When We Talk About Human Rights Instead Of Women’s Rights – Prof. Dr. Verónica Schild

Review 29.04 – Prof. Dr. Verónica Schild’s Lecture on “Women’s Rights as Human Rights: A Tool for Invisibilizing other Knowledge?”

Prof. Dr. Verónica Schild
Prof. Dr. Verónica Schild

What hap­pens when in­s­te­ad of ana­ly­zing so­ci­al ine­qua­li­ties and women’s eman­ci­pa­ti­on through a gen­der per­spec­tive, we talk about them as is­su­es of hu­man rights? What ef­fect does this have on fe­mi­nist know­ledge pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­ti­on? And what po­li­ti­cal con­se­quen­ces re­sult from fin­dings with a hu­man rights, in­s­te­ad of a gen­der per­spec­tive? In her pre­sen­ta­ti­on, Prof. Dr. Verónica Schild dis­cus­sed the­se ques­ti­ons and ex­ami­ned the ro­le dis­cour­ses on hu­man rights play for fe­mi­nist mo­ve­ments, gen­der stu­dies and their (in­ten­ded) out­co­mes.

When we talk about human rights instead of women’s rights

According to Schild, hu­man rights have in the last cen­tu­ry be­co­me the do­mi­nant ethi­cal dis­cour­se with uni­ver­sa­list claims, pro­vi­ding a new frame for fe­mi­nist de­ba­tes and pro­jects of eman­ci­pa­ti­on. This link can be traced back to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995, em­ble­ma­ti­cal­ly re­flec­ted in Hillary Clinton’s speech: “[…] it is no lon­ger ac­cep­ta­ble to dis­cuss women’s rights as se­pa­ra­te from hu­man rights.“1 Without a doubt, fe­mi­nist in­ter­ven­ti­ons have pre­pa­red ground for other mo­ve­ments to ques­ti­on the uni­ver­sa­li­ty im­plied in hu­man rights, with re­gard to race, eth­ni­ci­ty, se­xu­al ori­en­ta­ti­on, se­xu­al iden­ti­ty and other spe­ci­fi­ci­ties. However, “women’s rights as hu­man rights” li­mits women’s rights to mat­ters of re­co­gni­ti­on, while Schild em­pha­si­zes that women’s eman­ci­pa­ti­on must al­so be a ques­ti­on of re­gar­ding par­ti­cu­lar claims if discri­mi­na­ti­on and struc­tu­ral ine­qua­li­ties are to be re­sol­ved. In the pro­cess of ta­king in­to ac­count spe­ci­fic needs and par­ti­cu­lar is­su­es af­fec­ting wo­men, aca­de­mia plays an im­portant ro­le.

In the ela­bo­ra­ti­on of in­ter­na­tio­nal con­ven­ti­ons li­ke the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for in­s­tan­ce, aca­de­mics con­tri­bu­t­ed to the ge­ne­ra­ti­on of cri­te­ria and in­di­ca­tors to iden­ti­fy discri­mi­na­ti­on. Here, cer­tain know­ledge has ac­qui­red a he­ge­mo­nic sta­tus, be­gin­ning with the de­fi­ni­ti­on of what is a wo­man, to the ca­ta­lo­gue of what are con­s­i­de­red spe­ci­fic women’s rights, and who de­fi­nes them. International nego­tia­ti­ons are a pri­vi­le­ged space whe­re gender-sensitive re­se­arch shapes the frame of a trans­na­tio­nal po­li­ti­cal dis­cour­se: what is ad­dres­sed, who is ad­dres­sed, what is con­s­i­de­red a re­le­vant is­sue, and what is not es­ta­blished he­re. This is al­so the space whe­re we see how un­pri­vi­le­ged peop­le are ad­dres­sed and how the rights of dis­pla­ced per­sons are de­fi­ned (or un­ders­tood). How this know­ledge is ta­ken up in dif­fe­rent lo­ca­li­ties al­so mat­ters. We can see that the terms used to ad­dress spe­ci­fic is­su­es, for examp­le the use of vio­lence against wo­men ra­ther than intra-familiar vio­lence, can de­ter­mi­ne dif­fe­rent po­li­ti­cal re­spon­ses (for examp­le, if the­re is po­li­ce trai­ning or not). Some women’s rights to­pics have be­en a ma­jor ground for de­ba­te, such as vio­lence and re­pro­duc­tive health, while others such as the im­pact on wo­men of so­ci­al in­jus­ti­ces as­so­cia­ted with ca­pi­ta­lism, in­clu­ding socio-economic ine­qua­li­ty have had com­pa­ra­tively less at­ten­ti­on.

The lar­ger ques­ti­on is, who’s agen­da is re­al­ly re­flec­ted in the­se dis­cus­sions? While gen­der is an im­portant per­spec­tive to ad­dress new is­su­es in re­se­arch, as well as in­ter­na­tio­nal and trans­na­tio­nal po­li­ti­cal pro­jects, for examp­le, in the field of de­ve­lop­ment, it’s sub­sti­tu­ti­on by a hu­man rights per­spec­tive po­ses the dan­ger of igno­ring the im­portant cul­tu­ral par­ti­cu­la­ri­ties and his­to­ri­cal com­ple­xi­ties sha­ping the li­ving con­di­ti­ons and eman­ci­pa­tor ef­forts of wo­men.

Experience from feminist work in Chile

In the cour­se of her pre­sen­ta­ti­on, Schild drew at­ten­ti­on to the fact that the ways know­ledge is pro­du­ced, even know­ledge that is sen­si­ti­ve to une­qual gen­der re­la­ti­ons, must re­co­gni­ze the em­be­ded­ness of know­ledge pro­duc­tion in power struc­tures and it’s ca­pa­ci­ty to re­st­ruc­tu­re power re­la­ti­ons. Her own work ex­pe­ri­ence with fe­mi­nist re­se­arch and ac­tivism in Chile pro­vi­des an examp­le.

During the Chilean dic­ta­tor­ship (1973-1989), non-governmental or­ga­ni­za­ti­ons (NGOs) con­cer­ned with wo­men in vul­nerable si­tua­ti­ons be­ca­me spaces for re­se­arch and ac­tivism that coun­ted on in­ter­na­tio­nal sup­port. In their so­li­da­ri­ty work, the­se NGOs sup­por­ted the in­itia­ti­ves of or­ga­ni­zed wo­men in poor com­mu­nities, from collec­tive shop­ping of food, to soup-kitchens, and others. They al­so of­fe­red self-development work­shops that in­clu­ded, among others, li­ter­acy and lea­dership trai­ning, parent-child re­la­ti­ons, wo­men’ s rights un­der Chilean law, and the histo­ry of Chilean fe­mi­nist ac­tivism, which was not on­ly about suf­fra­ge, but al­so about strug­gles for la­bor rights. At the time wo­men in Chile suf­fe­red im­portant le­gal discri­mi­na­ti­ons and we­re the prime tar­gets of la­bour ca­sua­li­za­ti­on. With the tran­si­ti­on to a de­mo­cra­tic sys­tem, “gen­der ex­perts” and pro­fes­sio­nals from the NGOs ac­ces­sed new po­si­ti­ons in go­vernment agen­ci­es, and trans­na­tio­nal po­li­cy ori­en­ted re­se­arch net­works. Their re­la­ti­on to the wo­men they had form­er­ly worked with at the com­mu­ni­ty le­vel was trans­for­med. Their for­mer “sis­ters” in strugg­le be­ca­me their “cli­ents” and the spe­ci­fic needs and know­ledge the­se sis­ters had de­ve­lo­ped we­re now dis­re­gar­ded.2 This de­ve­lop­ment led to a new ge­ne­ra­ti­on of gender-sensitive know­ledge with the do­mi­nan­ce of “so­lu­ti­ons” ba­sed on trans­na­tio­nal policy-oriented re­se­arch and the si­len­cing of lo­cal fe­mi­nist know­ledge.

Insights from Mexico on the role of knowledge in claiming rights and conclusion

Last but not least, Schild re­fer­red to the work of ac­tivist scho­l­ars li­ke Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo who ex­plo­re this phe­no­me­non by loo­king at wo­men in the Zapatista mo­ve­ment of Mexico. Indigenous wo­men who we­re part of the mo­ve­ment not on­ly op­po­sed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and sup­por­ted the de­ve­lop­ment al­ter­na­ti­ves of their com­mu­nities, they al­so ar­ti­cu­la­ted their own dis­tinct form of fe­mi­nism. This Zapatista fe­mi­nism, as Hernández Castillo has shown, is in the dif­fi­cult si­tua­ti­on of fighting on dif­fe­rent fronts, on the one hand with their com­mu­nities in op­po­si­ti­on to neo­li­be­ral “de­ve­lop­ment” and against an eth­no­cen­trist do­mi­nant Mexican fe­mi­nism, and on the other hand in their own com­mu­nities for equa­li­ty with the men. Their strugg­le of­fers im­portant in­sights and chal­len­ges the know­ledge of trans­na­tio­na­li­zed gen­der po­li­cy ex­perts.

In her con­clu­si­on Schild no­ted that anti-poverty and hu­man rights ori­en­ted fe­mi­nist ap­proa­ches are do­mi­nant to­day. In con­texts of ra­pa­cious neo­li­be­ral ca­pi­ta­lism, they ser­ve to in­vi­si­bi­li­ze al­ter­na­ti­ve so­lu­ti­ons to so­ci­al ine­qua­li­ties, in­clu­ding tho­se ba­sed on gen­der, they fail to ade­qua­te­ly ana­ly­ze the spe­ci­fic ma­te­ri­al of people’s lives, and they are sin­gu­lar­ly un­re­flec­tive about their own pro­duc­tion of know­ledge as a power me­cha­nism. In neo­li­be­ral con­texts, “hu­man rights talk”, as a gen­der de­ve­lop­ment stra­te­gy de­fi­ned through the lens of “women’s rights as hu­man rights”, is ea­si­ly re­crui­ted to neu­tra­li­ze al­ter­na­ti­ve po­li­ti­cal so­lu­ti­ons.


 1See: http://www.un.org/esa/gopher-data/conf/fwcw/conf/gov/950905175653.txt

2 See al­so Schild, Veronica (2013): “Care and Punishment in Latin America: “The Gendered Neoliberalization of the Chilean State”, in: Goodale, Mark and Postero, Nancy (eds.), Neoliberalism Interrupted: Social Change and Contested Governance in Contemporary Latin America, Stanford University Press, 195-224.

Schild, Veronica (2004): “Die Freiheit der Frauen und ge­sell­schaft­li­cher Fortschritt. Feministinen, der Staat und die Armen bei der Schaffung neo­li­be­ra­ler Gouvernementalität”, in: Kaltmeir, Olaf; Kastner, Jens and Tuider, Elisabeth (eds.), Neoliberalismus, Autonomie, Widerstand. Soziale Bewegungen in Lateinamerika, Münster, Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, 82-100.


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