Placing gender on the agenda of international affairs: changing conceptual and institutional landscapes.

Author:Ergas, Yasmine
Position:Conceptual Framework - Essay

Gender relations both structure and are structured by policies that relate to international affairs. While these interactive connections were long left largely unexplored, in the past two decades gender has become increasingly integrated into the study of international affairs. Catalyzed in part by the development of international institutions focused on gender themes, issue networks comprised of scholars, advocates, and policymakers have facilitated this process of integration. But gender equality--the declared objective of the policies promoted by the United Nations (and the European Union) among others--entails profound restructurings of existing social relations. Holy can the transformative agendas that gender equality policies promote be realized? This essay concludes by examining the "tool kits" that have hitherto been devised and the crucial role that research and critical analysis must continue to play.


Gender relations both structure and are structured by policies that relate to international affairs. These interactive connections have too often been left unexamined by practitioners and researchers alike. This neglect may reflect the perception of gender-related issues--from family relations and reproductive rights to the regulation of sexuality and educational systems--as matters of domestic jurisdiction. The nexus between national public policies and women's concerns was highlighted by scholarship prompted by the second wave of feminist mobilizations. (1) Despite the pioneering work of authors like Boserup, who already in 1970 drew attention to women's roles as a key variable in development, it took another two decades for other disciplines under the general rubric of international affairs to focus on gender in a significant way. (2) Today, however, as the contributions to this issue of the Journal of International Affairs show, the mantle of neutrality that once seemed to "immunize" the study of international affairs from critiques based on gender is being lifted. (3) Indeed, it is possible to see a field emerge as scholars and practitioners examine the ways in which gender relations both constitute and are constituted by conflict or trade, peacebuilding or human rights, development or environmental change, and international organizations or international law.

Many factors affect the placement of an issue on research and policy agendas. Without attempting a comprehensive analysis, this article briefly draws attention to two: the development of a conducive institutional context and the evolution of conceptual frameworks that open new vistas. The development of a complex set of international institutions addressing gender themes has prompted systematic interactions among policymakers, advocates, and academic researchers. These institutions include long-standing organizations such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1946, and the CEDAW Committee, which resulted from the entry into force of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1981. UN Women, launched in 2010, consolidated the mandates of several pre-existing entities while also assuming a general leadership role relating to gender issues in the UN system. (4) But the current context also reflects new institution-building, including: the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC); the establishment of dedicated divisions within UN agencies and related organizations, such as the World Bank; the use of the Human Rights Council's "special procedures" to appoint a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, as well as a working group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice; and the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict. Together with high-profile UN initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will soon be followed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the Security Council's resolutions regarding women, peace, and security, as well as important institutional mandates, such as the endorsement by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of "gender mainstreaming," these institutions have facilitated the emergence of issue networks and policy communities specifically focused on gender. (5) While these developments have prompted criticism of "governance feminism," and a wariness of engagement on the part of some scholars and advocates, they have also multiplied the opportunities for productive interactions, promoted expertise and professionalization, generated new analyses and mobilizations, and possibly helped to integrate national and international perspectives. (6)

Moreover, conceptual frameworks related both to gender and international affairs have changed, even as the fields encompassed by that general rubric have multiplied. Two decades ago, inquiries into gender focused almost exclusively on women, despite early work on masculinity and sexual orientation. (7) The study of gender, however, is now widely understood as necessitating an examination of both the relationships that link the experiences of women and men and of the relationships between sexual orientation and gender identity. The connections between various terms often invoked formulaically--"women," "gender," "sexuality," "LGBTI," "masculinities,"--in one or another permutation as if to denote a unified issue area, are open to debate. Is "gender" an umbrella category under which issues referring to women, LGBTI persons, masculinities, and sexuality, including, but not limited to, sexual orientation, are included? Or is "gender" a term that must find its place in a list on par with some or all of the others? However this question may ultimately be answered, if at all, it now seems possible to spotlight "women" or "men," "sexual orientation," or "gender identity" only with the understanding that each category is embedded in a complex field of relationships. An element of that complexity is related to the increasingly salient idea of "intersectionality," which draws attention to the interaction between gender and other factors of social differentiation, such as ethnicity, race, class, religious identity, or nationality. (8)

Concurrent with the changing use of "gender" as a lens onto social relations, concepts that have a central role in the analysis of international affairs have also changed, opening new perspectives. Thus, for example, in their article in this Journal, Mary Kaldor and Christine Chinkin use the prism provided by the concept of "new wars" to discuss how changing forms of conflict may modify gender identities, and suggest new perspectives on which to ground policies for promoting peace. Building on previous discussions of the role of wars in the construction of masculinity and femininity, Kaldor and Chinkin explore the interactions between gender and conflict in the particular forms of warfare that are so pervasive today. While there is widespread recognition that sexual violence may constitute a means of warfare, giving rise to liability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, their analysis draws attention to the use of rape in new wars as "a systematic part of the strategy of political control." (9)

A second example of the changing conceptual landscape regards state responsibility for private actors. The establishment of a due diligence standard under which states are obligated to promote respect of human rights standards, prevent their infraction, provide remedies to the victims, and punish the perpetrators has enabled states to be held accountable, inter alia, for failures to protect women from domestic partner violence. As a third example, the capabilities approach has opened "new points of entry for making explicit the connections between sexuality, human rights and development." (10) Further examples may be found in the doctrine of the "Responsibility to Protect" and in the Security Council's recognition of the relevance of women's participation to international peace and security in post-conflict situations. (11)

These changing conceptual frameworks result from, and help to inform, the work of policymakers and advocates, as well as of scholars working in academia, whose interactions have in part been structured by the institutional settings briefly described above. Policymakers, advocates, and scholars will likely continue to interact as they address what appears to be the salient challenge today: developing policies that promote equality, as defined by the intended beneficiaries of such policies, and ensuring their effectiveness. An impressive array of methods has been devised to enable gender-responsive policy planning and implementation, from gender analysis, gender-based needs assessments, and gender action plans to gender-responsive budgeting, gender-related training, and gender checklists. Expertise in these methods, as well as substantive knowledge, has come to qualify "gender specialists." (12) Yet, despite the undoubted utility of today's extensive "tool kit," the promotion of gender equality cannot be reduced to a technocratic issue. As UN Women, among others, has highlighted, gender equality policies are inherently transformative: they seek to right profound disparities and impact deeply held values and self-understandings, Such policies' transformative potential helps to explain why their realization cannot simply be mandated on the basis of directives issued by international and governmental offices, but requires the active engagement of all stakeholders. In this perspective, budget analyses, needs assessments, trainings, and the other elements of the "gender tool kit" can be viewed as performing a dual function, for they simultaneously provide a locus for dialogue among stakeholders and foster the development or dissemination of particular information.

Ultimately, however, gender equality policies require empowering...

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