‘Beyond Human Rights? Rethinking Gender Equality In Law And Politics’, an international conference is hosted by Escola de Direito de São Paulo da FGV, Brazil; Oxford Human Rights Hub, Oxford University, United Kingdom; School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia, and will be held at the Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotà, Colombia on 19 and 20 October 2017.
In the 1990s, in the context of a post Cold-war world and a new global consensus on human rights, the third wave of constitutionalism saw many countries in Africa and South America enact new constitutions founded on justiciable fundamental rights and gender equality. Across the developing world, these constitutions, as well as international and regional agreements on women’s rights, gave rise to rights-based activism to secure new laws and policies to empower women. At the same time, regional systems, such as the European Union, turned to institutionalising gender equality in all 28 member states through anti-discrimination laws, protection of pregnancy and parenting rights, equal pay laws, protections for flexible workers, and mainstreaming policies. The past two decades have seen a staggering increase in the use of human rights – enshrined in international, regional and national documents – to address gender equality, poverty, the workplace, gender-based violence, reproductive justice, HIV/AIDS and so on. Constitutionalism, justiciable rights, international and regional human rights norms and comparative human rights law have driven political and legal struggles for gender equality and women’s empowerment across the world.
Feminist mobilization on these issues has largely taken place via specialized and professionalized non-governmental organizations that were very successful in intervening in national and international policy processes. Feminists also took on roles in state institutions – they joined political parties, became parliamentarians, parliamentary advisers or joined government teams. Others joined non-governmental organizations employing lobbying, advocacy and national and international litigation strategies.
These social movements and organisations won important victories, although mostly on issues that are culturally more acceptable and do not fundamentally challenge the traditional division of gender roles. For example, many countries adopted policies against gender violence, but have struggled to shift norms and attitudes that fuel violence. For the majority of countries in Africa and South America, there has been a deep reticence in advancing sexual and reproductive rights. For the few that have adopted new laws, they have failed to implement them effectively. In this field, the ‘feminist threat’ has encouraged religious and conservative forces to organize and mobilize themselves, both in the institutional arena and in disputing social morality.
Similar patterns of ‘backlash’ can be found on migrant and economic issues as rights-based gains are opposed by Neoliberals who see Court adjudication as an undue interference with the market. Thus we see a claw-back on progressive socio-economic rights jurisprudence in Colombia as well as the dismantling of state led redistributive policies in countries such as Argentina and Brazil, while in ‘older’ democracies, the established consensus of the welfare state is undermined by free market policies and xenophobia, such as in the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, the constitutional agreements of the 1990s are being challenged by new social movements in countries like South Africa on the grounds that they have been unable to deliver meaningful and transformative change. Some of these movements are questioning the liberal-democratic frameworks of change and are bringing the strategy of rights into question.
As institutional channels are closed down or increasingly contested, new forms of mobilization are emerging that are less institutionalized and engage change in different ways. In line with the global protests wave and with the more intense participation of ‘young feminism’, ‘black feminism’ and LGBTI, the feminist movements have started to incorporate a more autonomist repertoire of activity, with a return to street protests and more radical agendas linked to gender, body and sexuality. The consequences of this shift are still to be evaluated.
Much of this takes place in a context of years of austerity and/or deepening economic inequalities; new and old social tensions around race, gender, class, religion and so on; new social movements and a growing mobilisation and counter-mobilisation on issues of race, reproductive justice, migration, religion, peace movements and post-conflict reconstruction.
Indeed, it is clear that, 20 years on, the consensus on human rights is being challenged in a multitude of ways – conceptually, politically, culturally, legally and practically – from the left and from the right. At the heart of this are a series of new and old questions about the place of constitutions, law, gender equality and women’s human rights in an increasingly unequal and divided world.
The conference will therefore be centred around the following topics:
- Constitutionalism, rights and gender equality. Does constitutionalism and/or human rights still work for women? How far can we secure gender equality through rights and law? What is the value of international norms and standards for women? How do claims for gender equality square up with non-binary identities and intersectionality? Is gender still a useful category?
- Democracy, mobilisation and counter mobilisation. How do we understand the rise of new social movements for and against women, and what are the new strategies, repertoires and challenges for feminist mobilization? Which fields are more sensitive to counter mobilization and why? How are movement and counter movement’s strategies shaping each other and policy agendas? To what extent, and how, are both sides disputing the language of rights? How do we evaluate mobilisation strategies and outcomes?
- National and international responses to gendered poverty and inequality. What have we learnt about socio-economic rights and legal responses to poverty? What is left in the margins of socio-economic rights responses to poverty? What are other legal options beyond socio-economic rights? How can we capitalise on new developments such as the 2015 global commitment to women’s issues in the Sustainable Development Goals and how can we harness existing binding human rights commitments, such as CEDAW and ICESCR, to hold the world to account for delivering the SDGs for women by 2030? What use can we make of relatively new international procedures such as the Optional Protocols to CEDAW and ICESCR to mobilise for change and to address violations of women’s rights? What successful experiences give us hope for action?
- Women and work: Crossing the boundaries. To what extent have we addressed the work/family divide? What are the main issues raised by the debate surrounding sex work? Have labour laws and human rights been sidelined by the flexibilization of labour markets and increasing precariousness of work, especially for women who bear the double burden of paid and unpaid work? How can the rights of migrant women, especially domestic workers, be adequately protected? How can human rights law be reconfigured to provide decent work standards and to change the gender distribution of labour within the family? How has austerity affected the relationship between rights to welfare and rights at work and how can we avoid reinforcing gendered roles through welfare provision such as conditional cash transfers?
- Gender equality and women’s bodies. What normative frameworks enable greater protection for women in reproductive decision-making, gender-based violence, safe sex work and so on? What is the effect, on the feminist agenda, of conservative threats, as well as new actors and the growing importance of issues related to sexuality (largely influenced by the LGBTI movement agenda)? Is it still possible to accommodate women’s mobilization for equality and autonomy without contesting the frame of family and domesticity?
We invite you to address one or more of these questions in different national and international contexts. We welcome papers that address the changing context of gender equality and women’s rights struggles, and that are inspired to think about these issues in ‘new’ ways. What, if any, have been the significant changes of the past two decades and what conceptual, legal and political frameworks make sense going forward. In this, we hope to have a dialogue across countries of the South, and with countries of the North, about the place of women’s rights and gender equality in today’s world.
Participants are invited to submit an abstract on one of the above themes for presentation at the conference in Bogotà, Colombia on 19 and 20 October 2017. Abstract should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org by the 10 December 2016, and we will advise you of the outcome by 31 January 2017.
Participants will be expected to submit a written paper for discussion by 19 September 2017 and will be invited to re-work this paper for a book to be submitted for publication in 2018.
As limited funds are available, participants are expected to secure own funds for airfare and accommodation. We hope that you are able to do this. Local transportation and meals will be provided during the conference. Should you require additional assistance, please write to us at email@example.com
We look forward to welcoming you in Bogotà.
Helena Alviar, Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia.
Cathi Albertyn, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Sandra Fredman, Oxford Human Rights Hub, Oxford University, United Kingdom.
Marta Machado, Escola de Direito de São Paulo da FGV, Brazil.