Women’s rights seemed simple 72 years ago, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, under the visionary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, launched an international regime which outlawed sex discrimination and required states to ensure the equal rights of men and women. A Kuhnian shift of perception for humanity and a paradigm change for political philosophers and jurists, women’s right to equality seemed written in stone.
Impressive gains for equality were made globally in law and practice. Women’s right to vote became universal by 2015. Political participation averages 23.5% of parliaments and 18.3% in government. Girls’ equality in education was widely achieved in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals. Equal employment opportunity laws proliferated. Equal rights for men and women in marriage were enacted in secular legal systems. Laws were passed in a majority of states to counter forms of gender-based violence against women.
However, in the past decade, ideological backlash has been rising, threatening gains made. It stems from two wider phenomena, which challenge universal human rights in general but which centrally target women: the rise of global neo-liberalism and the rise of politicized religious traditionalism. While neo-liberalism has undermined commitment to social and economic rights where they interfere with free market forces; politicized religion has opposed the universality of human rights, where it conflicts with traditionalist edicts. Women are caught in a pincer action between the two, their emergent right to equality thwarted differently by each.
The negative impact of neo-liberalism on women results from its gender blindness. Neo-liberalism has entrenched free market competition and profit maximization as the essence of economic policy. Based on an icon of economic man, this ideology was formulated by a male monopoly of economic decision-makers in the political and corporate arenas. In policy-making, economic woman has lagged far behind political woman, with participation in economic portfolios in government and corporate leadership at less than 6%.
Far less tractable than the overall gender gap – which itself will not be closed for a century – the global economic gender gap will not be closed for 217 years. This failure to achieve equality in the economic sphere is a product of neo-liberal policy, aggravated by austerity measures. We have increased GDP at the cost of soaring economic inequality, in which women are concentrated at the lowest levels and almost invisible at the top; and we have reduced the public sector and services, social insurance benefits and privatization of care, on all of which women, because of gendered patterns of social behavior, are more dependent than men.
Politicization of religion, in its assertion of patriarchal traditionalism and gender hierarchy, is waging war on women’s rights to equality and autonomy, particularly in the family and reproductive rights. In the UN, a lobby of governments has passed resolutions calling for interpretation of human rights in accordance with traditional values, prohibition of the defamation of religion and protection of the family without reassertion of women’s right to equality within the family. UN independent experts and NGOs have resisted these resolutions, with some success. However, the confrontation is ongoing. The right to abortion is a case in point, with experts increasingly calling for decriminalization and recognition of women’s reproductive autonomy and the Security Council in 2019 rejecting the call to provide access to abortion for victims of mass rape in conflict.
Strategies to uphold human rights and women’s rights are the big question for Generations X, Y and Z. They inherit a paradigm of women’s right to equality, but it is fragile. Current approaches are divided, amongst them: multiculturalist denial of the universality of a feminism applicable to all women regardless of social, economic or cultural differences, post-feminist deconstruction of sex identity as essentialist, and radical feminism expressed through the MeToo global protest. While sensitivity to intersectionality and gender diversity is crucial, the struggle against backlash demands recognition of women’s shared continuing experience of patriarchy and a common need to secure access to de facto equality in both the public and private spheres of their lives. In this struggle, women need to establish alliances with men who share the understanding that patriarchy is an integral part of those world-views which spawn egregious economic inequality and religious fundamentalism, and that misogyny is aligned with xenophobia and terrorism, undermining the universal human rights vision which is the only optimistic story of our times.