: Gender Issues And Human Rights

Gender Issues And Human Rights

Kate Galloway

gender-issues-and-human-rightsDianne Otto (Ed); Edward Elgar, 2013; 2604 pages; UK£775 (3-volume hardcover set).

Dianne Otto’s magnificent three-volume edited collection is the fourth in the Elgar Research Collection’s Human Rights Law series, edited by Sarah Joseph. Otto has brought together a diverse range of previously published works that together provide a comprehensive chronicle of the genesis and development of scholarship about women and gender within an international human rights framework.

Book One introduces the reader to the histories of struggle, the question of women’s needs or rights, and structural critiques of international human rights law. These three parts provide the context within which women’s issues have become regarded as human rights. It is not obvious to all that women belong within a human rights framework, nor that women’s rights need exist independently of human rights. Fraser’s opening chapter thus provides a ‘counter-history’ to a generally perceived denial of women’s rights. She traces the gestation of women’s rights to the early 15th century and explores women’s education and independence, anti-slaver and later family planning and women’s health as important precursors to the contemporary rights movement.

Other authors, including Gaer, Engle and Otto, explore international human rights frameworks through the lens of feminism and the sexed subject of law, thus situating women’s rights squarely within the human rights framework. Part II in this book then brings women’s human rights within the institutional framework of international law.

Feminist approaches features strongly throughout the collection and part III in Book One draws heavily on the public/private and local/global critique in a way that brings the rights agenda right up to contemporary issues. Chinkin and Wright for example use the stories of seven women from different backgrounds and places, to show in a concrete way the connection between food and hunger, and the circumstances of women’s lives; and Obiora explores the feminisation of poverty and challenges the capacity of the law to ‘relieve the oppressions and polarization between cultures’.

Book Two provides an interesting development of ideas. Part I grapples with multiculturalism and intersectionality introduced in Book One. Writers in this part do not spare the western sensibility, and Otto has selected a variety of voices to tell this story. Kapur for example writes of ‘victimization rhetoric’ and the ‘native subject’ in a post-colonial context; and Gunning reflects on her feminist and lawyerly responses to female genital surgeries and the cultural connotations of her initial reactions.

Parts II and III then present complementary approaches to human rights. First is the overall theme that mainstream human rights need to be reconceptualised to include women; and second that new human rights are required to represent women’s particular experiences. Women’s bodies are at the centre of the thinking in these two parts.

Women’s experiences of violence is new way of thinking about torture for example, and Copelon and Edwards both call for a rethinking of violence within human rights to include women. By contrast, Miller and Crooms explore such issues as gender-based violence, suggesting a new species of right reflective of its gendered nature.

Reproductive and sexual self-determination likewise call for a rethinking of the mainstream human rights. Lai and Ralph for example, identify the limitations of the human rights framework to protect women’s sexual autonomy — the reader is perhaps challenged to consider whether this is a human right or a woman’s right, and whether there is a difference. In discussing these different viewpoints, the works in this book together present a variety of views on the strengths and weaknesses of the existing human rights framework to serve women’s interests. This occurs not just conceptually, but through drawing on a variety of cultural contexts, to reveal the institutional challenge of designing protections that do not themselves oppress.

The final Book picks up on the practical aspects of human rights work. In Part I, Otto has brought together a range of writing on critical activism thus effectively putting to the test the conceptual foundations laid in the previous two books. Elson and Gideon ask how useful is the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, based on an analysis of the interactions of international women’s groups. They call for a move beyond the law to generate outcomes for real people. Ling discusses the ongoing struggle between a state-centric paradigm and a people-based paradigm that affects the ‘comfort women’ social movement. While using different frameworks, both chapters illustrate the importance of considering the realities of practice in effecting human rights outcomes for women.

Part II takes this further, examining the connections between women, human rights and development. This part picks up on themes introduced earlier in this collection including cultural difference and feminist praxis. Finally in Part III, the issue of gender, as opposed to women, is dealt with. As Otto notes in her introduction, most of the articles are about women’s human rights. This ‘reflects the legal and institutional developments that until recently have paid little attention to men and have mostly been silent about other gender identities and practices that do not fit easily into the male/female binary.’ This final part therefore provides a corrective in one sense, but in the context of the collection overall, reflects the evolution of thinking about women — and gender — in the context of human rights.

This collection is a huge undertaking. The organisation of the books and their component parts provides a neat exposition of what are the key areas of thinking and this review provides a brief indication of how effectively the collection has indicated the thematic evolution of this complex arena of international law, and feminist scholarship and practice. It is also a handsome set — and this is reflected in the price, which probably makes this collection out of reach for the ordinary scholar or student. It does however represent an important contribution to institutional libraries.

KATE GALLOWAY teaches law at James Cook University.

(2014) 39(3) AltLJ 205
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