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Gender Justice and Economic Justice:
Reflections on the Five Year Reviews of the UN Conferences of the 1990's

By Gita Sen, DAWN Research Coordinator on Globalisation; and Sonia Onufer Correa, DAWN Research Coordinator on Sexual and Reproductive Rights

A paper prepared for UNIFEM in preparation for the
five-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action

1. Globalization and patriarchal control: women's dilemmas

On the verge of a new millenium, the challenges facing feminist attempts to link gender justice with economic justice at the global, national, and local levels come from two directions. On the one hand, complex, yet poorly understood and even more poorly regulated processes of globalization appear as the new form of a free-market juggernaut. This juggernaut obscures all possible alternatives to a global capitalist order that is driven by deep and growing inequalities of wealth and income , and in which rising numbers of impoverished people are being marginalized from access to secure livelihoods. On the other hand, at least one set of reactions to these processes of globalization includes the strengthening of national, religion-based, ethnic or other identities through the assertion of "traditional" gender roles and systems of authority and control.

Women's relationship to these processes is mixed and often contradictory. The 1980s and 1990s have seen women enter labor markets and become income earners in large numbers, sometimes under the pressure of family economic needs, and sometimes in response to new opportunities thrown up by labor market and other changes. The results in terms of women's control over income and personal autonomy can be contradictory. Entering the labor market for a woman does not automatically mean that she will have greater control over income; it may mean, instead, increased work burdens, greater drudgery and multiple responsibilities as she is caught up in a global assembly line over which she has little control. Earning more income almost always raises a woman's value in her family, but ironically this can sometimes result in even tighter controls over her life and being. However, it can also sometimes mean greater physical mobility, increased personal autonomy, and the possibility of breaking through gendered barriers and patriarchal or other mechanisms of male control.

These contradictions mean that women's struggles for greater personal autonomy (including among other things control over and access to familial or community resources, a fairer share in inheritance, rights in decision-making, and sexual and reproductive rights) may not mesh simply or easily with their concerns and demands for a more just and equal economic order.

The irony for women is that, on the one hand, the supporters and promoters of a globalized world economy are often also the ones who support the breaking of traditional patriarchal orders. On the other hand, some of those who oppose globalization do so in the name of values and control systems that strongly oppress women. The challenge for women, therefore, is how to assert the need for both economic justice and gender justice in an increasingly globalized world in which at the same time we witness the proliferation of diverse forms of moral conservatism that systematically target women's self-determination.

2. Sowing the wind

The global UN conferences of the 1990s proved to be fertile ground for the blooming of these tensions and conflicts. These include the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio 1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, Cairo 1994), the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD, Copenhagen 1995), the Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW, Beijing 1995), and Habitat II (Istanbul, 1996). The South-North divide surfaced as expected in all these meetings, but the power and clout of Northern governments in global negotiations had clearly become significantly greater in the 1990s as compared to the 1970s. The intervening decade of debt crises, structural adjustment programs, uneven economic growth rates, and growing disparities among Southern countries themselves appeared to have eroded the capacity and political will of the South to negotiate effectively together against the North on economic issues such as debt relief, development aid, global environmental controls, or a level playing field in international trade.

In this climate moral conservative groups that oppose an agenda for women's rights have systematically attempted to emerge as champions of the South. Around the time of UNCED in Rio, in 1992, the Vatican began making statements against growing poverty and South-North economic inequalities and in favor of debt relief. On the other side, the positions taken by Northern negotiators on every economic issue from the right to development, to debt, to trade, to structural adjustment provided fertile soil for a growing closeness between the Vatican and at least some Southern negotiators.

During the 90's the moral conservative forces have systematically used their political influence to oppose the women's rights agenda in international fora. UNCED was the first site of major mobilization by women's organizations, albeit largely in the NGO Forum rather than in the official conference. By the time of the Vienna conference on human rights in 1993, the Vatican had begun to mobilize its forces against the recognition of women's rights as human rights. In Cairo in 1994, the Vatican allied itself with a number of countries to strongly resist the adoption of a reproductive health and rights agenda in the ICPD Programme of Action. At the Social Summit in Copenhagen six months later, this alliance worked to oppose every innovative aspect related to gender and reproductive health. This opposition continued through Beijing and the Habitat conference. But while the principal text of these negotiations appeared to be women's rights, the critical sub-text was the continuing South-North divide and the growing frustration of the South.

Three further points need to be made about the conferences of the 1990s. First, where women delegates (official and unofficial) were not present in significant numbers, issues relating to gender equality and women's rights tended to almost disappear in the negotiations, or to be compromised. There appeared to be tacit understandings among many delegates from both South and North not to raise "controversial" issues. (Read "controversial" as code for "women's rights", since there were plenty of other equally controversial issues such as poverty, debt and development assistance that remained.) The few feminist delegates present during the Social Summit in Copenhagen had their work cut out in terms of protecting the gains women had made through Vienna and Cairo.

Second, and importantly, despite efforts to the contrary, only a few Southern governments actually bought into an alliance in which women's rights were traded away. The advances in recognition of women's rights in Vienna, and the Cairo consensus on the centrality of reproductive and sexual health, reproductive rights, and women's empowerment in development policy, and their further elaboration and affirmation in Beijing were possible because the large majority of Southern and Northern governments supported them. In Cairo and also in Beijing, consensus became possible because the G-77 agreed to speak as a group on economic issues, but as individual countries on matters relating to gender equality, women's rights, reproductive and sexual health, adolescents' health and rights etc. It became clear to delegates at Cairo (and later at Beijing) that differences on these latter issues within G-77 between the minority that opposed and the majority that supported them were far too serious to patch over.

Third, feminist coalitions from the North and South who were present both as official and as NGO delegates at the conferences attempted to bridge the divide that opposing countries and groups were trying to create between economic justice and gender justice. The Cairo Programme of Action contains some of the most progressive language regarding development more generally, structural adjustment, and the importance of the North's taking a lead with respect to sustainable consumption and effective waste management. Much of this language was either initiated or strongly supported by women delegates and a few Southern governments who opposed the North's intransigence on economic issues as much as they opposed the attack of moral conservative forces on gender justice and women's human rights. In this way women attempted to combine economic justice with gender justice in both Cairo and Beijing.

3. Reaping the whirlwind

Between March and July, 1999, three of the "plus five" reviews of the conferences of the 1990s were in progress. In March, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) met to discuss the implementation of the health section of the Beijing Platform for Action. This was followed by the Prepcom for ICPD plus five which was unable to complete its work in the allotted days in March. Intersessional meetings and internal group meetings continued until the Prepcom was formally resumed at the end of June just before the scheduled [ICPD] Special Session of the UN General Assembly. In May was also held the first Prepcom for Copenhagen plus five at which again progress was slow, and negotiations were slated to resume as Intersessionals at the end of August.

Certain common features emerged in all these processes. Progress in negotiation was painfully slow and often stalemated. There were two apparent reasons for stalemates - the wide gap between South and North on economic issues, and the difficulty of reaching consensus on gender issues. Most striking was the fact that, starting with the CSW meeting and continuing through much of the ICPD +5 negotiations until near the end, the G-77 insisted on speaking with one voice on all issues, unlike what they had done in Cairo or Beijing. At the same time and not surprisingly, the Vatican appeared to have been working closely with conservative delegations to try to roll back the Cairo, Beijing and Vienna agreements if possible, or to impede serious discussion about barriers to implementation or future actions to be taken. Additionally, a vocal backlash against the participation of NGOs was registered during both the Cairo +5 and the Copenhagen +5 Prepcoms with a number of (largely conservative) government delegations objecting to NGO presence and participation.

At one level, none of the above seems to be new, if we refer back to our earlier analysis. Yet, the mood and tone of the negotiations were certainly harsher from women's and NGO perspectives than one would have expected. One would not have anticipated reopening of language that had already been agreed to at Cairo and Beijing given the fact that, at least in the case of the ICPD Programme of Action, the overwhelming majority of countries have been positively implementing Cairo in the intervening years since 1994.

One reason for this could be that the G-77 feels more strongly the need to speak with one voice in light of the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle as well as at the ongoing UN debate on financing development. The financial and economic crisis of the recent past must also be taken into account as it has considerably leveled the growth experience among its members. On the other hand, the global political pendulum has also swung back a bit from the hard years of conservative governments in North America and Europe, possibly creating a bit more space for negotiation on economic issues. The neoliberal orthodoxy is itself in considerable disarray in the wake of the financial crisis with the IMF and the World Bank publicly taking different stances. All this might explain the G-77 feeling the pressure and taking the opportunity to show a united front against the North [on economic issues]. But it does not explain why the more liberal Southern delegations had such a difficult time asserting the modus operandi of Cairo and Beijing, viz., one voice on economic issues, and separate voices on gender issues. To understand this, we need to turn to other factors.

4. Lessons from the Cairo +5 Negotiations

One important reason for this could have been the fact that many and especially Southern official delegations to the ICPD +5 Prepcom were drawn from the staff of country missions to UN Headquarters in New York. A very large number of delegates therefore were diplomats responsible to foreign ministries rather than bureaucrats drawn from ministries of health or family planning. This meant that they often lacked the experience that those who had been through the whole process leading up to and during Cairo had. Few were knowledgeable about the subtle balances in some of the agreements that had been reached at Cairo. Thus, even with the best will in the world, many delegations were not always clear about what exactly was being proposed by the forces opposing women's rights or what it implied.

Women's NGOs and the few feminists on official delegations who had been through the protracted negotiations of Cairo and Beijing worked diligently to provide background briefings to delegations. We were also faced with the problem of the mindset of New York based diplomats whose daily negotiations are heavily influenced by South-North conflicts and global, regional, or national geopolitical agendas. Gender equality tends to fall relatively low on their priorities and at least some of them clearly expressed that it was not worth struggling over in this forum.

A deeper question this raises has to do with the premises on the basis of which the UN is conducting these +5 reviews. Implementation can and ought to be discussed and evaluated by implementors - it should not be handled by those who have had little to do with implementation. The first lesson therefore is that there is an urgent need for the UN at the highest level to rethink how the evaluation of implementation is being done. In fact NGOs gathered at the final stage of the Cairo+5 process have written a letter to the UN Secretary General requesting the immediate creation of a high level commission to fundamentally re-consider the premises and mechanisms of the +5 reviews.

Furthermore, the review of implementation should certainly not be open to those who opposed the primary agreement or sections of the agreement. Thus, given the Vatican's fundamental reservations to the ICPD Programme of Action, it had no business participating in a review of implementation in which it played no role, and which it certainly opposed. Basic ethics would have required the Vatican to withdraw from the review. Thus, what ought to have been an assessment of gains and obstacles became once again a protracted negotiation over language - this could possibly have been minimized if the review had been structured to include only those who had signed on to the ICPD consensus in the first place. This is the second lesson of the ICPD +5 review process.

Women's organizations from the South and North can draw other lessons as well. Unless they work hard to ensure the quality of delegations, they run the risk of having gender justice traded off against South-North issues. This is particularly problematic in the context of the on-going Copenhagen +5 Review whose working text is very weak on gender issues, and where few NGOs are present and almost no women's organizations. The Vatican appears to be working hard to emerge as the champion of the South on economic issues, and to weaken human rights language by references to "human dignity", its preferred substitute for human rights. But it can also be a problem for Beijing +5 if official delegations are not adequately briefed in advance at national and regional levels. This is the third critical lesson.

And finally, a concern rather than a lesson. A major problem at Beijing was the distance, both physical and psychological between the NGO Forum and the official conference. While the majority of women concentrated on the NGO Forum, the few at the official conference had to work hard to prevent backsliding from Cairo and Vienna. Conservative forces tend to lie low in the NGO events and to save their energy for the official conference - the exact opposite of what women's NGOs tend to do. There should therefore be more systematic planning to link the non-governmental and official events, so that the energy and ethos of the former can be brought to bear on the latter.

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