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Women’s Human Rights and U.S. Interests—Women in the 1990's

Author: Jennifer Seymour Whitaker
September 22, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations

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

At this session, speakers and participants asked whether the end of the Cold War, the information revolution, globalization, and changing international norms have fundamentally altered international relationships and considered how the emergence of a highly effective new set of activists and groups in the global women’s movement may affect international relations. They also assayed, more tentatively, evidence of growing strength of women’s groups at the grass roots and their roles within civil society in the developing world.

What’s New: Women’s Human Rights and World Politics

Discussion focused on the following questions:

1) Is the threat of military confrontation between nation-states diminishing or just on hold?

2) How far may democratization and equitable development in the former communist and Third Worlds foster U.S. security and global stability?

3) Is the growing role of women NGOs in civil society and international social and economic policy-making likely, in the long term, to bolster democratization and equitable development?

Participants debated how much fundamental change in world politics we can see as we approach the millenium, given the end of the Cold War, the information revolution, economic globalization, erosion of states’power, and changing international norms. Do new threats (or those formerly viewed as a lesser priority) have greater destabilizing potential? While most did not foresee the imminent transformation of the international system to downplay competition for political and military power, they did view the technological revolution as having profound systemic implications—for women and for state power. For women, global communications and transportation have opened major new opportunities for collaboration and for attempts to change norms globally. However, the decline of state power entails real risks for the cause of women’s empowerment: state support in many instances is the sine qua non for the reallocation of power in ways that benefit women and state-supported safety nets are essential to the maintenance of women’s and families’ welfare. Would a critical mass of women in leadership positions make a difference regarding the incidence of conflict? Participants refused to generalize about the relative propensity to violence of women in power, but many felt that such a wholesale shift in power ought to entail some change in the rules of the game. Others found it easier to foresee differences on social welfare issues—nationally or internationally—with women giving more weight to "caring" issues than elites do at present.

Women and Development: Dynamism at the Grass Roots

Discussion focused on the following questions:

1) What evidence do we have about the effectiveness of women’s groups at the grass roots had in achieving developmental goals?

2) What do we know about these groups’ organizational capacity, sustainability; success in training women for political participation and leadership?

3) How has organizing women for WID changed the actual/potential role of women’s groups and actors in civil society?

Participants and speakers looked at the growth of grass roots organizing among women in the 1990s—relating grass roots development to the work of elite women’s groups at the international level. They saw as key factors the increased scale of women’s organizing, as a result of new technologies and of international travel; new methods of organizing, including consciousness-raising, economic literacy training/micro-credit programs, and democracy/leadership training; and the momentum building through a series of international conferences starting in 1975. They pointed to worldwide improvements in women’s status and a major value change over the past few decades, with a majority worldwide agreeing that women should have equal opportunities and that government would be improved with women sharing in leadership. Group members emphasized that for change women’s collaboration is essential—experience to date has shown that when women work together they greatly increase their chances of achieving their goals.

Women’s Human rights and the Nature of International Society

Discussion focused on the following questions:

1) How does the goal of women NGOs—to make human rights treaties and implementing bodies relevant instruments for coping with repression of women—affect peace and security?

2) How does emergence of highly effective set of new international groups and actors affect "international society"?

Speakers and participants looked at human rights advances, at the women’s networks that have been instrumental in achieving them and at effects on the international system. On women’s rights, it was asserted that progress will come most readily when women achieve a critical mass in their countries; when as women they identify with those who have been left out; and when they work to upset the divisions between public and private that have previously relegated gender related issues to the margins. The women’s movement has made real progress in bringing formerly hidden issues like rape as a war crime and domestic violence into the human rights lexicon. Women need to redefine security more broadly, emphasizing the connections between economic, social and violence-related issues.

How do these shifts affect international relations? Most of the discussion on this question centered around the major growth in the women’s movement internationally (and to a less demonstrable extent locally). It was asserted that women’s NGOs are different in that they share goals more fully and focus on the processes for changing the international system, and existing structures within it. They also operate more democratically and work harder to bridge gaps between the global and local levels. They have had significant successes in creating new spaces for public discourse—with the proliferation of microcredit programs and the identification of rape as a war crime as the most concrete achievements. For the future they need to press strenuously to get governments to go along with international decisions. They also need to concentrate on influencing other international institutions where women have had less access—principally the WTO.

Gender Gaps and International Relations

Discussion focused on the following questions:

1) What is the gender gap, or basis for thinking women have a different standpoint than men?

2) Are women less interested than men in gaining power over others and engaging in violent conflict about power?

3) Are women more inclined than men to (a)favor collaborative organization of institutions over hierarchical structures and thus more inclined toward (b) democratic government and multilateral coordination?

Here the group considered again the question of "difference" between men’s and women’s political attitudes in terms of available data, discussing what the differences are, some of the reasons for them, and the implications of trends in the evolution of those differences. The main theory on the table concerned the "new gender gap" in the industrialized nations, where women have become increasingly liberal in relation to men as societies have matured. During the nineties we have seen three waves of cultural change in the advanced industrialized societies: toward democracy, toward reduced sex role specialization (with economic development making women more participant—and increasingly so as we move toward a "knowledge" society), and toward new patterns of leadership emphasizing collegiality over rigid chains of command. Overall, if economic and technical development continues, these trends should endure and spread.