Gender Justice: What Does It Look Like? Essay
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The contemporary debate on the term “gender justice” has various dimensions. There have been philosophical discussions on rights and responsibilities, human agency and autonomy; political discussions on democratization and right to vote; legal discussions on the access to justice. Typically, the term is used to denote mechanisms to promote women’s position in society and their access to social parameters like health, literacy, education, occupation and economic independence. While the conventional attitude has been to assume the traditional patriarchal values as normal, more radical approaches have tried to subvert the norms and challenge political status quo.
The term is increasingly being used in place of gender equality and gender mainstreaming as the latter terms have more or less failed to communicate (Goetz, 2007, p20). In essence, gender justice is the ending of inequalities between men and women as well as the process to bring about the change.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth United Nations General World Conference on Women in 1995 required member countries to ensure fundamental rights of both men and women in all areas. It was recognized that there is a tendency of marginalization of “women’s issues” as a separate and somewhat inferior status. Gender mainstreaming by which all strategies and policies by member countries would have a gender perspective was agreed upon (UNRISD, 2000).
The realization that economic and social rights were in fact linked with political and civil rights were also translated in the sphere of gender justice. The dichotomies of rights in the context of women’s rights surfaced aggressively through the demands for mainstreaming of gender issues, that is the conviction that women’s rights were no different from human rights in other spheres like health, education, freedom and justice. It was realized that without the right to legal claims, women could not expect to receive justice in settlements like land, property or divorce. Without literacy and education, women did not have the understanding of their rights. And, women had a right to motherhood as much as the choice for the number of children to bear and the right to a healthy life (UNRISD, 2000).
The conservative approach to gender issues, however, concerned themselves with women’s ‘needs’ and not ‘rights’. There was a deliberate denial of approaching problems of sexual and reproductive health, or lack of access to safe and clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education as matters of infrastructure inadequacies and hence denial of human rights and distributive justice. Women’s activists, on the other hand, considered women’s legal rights and the indivisibility of human rights in gender lines as fundamental to enable women to participate fully in the economic and social framework (UNRISD, 2000).
Gender is a social construct that defines roles and responsibilities of men and women, regulating the role of sexuality, choice of occupations by men and women and the stereotypes. Typically, men hold positions of power even in democracies. Only 14 percent of the countries have achieved 30 percent representation of women in the parliament, as set out in the Beijing Declaration of 1995. Women have less access to and control of economic powers, rewarded for less remuneration than men for the same work, treated differently in global trade.
Women receive less education than men; have to walk long distances to collect drinking water, thereby falling vulnerable to violence; sexual and reproductive health problems result in illness and disability to women; more number of women being victims of HIV/AIDS because of restrictions on women being able to practice safe sex and having access to HIV testing and care services; women become victims of gender-based violence and cultural taboos. On the whole, the mainstreaming of gender has generally failed because the approach towards ‘integrating’ women in the society does not challenge existing power equations. Women have continued to be offered stereotyped jobs, not receiving equal training and education and insufficient resources for women’s mainstreaming (Oxfam).
By the time the issue for gender justice came up for a review in the Special Session for the Beijing +5 in 2005, the world had greatly changed. Political and economic changes around the world had shattered the faith in the current state of gender justice measures implemented in various countries. After the end of the Cold War, women had suffered disproportionately more from conflicts in postcolonial societies, calling for attention towards gender justice. In 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed the landmark resolution 1325, calling on governments to protect rights of women in conflict areas. Despite the resolution, however, women continued to be victims of domestic violence and rape in conflict areas (MacMohan, 2004). For many, the failure of gender mainstreaming was the result of its de-politicization, by which it was aimed to be achieved merely in an instrumentalist manner. It was not possible to find a way to implement gender-mainstreaming program without challenging the political status quo.
Through the 1990s, there was hope for increased gender justice, emanating from the establishment of democracies in many countries. Women’s rights did witness considerable improvement, despite the conditions did not challenge the status quo because of the low base of the 1980s. From a global average of 6 percent women’s representation in national parliaments in the 1980s, the share grew to 12 percent in the 1990s (UNRISD, 2000). Women have become more active in mainstream politics as well as in grass root politics. Although women’s issues have become important and women’s groups have become more vocal, gender issues are becoming even less of concern in mainstream politics, mainly male, of most countries, particularly in the non-democratic world.
In the Islamist world, typically, women’s participation has been all the more noticeably absent. Although there is the implicit assumption that debates about democracy are gender-neutral issues, struggles for citizenship rights in countries like Iran have been “naturally inclusive of women” (UNRISD, 2000). Among political parties, the African National Congress (ANC) has been one of the most progressive ones with regard to gender issues. Yet, gender justice that has been achieved in South Africa has been a domain of the elite society.
In the new millennium, gender justice has remained unfulfilled. The world is witnessing a different economic power equation than in the previous decade. While gender mainstreaming has lost its political validity as a means for social transformation, the economic and political climate has become all the more unfavorable for gender justice.
With globalization, the traditional economic relationships, including gender relationships, are crumbling down. The classical patriarchy, dependent on the male property ownership and family headship notion, had given rise to the urban “fordist gender regime” – male bread earner/ female house maker – in the western world in the 1950s and 1960s, also duplicated in some parts of the developing world. Economic development and increased competition has meant that the male salary earnings are not sufficient for the increasing consumption patterns. Brenner (2003) notes that incorporation of women in the workforce and their increased access to education and literacy has brought feminism in the forefront of organized politics (cited in Dhawan, p2). Women activists are not increasingly becoming more vocal in national politics but also on global issues. At the same time, marginalized women are becoming even more vulnerable to global capital reorganization.
Worldwide, women are facing the brunt of longer working hours, impoverishment, economic insecurity and forced migration and urbanization. Working class women find themselves in the crossroad of development and reactionary policy and continue to remain, if not become increasingly so, victims of fundamentalism, economic insecurity and a complex web of power relations (Kaplan, 1999, cited in Dhawan, p3). Pressures of structural adjustments imposed on many Third World countries have given rise to fundamentalism, which stem from the traditional patriarchal powers and victimize women even more. The emerging capitalist structures of many of these societies have eroded the protection of the traditional patriarchy that women used to have earlier.
Women in the Third World are at the crosshead of two powerful forces: one, the nationalist agenda that is inherently masculine in which women are expected to follow traditional roles while the men are free to participate in the political arena, and two, global capital, which forces women to participate in the economic field, overpowering the nationalist agenda. While in the west, women of color feel that the feminist agenda is essentially white-oriented, in the Third World, the political interests of working class women are marginalized. Over and above this, women from the South are dominated over by the women of North (Mohanty, 1999, cited in Dhawan, p4). As Saunders (2002) says,”What is clear is that from the very founding of women, gender and development the “women’s point of view” was not singular but heterogeneous and multiple. This continue to constitute a challenge to the dominant western feminist will to enforce a gynocentric philosophy and practice, which centers and magnifies patriarchal power and marginalizes other vertical social relations” (quoted in Varela, p2).
The dominance of western feminists over the Third World is evident in George Bush’s claim that the US War on Afghanistan was aimed to free the women from oppression. The demand for such freedom was generated essentially by feminist organizations in the west since 1997 to deny investments to the Taliban. Such claims, however, ignored that the Taliban initially drew its powers from the West itself, which used it as a force to resist Soviet Russia’s occupation of the country.
The system of micro-credit financing in the Third World has been another form of denying gender justice. There has been a proliferation of such institutions in the Third World and the most successful ones have been the ones that provide small loans to women. These NGOs typically receive their funds from the World Bank and USAID (Dhawan). Although these organizations apparently target women’s economic independence, what they essentially achieve is to integrate women with the informal economy all the more, by exploiting their children, particularly daughters, to get the work done. Besides, the micro-credit institutions reinforce the traditional values of morality and maternal virtues in order to bypass the role of government and regulated development. “Credit-baiting” has been a means to turn gender justice on its head and make it an instrument for exploitation and imperialism (Spivak, 1999, cited in Dhawan).
Most feminists find the voice of woman in Western culture is generally associated with the voice of the “Other”, that of the inconsequential or the child. This is a voice, he stresses, that the dominant mores of western societies time and again disregarded or took no notice of. Even today, despite its nearly two hundred years of history, women’s literature, enriched and endowed with many attributes and critical insights, is still branded as the voice of the man-hating feminists. Theorists like Helene Cixous and Julien Kristeva attempt to answer the questions that many women writers may have themselves tried to find.
Why have women’s voices been missing in a plentiful practice of language that crosses over two thousand years? Is it just because women are not allowed in the realm of education that would have enabled them into the speech-society? Or, is there in fact a separate way of communication in the woman’s world, in a unique language, which has made it hard for women to connect with the world-at-large (Jasken)? “Every woman has known the torture of beginning to speak aloud”, laments Cixous and says, “heart beating as if to break, occasionally falling into loss of language, ground and language slipping out from under her, because for woman speaking – even just opening her mouth – in public is something rash, a transgression (Cixous, 1975).
Thus, the concept of gender justice is complex and eternal. While the political aspects of women’s exploitation and the effects of globalization are understandable, the attitude towards women has remained patriarchal. Even though women’s voices have been raised louder in the present days, they are still a marginalized lot at home, in national politics as well as in the global area.
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United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) (2000). Gender Justice, Development and Rights: Substantiating Rights in a Disabling Environment, 3 June. Retrieved from http://www.pogar.org/publications/other/unrisd/gender.pdfVarela, Maria do Mar Castro. “Envisioning Gender Justice”. Second Critical Studies Conference, “Sphere of Justice”: Feminist Perspectives on Justice. Retrieved from http://www.mcrg.ac.in/Spheres/Maria.pdf