Democracy, gender, and governance.

Position:Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: The Future of International Law - Discussion

The panel was convened at 2:45 p.m., Friday, March 30, by its moderator, Darren Rosenblum of Pace University School of Law, who introduced the panelists: Sonia E. Alvarez of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Janie Chuang of Washington College of Law, American University; Janet Halley of Harvard Law School; and the commentator, Kerry Rittich of the University of Toronto Law School.


By Darren Rosenblum *

Since at least the mid 1990s and the Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing, gender as an analytic category and as a programmatic concern has become a mainstream part of international law. While feminists have traditionally understood their relation to international law in critical terms and from their position as outsiders, this turn toward gender equality places at least some feminists and some of their projects within the governance structure of international law itself. This crucial shift from exclusion to partial inclusion merits examination.

The form of this inclusion goes beyond the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to reach a broad swath of international law. Recent efforts to eliminate human trafficking follow prior feminist work establishing rape as a war crime in international criminal law. These and similar efforts drew feminists into debates about the scope of international law and the proper agency for national efforts. In this process, feminists have had to engage diverse groups with different political commitments and goals. Now that feminists exercise some power in global governance we can interrogate the form of this governance and its relationship to feminists' goals. Do the products of these efforts reflect their original purpose?

My own work has examined French and Brazilian laws for women' s political representation, interrogating the role of both feminist theory and international law in such movements. In those contexts, the interaction between international law and domestic legislation reflected both the power of international norms to inspire compliance and the challenges in doing so given the variation of the construction of gender identity across national lines. The complex interaction between feminism and governance, between international law and domestic realities, will undoubtedly provoke an insightful set of reflections from our panel. Preparing this panel has been an amazing, delightful conversation among the panelists about gender and democracy in international law. The panel will proceed with brief presentations, a series of questions for the panel, and audience response.

These questions are:

(1) What are the implications of understanding gender activism as a part of global governance?

(2) What should we make of the moving trajectory and fragmentation of international women's rights concerns that you all have described?

(3) What has gender mainstreaming, to the extent that it has occurred, changed, and how has it changed feminist internationalism itself?.

(4) What issues does this changed and fragmented feminist internationalism still exclude and why?

(5) How have gender activists used international law such as CEDAW or the Beijing platform in local and national struggles?

(6) What do global economic institutions hope to gain from embracing it?


My role in this panel is to dialogue with international law from the perspective of Latin American social movements, especially feminist movements. I am going to talk today about a set of policies, discourses, and practices that constitute what I am calling the global gender agenda and its implications for feminist advocacy, especially from the perspective of Latin America.

The global gender agenda, as I understand it, is rather different from what some international scholars call the international gender regime or international gender regimes. It is the composite of practices and discourses that states on the one hand, and activists in civil society organizations on the other, feel compelled to enact if they are to succeed in securing vital resources. For states adopting this agenda, at least on paper, it has been increasingly necessary to succeed in winning assistance in international financial institutions, as well as multilateral and bilateral aid agencies.

For feminist activists and rights advocates, implementing that agenda is also seen as essential to success in what we could call the global gender projects market. Since at least the mid- to late 1990s, in the post-Beijing period, these discourses and practices have centered on a set of programmatic imperatives that are by now quite familiar: "women's empowerment," leadership training, micro-credit, job training projects for poor and indigent women, targeted cash transfer programs, numerous programs aimed at combating women's poverty, especially aimed at female-headed households, gender mainstreaming of government institutions and women's political participation and representation through electoral quotas, to name just a few of the most pervasive elements of this agenda. It is a "globally-grown" set of remedies or recipes for dealing with women's disadvantages in market-led development.

Forged from the confluence of transnational feminist advocacy and the new-found interest in gender by international institutions, the global gender agenda at once enables and disciplines feminist activism locally, nationally, and transnationally. (1) It facilitates the adoption of gender-related policy while at the same time sharply circumscribing its substantive parameters and thereby limiting its transformative potential. The global gender agenda both constitutes newly opened political space and disciplines those who occupy that space. That agenda undoubtedly has enabled feminist work that has had many, many positive consequences for women. Beyond the broader enabling effects in the world, international engagement in Latin America has offered up new political grammars that facilitate local, national, and global rights advocacy. But the global gender agenda--I think this is the most important point I want to make--also has disciplinary dimensions in that it demands the twin identities of citizen and individual. It's about an idea of women pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps...

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