-As the black feminist poet, June Jordan, said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

A bit of history

1. From the philosophers: Hegel proclaimed that it was up to women to take care of family and home and up to men to take care of the state, that is to govern and to engage in politics. Nietzsche became famous for the well-known misogyny found in all his writings. Marx, in his extensive opus, also did not give many pages to the contributions to Capitalism of salaried women beyond their reproductive function, their raising of children and their taking care of domestic chores.

2. From the UN: Human rights and gender equality were originally inscribed in the core documents of the UN thanks to women delegates from the Global South. The inclusion of gender equality and non-discrimination due to sex in the UN Charter and in the UDHR was in large part due to Latin American and Indian women delegates. At the adoption of the UN Charter in 1945, Latin American feminists lobbied and managed to include Article 8 which ensures women to hold office in UN bodies. Non-discrimination based on sex was then repeated in several articles of the Charter and the equality of women and men were mentioned in its preamble.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Min City

3. Three years later, at the adoption of the UDHR in 1948, the only woman delegate (an Indian) beside Eleanor Roosevelt in the Commission on Human Rights, changed the wording in the UDHR from ‘the rights of man’ to ‘human rights’ and from ‘all men’ to ‘everyone,’ and ‘all human beings’.

4. Another early convention from the 1950s tested the universality of gender equality: It was the Convention on the Political Rights of Women (CPRW).

5. Many years passed then. The World Plan of Action from 1975 was one of the concrete results from the first international UN Conference on Women. It spoke of women’s different social conditions and how feminist issues need to address the unjust economic world order. CEDAW, adopted in 1979, laid the final ground for international law on women’s rights as inalienable international human rights. This meant a change in paradigm that has seen gender equality move from a Western hand-me-down given to the Global South to a paradigm where the South has become a driver –as it was to be from the start.(i)

(i): Contrast this with how human and women’s rights are used in the vocabulary of structural adjustment programs and trade agreements of the World Bank, IMF and WTO: the wording merely shields the neoliberal world order –and a continuation of colonial patterns of economic and gender injustices internationally. (Rebcca Adami and Dan Plesch)

Women’s empowerment: Questions remain

6. The unprecedented advances attained by women in countries where they fought for their rights only satisfy apparent concessions to their civil and political rights. Many obstacles remain that impede their conquest of full equality in the realm of social, economic and cultural rights —their empowerment thus remains indispensable.(ii) (Partido Feminista de España)

(ii): Moreover, unfortunately, still too often, women of the ruling class have exactly the same interests than its men in sustaining and perpetuating the capitalist system. (Evelyn Reed)

7. The empowerment of women is to mean for them to acquire agency(iii), i.e., the action, medium, or means by which they can accomplish their goals. (Leslie London) But more precisely, this opens four important questions: a) them empowering themselves to do what? b) …and who gives them the means and opportunities to do so? c) Are they empowered by the prevailing powers-that-be according to their narrow interest to manipulate women’s emotions? and d) Where does that empowerment lie if the numerous patriarchal laws scarcely ever mention the rights of women, never have recognized their caring work, never their intellectual capacities and never their hopes and wishes?(iii)

(iii): Agency is also defined as ‘individuals or groups having the capacity to act independently and make free choices about what they do.’ (Gloria Clavero)

8. We are actually talking about a women’s self-empowerment that allows them to do what they have to do, to be who they are, i.e., the ones who want to and do exercise their own option(s), never by imposition. Women know that that which is never mentioned with real political clout in the laws of the state, for practical reasons, does not exist, is absent, is delegitimized… Does this omission of human rights pertaining gender mean women are illegal from now to the end of the days…? Hmmm! So, of what empowerment are we really talking about?

The special case of women in the labor force

9. Do you know that women’s rights to decide over their own body and their access to family planning methods and to information are key determinants of whether they enter and stay in the labor market? Violations of women’s rights are compounded by the fact that national labor inspectors are few, are underfunded and have limited capacity to ensure oversight and accountability by employers: Thus the need to advocate for revisions of existing labor laws to include gender dimensions, e.g., that companies be legally required to provide lactating women access to safe and private breastfeeding rooms at the workplace so as to maintain women’s participation in the labor force. We also need to advocate for greater labor oversight to strengthen the implementation of existing labor laws. (Lyanna Martin and Neel Gammelgard)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com