Perspectives on Women in Nations in a Globalized World

Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Providing a simple template for the comparative understanding and analysis of issues across national and/or cultural boundaries is never easy. However, some paradigms are necessary before one can explore an issue on a cross-national basis. In these volumes we attempt to find a middle ground between the simple template and the need to understand similarities and differences between women’s political roles in nations around the world.

We often discuss globalization and the emergence of international gender norms. However, despite these international norms, societal differences exist. One must understand these differences if one is to have any comprehension of women’s roles in politics. The authors of the essays in the first of these two volumes address crosscutting economic and political issues and their effects on women. For example, essays focus on economic development, political development, and issues relating to the role of civil society, as well as specific policy areas, such as health and education.

In the second volume, authors ask similar questions while taking into account cultural and institutional variations. They are looking at nations with different cultural heritages and asking how women are faring in these societies, even as globalization is becoming more and more evident and people with divergent cultural norms and behavioral expectations are sharing beliefs, behaviors, and expectations. In the second volume, authors address a number of issues that confront women in all societies. More specifically, the second volume will provide nation-based analyses of a cross-section of societies in which women have made progress in their quest for political, economic, and social equality as well as societies where they have not been as successful. Some essays focus on developed nations such as the United States, Germany, and Canada, and other essays look at developing systems such as Nigeria, Mozambique, and India.

Global Agendas and the Emergence of International Norms

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that everyone should have “all the rights and freedoms set forth without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” The 1948 declaration includes sex. However, despite the language of gender, the declaration itself was not used as an effective tool to improve conditions for women globally. A decade later, in 1979, the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It went into effect in 1981.

At least in theory, if not in practice, all human rights treaties are intended to protect and promote the rights of all peoples. Thus, women as well as men are assumed to be protected by these treaties. CEDAW focuses specifically on the rights of women and girls. It defines discrimination against women and sets in place an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The convention defines discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field.” By the end of November 2006, 185 countries—more than 90 percent of the members of the United Nations—were signatories to the convention. To date, the United States is one of relatively few nations that has not ratified CEDAW. Whether or not there is compliance with the CEDAW cross-nationally is an issue that is addressed throughout these volumes.

In recent years, international attention has been focused on development, poverty, and the effects of low development and poverty on populations. In response to these concerns, in 2000 the United Nations issued eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and a set a target date of 2015 for meeting these goals. One of the interesting features of these goals is the attention that is focused either directly or indirectly on the status of women and girls. The MDGs, “which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015—form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. They have galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest” (United Nations 2008). The world’s poorest are disproportionately women and girls.

Goal 1 speaks directly to the eradication of extreme poverty. More specifically, reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day; achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people; reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. For the purposes of understanding changing global concerns regarding women and girls the relevance is that globally there is disproportionate poverty among women. In other words, there is feminization of poverty all over the world. This goal addresses the feminization of poverty.

Goal 2 is to achieve universal primary education. More specifically there is a concern that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling. For women and girls this a significant objective because at the present time two-thirds of all illiterate adults in the world are women.

Goal 3 is very gender specific. It states that there should be gender equality and the empowerment of women. The intended outcome is to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and at all levels by 2015. Regarding education and women, empowerment for women and girls is often directly related to education. Conditions for women and girls will more likely improve if they are granted educational opportunity and thus face the prospect of empowerment.

Goal 4 focuses on reducing child mortality. More specifically, this goal is set to reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five years old. Childhood mortality is also a good indicator of women’s health as it relates directly to both the availability and quality of prenatal care and the general overall health of young women and mothers.

Goal 5 directly relates to women. More specifically, it focuses on improving maternal health, which also influences the health of children and the survival of children and the family. The aim of this goal is to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio and by 2015 achieve the goal of universal access to reproductive health care for all women.

Goal 6 focuses on combating disease, more specifically, HIV/AIDS and malaria as well as other diseases. Women are at greater risk of contracting HIV than men; thus, HIV/AIDS has increasingly become a gendered problem. More precisely, the goal is to halt and begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS; to achieve, by 2010, universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who need it; and to halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.

Goal 7 focuses on ensuring environmental sustainability. This is a goal that affects both men and women. Though this is not directly related to the focus of these books it has a direct impact on life for all people, and environmental deprivation has a disproportionately negative impact on women, who in the developing world are more likely to be the producers of food than are men. The goal calls for integrating the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs; reversing the loss of environmental resources; reducing biodiversity loss, and achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss; reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation; and achieving significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

Goal 8 focuses on developing a global partnership for development. This is a very significant goal that is well beyond the focus of this book, though it will be clear when reading the essays in these volumes that a global partnership for development would definitely improve opportunities for women all over the world.

The Global Women’s Rights Movement: Changing Roles and Opportunities

In 1976, Lynne Iglitzin and Ruth Ross edited a collection of essays, Women of the World. In this collection, Iglitzin and Ross brought together articles about women in more than 20 nations that illustrated the status of women in these countries in the wake of the 1975 United Nations International Women’s Year. In 1994, Barbara Nelson and Najma Chowdhury edited Women and Politics Worldwide. This volume included entries for over 40 nations. Neither of these two books looked at crosscutting issues apart from the nation-based analyses. In the 15 years since the publication of this later collection women have made incredible strides in some nations and have lost ground or made little progress in improving their status in other countries. During these intervening years, a series of international women’s conferences have highlighted the status of women and their representation in civil society and governmental institutions.

The global women’s rights movement has made some progress in the past several decades. The human rights declarations issued by the United Nations have provided inspirational rhetoric and thus some opportunity for building momentum for change in gender relations and opportunities for women in some societies. Also, ongoing United Nations conferences that focus on the status of women and girls, nongovernmental organization (NGO) forums at these global conferences, and governments including representatives of NGOs in their official delegations to international conferences have led to a broadened definition of women’s rights and gender consciousness (Eager 2004).

As noted, several gender-specific world conferences have focused on the status of women around the world. In 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. Among other things that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action called for was the need to “build on the consensus and progress made at previous United Nations conferences and summits on women in Nairobi in 1985, on children in New York in 1990, on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, on human rights in Vienna in 1993, on population and development in Cairo in 1994, and on social development in Copenhagen in 1995 with the objective of achieving equality, development and peace” (United Nations 2005b). Moreover, the declaration stated that the Platform for Action reaffirms “the fundamental principle set forth in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights, that the human rights of women and of the girl child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights. As an agenda for action, the Platform seeks to promote and protect the full enjoyment of all human rights and the fundamental freedoms of all women throughout their life cycle” (United Nations 2005b).

At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, in addition to reiterating the need to achieve the MDGs by 2015, one of the stated objectives was to help eliminate “pervasive gender discrimination” that arises in education and the ownership of property as well as ending gender violence against women and girls and “to end impunity for such violence” (United Nations 2005a).

These international meetings have brought together women from many nations to share their experiences, and the participants have established international norms that have been useful to women in asserting claims for equality. Globalization has also had a strong impact on women’s mobilization. Technologies have brought women in diverse cultures into closer contact. This does not necessarily mean there is a universality of gender norms. However, there has been an increase in awareness of women’s experiences beyond national boundaries. “Until recently gender has rarely been taken seriously in the broader analysis of globalization,” and thus the questions relating to equal opportunities for women and the articulation of women’s rights as human rights is relatively new. Moreover, the discourse “has had a predominately male focus, with most attention being paid to the public world, while the private arena of household and family has remained largely invisible” (Marchand and Runyon 2000). Moreover, Bunch and Frost (2000) observed that it was not until the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo that women’s reproductive rights were first “explicitly recognized as human rights.”

All of this has occurred in a period that has seen nation-based as well as locally based mobilization of women’s and feminist movements. The technologies and the international meetings have reinforced these social movements based on women’s claims to full citizenship. Even in nations that have curtailed inclusion of women in the political process, the stirrings of feminist discourse have been heard. In some nations, women’s groups are actively engaged in civil society. In other societies, groups that are advocating for women’s rights operate on the margins of society. Also, in some states these groups are nongovernmental, whereas other nations have incorporated state-based feminist movements into their organizational structures.

Nation-Based Experiences

In her essay for these volumes, Rasmussen has noted:

Making women visible can reveal much about specific societies. At the same time, society must be attentive to the ways that these relationships are not natural but are the product of social and political relationships that interpret the meaning of sexual difference within a particular place and time. In addition, as the women of the world have become increasingly visible in scholarship and global politics, they have increasingly challenged the conventional wisdom that has seen the sex/gender system as fixed and unchanging. The women of the world have unquestionably been the subjects of power but must also be understood as agents of change, both in changing our view of the world and in making the very world we study.

It is unlikely that these words could have been written even 40 or 50 years ago. Increasingly, women are participants in civil society and this in turn has led to expanded roles for women in public office.

Consider two contrasting visions of women’s roles in civil society and politics. In many Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East, women have long seen their public roles constrained by cultural norms and role expectations. Moghadam, in her essay on women in the Middle East, has observed that “[e]conomic stagnation in a post-oil boom era, the spread of patriarchal Islamist movements, the persistence of the authoritarian state, the nonresolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq all have left their mark on the legal status, economic well-being, and security of Middle Eastern women.” However, despite these constraints, there are strong women’s organizations that have emerged, are “conducting research, demanding equal citizenship, and networking internationally. In the process, they are changing the nature of the public sphere and helping to build civil society in their countries.”

The Nordic nations stand in stark contrast to the Middle Eastern Muslim societies when women’s roles in civil society and political participation are considered. Fiig, in her essay on the Danish experiences has written that

[t]he Nordic countries appear to be sui generis when it comes to women’s political mobilization, participation, and relatively high degree of representation. The Nordic countries also form a special case concerning the degree of ethnic homogeneity. Historically, Denmark has been relatively homogeneous, despite the fact that it has undergone a process of increasing immigration and multiculturalism since the 1960s. It is still one of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the world with only 6 percent of the population originating from countries outside the European Union (EU), the Nordic countries, and the United States.

Other nation-based essays included in these volumes describe women’s roles in civil society and opportunities for political participation and representation that fall someplace between the Islamic states and the Nordic states in terms of opportunities. Silber and Viterna in their essay on El Salvador observed that after democratization there is often a demobilization of women. For example, in El Salvador,

the return to peace and normalcy has apparently stifled popular women’s mobilizations, especially compared with the thousands of women who routinely challenged the authoritarian government in the 1980s through their roles as mothers, teachers, students, Catholics, and guerrillas. Nevertheless, although the revolutionary mobilization of the recent past subordinated struggles for gender equality to the struggle for social justice … a diverse group of Salvadoran women’s organizations now place feminist issues at the center of local, regional, and national politics and society.

Similarly, in Mozambique, Disney writes that

today there are more than 60 autonomous women’s rights and gender-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country that have had a tremendous impact on the nature of women’s organizing, the quality of women’s lives, and the achievement of gender-based initiatives and legal change. This transformation from mobilization to organization is an important part of the history of women in Mozambique.

Traditions and Barriers to Change

There are numerous barriers to women’s roles in politics. Traditions circumscribe the opportunities available to them. Ohanyan, writing about Armenia, has noted that “cultural prescriptions for women have been much slower to change and evolve over time than governmental policies, which have witnessed major swings in the 20th century.” The fall of the socialist system and the welfare state in that country has “eroded the social safety net that women enjoyed, and alternative policies on women’s issues have been slow to emerge. The postsocialist market economy has created an environment that has been generally poor in providing social welfare services, particularly as they relate to women, and the effect on women has been particularly harsh.”

It is significant that women themselves often accept the social construction of their roles and thus are unwilling or unable to move away from these constraints because of the force of socialization, peer and family pressure, and a lack of role models. These factors lead to a lack of agency among women in many societies, Armenia being but one example. Women are often unable to make the transition from the private to the public sphere. This inability to alter roles has led to intergenerational limitations on women’s opportunities in the economic, social, and political spheres. In turn, these conditions have led to a secondary status for women in many parts of the world. Several essays, including the one on Mozambique, point to the difficulties in sustaining postrevolutionary equality for women, even when movements for change have stressed women’s equality. Even postindustrial democratic nations that have systems providing support for women’s issues and concerns vary widely in terms of policies and implementation.

Institutions and Limits to Change

In addition to the cultural constraints that limit political opportunities for women there are also systemic and institutional barriers. Thus, in the extreme case, women cannot vote in Saudi Arabia so participation in politics is curtailed. In contrast, in Japan, in the past decades women have become more engaged in the political process because the institutions did not limit their involvement. In her essay on Japan, Martin has written that once Japan signed CEDAW “the difference between legal guarantees of equality and the experiences of everyday Japanese women” were put in sharp contrast. This

sharp contrast served to further mobilize women to intensify their pressures on the national machinery of government. Over the course of the past decade, the loosely organized women’s movement increasingly has relied on a two-pronged approach to bring pressure to bear upon the state. Recent decentralization and the diffusion of power to local governments provide increased incentives for feminists to lobby local political actors while continuing to exert pressure on national-level machinery through participation on advisory councils.

In the United States, though institutions are open to women, past practice and the role of incumbency have limited their political opportunities. Brewer, in her essay on women in the United States cites findings by Palmer and Simon (2006) that “[o]ver the last 50 years, incumbent House members have [had] a 95.3 percent success rate” and adds that “there are very few retirements each election cycle; as a result, more than 95 percent of the candidates for office are incumbents. The bottom line is that regardless of any other barrier, the power of incumbency is the reason for the slow rate of turnover of membership in the House in general and subsequently the slow climb of women toward equal representation.”

Citing 2006 data that was collected by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Brewer noted that women made up 22.8 percent of state legislators, although there is a good deal of variation between the states. Thus, 11 states have legislatures that are more than 30 percent women. In contrast, six states have legislatures with fewer than 15 percent women. She further notes that “[w]omen’s state-level office holding is important to the advancement of women in politics in the United States. Women candidates for Congress are often more successful if they have previously served in state legislatures. State legislative office provides women with experience they can draw on to communicate their issues and agendas to voters in their campaigns for Congress” (McGlen et al 2005).

Some postrevolutionary countries have included women in their change-oriented movements, only to dash their hopes for increased power once the struggle for a new regime was over. Nechimias, in her essay on Russia has written that “the Russian state now appears a laggard regarding the empowerment of women. Although women in most countries posted gains in political representation, women’s share of parliamentary seats declined over the course of three post-Soviet elections held during the 1990s.” She goes on to explain that issues relating to women’s social, economic, and political equality have for all intents and purposes “virtually disappeared from the national agenda.”

Elsewhere, incremental change has meant some gains for women in politics, though there is slow advancement. For example, Stevenson in her essay on Mexico, discusses the gains made by some women in the past several decades. Thus, there have been increases in opportunities for women in education, the economy, and politics, but these opportunities are for some but not all women. More than half of the population is not benefiting from the gender advances that the aggregate statistics suggest. Stevenson writes that there is “a combination of centuries-old patterns of racism against Indians and isolationism of some Indian peoples” such that in “remote, rural part[s] of the country, resources … are overstretched, and underdeveloped.”

Gender quotas and proportional representation have had an impact on women’s representation in political institutions. Gender quotas involve establishing a number of positions designated for women in government; they may originate in law or in party policy-making rules. Although gender quotas have meant that some nations have had an increase in the number of elected women this has not always led to improved conditions for women in the broader society. However, women in the Scandinavian nations have seen improvements not only in representation as a result of gender quotas but also in the quality and quantity of services that are “women friendly.” Proportional representation systems have been shown to benefit women more than plurality-based single-member district systems. Rule (1988) observed that in nations that use proportional representation and multimember districts, women are likely to have greater representation than in single member systems.

As Krook notes in her essay on gender quotas for candidates, Inter-Parliamentary Union (2008) statistics show that women occupy 16.9 percent of the seats in national parliaments around the world. Although this is a small minority of all representatives, the degree of women’s exclusion from political office varies enormously across the globe. However, most countries have registered increases in the numbers of women elected in recent years. In many cases, a crucial component of change has been the adoption of quota policies to facilitate the selection of female candidates. All the same, not all quotas are equally successful in increasing women’s political representation: some countries experience dramatic increases after the adoption of new quota regulations, whereas others see more modest changes or even setbacks in the proportion of women elected. Furthermore, quotas appear to have mixed results for women as a group: some have positive consequences for public policy, and others appear to undermine women as political actors. The analysis suggests that quotas are a diverse set of measures that do not always have their desired effects. Nonetheless, they often produce a host of positive implications—both expected and unexpected—in the pursuit of greater equality between women and men in political life.

Some Issues Transcend National Borders

As noted previously, the essays on issues focus on crosscutting concerns that affect the lives of women in all societies. Each essay addresses economic and political pressures on women and how the issue being considered has an impact on women. Moreover, the essays consider issues of equity, access, constraints/repression, and open or closed systems, drawing on examples from a variety of nations.

Some problems women confront transcend culture and national borders. Even in nations where there is apparent equality of opportunity for women, gender imbalances often persist. Thus, the concerns raised in the MDGs persist even for some women in these more affluent, developed societies. The feminization of poverty has a global reach, for example. Women are more likely to be poor than men in both developed as well as less developed societies. The result of this poverty is often related to inadequate health care, educational opportunities, economic development, and participation in civil society and the institutions of government. Similarly, violence against women and the trafficking of women are global problems that do not respect borders. Gaboury writes that sexual violence in wartime is one of many issues within women’s human rights advocacy; historically, it has been neglected and treated as a secondary issue in the face of other combat-related atrocities.

In her essay on trafficking, Risley cites the United Nations (2000) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which defines trafficking as

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

Baird notes in her essay on health policy that women endure sexual relations that are undesired and out of their control and bear many of the consequences that follow: sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and HIV/AIDS, to name a few. Women, in desperation, seek illegal and unsafe abortions. Others die of AIDS. Women’s health, women’s rights, and women’s lives—all are at great risk in many countries. Baird says:

Some of the agreements coming out of the world population conference include ‘[a]dvancing gender equality and equity,’ ‘ensuring women’s ability to control their own fertility,’ granting everyone ‘the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,’ and ‘universal access to health-care services, including those related to reproductive health care.’ (Cairo Programme of Action 1994). Though these goals have yet to be fulfilled, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development was a watershed event in the history of women’s reproductive rights. It is most often the poor and illiterate who pay the highest price for inadequate reproductive services; they do so with their lives, broken families, poverty, social isolation, and chronic ill health. The human toll exacted from unintended and unwanted pregnancies is typically a hidden one, buried under often age-old social norms governing the roles of women in society. Economic marginalization, poor education, and geographic isolation contribute further to inconsistent reportage but are by no means the only indicators of high maternal mortality rates (Nils et al. 2002). Early marriage, gender inequality, lack of control over sexual decision making, and violence against women also exacerbate these factors.

Another example of a crosscutting issue is employment opportunity. In some industries in the manufacturing sector there has been an increase in female labor force participation, but in many cases this increase has not been sustained in the long run. In the agricultural sector, women are often hurt by globalization, although the picture is slightly different in the nontraditional horticultural sector where there has been an increase in seasonal employment. In all cases, the impact of globalization on female participation in paid employment is constrained by their participation in unpaid work that is invisible but necessary for survival and care of dependent members of society. In virtually every society, women receive only a percentage of the salaries of men as a result of unequal opportunities and options in the labor force. And women are often denied access to the property and inheritance rights that their male relatives claim as a matter of prerogative.