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Women’s Human Rights and U.S. Interests

Author: Jennifer Seymour Whitaker
January 7, 2000
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

At this session, speakers and participants debated the relationship between women’s empowerment and democratization and considered policy rationales and guidelines for advocacy on women’s human rights. They considered a range of issues, including the efficacy of social movements versus that of non-governmental organizations in advancing women’s cause, the difficulties of maintaining momentum after democratic transitions, potential conflicts between democratic and gender revolutions, and the consequences of viewing human rights in instrumental rather than purely moral terms.

On the question of whether women form a natural constituency for democratization, a number of participants saw a compelling conceptual relationship for which empirical verification has yet to be undertaken. Others pointed alternatively to progress and obstacles on both women’s empowerment and democratization, and emphasized the complexity of the relationship in the cases they have looked at.

Looking at the culturally sensitive issue of policies aimed at changing male-female relationships in other societies, a number of participants favored nuanced advocacy of normative frameworks that empower people to choose rather than directing them to act in certain ways. Discussions of both rationales and implementation drew strong consensus on the need to listen closely to local women’s voices and pay careful attention to domestic legal and political processes.

Democratization: Does Women’s Participation Matter?

Discussion was organized around the following questions:

1. How important are the actions of transnational women’s networks in changing norms about women’s participation within states?

2. Is the growing role of women’s NGOs in the civil society of transitional states likely, in the long term, to significantly bolster the adoption and consolidation of democratic government?

3. Will the goals of women’s NGOs at both the international and grass roots levels—

a. to make human rights treaties and implementing bodies relevant instruments for coping with repression of women, and

b. to broaden opportunities for themselves and for women generally within their societies

--foster democratization?

4. Will the efforts of women to achieve these goals foster peace and security?

Throughout the discussion participants looked at cause and effect—regarding progress for women, the impact of women on democracy and of democratization on women, the relationship of NGOs and civil society, the relationship of women’s groups and civil society, the relationship of NGOs and democratic governance, the balance between the gender revolution and the democratic revolution—from various angles. Several argued that the growth of civil society and of mass participation have deleterious effects both on consolidation of the rule of law and on women’s rights; another asserted, conversely, that a push for women’s rights will set back the cause of democratization by increasing fears of elites about threats to the status quo. Taking a quite different tack, some argued that activists of various stripes, not states, play the major role in changing normative agendas. Thus mass political culture is extremely important to establishing foundations for both democracy and human rights. Women have been enormously important in advocacy groups since the abolition movement; various peace movements have been staffed and to some real extent lead by women; the same is true for the environmental movement, particularly at the grass roots. We can see the contemporary salience of movement pressures demonstrated in the new acceptance of the notions of protecting individuals from the force of other states— and of protecting individuals from the force of their own states—as a result of pressure from the human rights movement. Thus civil society penetrates the state, causing it to adopt principles promoted by movements for social and political change.

Focusing on the relationship between women’s movements and democracy, participants looked both at the impact of women’s movements in moving states toward democracy and the effect on women’s empowerment on the consolidation of democracy. In many transitional societies—though not in the Middle East, nor, at this point in Eastern Europe— democratization and women’s empowerment have gone together fairly well. Looking at Latin America, in particular, in the 1980s women’s groups played a major role in creating a new image for democracy and in moving their societies into transition. However, with the return of political parties, women were excluded from power and pushed back to the margins. Although they retained many of their social gains, their movements lost impetus—as civil society in general lost its political sway. For women, the quota systems now in place in a number of Latin American countries offer some hope of increasing women’s political participation—and, gradually, their integration into power structures. Hope for further integration can be found in the relative electoral success of women in a number of industrialized and developing countries at the local level.

Although the lag in women’s participation makes generalization about differences between women and men in the use of political power somewhat speculative, participants were eager to speculate. Several participants doubted that women are any more interested in peace than men are. Others, however, talked about possible changes in international agendas that might come with participation by a critical mass of women in government worldwide. Several participants echoed the discussion at the September session about women’s legislative agenda, saying that because women do most of the caring for those in situations of extreme dependency, they bring the issue of "care" to the policy table more insistently. It was also suggested that if women gained more political power they might change domestic agendas to focus more on the negative social repercussions of globalization.

Advocacy for Women’s Human Rights in a Culturally Diverse World

Discussion was organized around the following questions:

1. In a culturally diverse world, how can we justify advocacy or intervention regarding the values governing male-female relations in another society?

2. Assuming that fostering women’s participation and empowermant is a goal of U.S. policy, how can we best achieve that goal? How can we work for women’s rights most effectively while avoiding downside risks to:

a. women’s welfare?

b. U.S. interests?

Turning to the question of normative assertions about women’s rights, a comprehensive rationale for cross-cultural approaches was laid out, aimed at refuting arguments against cross-cultural judgments that draw on generalizations about culture, diversity and paternalism. Regarding the appeal to culture, it was noted that cultures are not stable monoliths but rather subject to constant debate—if diverse voices are permitted to be heard. Looking at the argument against universalism and in favor of diversity, it was pointed out that different aspects of given cultures have very different relative values: some cultural practices—domestic violence is a good example—should not be preserved. Again, regarding the argument that judgments about human rights in other societies are by their nature paternalistic, it was argued that as long as human rights approaches are sensitive to local issues, they are not likely to be grounded in paternalism but rather in individualism.

Focusing on implementation of human rights advocacy, participants discussed a variety of cases and lessons learned from them. The example of sex-discrimination and exploitation in the maquilladora industry and export of sweated labor generally showed the importance of pressures on private industry, and, in turn, applying leverage on states where this industry is located. Grass roots advocacy in advanced industrial nations has accomplished a good deal in changing the consciousness of corporations. Corporations will respond once they become convinced that their bottom line will be impacted. We need to reframe issues so that the role of corporations is brought to the front and center.

At the same time, it is also crucial that the women involved—in the maquiliadora case, the women laborers— come to understand their rights and their ability to fight for them. Women themselves are the most critical agents of the process. But to act they need political space in which to operate.

Looking at U. S. policy on women’s human rights: first of all, it must be based on true universality—i.e., one which takes into account violations of women’s human rights in the U.S. as well as in the developing world. Secondly, it must give priority—and devote resources—to the issue. It is doubtful, for example, that women’s rights has been raised seriously with the Saudi government.

How can we avoid provoking a backlash? Some participants suggested working through international instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Others suggested emphasizing economic and social rights, which are fundamental to the empowerment of women rather than focusing only on political rights. Women will not gain political power until they gain some economic power and vice versa.

Participants reiterated the need for Western allies to listen carefully and continuously to the voices of the women whose empowerment they seek to foster. They know best what conditions within their society they need to take account of, where the pitfalls lie, and where the most promising opportunities lies. If they are to be empowered they need to take control.

Finally, participants debated whether women’s human rights should be viewed instrumentally or solely as a moral end. A number pointed out the risks in "devaluing" the moral aspects of women’s rights by casting them as a means to a political end—democratization. Others, however, saw real advantages in highlighting the need for women’s human rights for governments that mostly confine their support to lip service, by showing how women’s rights underpin security objectives. Most appeared to agree that even when women’s human rights are viewed instrumentally, we should not forget the primacy of the moral.

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