A Feminist’s Work Is Never Done

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If one is arguing in favour of the continued validity of feminist approaches in political analysis, one is therefore positing that the needs and concerns of women around the world are not being met, and that women are still, somehow, ‘separate’ from men, hence the enduring need for approaches which privilege gender in analysis. To many, this may seem a somewhat outdated view. After all, the position of women has improved substantially over the past few decades, has it not? Sexual equality is now firmly entrenched in national and international treaties across the world. Women today occupy high-level positions in law, business, science, medicine and, of course, politics – sectors of influence once regarded as wholly the domain of men. The rise of such figures as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka could suggest that the battle for gender equality is now over and, as such, feminist approaches privileging the status of women in political analysis are therefore redundant. After all, if women can become leaders of states, are there really any more obstacles for women to overcome?

The success of these so-called ‘famous few’ is indeed significant, but cannot be allowed to eclipse the persistent socio-economic and political inequalities endured by the ‘invisible many’. [1] It is estimated that of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty across the world, 70% are women. [2] It is true that, in theory, women are ‘entitled to all the rights and freedoms as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘without distinction of any kind’, including the right to work, the right to education and, crucially, as set out in Article 25 of the UDHR:

‘…the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services’. [3]

However, for many women, the actual realisation of these formal rights remains a practical impossibility. Let us consider the right to education. Although overall gender parity in education has improved significantly in the last decade, 37 million girls are still not enrolled in primary school as of 2008, compared with 32 million boys. [4] According to UNESCO, two-thirds of the 796 million people lacking minimum literacy skills in the world are women. [5] This disparity has implications not just for the current generation of young women and their capability to secure better-paid, more secure employment in a variety of sectors, but also for future generations. A recent UNIFEM report draws attention to growing evidence that girls’ education ‘prevents the intergenerational transmission of poverty’. Educated women tend to ‘have fewer children, later, and are more likely to send children to school’. Furthermore, the report indicates a correlation between ‘educational attainment of mothers and reduced infant mortality, with a particularly marked effect for women with secondary education’.

What, then, of the 32 million boys currently not receiving primary education, or the other one-third of illiterate people in the world that happen to be men? Surely any effort to increase education provision, be it on a local, national or global scale, should also take into consideration the millions of boys and men enduring similar hardships? Why is a gendered approach necessary? [6]

Nobody can dispute that the needs of these boys and men should also be considered, but the reason a gendered approach remains necessary in questions of development and the realisation of political and socio-economic rights is because the capabilities of women to enjoy these substantive rights are, in no small part, determined by persistent unequal power relations between men and women and the ‘often invisible or unacknowledged – but still pervasive – discrimination against women’, which limits progress on these issues. [7] One major obstacle faced by girls in education is the violence endured at school and on the way to school in many countries. In 1999, a third of reported rapes in South Africa among girls under 15 were perpetuated by a teacher. [8] One possible solution is to increase the number of female teachers at schools, as this could foster a safer environment for girls to pursue their education. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa, the presence of female teachers ‘correlates with higher levels of girls’ enrolment in primary school’. [9]

However, if this problem of violence faced by girls in education is to be tackled effectively, it must be seen within the context of a larger-scale problem – that of continuing violence against women, most of which takes place within intimate relationships in the ‘private’ or ‘domestic’ sphere. Challenging the ‘public/private’ dichotomy is what drives much of feminist political thinking. Kate Millet, in her influential Sexual Politics, rejects the notion that politics is just ‘that relatively narrow and exclusive world of meetings, chairmen and parties’ and instead asserts that ‘the term “politics” shall refer to power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another’, thereby arguing that the exercise of power which takes place within the private sphere, within sex, relationships, the family and between individual men and women, is just as ‘political’ as what occurs in formal policy-making arenas. [10]

Furthermore, this dichotomy is one that clearly privileges male interests. The private sphere is associated primarily with women and reproduction, but also traditionally regarded as a space in which the state requires special justification before it can ‘intrude’ and limit action within that space. [11] Croatia has recently been rocked by a wave of horrific domestic violence killings, and the apparent reluctance of the government to act decisively and coherently on this issue could perhaps be attributed to a reluctance to intervene within the ‘private’ sphere. [12]

One must avoid the trap of universalism when discussing gender. Experiences of women (and men) are mediated not just by gender, but by other contexts such as poverty and location. However, while persistent inequalities between men and women exist, gender remains a valid and relevant consideration in any analysis which seeks to question how and why we experience and respond to political contexts in the various ways we do.

Article by Laura Chenery.
Edited by Marc Geddes.

[1] J. Ann Tickner, You Just Don’t Understand: Troubled Engagements Between Feminists and IR Theorists (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1996), p.12
[2] United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1995: Gender and Human Development (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p.4
[3] United Nations, ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml (accessed 17 October 2010)
[4] United Nations Development Fund for Women, Gender Justice: Key to Achieving the Millennium Development Goals (New York: UNIFEM, 2010), p.4.
[5] UNESCO, ‘Literacy’, http://www.unesco.org/en/literacy/ (accessed 23 October 2010)
[6] UNIFEM, Gender Justice, p.5.
[7] Ibid., p.3.
[8] Ibid., p.16.
[9] Ibid., p.5.
[10] Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (London: Virago Press, 1977), pp.23-4
[11] Susan Moller Okin, ‘Gender, The Public and the Private’ in Feminism and Politics, ed. A. Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p.119; p.125; pp.130-32
[12] Croatian Times, ‘More cooperation needed for growing domestic violence problem’, 30 September 2010, http://www.croatiantimes.com/news.General_News/2010-09-30/14106/More_cooperation_needed_for_growing_domestic_violence_problem (accessed 17 October 2010)