the experiences and analysis of women in the South mean for women who live and work in Northern regions? What do the answers to these questions imply for the development of future strategies?

Ines drew attention to the inaccuracy entailed in the terms 'North' and 'South'. She alerted participants to the difficulty, for many of us who live in the 'North' and work on gender and development, in linking that work with the realities of our Northern countries of adoption or origin. What is the relation of GAD experts living in Britain, for instance, to the British feminist movement, in which we may have very solid roots? Ines cited the example of last year's International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where Dutch feminists working on Dutch issues were very strongly connected to events in the development field. She questioned whether it was really possible to think of visions or strategies for women's rights worldwide if we were disconnected from our immediate reality. What are the best ways for both individuals and institutions to make those connections?

Georgina Ashworth, director of CHANGE, strongly welcomed the reappearance on the agenda of women's human rights in relation to poverty, violence, self-determination, and reproductive rights. She referred to a number of related issues which have been high on the agenda at various moments over the past 20 years and which have resurfaced recently: religion as a major activator of international forces; different forms of unpaid work and their challenge to the formal economy and mainstream interpretations of economics; violence; women's human rights in relation to conflict resolution and war; questions of democracy and good governance, and whether any governance can be described as 'good' unless it is actively promoting gender equality and the abolition of patriarchy. Today, all these issues are mayor issues for the Beijing conference.

Reviewing the concerns of the international women's movement in this way reminds us that, over time, the agenda has changed, and it is encouraging and inspiriting to recognise that it is women's movements who have changed it. However, while there are grounds for satisfaction, there is no room for complacency. Among current challenges and difficulties are the following:

· Including more people in the movement and making them feel more welcome, but without obscuring the complexities that may deter them but which must be addressed.
· Demystifying the big issues, such as macroeconomic issues, and making them relevant to daily life.
· Addressing the potential conflict of interest between consumers and producers. Consumption needs to be politicized, by raising awareness about the labour, social and environmental conditions in which the things we consume are produced. We also need make links with ethical investors to get those aspects included in the criteria that they apply.

· Culture versus rights: the argument that gender justice is incompatible with certain aspects of culture is a major dilemma for us, and is one of the principal struggles with regard to the Beijing Platform for Action. This question includes issues like that of servile marriages: we need to name the conditions of slavery in which women in many relationships are living, and to recognise this as an issue of self-determination.

· The contradiction between real and token progress, and coherence between policy commitment and practice. Here the challenge is to use the language of governments and mainstream policy processes - the only language currently possible in dialogue with policy-makers while changing their discourse. strengthening the content of conventions such as CEDAW).

· The need to get the question of rights and responsibilities across to economists. Economists need to realise that economic policies violate rights. The arguments of good governance and state responsibilities are useful here, to show how the state must exercise its power on our behalf (although this demand is fraught with paradoxes) to regulate powerful violators (such as - but not exclusively - transnational corporations), in order to create an environment in which gender equality is a reality.

For Eugenia Piza-Lopez (Oxfam UK/I), the future agenda for the women's movement is women's human rights. She examined how this agenda relates to institutions like international funding agencies. The new development model, sometimes known as the 'Washington consensus', defines good development according to three main criteria: good governance, competitive markets, and government responsibility for managing the state while recognising private rights and individual initiative. These are the critical components of the current policies and ideology of bilateral and multilateral development institutions, the international financial institutions, and the international NGOs.

It must be acknowledged that there has been some shift in neo liberal language since 1985. The supremacy of the market has been questioned. There is a recognition of the importance of rehabilitating the state and giving it renewed social and economic responsibilities; and a recognition that the promotion of human rights and the rule of law are essential for the maintenance of law and order, the development of an effective and efficient labour force, and the development of environments where economic growth and efficiency are possible and sustainable.

However, this apparent policy shift is more a shift in discourse than in real understanding of how to achieve long-term development. The model contains inherent contradictions which are very problematic. The market continues to be the driving model for development, despite the huge inconsistencies between promoting competitive markets and achieving prosperity for individuals in societies. The importance of policy to improve the quality of life, raise standards of education and health, and protect political rights is recognised, but all these policies are extremely vulnerable to the state's ability to pay for them, and tend to be jettisoned if not consistent with relatively short-term economic growth and efficient..

The good governance debate so far has not fully understood what women's human rights involve or how women can exercise them. The policy agenda is largely focused on formal political processes such as elections. Yet we know that it is not principally in this forum that women are denied and excluded from their rights of citizenship. Indeed, the most important way in which women can actually exercise their citizens' rights is as workers. Yet how many women in the Third World have a formal relation with the labour market? The concepts of good governance put forward so far, and increasingly taken up by international agencies of all kinds, have not really addressed women's rights thoroughly enough to enable policies to be challenged and rethought.

These new discourses, although they provide us with opportunities, are fraught with problems from a feminist and gender perspective. What are the alternatives? How can NGOs work towards promoting women's human rights and make the most of the new ideologies and discourses? Linda Mayoux, in her paper 'Gender policy and black holes: some questions about efficiency, participation, and scaling-up in NGOs' (September 1994) summarises it very clearly. She outlines changes of three types:

· growth and internationalisation;
· strengthening advocacy capacity;
· achieving greater efficiency in aid delivery and problem solving.

All three processes, which affect in different ways different NGOs, both North and South, have characteristics that exclude women's experiences and perspectives. The processes being promoted actually marginalise women rather than bringing them into the picture; the organizations trying to promote the change are themselves incapable of delivering programmes which bring about significant changes in the attainment of women's human rights, because their own patriarchal structures prevent them from developing a coherent practice and ideology.

The women's movement faces very many challenges in promoting an agenda for full participation in political processes. We need to be clearer about good governance; we need to find out how to bring the private sphere into the public arena; we need to identify how exclusion in society continually marginalises women across all social classes and ethnic groups, using all the factors that promote social differentiation.

Eugenia highlighted four possible strategies that the women's movement and some international funding agencies could develop in order to achieve change. None of them is without problems:

· Conditionality: making development aid conditional upon attention to gender issues. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this strategy? What is the perspective of the international women's human rights movement? Conditionality is not consistently applied and is not transparent. And who sets the conditions?

· Mainstreaming gender: the currently fashionable idea that if agencies can only mainstream gender, they will deliver policies that will ultimately benefit women and enable women to enjoy the human rights. However, extensive research over the last three or four years, in corporations, international agencies, and NGOs, has proved that mainstreaming is a mechanism that ignores women and leaves gender issues marginal, letting them fall into the 'black holes'. Mainstreaming needs to be redefined.

· How international agencies develop women's organizations: Assuming that women's human rights are the real issue, the international agencies have difficulties in supporting these processes. We need to identify the barriers and blockages to more consistent support by international agencies of capacity-building in the international women's movement. Why is it that double standards are consistently applied, by all agencies, to the funding and support of women's organizations? Why is it so difficult to support the capacity of women's organisations for networking, leadership development, and advocacy? Donor organizations tend to see gender and development as an exclusively grassroots issue and to have problems 'scaling up'.

· Research and strategic alliance-building: Strategies for dealing with both these areas need to be elaborated. Alliance-building is particularly problematic because NGOs and women's movements have different agendas, and tensions may arise over resources, profile, and control of agendas. Mechanisms must be found to allow strategic alliances to operate.