The U.N. and the women's movement

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A southern perspective of the progress of feminist thought, language and ideas that enriched the U.N.

WOMEN, DEVELOPMENT AND THE UN - A Sixty-year Quest for Equality and Justice: Devaki Jain; Orient Longman, 3-6-752, Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 395.This book reviews not just the evolution of the U.N.'s programmes aimed at benefiting women; it is also an in-depth exercise, from a southern perspective, into the progress of feminist thought, language and ideas that enriched the U.N.Constraints of space inhibit the discussion of the historical trajectory that Devaki has sketched. We dwell therefore on chapter five that brings together a number of lessons of contemporary relevance for women's studies, women's movement and women's politics across countries.At the end of the sixth decade of the U.N.'s existence, it became clear that while the women's movement across the globe had gathered in strength and confidence, the women at the U.N. headquarters in New York "where policy is set, ideas are generated and data are gathered and analysed, remain largely excluded from the corridors of power despite some modest progress." This exclusion has several ramifications, the most important relating to macroeconomic decision making that has remained particularly resistant to feminist incursions. According to Devaki, the current global context of increasing disparities, dreadful pandemics such as AIDS and the widespread scourges of persistent hunger and unemployment all seem to converge in women's location in poverty.

Failure to integrate

Notwithstanding the extensive collection, collation, analysis and documentation (scholarly and popular) of material linking increasing poverty to growth-led development with strong doses of liberalisation, and the particularly harsh impact of such growth for women across the globe, a 2000 report of the U.N.'s Inter-Agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality was constrained to observe (after studying 27 U.N. entities) the failure to integrate gender fully into all mechanisms, a lack of data disaggregated by sex, and a lack of willingness to see the relevance of gender dimensions to poverty. It also noted that while many U.N. agencies had included planning and budgets for gender mainstreaming, such efforts had not been successful largely due to a lack of understanding of what terms such as "gender mainstreaming" and "gender equity" mean in practice. Even while institutions, including the U.N., grappled with operationalising "gender mainstreaming", women researchers and the women's movement worldwide began expressing reservations about the concept of gender, which, according to them had distracted and/or muted the political identity of "women". It was felt that "gender" was diverting attention from the feminist agenda of transforming social institutions (by resisting women's subordination and patriarchal institutions) to seeking women's rights and empowerment through a conciliatory approach.

Space to women

The space provided to women, and to women's exploration of "gender" by the U.N. had in no small measure enabled the movement of women from the periphery to the centre, in acknowledging and incorporating women's knowledge and expertise into the U.N.'s survey methodology, its measurement tools and into its policy making. But, as Devaki observes, "Yet as deeply as some U.N. structures absorbed these new ideas, they did not permeate the consciousness of the world body." On the contrary, the study of the U.N. starkly brings into relief two oppositional trajectories; the first is the strong political presence on the global scenario of the worldwide women's movement and the global recognition of the implications of gendered development. The other is the inescapable realisation of the worsening situation of women, especially those living in poverty and in conflict-ridden situations, "despite the fact that it has been addressed specifically by both the U.N. and development thought."


Devaki raises a number of very pertinent questions consequent to the above observation, including one, "Why does this disjunction exist after sixty years of what appears to be a vibrant and ostensibly effective partnership between the U.N. and the women's movement?" She does not however confront this question head on. Instead, she moves into a discussion of strategies that women and the women's movement could adopt to turn themselves into a new political force. The book ends rather tamely by noting that "[T]he experience of the past six decades has shown that much can be accomplished when the synergy flows between the U.N. and the women's movement."It is surprising to the reviewer knowing the author as she does as to why the "women's question" has not been located within the U.N.'s politics and/or analysed from a framework that takes as its starting point the particular governance structure of the U.N. that is systematically dictated and dominated by the concerns and agenda of a few countries. This failure to locate in no way negates the brilliant manner in which Devaki has documented the process through which women from across the globe have enriched the U.N. apart from creatively engaging with it on many fronts. Nevertheless, in choosing to dwell disproportionately on the relationship between the U.N., the women's movement and the agenda of development, the opportunity to operationalise the feminist methodology of unravelling the gendered structure of the U.N., and thereby recover and reclaim the politics that informed much of women's movement seems to have been missed.



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