"Gender Equity" Without Social Justice: Women's Rights in the Neoliberal Age

September 25, 2007

Over the past decade, many Latin American governments have adopted a formal commitment to women's equality. In some cases this has been institutionalized in specialized state machineries dedicated to women's issues, such as Brazil's National Council of Women's Rights (CNDM), Chile's National Women's Service (SERNAM), and more recently, Peru's Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Human Development (PROMUDEH). Such moves were responses by national governments both to international commitments to uphold women's rights as human rights and to the demands of certain sectors of the women's movement. Women's bureaus and state agencies have made important contributions in promoting public debate and initiating legal reforms in some key areas affecting women's rights and lives, such as anti-violence education and family law.[1]

Despite this increasing visibility and legitimacy of gender equity at the level of official government discourse, institutionalized equity strategies do not necessarily constitute a genuine advance in gender justice. The debates raging among feminists and in the diverse popular women's organizations in the region suggest that this kind of reformist route to advancing women's rights reduces the agenda of the feminist movement to a narrow set of policy options.[2] The appropriation of the international feminist movement's language and discourse by successive elected governments in Latin America may, in fact, co-opt a broader gender-justice agenda. Increasingly, the advancement of women's rights—a political goal—is being transformed into a technical task that leaves unchallenged the exploitative capitalist relations that enable the successful global economic integration of countries in the region, and may even deepen the problem of the feminization of poverty. Advocates of women's rights are increasingly critical of the scope and content of gender-equity agendas, which are subsumed under the larger strategy of global economic integration to which Latin American governments are committed. Questions regarding who defines the scope and content of gender-equality agendas at this moment of market rule and neoliberal politics are paramount.

Chile's SERNAM offers a stark illustration. Given the radical neoliberal restructuring of the Chilean state, SERNAM's initiatives are constrained by the market-driven terms guiding social policy. Against the institutional obstacles it has faced, SERNAM has scored some important victories in introducing key issues into public debate through educational campaigns and legal reforms, though there are still important pending tasks in the area of legal reforms to Chile's civil code. Divorce is illegal in Chile, but annulments are available at a price. Abortion is also prohibited under any circumstances, though it is estimated that six out of ten pregnancies end in abortions, and complications from illegal abortions are the major cause of maternal death.[3] With a staff of over 300, SERNAM is the largest women's bureau in the region, but it has been chronically underfunded since its inception in 1991 and has had to rely heavily on foreign funding to conduct studies, and to design, implement and evaluate its programs. Frustrated functionaries have confided that a possible gain or loss often depends wholly on the recalcitrance or openness of individual ministers and technical experts. In this climate, a sober, dogged pragmatism has come to replace the initial enthusiasm of many.

The institutionalization of a gender-rights based agenda has taken a very specific form in the context of broad neoliberal economic restructuring. The new discourse of "modernization" championed by governing elites is permeated by an individualized ethos of neoliberal politics whose core elements are the terms and values of market rationality, individual choice, personal responsibility, control over one's own fate and self-development. Neoliberalism is the new hegemony, understood not as a done deal or fixed ideology, but in the sense eloquently articulated by the anthropologist William Roseberry, as "a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about and acting upon social orders characterized by domination."[4]

The terms of the individualized ethos of neoliberal politics have framed institutional transformations and democratization processes, including definitions of what constitutes civil society, the relation between civil society and the state, and the very meaning of social citizenship. Neoliberal terms and politics have also transformed the social policy field in significant ways. It is important to grasp these changes because they threaten to make a mockery of a radical agenda for women's emancipation.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, before gender equity became part of the social agenda of elected neoliberal governments, a broad agenda of women's rights and consciousness- raising was embedded in the popular education efforts of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) aimed at empowering women. These efforts received funding from a myriad of international NGOs, private philanthropic organizations and bilateral aid agencies. Indeed, from the beginning, the efforts of local NGOs were shaped, directly and indirectly, by the agendas of international feminism articulated in the successive UN-sponsored World Conferences on Women. After the first World Conference in Mexico City in 1975, with its insistence that women had to be brought into the development process, popular education work with women received the backing of various NGOs and agencies which were compelled to earmark funds for development work with women.

This work embraced a broad notion of women's empowerment and typically took the form of workshops that brought together professional women and women from poor urban and rural sectors, in what were often conflictive and contradictory—but also fruitful—relations. In the case of Chile, for example, self-empowerment workshops, which came to be known as the "feminist curriculum," named the "invisible" domestic violence perpetrated against women, dispelled myths about the female body, female sexuality and pleasure, and informed women about their rights (or lack thereof) under Chilean law.

Implicit in these self-empowerment workshops was the idea that women have a right to autonomy, respect and equal rights—to be subjects in their own right and to aspire as such to meaningful citizenship in practice. The work of addressing the conditions of individual women's lives was considered a necessary first step in fostering a sense of solidarity among women, and in building the organizational capacity and structures that could sustain collective initiatives among them. These workshops provided an important education for scores of organized women, many of whom acquired sophisticated leadership skills, not to mention knowledge about project development and implementation. For instance, a founder of the Popular Women's Movement of Chile (MOMUPO) points out that these exchanges, though often marked by distrust and misunderstanding, helped women like her begin to debate the very meaning of feminism, to challenge what they saw as a limited, middle-class feminism, and to critically reflect on what a popular feminism could entail.[5]

Today, consciousness raising is not a priority of official gender-equity agendas, and the "feminist curriculum" is instead utilized as part of technical training workshops that are geared towards helping poor women access the market and rely on market-based solutions to their problems. Institutionalized gender-equity agendas strive to translate demands into technocratic policy solutions that must obtain measurable results. In the context of what is today called the "new social policy," policy makers perceive the market as the most effective mechanism for advancing social and economic rights, from health to education to pensions.[6] Poverty, the primary focus of social policy today, is narrowly defined as exclusion from participation in the marketplace, and social programs are limited to helping those individuals and communities who cannot become active, autonomous participants in the market on their own.

Gender-equity agendas have become part of this larger redefinition of social rights and the state's role in promoting economic and social justice, becoming the means for engendering poverty-alleviation programs developed in conjunction with other social agencies and programs. They create and target specific categories of "needy" women, for example, women heads of households or pregnant teenagers, identifying and helping the poorest of poor women gain skills training and access to microcredit and the like.

The effect of economic and institutional restructuring on the quality of life for the majority of women, however, and of the social justice issues stemming from this, is a fundamental omission of institutionalized gender-equity agendas. During the recent presidential campaign in Chile, for instance, Gladys Marín, the Communist Party candidate, pointedly asked: "What are we doing to this country when women who work in the hospitals must spend their lunch breaks selling used clothes in a flea market?"[7] Marín was highlighting the plight of that rapidly growing category of the working poor, women workers who occupy the least productive, most precarious and poorly paid rungs of formal employment in the dynamic new economies—the "flexibilized" workers. Chilean women workers, like women workers throughout Latin America, share the plight of workers in general, whose basic labor rights have been severely curtailed by regressive labor legislation that favors employers in matters of wages, job protection and safety, and collective action. Women face additional discrimination because of their gender, like mandatory pregnancy tests as a condition of employment and a lack of daycare facilities, even though the law mandates such facilities for companies with more than 20 employees.[8]

Women not only swell the ranks of poorly paid, insecure workers in the formal sector, they also constitute the majority of those who are self-employed or underemployed. They are also increasingly joining activities in areas of the so-called "new informality," which are not backward remnants of an older economy but are functional to the competitive, dynamic formal sector. Using her own experience, Miriam Ortega, director of Centro Ana Clara, a Chilean NGO working with women in the area of labor, illustrates "the making" of this vast pool of female labor. After being employed for many years by the Arrow Shirt Company, she was, as she put it, "downsized" as part of the company's restructuring. Her settlement package included a sewing machine and the promise to put her on the roster of women doing piecework for the company from their own homes. From one day to the next, she lost the modicum of security her job offered, and joined the ranks of informal workers.[9]

Piecework has become so common that Ortega and local activists from the low-income community of La Pintana, whom I have known for 15 years, casually refer to the vast, southern periphery of Santiago as the "maquila de Chile." "Julia," an activist from La Pintana, points out that women are aware that this type of work does not pay a living wage, but they realize it is the best they can get. For many women in Julia's community, self-employment at home helps them solve the issue of child-care. It also helps them supervise older children who would otherwise roam freely and be exposed to drug-related violence now rampant in poor neighborhoods.

Yet underneath such "flexibility" is the grim reality of this unregulated, self-exploitative work. Women engaged in piecework, for example, make very little money per piece, have no maximum working hours, and can easily sew for up to 18 hours a day to fill a quota or to make some kind of an income. They also have no protection from work-related injuries which, given the repetitive nature of their tasks, are multiple. And, of course, once they are finished with this aspect of their working day, they must still attend to their many domestic chores. Indeed, women say they like homework because it enables them to more effectively combine their various responsibilities.[10] Thus, in the drive to aggressive competition and labor cost reduction, women are increasingly not just the poorest of the poor as women, but also as workers. And because of their multiple responsibilities at home and in the community, and men's failure or refusal to share these responsibilities, women must bear the brunt of the combined effects on people's quality of life of unstable and poorly paid work, crumbling social infrastructures and widespread violence.

For Julia and many other activists from poor neighborhoods, as well as for women from NGOs who still work with grassroots organizations throughout Latin America, the gender-equity agendas being promoted by state bureaucracies do not address urgent needs.[11] The living and working experiences of women from popular sectors have been directly and differentially shaped by the agendas of global economic integration pursued by governments. Strategies like gendered social programs that see poverty as marginality from the market and which reach only the poorest of the poor do not address the multiple needs that would enable women from the popular sectors to become empowered. For these working class and activist women, gender justice is intricately linked to social justice.

Even as governments are co-opting and deradicalizing the feminist agenda, some grassroots groups throughout the region are developing a new popular feminist discourse and activism. Today, urban and rural women's organizations are using a language of women's rights to challenge the exclusions and injustices characterizing their countries, and the inadequate solutions offered by governments. Organizations in Chile like Centro Ana Clara, which addresses the impact of global integration on women workers' rights, and Network of Women in Social Movements (REMOS), an organized popular women's network which intervenes in gender-equity debates, are examples of a new form of popular feminist struggle that does not separate women's rights from the struggle for social and economic justice.[12]

The organized women of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, who enshrined the rights of Mayan women in the Revolutionary Women's Law of 1994, are another example of women successfully using a rights-based discourse which integrates demands for gender equality, social and economic justice, and cultural and political autonomy.[13] Encouraged by the recognition and legitimation of their claims that the 1994 Law represents, the movement of both Zapatista and non-Zapatista indigenous women of Chiapas has continued to hold forums and workshops to analyze and question the ways in which they have been historically excluded from decision-making. They have expressed the need to begin building democracy, both within the family and in the larger community. They have made demands on the state and their own community, including the right to be included in agrarian reform, to refuse forced birth control, obtain health care, choose whom they marry, inherit land, hold public office, and the right to a life free of sexual and domestic violence.

As a result of the Mayan women's new activism, the National Assembly for the Autonomy of Indigenous Peoples (ANIPA) included women's gender-specific demands in its proposals for autonomy, and also held the First Women's National Encounter of ANIPA in 1995. Organized Mayan women have continued to participate in congresses such as the Indigenous National Congress held in Mexico City in 1996, during which male participants accused them of trying to "provoke" divisions and "destabilize" the discussions. "What that in fact shows," says anthropologist Rosalva Aida Hernández, "is that the women were successful in 'destabilizing' a masculine power structure that excludes them, and 'provoking' a critical reflection toward the construction of a more democratic indigenous movement."[14]

Initiatives such as these stand for a new rights-based women's activism that combines goals of gender justice with those of social and economic equality. Who establishes what rights are fundamental, and who participates in shaping a gender justice agenda? These questions touch on issues of representation and voice that have come to dominate feminist debates the world over, and which today acquire a pressing urgency in contexts, like Latin America, marked by profound forms of social inequality and political exclusion. For many feminist critics, the institutionalization of women's rights, and their reconfiguration as "gender equity" issues, have come at the cost of the critical goals of feminism.

Verónica Schild is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario. She is completing a book on the contemporary Chilean women's movement and the neoliberal state.

1. I would like to thank Linzi Manicom, Melanie Randall, Elizabeth
Riddell-Dixon, and Malcolm Blincow for their useful suggestions for this article.
2. See Miriam Abramovay and Mary García Castro, Engendrando um novo feminismo: Mulheres lideres de base (São Paulo: UNESCO/Cepia, 1998); and Verónica Schild, "Market Citizenship and the 'New Democracies': The Ambiguous Legacies of Contemporary Chilean Women's Movements," Social Politics (Summer 1998), pp. 232-249.
3. See Lucía Rayas, "Criminalizing Abortion. A Crime Against Women," in NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXXI, No. 4 (January/February 1998), p. 25.
4. William Roseberry, "Hegemony and the Language of Contention," in G. M. Joseph and D. Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press 1994), p. 361.
5. Author's interview, Santiago, October 1991. See also Verónica Schild, "Recasting 'Popular' Movements: Gender and Political Learning in Neighborhood Organizations in Chile," in Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 21, No. 2 (1994), pp. 59-80.
6. See Verónica Schild, "Neoliberalism's New Gendered Market Citizens: The 'Civilizing' Dimension of Social Programs in Chile," Citizenship Studies (forthcoming 2000).
7. In Jonathan Franklin, "Recession puts Chileans in the mood to punish coalition at polls," The Guardian, December 10, 1999, p. 21.
8. For regional figures in women's participation in formal employment, see Teresa Valdés and Enrique Gomariz, Mujeres latinoamericanas en cifras: Tomo comparativo, (Santiago: Instituto de la Mujer/Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, 1995), p. 63.
9. See F. Marquéz and M. Schkolnik, "La reinvención del trabajo y del espacio privado: Para una mayor equidad entre hombres y mujeres" (Santiago: SUR, Centro de Estudios Sociales y Educación, documento no. 163).
10. Author's interview, Santiago, December 1997.
11. Author's interview, Julia, community leader from La Pintana, and Miriam Ortega, Director of Centro Ana Clara, Santiago, December 1997.
12. Author's interviews with women leaders of popular women's organizations in Santiago, December 1997; and Mary García Castro, "Gender and Power: Voices of Brazilian Women in Community Based Organizations (CBOs)," Paper presented at the pre-LASA conference organized by LASA's Gender Section, "An Assessment of Gender Policies in Latin America," Miami, Fla., March 14-15, 2000.
13. Author's interviews with members of REMOS, and of Centro Ana Clara, Santiago, December 1997; see also Mary García Castro, "Gender and Power," p. 18.
14. Rosalva Aida Hernández Castillo, "Construyendo la utopia: Esperanzas y desafíos de las mujeres chiapanecas de frente al siglo XXI," in Rosalva Aida Hernández Castillo, ed., La otra palabra: Mujeres y violencia en Chiapas, antes y después de Acteal (Mexico: CIESAS, 1998) pp. 125-142.

Tags: human rights, gender equity, women, social justice, neoliberalism

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