Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age

Published in Australian Journal of Political Science 45.4 (2010): 732-34

Niamh Reilly's account of how the women's human rights agenda has evolved in international politics illuminates territory often ignored in international relations scholarship. In this study Reilly documents a range of international policy gains negotiated by transnational feminist activist networks and how these have been framed in human rights terms. Key amongst these developments are the strengthening of the UN's Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in the 1990s, the international recognition given to Violence Against Women as a Human Rights violation at the UN's Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993, the formulation of the UN's Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women later that year, the creation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 (recognising the gendered impacts of conflict and women's role in conflict transformation), the development of international regimes aiming to improve women's economic right.

Reilly argues that these developments provide important tools for women campaigners aiming to challenge specific forms of gender discriminatory practice. Beyond this, Reilly also argues that feminist human rights advocacy should be viewed in a collective sense as evidence of a cosmopolitan and transformative political process evolving from the ‘bottom-up’. She contends that this process has helped reinterpret and reorient mainstream human rights law and practice in ways that ‘disrupt’ the dominant Western-centric, neoliberal male hegemony that has defined this terrain in the post-World War Two context (p. 162).

On the whole, the Reilly does her best to counter the arguments of those who are more sceptical about the development of transnational feminist solidarity or the place of human rights advocacy in that process. She argues that transnational feminist advocacy has developed an ‘emancipatory’ (p. 18) discourse on women's human rights that avoids becoming trapped either in the ‘false universalisms’ (p. 4) of an ‘oppressive global feminism’ (p. 161), or in a post-modern ‘relativism’ that is so embedded in culture and context that the possibility of feminist transformation becomes unimaginable (p. 4). The idea here is that the human rights framework provides a global language for challenging discriminatory phenomena such as gender-based violence or the feminisation of poverty yet also creates the latitude for recognising that these phenomena are experienced differently by women in particular socio-cultural, religious, economic or geopolitical contexts (pp. 15–7).

Reilly's analysis also gives in-depth consideration to the limitations of conventional human rights praxis. She examines contemporary challenges to the liberal construction of a private/public divide which, until the last decade, has allowed a number of discriminatory practices against women, particularly in the area of gender based violence, or reproductive health, to escape national or international scrutiny. According to Reilly, transnational advocates' success in making issues such as violence against women, women's sexuality and maternal morbidity rates resonate within international policy making venues promotes a focus on ‘bodily integrity’ (p. 90) that ‘unsettles’ (p. 71) the conventional separation of public and private domains.

Despite the global dominance of neoliberal economic policy, Reilly also expresses confidence that the traditional prioritisation of social and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights (a scenario which she argues privileges masculine political claims) can be undermined. She acknowledges that many view human rights and development concerns as separated by a persistent ‘chasm’ (p. 117) but claims that the chasm can be bridged. To support the idea that the women's human rights agenda can intersect productively with the realm of development she looks to policy affirmations occurring at the 1993 UN Vienna Human Rights which stipulated the ‘indivisible, interdependent and interrelated’ nature of human rights, as well as international policy machinery such as the Millennium Development Goals which list the objectives of poverty alleviation, women's empowerment and improved maternal health (pp. 117–39).

Reilly even expresses confidence that the rising tide of gender discriminatory religious fundamentalism (Christian, Islamic and Hindu) can be effectively challenged through transnational feminist advocacy framed in human rights terms. Despite the fact that a so-called ‘unholy alliance’ of fundamentalist forces has made its presence felt within the United Nations in the late 1990s and attempted to claw back international policy gains negotiated on issues related to women's reproductive rights or around questions of women's sexual orientation (pp. 156-7), Reilly is buoyed by the presence of women's anti-fundamentalist networks that retain a religious identity but also provide an important critique of gender discriminatory practices that are legitimated by appeals to religion. Citing the example of the global network, Women Living Under Moslem Laws, she describes such advocacy as ‘a bottom-up, critical and … transformative approach to human rights’ (p. 154) that moves beyond the ‘either/or’ choices (p. 154) which conventionally frame universalist/relativist positions in international human rights debate.

Reilly has, by her own admission, had a strong association with Charlotte Bunch, a figure who spear-headed the women's rights as human rights campaigns of the 1990s, and the Center for Women's Global Leadership which continues this work to the present day. Might this association colour her analysis of women's human rights claims in the current global political environment? Certainly Reilly's account gives important consideration to the limitations of this form of political claims-making in a global political environment where neoliberal economic imperatives have become a global orthodoxy and where religious fundamentalism and the counter ambition of containing these influences has profoundly limited women's freedoms. Yet I was somewhat taken aback by her seeming determination to write human rights back into the advocacy agendas undertaken by women's networks in the decades prior to the 1990s. This criticism is especially pertinent to her assessment of the United Nations Conferences held during the ‘Decade for Women’, and particularly her claim that this decade was ‘pivotal in facilitating the emergence of a more inclusive and critical women's human rights movement’ (p. 46). My own research into the frameworks for political claims-making employed in the period suggests that women's concerns about the global and more just redistribution of political and economic resources were far more audible in this period than claims framed in human rights terms (George 2010).

At the same time, it might also be argued that Reilly's efforts to bridge the chasm of women's human rights and development stand on shakier ground than she is willing to concede. Sally Engle Merry (2003) offers an alternative perspective on this argument, suggesting that emphasis on the realisation of human rights as the key to women's empowerment puts the onus of responsibility upon States as the primary duty-bearers in meeting human rights provisions. This simultaneously absolves the international community of responsibility for creating or sustaining structural impediments in their pursuit of ‘expansive capitalism’ which may contribute to women's disadvantage and compound their economic vulnerability (Merry 2006, p. 64). This is of particular salience if we consider the research of feminist political economists such as Shirin Rai, Jill Steans, Jacqui True or Juanita Elias, which provides compelling evidence of the gendered impacts of the current neoliberal hegemony. Against this backdrop, Merry suggests that feminist human rights advocacy ignores the structural dimensions of gender equality that are the result of global agendas promoted by wealthy, Western, industrialised nations, a scenario which perhaps does more to sustain rather than challenge gender inequity (Merry 2003, p. 64).

These misgivings aside, Reilly's book provides an important historical account of how feminist transnational advocacy has sought to challenge pervasive gender discriminatory practices on the international stage through the critical reorientation of conventional human rights thinking. As Reilly notes at a number of instances, gender sensitive reforms in the international arena are not guaranteed and have in recent years been threatened by a conservative backlash. For this reason alone Reilly's book is important. It provides us with an understanding of how much women have been able to achieve in promoting gender justice on a global scale, but equally, how much work remains to be done. -- Nicole George (University of Queensland)

© 2010 Nicole George