Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalizing Age

Published in Sex Education 11.4 (2011): 501-2

This book sets out to reflect on advocacy around women's human rights throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Whilst maintaining a critical stance, overall the book is refreshingly upbeat. It is also well written, at the same time scholarly and readable.

Reilly wrote this book as a postdoctoral fellow. It built on her doctoral research in the field of politics, experience as a women's human rights activist since Vienna (1993) and Beijing (1995), and role in coordinating the ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign’ in its early years. She acknowledges the influence on her work of Charlotte Bunch, with whom she worked at the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University, and her commitment to global feminism that lies at the heart of the book:

"My purpose here is to make visible, thematize, and highlight the transformative potential of TFA [transnational feminist advocacy] in a context of globalisation, a potential that is rooted in critical, bottom-up understandings of human rights as universal and indivisible" (p. 1).

The author carefully charts the development of transnational feminist advocacy since the 1970s, examining how the movement for women's human rights has engaged with the gendered impacts of an array of global issues. Each chapter takes a current global issue, and begins by examining the gendered dynamics, drawing out, for example, the detrimental impacts on women's lives of neo-liberal globalisation, health pandemics and conflict. Reilly then goes on to examine how women's rights advocacy has addressed these issues, tracing both achievements and continuing obstacles. There is a good balance of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ advocacy, with some emphasis on how grassroots activism has increasingly influenced UN activity. For example, she discusses the influence of feminist activists from the global south as well as the north in revitalising CEDAW (UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) through the adoption of the optional protocol in 1997.

Reilly reflects with some pride on the achievements of women's rights campaigns, particularly in relation to violence, war and conflict. She looks at the success of the campaigns to recognise violence against women as a violation of human rights, and to incorporate sexual violence as a crime against humanity and as a war crime in the statutes of the International Criminal Court. The adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, which emphasises the protection of women in conflict situations and their role in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, marks another major achievement of the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights. Whilst these are undeniably significant achievements, Reilly makes the important point that some of these areas may be more palatable to policy-makers, with for example a focus on violence seen as violation of the individual, rather than as a manifestation of unequal power relations. She is less optimistic about the progress in relation to sexual and reproductive health, documenting the backlash since the 1990s, since when there has been considerable resistance to addressing reproductive rights and harmful traditional practices. Reilly argues persuasively that a broader set of human rights demands is required, moving away from well established civil rights to an expanded notion that incorporates socio-economic rights.

Another interesting chapter addresses the pernicious impacts of recent rises in religious fundamentalisms on the lives of women, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Reilly examines, for example, how fundamentalist projects across all religions and regions threaten the women's human rights advocacy of the 1990s, which they criticise as western, as threats to national sovereignty, individualistic and/or anti-family. Emancipatory cosmopolitan feminism is seen as key to contesting fundamentalist forces, with local feminist struggles alongside global women's movements working to halt these advances.

While in general the advocacy perspective is well theorised and reasoned, I would like to have seen a little more critical engagement with recent theorising in the gender and development field. Reilly touches, for example, on post-structuralism and the work of Spivak, Mohanty and others, but could possibly have looked more deeply at the theoretical tensions between the burgeoning academic work especially in the global north, and feminist advocacy in the south. I was also surprised not to see more discussion of Capabilities Theory, which again is touched on only briefly despite its seeming compatibility with Reilly's own line of analysis (see, for example, E. Unterhalter, E., Gender, schooling and global social justice [2007]). I would also like to have seen greater engagement with the education field, with perhaps a fuller discussion of the disconnects between movements for women's rights and those advocating rights for children.

Overall, however, this is a lucid, informative and persuasive book. The structure and organisation works very well, and there is a very useful summary of key points at the end of each chapter. This book will be of particular interest to students and academics in the fields of women's studies and development studies. Reilly's insider position within the Global Women's Movement clearly gives her a very clear grasp of the debates and challenges of feminist advocacy, and goes some way to addressing the subtitle of the book: ‘seeking gender justice in a globalising age’. -- Jenny Parkes (Institute of Education, University of London)

© 2011, Jenny Parkes