Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age

Helen Laville, "'Stay Involved': Transnational Feminist Advocacy and Women's Human Rights," Journal of Women's History 24.4 (Winter 2012): 222-230

Review of:

Lisa S. Alfredson, Creating Human Rights: How Noncitizens Made Sex Persecution Matter to the World. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, pp. ISBN 978-0-8122-4125-9 (cl).

Janet Elise Johnson, Gender Violence in Russia: The Politics of Feminist Intervention. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2009, +pp. ISBN 978-0-253-22074-5 (pb).

Niamh Reilly, Women's Human Rights: Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009, pp. ISBN978-0-7456-3700-6 (pb).

Ruth Rubio-Marín (ed), The Gender of Reparations: Unsettling Sexual Hierarchies While Redressing Human Rights Violations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009, +pp. ISBN 978-0-521-51792-8 (cb).

The preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 reaffirmed "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations, large and small." Such a bold declaration suggested a central place for the rights of women in the emerging international order. The insertion of the equality of women into the UN charter was due to the lobbying efforts of feminist groups at San Francisco, led by Brazilian Delegate Bertha Lutz. Having secured their place in the Charter, however, the feminist activists were not ready to rest on their laurels. Lutz wrote to the American feminist Carrie Chapman Catt with some degree of what, as it turned out, was entirely justifiable cynicism: "The real truth, and to you I can tell it, is that the United Nations have written beautifully sounding words into the Charter, or are still writing them in, but have no intention of carrying them out."1 It took further lobbying efforts led by Lutz to secure the establishment of a UN Commission on the Status of Women, which in turn, lobbied aggressively to ensure that the future development and work of the United Nations did not ignore women's rights.

In the debates preceding the United Nations' Universal Declaration [End Page 222] of Human Rights in 1948, it is instructive to note how little attention was paid to the idea of women's rights as a category or a concept. Indeed, initial drafts of the declaration began with the words "all men" rather than "all persons." Despite the promising inclusion of women's rights in the Charter of the UN, the struggle to develop an international framework and a series of "global norms" for women's rights since 1945 has been a difficult one. However the United Nations International Woman's Year in 1975, and the subsequent UN Decade of Women (1976-1985) were influential in focusing attention and activism on the issue of women's rights. Key conferences at Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995) saw the emergence of debates on the rights of women as an international issue. The years since the opening of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for state signatures in Copenhagen have seen an increasing number of treaties, plans, and international agreements on women's rights including, for example, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (1993) and the Beijing Platform for Action (1995). International activities and activism on women's rights have contributed to a process of global norm setting on women's rights, the consequences of which for women around the world are still being worked through.

These four books all address questions raised in this new era of international women's rights. Firstly, both feminist scholarship and international relations scholarship has examined the impact of the development of global norms on women's rights on the relationship between the international and national spheres, asking how international "norm setting" affects women in different nation states. How is the acknowledgement and promise of rights at an international level implemented or interpreted at local and regional levels? Secondly, as the international sphere has developed policies and an infrastructure on women's rights, the role of women, feminist activists, and transnational feminist networks has increasingly come under scrutiny, not least from feminist activists themselves. Such activists have frequently been wary of the extent to which their participation may, wittingly or unwittingly, serve to reinforce relationships of global dominance or imperialism. Feminist scholarship has served an important function in exposing and critiquing the use of women's rights in global struggles for power, authority, and in its extreme manifestation, conquest. However, such critiques can often leave feminist global actors struggling to find positive and useful ways of channeling their activism and promoting women's rights beyond their own nation.

Lisa Alfredson's work offers a nuanced and careful analysis of the interaction between nation-states, national and international feminist groups, global norms, and international law. Alfredson observes that the dominant [End Page 223] trend in human rights scholarship has been to assess the "norms cascade" by which globally agreed norms on human rights are translated into national contexts. Alfredson's study of the asylum seekers in Canada challenges this trend in two important ways. Firstly, she asserts that the activism of the female asylum seekers and those who worked on their behalf demonstrated that the problem was not that national states had not adopted international standards on human rights quickly enough or with sufficient rigor, but that the international standards were themselves inadequate. Secondly, Alfredson questions the traditional model of the relationship between nation states and international law on human rights, which all too frequently rests on the assumption that global norms are superior to national values, and that the advance of human rights will be achieved as sovereign states are pressured or forced to adopt international standards on human rights. In the early 1990s a series of high profile refugee cases in Canada brought public attention to the extent to which international human rights, as they related to asylum, were inadequate to address the issue of violence against women. International refugee law recognized five categories of persecution, through which individuals could claim asylum. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees explained these categories as persecution on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership of a social group. This definition offered no protection for women seeking asylum from female-specific forms of violence. Such cases included representatives of the public face of discrimination and violence against women. One such case, which was to become a cause célèbre in Canada, was that of the asylum seeker known as "Nada," who faced public flogging if she returned to Saudi Arabia for her refusal to comply with the regulations governing women's dress. Other cases reflected the "private" aspect of violence against women, such as women who faced death threats from abusive husbands, and refused to return to countries that did not recognize or enforce their state's responsibility to protect women from domestic violence. The refugee known as "Dulerie," for example, had her claim for refugee status in Canada rejected because she "had fled Canada to escape domestic violence instead of political oppression" (193). "Dulerie" was ordered to return to Trinidad, despite the fact the Trinidad police were refusing to enforce their 1991 family violence act, and offered no protection to "Dulerie" from the threats of her ex-husband.

In publicizing their cases, with the support of local activist groups, women such as "Dulerie" and "Nada" challenged the standards of international law, which offered refuge to those fleeing political persecution, but turned a blind eye to violence against women. In a statement which challenged traditional understanding that international human rights are superior to national standards, the Canadian Immigration minister [End Page 224] explained his rejections of Nada's claim for asylum arguing, "The laws of general application in the countries of the world are not necessarily laws that we in this country would want to promote because of our values, but will Canada act as an imperialist country and impose its values on other countries around the world?" The Minister argued, "I don't think Canada should unilaterally try to impose its values on the rest of the world" (202). In the face of a national campaign which demanded that Canada revise its immigration practices in order to take violence against women seriously, the Canadian Government was finally forced to issue its "Guidelines on Women Refugee Claimants fearing Gender-related Persecution" in March 1993. These guidelines established categories of persecution that women could face as women, including persecution on the grounds of kinship, severe discrimination on the grounds of gender (such as domestic violence), and persecution for transgressing gender-discriminatory laws (such as laws regulating women's dress). These guidelines challenged and surpassed existing international standards on the rights of women refugees. Alfredson's account problematizes the dominant assertion in human rights scholarship; that the advance of global human rights takes place at the expense of state sovereignty. Such a position, Alfredson argues, "fails to account for cases in which national rights are equal to or more progressive than global rights, and, far from being undermined, actually reify or influence the global agenda in a positive manner" (23). Alfredson argues that the impact of the human rights agenda on the relationship between nation states and international law is a far more nuanced and complicated one that has hitherto been thought.

Alfredson's study, whilst interrogating the relationship between the national state and international law and norms, also offers an in-depth account of the social mobilization campaign launched on behalf of female asylum seekers in Canada, and explains how the internal domestic context in Canada gave rise to a set of circumstances that made it possible for asylum seekers to challenge not only the international standards and definitions on asylum, but also, crucially, Canada's blind acquiescence to these standards. This aspect of her study is a striking departure from traditional studies of human rights, in that she demonstrates the important role of individuals, and even non-state citizens in the formation of global norms. Whilst traditional studies focus on the negotiation between nation states and international legal infrastructure, Alfredson explains how individuals were able to successfully challenge international definitions of human rights. Moreover, these individual asylum seekers were supported and aided by such NGOs as the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development and the Interfaith Coalition of Churches for Refugees. Alfredson's study demonstrates the importance in these groups in calling their own government to account, and insisting on the universality of women's rights. [End Page 225]

Like Alfredson's research, Janet Elsie Johnson's study, Gender Violence in Russia , interrogates the relationship between global norms, international intervention and the local context. Johnson's study examines the impact of international efforts to deal with the issue of gender violence in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 coincided with a growth in the visibility of gender violence on the international stage, and a new understanding of violence against women as a violation of human rights. Johnson explains that "in most places around the world, with the possible exception of the United States, the politics of gender violence is no longer a national affair" (3). The mid-1990s witnessed significant international interventions into Russia to address violence against women. Johnson's approach to the ideological context of international intervention to promote women's rights is, quite rightly, wary, ever mindful of "concerns about the possibility of a new era of imperialism in the name of women's rights" (4). Nevertheless, the strength of Johnson's study is in its focus on the effectiveness of any such intervention. Her central question is, "Does intervention justified by global norms of human rights work?," but her answer is not a straightforward one (4). Johnson's study encompasses the efforts of local Russian feminist groups, international donors and activist organizations, the Russian State, and foreign, particularly US, government intervention. She explores the important role of local groups in adopting and translating global norms of women's rights to a local context. International intervention can both help and hinder the work of these local groups. The financial investment that often accompanied intervention had obvious advantages, with the foreign money that flooded into Russia to address the problem of gender violence in the 1990s being crucial to the development of resources such as crisis centers and hotlines. However, this funding was not stable, and as Johnson demonstrates, was conditional on the whims and ideological fluctuations of international donors. Financial assistance aside, Johnson asks to what extent foreign intervention has been successful in bringing local attitudes on violence against women more in line with global norms on women's rights. Public awareness campaigns, frequently funded by foreign money, have allowed Russian feminist groups to confront the issue of domestic violence. However, Johnson explains that this should be seen as a translation and adaptation of global norms to the local context. Russian campaigns against domestic violence, she explains, frequently depended on paternalistic attitudes towards women, using slogans such as "Defend my mother," drawing from Russian conceptions of the importance of women as mothers. Johnson argues, "With global feminist support, the movement leaders translated global ideas about domestic violence into the Russian vernacular" (100). Other global norms on women's rights, however, proved difficult to translate. Despite feminist efforts, attitudes toward sexual [End Page 226] harassment in the workplace, a pressing issue for Russian women, remained unchanged, with the Russian press ridiculing the concept, or seeing it as "foreign" and, particularly "American."

One common assumption behind the efforts to establish global norms on women's rights argues that States would rush to approve, adopt, and enforce these norms in order to appear modern and civilized, and to avoid the "shame" attached to their failure to align themselves with the international consensus. Yet Johnson argues that in fact, "name and shame" policies are rarely sufficient to bring about meaningful changes in the relationship of nation states to women's rights. Instead, more targeted intervention is needed. The Russian American Rule of Law Consortium (RAROLC), for example, arranges exchanges and partnerships between Russian and American judges, lawyers, law professors, politicians, and law enforcement agents, and organizes seminars and mock trials exploring the issues involved in domestic violence. These interventions, with the active participation of both local and transnational feminist groups, have been successful in producing what Johnson calls "pockets of notable reform" and have produced real results in changing cultural attitudes toward violence against women (113). For Johnson, feminist involvement in the process by which global norms are promoted ensures that the result of foreign intervention is real improvement in the rights of women. The most extreme example of the efforts of strong states to secure specific aspects of global norms on women's rights is through the threat of sanctions or even military interventions. As Johnson notes, "these heavy handed interventions were never imagined by global feminists and were made without substantial global feminist involvement" (120). As a result, efforts ostensibly carried out to improve the lives of women through the enforcement of global norms can in fact have very different outcomes: "When another state issues economic (or military threats)...the interests of the intervening state overwhelm the concerns of the women on the ground" (148). Johnson's work approaches the issue of international feminist intervention with caution and due attention to the possible hierarchies of power and problems of cultural imperialism that are contained even in the most well-meaning manifestations of global feminist activism. Nonetheless, she argues that the continued involvement of global feminist activists is crucial in ensuring that the impact of actions taken in the name of improving women's lives is a positive one. Johnson urges, "Global feminists should stay involved. When global feminists are not included in the process of designing and implementing interventions, the results are likely to be worse" (156).

Niamh Reilly shares Johnson's endorsement of the importance of the continuing activism and involvement of global feminists. Reilly notes that "much recent feminist scholarship is characterized by an immersion in radical [End Page 227] deconstructive analyses of discursive practices with little or no reference to concrete sites of struggle" (4). Her account of the development of women's human rights on the global stage reveals the important contribution of women's activism to the global norm setting process. It is women's transnational feminist advocacy, she maintains, which has promoted women's rights as human rights, and which has skillfully negotiated between the needs and demands of different women from vastly different backgrounds, cultures, and outlooks. In particular, Reilly's work demonstrates the importance of women of the global south in the development of human rights. Whilst the attempts by western powers to define and interpret human rights—and the limits of human rights—should not be forgotten, neither should the passivity or inactivity of the global south and of regional groups be assumed. Bertha Lutz, and other activists from South America, Asia, and Africa have been instrumental in shaping global women's rights. Reilly's study offers a compelling account of the importance of transnational feminist advocacy in setting global norms. The work of such global feminist activists has necessitated challenging not just nation states, but has also involved negotiation and agenda setting by women's groups amongst the growing network of non-governmental groups and international civil society.

Like Alfredson, Reilly demonstrates the need to de-center nation-state power as the most significant obstacle to global women's rights. When US women's rights activist Fran Hosken approached Amnesty International, offering to share data and communication with them on violence against women, Amnesty International responded that it could only concern themselves with women "as political prisoners." Feminist scholars have often argued that the refusal of nation-states to consider women's rights as human rights is a result of their determination to protect their sovereignty and authority. This protection of authority is frequently represented as the authority over the male nation-state over female citizens. Amnesty International's response to Hosken demonstrates that, whilst the reluctance of the nation-state to cede jurisdiction has hindered the advancement of global norms on women's rights, widespread understandings of the definition and limits of women's rights, held even by human rights activists, has been equally significant. Hosken lambasted Amnesty International for its narrow conception of human rights, with its (inevitably) gendered consequences, asking "how is it that 'sexual assault, wife-beating, genital mutilation [and] depriving women of food, clothes, shelter or gainful employment' are outside the 'self-ascribed domains or action fields of all so-called human rights groups?'" (69).

Reilly's account of the impact of transnational feminist advocacy on the development of global norms on women's rights is an enthralling and encouraging one. Her work reveals the importance of groups such [End Page 228] as GABRIELA, a network of women's organizations based in the Philippines, with whom the tremendously important slogan "Women's Rights are Human Rights" originated, as well as transnational networks such as the Global campaign for Women's Human Rights. Reilly argues that, "the content of universal human rights must resonate with the concerns of, and be defined by and with, concrete, situated women" (11). This is the theory. Reilly's history of the involvement of transnational feminist advocates in the shaping of women's rights demonstrates the practice. The result is a study that is optimistic, without being naïve. Reilly asks, "Is it possible to be optimistic about the prospects for transformation, given the myriad forces working against the substantive realization of the women's Human Rights in a context of globalization?" Her study supports her conclusion that such optimism is possible, demonstrating that "wherever there is oppression of any kind you will find women taking action to protest and seek change" (166).

The essays in Ruth Rubio-Marín's collection also demonstrate the importance of feminist advocacy in the implementation of human rights. The collection, which emerged from a research project at the International Center for Transitional Justice, focuses on the question of how reparations policy and practice can best address women. The essays are wide ranging and, taken together, offer a range of challenging ways to think about the way in which human rights violations are gendered. Margaret Urban Walker's essay, which reviews the concept of gender violence in times of civil war, political repression and crisis, is vital to the coherence and cohesion of the collection. Her work, and that of Rubio-Marín herself, remind us that the extremes of violence suffered by women in times of crisis have to be understood as emerging from societies in which control of, power over, and violence against women are all-too common expressions or demonstrations of male authority. This concept of a "continuum of violence" suggests that gendered violence against women in times of crisis should be seen against the context of the normative nature of violence against women in non-crisis situations. In making this point, Rubio-Marín and Walker are careful not to downplay the suffering of women in times of crisis. The continuum of violence theory, Walker reminds us "may not correspond to victims' shocking and traumatizing experience of violence in conflict and repressive situations" (29). Nonetheless, understanding the normative nature of violence against women before the crisis situation system is vital when considering the reparations process. As Rubio-Marín argues, one approach to reparation seeks to return victims of human rights violations to where they were before the crisis. Instead, Rubio-Marín argues that a gender aware reparations process would seek to address the normative nature of gender violence and gender inequality. Rather than seeking to return the [End Page 229] victims of gendered violence to where they were before, Rubio-Marín suggests the reparations process should rather, through their legitimization of the violation of women's rights as violations of human rights, seek to confirm and assert women's status as a citizen and rights-bearer. Rubio-Marín explains that reparations as a political process opens up a "window of opportunity," in which "a new space is created that allows for endorsing transformative reparations, which is to say, forms of reparations that also aim to unsettle pre-existing gender hierarchies that were at the root of women's subordination and account for many of the reasons, forms and effects of such violence" (70).

Rubio-Marín's collection covers a wide range and offers detailed and challenging material for scholars of women's rights and gendered human rights. As with the other texts in this review, this collection reminds readers of the vital role of women's advocacy groups in ensuring that the new international commitment to gendering human rights goes beyond the formulation of aims and agreements, and is translated into meaningful change in the lives of women. As Reilly reflects, it is all too easy, in both academic and mainstream discourses to imagine ourselves living in a "post feminist" age. All four of these texts demonstrate both the past importance of feminist activism in shaping the new era of gendered human rights, and the continuing need for feminist advocacy in translating this new era into action.


1. Cited in Leila Rupp, Worlds of Women. The Making of an International Women's Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 223. [End Page 230].

Reviewer: Helen Laville is a senior lecturer in the department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham.