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Role of Women in the UN

Role of Women in the UN Women, Development and the UN: A Sixty Year Quest for Equality and Justice by Devaki Jain; United Nations Intellectual History Project Series, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2005;


Role of Women in the UN

Women, Development and the UN: A Sixty Year Quest for Equality and Justice

by Devaki Jain; United Nations Intellectual History Project Series, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2005; pp 248, $ 60.


ver since the world emerged from the dark shadows of second world war, the sane and reassuring presence of the United Nations has influenced the way every citizen of the world lives. The global watchdog has not only endeavoured for peace and contributed to diffusions of major political tensions around the globe; it has also stowed to promote development throughout the globe in their quest for a better tomorrow. During a little more than 60 years of its existence, the United Nations evolved as a symbol of global solidarity. The book by Devaki Jain has been written as part of the UN Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) initiative to document an intellectual history of the economic and social ideas that were launched or nurtured by the United Nations. The book by Devaki Jain tells the story of the evolution of women’s issues within the UN. Focusing on how women contributed to the ideas of rights, development and equality within the overall structure of the United Nations, Devaki Jain’s presents an absorbing account of six decades of women’s tryst with the United Nations.

Admittedly, there is no dearth of information on the United Nations. In fact, there is too much of it. The seamless flow of information, easily accessible through the internet, poses a problem of plenty in building a composite history of the UN and its efforts in the post-war era. Devaki Jain’s book deconstructs this apparent mystification and provides a structure to the co-integrated movement of women’s initiatives all around the globe in shaping the development efforts undertaken by the UN. The major thread that binds the book together is the celebration of the role of women as participants in the development process and also as active agents of social transformation rather than mere passive recipients of development benefits.

Early Days

Women’s rights in the UN evolved within the rubric of human rights. Beginning with the early days of the UN, the book analyses the linkages between the human development efforts of the UN and the role played by the women’s movement within and outside the UN. The author meticulously records the initiatives of women to ensure gender justice and in promoting development through the platform provided by the UN. The role of women in the early days of the UN was certainly challenging, in fighting stereotypes and creating a base to launch future movements. Therefore, Jain’s emphasis on this period is clearly justified. Interestingly, the author sheds light on the intense debate that took place among women associated with early UN initiatives about whether they should form a separate women’s commission, or work as part of the Human Rights Commission. While at the end of the day Bodil Boserup’s proposal for setting up a separate commission for women prevailed, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s view of working within the human rights commission was turned down, later history, particularly of the contemporary stance of women in the UN, showed a reversal of such isolation. Women’s issues were increasingly integrated into broader questions of social justice and human rights. As early as 1948, a separate space to articulate the women’s question within the UN was carved out through the formation of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1948. While it gave women a historic opportunity of studying women’s issues at the international level, it failed to prevent their marginalisation in the overall scheme of things. This question of separate identity versus an integrated approach through mainstreaming is revisited in the contemporary context by Jain to show that the choice confronts the women’s movement today as starkly as it did in past generations.

There were many ways in which women enriched the debates on a wide spectrum of women centric issues within the UN, exposing many well entrenched myths. This, to Jain, involved continuous strategising to ensure that women’s voices were heard. There is thus an emphasis on how ideas shape the history of actions within the UN. For instance, women within the UN fought to ensure that the rhetoric of UN declarations showed gender sensitivity. Shaping the language of women’s rights in early UN documents, such as changing the language of the Preamble of the Charter of the UN from “equal rights among men” to “equal rights among men and women” receives well deserved praise from Devaki Jain. As the book progresses, it becomes apparent that the inherent symbolism of such changes was emancipatory and paved the way for subsequent women’s initiatives in the global arena.

Devaki Jain’s work deftly assimilates the contribution of women in the UN and their association with the nationalist movements that swept through the colonial world in the first part of the 20th century. Using the expertise gained from participation in the nationalist movements, women forged a strong battle against patriarchal consciousness within the ambit of the UN. This linkage became particularly evident in the advocacy of women’s suffrage throughout the world. With the history of suffrage movements in developing countries such as in India in the 1920s and 1930s, women in the UN pro-actively advocated full-fledged suffrage for women worldwide. The global identity of the United Nations helped in the dissemination of ideas and soon more and more countries of the world gave women the power of political participation.

Women in the UN also contributed to the global peace process. Being a masculine activity, war disempowers women and denies her any voice in war-related issues. Women in the UN, as Devaki

Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

shows in the book, not only ignored male advice to refrain from such issues, they showed that peace can be a feminist initiative. Aware of the negative impact of war on women’s rights, women in the UN continuously endeavoured to diffuse war tensions. Thus, their contributions in global peace initiatives were indeed noteworthy.

Yet another area where UN made a difference to women’s fight for their rights was in the accumulation and sharing of knowledge. This wealth of knowledge was a source of women’s empowerment throughout the world, as women’s movements in different countries learnt from each other’s successes and failures.

Separate Institutional Set-up

The institutional configuration within the UN, however, changed over time, in response to the changing global socioeconomic environment. The present book has attempted a praiseworthy effort in establishing relations between the changes in the development paradigm and the changing face of the global women’s movement. The CSW was initiated in the late 1940s to provide women with a separate institutional set up to tackle their very own problems. It became clear that women were discriminated against in education and employment. In 1951, ILO passed the convention on equal remuneration, creating a level playing field for women in the formal sectors where wage negotiations were guided or influenced by the state. The growing evidence that the fruits of development failed to reach women prompted the UN to prepare a draft declaration on the elimination of discriminations against women. In 1968, the Draft Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (DEDAW) was adopted. This was the first comprehensive legal measure on human rights. DEDAW put the entire spectrum of women’s discrimination and exploitation within an integrated perspective. Apart from this wide ranging reach, DEDAW also drew attention towards socially constructed extra-legal barriers in restricting women’s rights. Sensitive issues such as the role of culture, customs and traditions were thus brought out of the closet, though they proved, as Jain shows us later, extremely difficult to resolve. DEDAW was not mere rhetoric, it influenced national policy in the 1970s and beyond. For instance, the 18-nation Arab Women’s Commission set up by the Arab league in 1971, incorporated DEDAW in its terms of reference.

The post-oil price shock period of the 1970s saw a decisive shift in the development paradigm. The stress on selfsufficiency, protected industrial growth, inward looking markets were found to be seriously deficient. Growth faltered, inflation became uncontrollable and the welfare policies adopted by the states failed to reach the masses. In this changed milieu, DEDAW needed a revision, and so the women’s bill of rights, known as Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came into existence in 1979. CEDAW was an improvement on DEDAW as it paid attention to the problems of rural women, health and reproductive rights, and the treatment of customs and practices. The informal sector came for closer scrutiny; the underpaid women in the informal sector and the gross neglect of women’s household work were also highlighted by the UN.

While tracing the history of women’s initiatives within the UN since the mid1980s, the author draws our attention to the impact of laissez-faire, policies and free market capitalism. Women within the UN proved to be a strong force in critiquing the development design that involved structural adjustments and the consequent feminisation of poverty. The author here espouses the stand that globalisation has been decisively anti-poor and certainly anti-women. While this represents a particular stance in the inconclusive debate on globalisation, the reader may not necessarily agree with Jain. As a matter of fact, the debate on globalisation is still wide open. Amartya Sen, for instance, has presented a rather balanced view that while globalisation has its benefits in terms of raising the level of growth, the fruits of globalisation need to be dispensed across social groups. Such distribution is vital for the survival of developing world. If we look at the post1991 India, the average growth rate at nearly 6 per cent during 1991-2005 is almost double the Hindu rate of growth of about 3 per cent during the previous decades. While this increases the size of the pie, there is little evidence from NSS surveys that inequality has widened starkly. On the other hand, financial sector reforms have created a microcredit revolution with women as one of its principal beneficiaries. Governance seems to have improved with transparency, and a vibrant media has surely created checks and balances on the delivery mechanism. Thus, while the reader may not entirely be at peace with Jain’s stance in the globalised



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Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006 set up, he will certainly be captivated by the convincing story that Jain weaves throughout the book.

Devaki Jain shows us that in the new millennium, the challenges confronted by all the actors have changed. The worldwide women’s movement has matured considerably over the last three decades of the 20th century and has, in the process, learned to value differences within the movement and to negotiate with multiple identities. Development thinkers and policy-makers have also gained knowledge of the benefits of globalisation, once the fruits are shared more equitably within society. The UN has given a platform to express this multiplicity of views, being a partner in intellectual explorations.

In this changing context, Jain tells us not to ignore women’s ideational and intellectual skills. The history of the UN, as elsewhere, shows that the intellectual contributions of women were seriously underestimated. Such discriminations restricts the growth of the women’s movement.

Indian Women’s Contributions

Indian women leaders played a special role within the UN (Box 1.4 p 26) and Jain devotes some attention to the contributions of Shareefah Hamid Ali in the CSW in the 1940s and Vijaya Laxmi Pandit as the first president of the UN general assembly in 1953. The book also provides a perspective from the south and describes initiatives such as Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) founded by the author, which linked analysis with action on women’s issues. While it is satisfying to see India’s role in the global initiatives to ensure gender rights, the reading of Indian history by Devaki Jain may be misleading for the reader. She observes, “Political freedom, democratic rights for the people and women’s emancipation were often interlinked themes in these countries. For instance, Gandhi’s leadership provided the incentive for large numbers of Indian women to take part in the freedom movement and in struggles for their rights as women” (p 25). This, added to the assertions by Vijaya Laxmi Pandit quoted in (Box 1.4 p 26), may give the impression that the Indian women’s movement originated from the Gandhian movement. A proper reading of Indian history would suggest, rather, that by the time Gandhi entered the Indian political scene, the women’s movement had already crystallised. The first sparks were visible during the Swadeshi Movement (1905-07) and were further boosted by the appeal made by Subhash Chandra Bose a decade later. Under the aegis of the Women’s India Association formed in 1917, the Indian women’s movement fought and won limited franchise by the early 1920s. In 1926, the All India Women’s Conference made its successful entry in the Indian social scene as a unified women’s movement. Gandhi mobilised this social force towards the nationalised movement and significantly broadened Indian women’s quest for dual liberation.

For one who has been there and seen it all, a practical insider, Devaki Jain is in a perfect position to take a bet on the future of the global women’s movement within and outside the UN. It is thus with great

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Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

curiosity that the reader would look at the cream of Jain’s findings. The reader will not be disappointed, as there are several important “takeaways”.

First, the author correctly believes that the challenge to the women’s movement lies in its fragmented growth. A unified movement, she feels, will enrich the cause by giving women a voice in global policymaking. Alliances and networking are thus crucial to the sustenance of the women’s movement.

Second, the author believes that cultural constraints are going to be key hurdles for women. As women try to disentangle the web of restraint, the cultural dimensions in many ways restricts their freedom. Women’s negotiation with culture is a tricky issue and the success of the women’s movement will depend on women’s participation in cultural renewal.

Last but not the least; Jain believes that with all the efforts so far, the women’s movement has still failed to influence the “minds of men” (p 165). The crux of the future women’s movement in the global arena, or on domestic terrain, lies in invading the male mind, or rather fighting and breaking the exclusion which women’s issues are subjected to. Once the contradictions with the male viewpoint are resolved and more and more men are with the women’s movement, attainment of women’s rights and their true participation in the decision-making process will become a reality.



Economic and Political Weekly September 16, 2006

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