Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Where Does the Global Women’s Movement Go Now?

CSO Forum participants display solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. Photo Credits: Suri Kempe.

The Beijing +25 Asia and Pacific Civil Society Forum held recently in Bangkok brought together over 300 activists representing 250 organizations and networks for a three-day convening. Participants assessed progress since 1995 and crafted a statement of demands to place before the Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on the Beijing+25 Review that followed the Forum.

The hashtags #FeministsWantSystemChange and #AngerHopeAction made clear the gathering was a marker of how little had changed on the ground since the ambitious Beijing Platform for Action was agreed at the 4th World Conference for Women in 1995.

Yet, a generation of new activists has come of age since then, with powerful concerns that have pushed the Beijing agenda forward, such as the rights of LGBTQI and disabled persons, and the need to address digital safety. Women around the world are gravely affected by the consequences of climate change, the rise of anti-democratic populism, and a backlash against feminism, which makes 1995 seem more like a peak moment rather than a starting point for the broader transformation anticipated at the time. With spaces for engagement shrinking, inequalities growing, and global regression of hard won sexual and reproductive rights, there is a lot of anger.

In an attempt to identify feminist ways forward, discussions on the first day highlighted that the women’s movement needed to become more inclusive and build deeper grassroots support. Principles of feminist leadership too need to be upheld, such as promoting the practices of reflexivity, care and ethics. It is time for the movement to become re-politicized, strengthen its ties across the older and younger generation, build inter-movement solidarity, and pay greater attention to intersectionality.

The Forum opened on the first day of the #16Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, marking International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (VAW). Three panels were concerned with VAW – including at the workplace and amongst transgender people. UN Special Rapporteur on VAW, Dubravka Šimonovic, spoke eloquently about the struggle to have VAW recognized as a violation of women’s human rights, reminding the audience that at Beijing in 1995 this recognition was just one year old. She said much progress has been made since then in our global understanding of the problem and putting enforcement mechanisms in place. In a tacit acknowledgement of the achievements of #MeToo and the changed conversation around sex, she challenged the international community to make the absence of consent a new global standard for the definition of rape.

Australian panelists from Our Watch presented a detailed programme they have developed for reducing VAW, premised on the argument that gender inequality sets the necessary context for violence against women. Features of this context are: condoning of violence against women, men’s control over decision-making and limits to women’s independence, stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity, disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasize aggression. So, the actions which would reverse that would involve challenging these norms and values, and strengthening positive relationships within society. They have developed a framework for monitoring and evaluating progress on prevention actions. The Our Watch approach is both ambitious and comprehensive.

Yet activists from the region’s less wealthy countries have to contend with dysfunctional criminal justice and governance mechanisms, and weak data gathering capacities. They commented it would be difficult to apply this approach in their respective countries.

Musawah, a Malaysian based research and advocacy organization working towards equality and justice in the Muslim family, announced a global drive to reform family laws. Inviting people from all religions to join in, they called for transformative action to redraw power relations within the family. They cited a lack of progress since Beijing 1995 in legal reform so critical to improving women’s status in all societies, not only Muslim ones.

Musawah panelists based their arguments on the recent work of feminist scholars Mala Htun, Francesca Jensenius and Jami Nelson-Nunez, who reviewed global datasets and found that family law is the single biggest predictor of women’s economic empowerment, even more so than egalitarian labour laws and parental leave. They discovered discrimination in family laws is significantly associated with female labor force participation, ownership of assets, and ownership of bank accounts.

Musawah panelists argued that family law is uniquely resistant to reform, despite or perhaps because it is so vital to accelerating progress for gender equality. In most countries, family laws are deeply tied to religious and cultural identities, and, in fact, personal status laws are exempt from guarantees of equality and non-discrimination. But, without equality in the family, equality in the public domain is not achievable.

Their own research found that, although all countries claim to use the same sources, where Muslim family law is codified no two countries have done so in the same way. Musawah has identified 12 principal issues of concern. Some address legislative frameworks, such as divorce rights, inheritance, and child custody. Others are procedural, for example, polygamy, VAW within the family, and guardianship of children. The third category addresses practices, for instance, capacity of women to enter into marriage, and child marriage.

All these issues of concern require an examination of existing laws and unpacking how male dominance is built into the frameworks of legal and social practice. Musawah’s approach is premised on the argument that human rights and religion are not incompatible, and a feminist interpretation of religious doctrine – in any scripture  will eventually enable reforms in family law. Many younger feminist delegates from Indonesia, Maldives, Pakistan, India and Malaysia, thought it may be a strategic way to counter the growing global influence of the religious right. However, for the older generation of secular feminists, including myself, a uniform civil code based on a human rights framework may seem more difficult to achieve but ultimately serves women’s interests best.

It is perhaps indicative of the direction in which international feminism has gone since Beijing 1995 that there was little focus at the CSO Forum on the Platform for Action’s commitments to development and peace. Activists regretted that with the advent of first the Millenium Development Goals and then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international community considers it adequate to subsume the feminist agenda within SDG Goal 5, replacing a critique of patriarchy with a discourse of empowerment instead. In their joint statement, they urged governments represented at the Ministerial Conference to: ensure the primacy of human rights in economic, trade, and legal frameworks; invest in social protection and health care for all; examine the implications of the digital economy for women; and strengthen national frameworks on gender and disability inclusion.

The Declaration of the Ministerial Conference acknowledged activists’ concerns without explicitly framing their statement in human rights language. Instead, the ministers recognized women’s economic contribution and called for measures to include them in the benefits of development and protect them more effectively from poverty and inequality. Avoiding the language of rights, patriarchy and feminism altogether, they “committed to work together with key stakeholders to transform negative gender norms, discriminatory social attitudes and to eliminate structurally unequal power relations that persist between women and men.” The Declaration will be heard as part of the global review of Beijing at the Commission on the Status of Women in New York next March. Surely many attending will have heard these words somewhere before, maybe in Beijing.