20 years after: the Women’s Human Rights paradigm in the neoliberal context

The past 20 years show some progress with the womens rights and the human rights paradigm in Europe. However the development is caught up in the global neoliberal transformation that at the same time is greatly undermining equality, protection of rights and the environment.

The neoliberal development also impacts the womens rights agenda, leading to questions whether more freedom to express our identities is actually a real freedom or new standards for consumers to apply to. However for feminists the task is to keep pushing for the womens human rights agenda and to use it as our framework.


A presentation by Christa Wichterich

The following three significant features and recent incidents show the ongoing neoliberal transformation in the EU:

1)     The crisis has come to stay. Austerity is governing politics. And banks fool governments and the public who bail them out – as the managers of the Anglo Irish did in an obscene and discreditable language. At the same time, the EU

2)     decides to earmark 6 million Euro to combat youth unemployment but 100 billion to bail out banks in the case of emergency.

3)     The legalization of homosexual marriages and the acceptance of LGBTIQ and homosexual parenthood is on its way in western European countries. Against this gain in human rights, right wing, neo‐con and fundamentalist forces re-organise and stage massive protests. In the past two decades, a transnational reproductive industry and a bio‐economy have been set up with body tissues and organs, stem cells, human eggs, and sperm as commodities and for example Indian women as surrogate mothers.

4)     The recent horrible disasters in the textile industry in Bangladesh where 1300 people, mostly women workers, lost their lives showed how much consumption, social reproduction and life style in the EU is still based on an unregulated and unfettered imperialistic pattern of exploitation of human and natural resources in the global South as much as it is on the exploitation of migrants working in the EU.

The highlighted incidents mirror a contradictory development: spaces and opportunities are shrinking, at the same time new spaces and opportunities are opening. From a human and gender rights perspective it is a paradox process of exclusion and inclusion, of abuse of citizens’ rights and respect for rights.

Promotion of women’s rights caught up with neoliberal global order

In the 1990s, it was the biggest achievement of the international women’s movement and the global women’s lobby to introduce the women’s rights paradigm, including violence against women as human rights abuse, into the human rights agenda of the UN and into the various global governance regimes like environment and sustainability, population and development, peace and security. These interventions raised a lot of hope that through participation in various global governance regimes, quantitative and substantial, it could be insured that women’s human rights would be respected, protected, promoted and fulfilled.

However, the rise of the women’s human rights paradigm coincided with the emergence of the neo-liberal global order. Neoliberalism is based on a withdrawal of the state from the market, an economisation, privatisation and financialisation of many goods that have been outside of the market, and with a shift of responsibility to the individual as entrepreneur of her/himself.

While this neoliberal turn implies an attack on livelihoods and social cohesion, increasingly weaker sections of society and women were included into  the  liberalised  markets.  They  got  more  access

to  paid  labour  and  to  financial services such as microcredit, mortgage, private insurances and credit cards. But this was a highly paradoxical economic and financial inclusion: the majority of women got precarious, low‐paid, flexible, informal jobs, or micro- and subprime‐credits with high interest rates that pulled many of them into indebtedness. Still, for many women, those new market opportunities implied a step forward in terms of access to market rights and individual empowerment. Nancy Fraser called this dilemma or trap an “uncanny congruence” of feminism and neo-liberalism. The neo-liberal political regime incorporates, sucks in or makes use of the human rights and the gender equality agenda and it co-opts progressive discourses and language.

Neo-liberal developments are attacking human rights and the planet

Twenty years later, a lot of frustration about global governance has built up:

  • The MDGs have not cohesively been rooted in the human rights paradigm and have not included gender mainstreaming in a systematic way.
  • Feminist networks tried to intervene into macro-economics and the trade agenda, into the WTO- and FTA‐regime. However, it seemed to be impossible to introduce a human rights agenda in order to balance and correct the free trade paradigm and investment rights of the corporate sector including the financial market. Market rights overrule and undermine the human rights agenda.

The multiple crises mirror that global governance completely failed to regulate the expansion of the capitalist economy that is corporate‐driven, growth‐oriented, resource‐ and emission-intensive. It is not guided and hardly tamed by a rights and needs framework. As a result we are confronted with a new multipolar power structure, deepening inequalities and man‐made “natural” disasters all over the planet.

The rise and primacy of economic and financial governance has led in the countries of the North to “post‐democracy” (Colin Crouch), a shrinking of democratic space and decision making, a loss

of transparency and accountability, and a loss of public goods and commons. States to whom we addressed our rights claims have abandoned and corrupted their role as developmental and welfare states.

Through austerity regimes coined as the only solution to the debt crisis, states facilitate the reconfiguration of capitalism and the dismantling of the European social model. Austerity is a highly disciplinary regime that shifts economic power to the market and social responsibilities to the individuals. It downloads costs to the private households in terms of precarisation of wage and pension, unemployment, dismantling of public services and social security, increase in VAT as well as the privatisation of public goods. Austerity systematically undermines citizens’ rights and subjects them to so-­‐called internal constraints and the logic of efficiency, productivity and competition while creating an ideological consensus that everybody has to sacrifice something.

Additionally, costs are shifted to the Global South e.g. to the offshore production of plenty of cheap consumer goods which flood the markets in the north. Textile exports from Bangladesh to the EU boomed in 2010 – actually in the middle of the EU crisis. The horrible incidents in the global textile industries revealed once again that fashion brands, retail labels and discounters from the North pressurize manufacturers in the South to minimize production costs, leading to the unregulated, unsafe construction of factories, the intensification of exploitation of mostly female labour, and the disregard of safety standards, minimum wages and labour rights.

Low priced consumer goods in crisisprone Europe are supposed to compensate for the precarisation of livelihoods and lack of social security and to pacify citizens. This kind of human rights violations correspond with the absence of human or workers rights clauses in trade agreements.

Seemingly increase of gender rights in neoliberal system: what does it entail?

Negotiations of crucial global governance regimes like climate change and trade at the WTO have come to a standstill partially due to old controversies between North and South, partially because of new conflicts emerging within the multipolar power relations. However, in the middle of this deep crisis of international consensus–building e.g. in the climate change and in the biodiversity negotiations, a gender plan for equal participation was adopted. Is this acknowledgment of gender equality only a replacement action? How, do we get along with more rights within the neo-liberal patriarchal system? Is this part and parcel of a process of gender adjustment, assimilation and inclusion into the regime? Or is it a good starting point for critique and resistance from a feminist perspective?

Many feminists and queer people perceive and make use of openings within in the flexible capitalism and liberalised markets for building new subjectivities, sexualities and identities beyond the heteronormative gender order. They explore new individual rights and new freedom in the clinical, beauty, fitness and sexual industries. Really an uncanny compliance of demand and supply within the neoliberal regime! The marketization of reproduction is part and parcel of the ongoing reconfiguration of capitalism, which continues to economise and financialise whatever has not been completely commodified before: nature, public goods and commons, social reproduction and the human body.

Feminists need to keep struggling for the womens humanist paradigm

All this makes us look at the women’s human rights agenda in a much more ambivalent and complex way than we did twenty years back. At the same time the rights paradigm is not only a normative framework for our struggles, it is an indispensable tool. Claiming women’s, human, citizens’ and labour rights and scandalising abuse still is the main mobilising and organising tool for social movements and CSOs to counter rights abuses and to articulate a moral regime of social values, and a logic of solidarity against the global neoliberal order.

On a transnational level this was the case when CSOs organised around the adoption of a Convention for Domestic Workers at the ILO. This was the case when transnational and national CSOs and trade unions phrased a binding fire and safety accord for textile factories in Bangladesh and were able to persuade more than 30 big retail and fashion brands to sign it. Both the convention and the safety accord are only first and small steps towards establishing a rights regime against and over the market and the austerity regime in the crisis. Still, these are signals and symbols for our vision to give preference to human, women’s and citizen’s rights over the rights of private property, investors and corporations.

There is no alternative but to reclaim and to re-articulate the women’s human rights agenda when struggling against the austerity regime and when negotiating the upcoming sustainable development goals. But most important: if we as feminists start transformative practices, reclaim commons and attempt to build economic and socio‐ecological alternatives, those have to be rooted in the women’s human rights agenda, in a concept of global citizenship and in deep democracy which overcomes the public–private divide and crosses over cultural boundaries and national borders.

Christa Wichterich, Guest Professor at University Kassel, WIDE+ taskforce member.

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