Women's rights in an economic crisis

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Jane Gabriel caught up with Dr. Yakin Erturk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, on her first officially mandated visit to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

JG: Why did you concentrate on political economy in your latest report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) ?

YE: You may recall in 2006 I did a report on due diligence as a tool to eliminate violence against women. There, I identified three areas which stand as a constraint to advancing women's rights. One was the public /private dichotomy, which I didn't deal with, because I think feminist scholars have dealt with it extensively, and to a large extent we have demystified that kind of dichotomy. But the other two constraints are still very problematic.

One is identity politics. The whole issue of defining identity on the basis of culture and religion has become subject to intense political contestation since the cold war and has had an extremely serious impact on women's human rights, because at root it pits relativist against essentialised notions of culture. My 2007 report was on this very issue. The second area I had identified was the whole issue of global restructuring and the political and economic order, which is often sidelined when we talk about human rights.

We refer to human rights as if they were confined to civil and political rights; this is also reflected in the twin covenants which have divided rights into civil and political on the one hand, and economic and social on the other. The latter is generally seen as inspirational and the first one as the real thing. But we know from women's lives that unless we have a holistic approach to women's rights, whereby women can achieve economic independence or are at least empowered socially and politically, the rights they may read about in books do not reach them. So my final report to the council this year is taking up this challenge: I have argued that underneath the surface of many of the things that we talk about as being cultural, there is a solid, material basis which feeds certain concrete interests and relationships; and that unless we dig down into that base we are talking at a very abstract level. Culture can take on a life of its own, so that we assume that that is the reality, when half the time nobody really understands its true impact.

We are all cultural beings: it is very hard to attack cultures. What I wanted to do in my culture report was to connect this to a more profound analysis of concrete interests, real power - hence political economy. Particularly in the neo-liberal era, it is political economy which is creating new challenges for women's rights, while at the same time, of course, creating some new opportunities. The report will be presented to the council in June, and I'm hoping that once this element is in place - I can present a unified vision of women's rights.

JG: Tell me some of the highpoints of your argument.

YE: I begin by trying to explain what I mean by a political economy perspective - one which looks at political decisions and economic processes as they feed into one another. In particular, I'm trying to see how the neo-liberal economic environment impacts both on changing conditions for the labour force as well as on migration and subsidiary economic outcomes such as land occupation for economic development purposes, and the military response. This allows me to understand the social conflicts that can lead to open wars, and how all this must affect the lives of women. Then we are in a better position to tackle each particular area of economic rights in turn: such as the right to food, right to land - you know these very much more conventional areas.

These are economic rights we are very familiar with. But now we can try to identify how they are directly linked to the increased risk of violence against women. Of course, we want to conclude by arguing that economic independence for woman is essential if they are to have a fighting chance in this world. By which I do not mean a total escape from violence, because we know that even educated, employed women still find themselves experiencing violence. But research does show that economic security increases the woman's options in terms of being able to leave an abusive environment. This is where the whole issue of the current economic crisis becomes very relevant indeed: yet, we make the same mistake over and over again and treat the economic crisis as if it were a gender neutral process. Nobody talks about how women are going to be affected by this economic crisis. We do not yet know what the full scale impact of the crisis will look like, but at least I will have raised these questions and the implications that follow from such issues.

I argue that we need to be vigilant from now on - and, furthermore, that there is one significant opportunity that the crisis has generated: the state is being pulled back into taking charge. States are being invited to take responsibility for financial security.

JG: The state is taking on greater responsibility as well as control and this affords new opportunities?

YE: Absolutely, totally. In the neo-liberal era that is exactly what we lost, that sense of responsibility. We lost our welfare state, which no longer took any interest in providing livelihoods or social security services and so forth. The same thing happened before - decades ago - in the initial stages of development of competitive capitalism. The laissez faire understanding of the economy came to predominate, and it created absolute havoc and misery on a frightening scale. What happened then? The state came in with a welfare framework to correct the wrongs of the market. Now, perhaps we are experiencing the same sort of thing. So, my hope is that we can use our lessons learned from the past. So that this time, by calling the state back in, we can reintroduce social policy into the new macro-economic that will benefit women .

JG: Can I refer back to last year's conversation with you about violence against women, when you said that we don't really know what we are talking about when we refer to ‘violence' and you called for definitions and a system of reporting and monitoring. What progress, if any, have you seen in the last year?

YE: Last year I presented a report to the UNHRC on indicators of violence against women and indicators on state response or accountability and asked, what does it actually mean for a state to be accountable? I was able to spell out the indicators, and I presented the report to the HRC. It was well received on the whole. (You know states are not too eager to quantify these things.) But we had put the indicator issue on the agenda, that was the important thing. Because without indicators we won't know what we are doing, whether we are really combating violence or not.

JG: So will this result in a common definition of violence and if so, where will we see the impact of that?

YE: I think so: the General Assembly has already mandated the Statistical Commission to build on my work to continue the spotlight on violence against women. Unfortunately, they didn't say anything about state accountability, but I think that will come too in time. So the Statistical Commission is working away on this and I do hope that they will have a stronger gender awareness as a result. Normally they deal with highly technical issues. But I have been making friends with the chair of that commission and they have started inviting me to make my own submissions too. So I think, soon, we will indeed have a common wording on international indicators at least. There will be all sorts of variations at the national level due to specific national conditions. But at least we will have some common comparative indicators to enable us to talk across borders and be talking about the same thing!

JG: The meeting at Doha received a lot of publicity. In your view, what happened there, and did it in any way relate to why you have come to the CSW this year?

YE: Let me answer the last part of your question first. I came to the CSW this year because this is the first time - and I underline first time - since the creation of the Special Rapporteur's mandate 15 years ago, that I have been mandated officially to do annual reporting to the Commission. So this time, nobody can stop my ten minute presentation! Before this I was invited on an ad hoc basis. But this year - this is my victory in a way, because I have been advocating for this since I became Rapporteur - here I am. I never understood why, since its creation, the Rapporteur was not required to report to the CSW. It seems the most logical thing to me.

JG: Did you ever find out why it was like that?

YE: I don't think there is an official reason out there, but it's the way we perceive women's rights issues - very fragmented. Violence is about victims, whereas CSW deals with the more policy-oriented advancement of women. But what I have been arguing since I became Rapporteur is that the violence against women mandate is not about victims. It is precisely about women's empowerment. Unlike torture and some other more conventional types of human rights derogations, you can heal the wound, but it will not be an effective way of dealing with the problem of violence against women, unless you perceive it within the framework of women's empowerment. So I consider the HRC resolution of last year which mandated me to report annually to CSW as an acknowledgement of this holistic approach to women's rights issues and this is a most welcome resolution. I personally will be ending my mandate this year, but through this resolution the next Rapporteur will have a foot in the door and a voice at the CSW which I think is essential.

JG: What are you going to use your ten minutes to say?

YE: Well I will basically report on my work of the last year and try to insinuate a few messages here and there ...

JG: Messages?

YE: Well one of the last things perhaps I would like to say as I'm leaving this mandate, is that I found that this is one of the most incredible tools that we have available, as difficult as it is, as under-resourced as it is. One of the things that is at stake in my effort to introduce this system of reporting to the CSW is my conviction that the mandate of the HRC should not be confined to being a monitoring tool. It should have some tangible follow up mechanisms. So, I've spoken with the Unifem Trust Fund to see if we can use the existing trust fund to link with my mandate, so that when the Rapporteur leaves a country and makes recommendations, the fund can immediately be channelled towards implementation. Currently, we rapporteurs go and visit, produce great reports and recommendations, but there is no guarantee our recommendations will be implemented. So that is not so much a message, as a final call that I very much hope will receive some attention, so that in the coming years this mandate will have a resource base from which implementation can also follow.

But to return to your question about Doha - this was such an interesting meeting. Held in conjunction with the Secretary General's campaign to end violence against women, it was used skillfully to open up a debate on an issue in a part of the world where these debates are in their infancy. People from all the middle eastern countries were invited and the debates were dynamic. I was there with the chair of CEDAW and we made a strong joint appeal to Qatar to ratify CEDAW. We followed up our request with a letter and I'm told something will happen. The meeting itself, I think, opened new spaces in Qatar as well as in neighbouring countries to move more intensely in the area of combating violence against women and women's rights. This is important as it will open up a new space for women in other areas as well.

JG: Is this part of the process you describe as a growing convergence around the core values of the universal human rights discourse?

YE: Absolutely. This is a key development. It seems almost ironic, because one of the major problems of the world today is the immense violation of rights everywhere, especially since 9/11. Human rights have been belittled to say the least. But at the very same time, I think we have found refuge in the whole discourse of human rights. This allows us to keep moving despite all the negatives. And when you look around the world even the most skeptical people are in the human rights system. They forge their own struggles using universal human rights standards. This is very interesting and every UN member state today is a party to at least one convention. I don't think states can remain indefinitely disengaged from the human rights system.

JG: Do you think that there is less of a sense that it's a western instrument or a western concept?

YE: That is certainly what I have been arguing for wholeheartedly, because the whole notion of a ‘clash of civilizations' has created such a dichotomy between existing civilizations. I have always argued that there is only one human civilization and that this civilization emerged through interaction - trade, wars. In short - people never were isolated in their own corners. They have always engaged with each other. It is the common suffering throughout history that brought us to the point of designing human rights instruments. It may have been initiated in the west, but it certainly is not the property of the west, and unless we recognise this, we will surrender ourselves to becoming something less than human beings. I don't think that's acceptable.

JG: If there is a growing convergence around the universal human rights discourse, how does that impact on the division between the public and the private in terms of women's rights? We know as women that where you draw this line between public and private is pretty crucial ...

YE: The public/private divide has in the past been one of the major obstacles preventing women from pursuing their own empowerment in their private lives (which we do want to protect as ‘private' because our privacy is important). But given the patriarchal nature of all societies, this privacy has meant the privacy of the man, the privilege of the man to do as he pleases because the home is the man's castle. What about the woman? What is in it for her?

This challenge is the reason why this is one of the first barriers feminists attacked in the 1980's and since then we have managed to broaden the understanding of the human rights discourse which, until 1992, pretty much dealt with violation of rights in the hands of the states, or in the public sphere. Today, we are talking about domestic violence, marital rape - issues that were inconceivable to mention just fifteen years ago.

My mandate represents the first mandate that is designed specifically to monitor the private sphere. So I think we have pretty well penetrated that area, though implementation is still a problem. But today's state responsibility has gone beyond just negative responsibility, ‘not to do harm'. States are required to assume a positive responsibility to make sure that harm is not done by others, such as private actors in the private sphere.

We have to push still more for progress in this area, because although the standards are there, courts are still reluctant to punish the perpetrators when they are private individuals. There are a lot of cultural misconceptions, still.

I recall a German female judge who was presiding over a divorce case. The woman, who was from the middle east, was filing for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence, and the judge asked her "Why are you here? In your culture domestic violence is acceptable: I'm not accepting this case". So this is the kind of world we are still living in. On the one hand there is this racist connotation here that this woman need not expect any better. On the other hand, a judge is using someone else's culture as something that presides over the laws of her own country, and of her court. So there are a lot of double standards involved, and some perverse justifications invoking alien cultures or religions or whatever, simply in order to sidestep the appropriate prevention and punishment of violations in the private sphere. So it's still going on, but I think it has been demystified and today at least at the level of standards, we have made quite an advance.

JG: There is a new global initiative to reform Muslim Family law called Musawah. You were there at the launch. Where do you think it may go?

YE: I was very pleased when they invited me. I think their motivation is very similar to my motivation in demystifying these cultural arguments that say "well this is our culture, and this is our religion". Of course, I argue from the perspective of universal human rights norms as a human rights expert. Musawah is claiming to do the same thing from within Islam itself and their primary argument is that the Sharia cannot be against women because the Sharia is based on justice and equality. Viewed from a historical perspective that is incontrovertible. Only recall the conditions on the Arabian peninsular when Islam emerged. It brought a great deal of justice and equality to a situation where there were incredible injustices.

What has happened in the course of history is that, as with anything else, as religion became politicized, it also became an area of contestation. Wars were fought on the basis of Sharia and still are being fought, so that it became a political tool, defined in accordance with the political environment itself, so that today, yes, there are many, many misogynous prescriptions issued in the name of Islam, which we cannot accept. I criticize them from the point of view of universal human rights, but Musawah is taking Islamic teaching and reinterpreting it, and I think this is very ,very important.

It's a different level of engagement. They will be engaging the clergy in different Islamic countries in a dialogue about the Islamic teaching itself (because when we are talking from outside the faith, there is always going to be a gap in the communication). But this is creating a platform for involving them in their own terrain.

Muslim women's groups have been doing this for a number of years, and in a number of countries - Iran included. There have been reinterpretations and reform of this kind in Morocco too. So much work has been done on the basis of such reforms, and yet none of these countries has ceased to be Muslim. So I think it is for us to recognize that what these reforms do is really to protect the dynamism of the religion itself, not relinquishing it to the will of a few archaic minds. And I think we need to do this. We all need to challenge such interpretations of religion and culture, whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam or any other religion or belief. So that there are plural voices, and that the teachings that are attributed to holy books cannot be interpreted in just one way.

Unless we listen to these plural voices, we condemn these teachings to death. So, it's self defeating. It is in that sense that I wish Musawah all the best. It is not easy to do what they are doing: they will be attacked, for sure. And Musawah also has diverse voices internally, which is good because we don't want an equally dogmatic alternative voice coming out in protest. They have women of belief as well as secular women in their numbers and they are dialoguing amongst themselves. They are also relying on scholarly work in both the Muslim and the Christian world. Religion is important: people need to have spirituality. It's part of our identities. But when you lock it up in dogma and conservativism, it becomes a tool of oppression. So I think Musawah may in time make a contribution to giving Islam back its due credit in the eyes of the world.