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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