Women's Human Rights: Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalising Age

December 10, 2009

Taking up the thorny issue of transnational feminist advocacy in the context of universal human rights protection, with all its visible failures, Niamh Reilly presents it as a case study in this well-grounded, thoroughly researched and timely book. She focuses sharply on different stakeholders at the organisational level and draws attention to the various global agendas in tackling the important issues of human rights, conflict and security, environment, development and economic policy.

Reilly takes what she calls an "emancipatory cosmopolitan feminist position" that rejects the imposition of a "Western-centric, gender-biased, exclusionary interpretation of rights". She does not dismiss universal norms of human rights as regressive, but widens the scope of mainstream human rights concepts and practice to bring in women's experiences of human rights violations in neglected areas.

She identifies five mutually constitutive areas of contention: public international law; global feminist consciousness; cross-boundaries dialogue and networking; collaborative transnational advocacy; and global forums as sites of solidarity and civic action. Employing a multi-pronged approach, Reilly is particularly evocative when integrating the moral, legal and political elements of human rights into a framework of critical, bottom-up action, which poses a challenge to a top-down approach of intergovernmental institutions.

This book defines women's human rights as a participative, dialogic process. The idea is to show how an expansive and woman-centred plan can be aimed at transforming the lives of those women. The chapter "Violence and Reproductive Health in Human Rights Issues" is crucial for redefining terms such as "bodily integrity" as an aspect of civil and political rights grounded in the right to life. Reilly identifies violence against women as that perpetuated by private actors in clearly demarcated private spaces, as well as gender-based torture in police and military detentions, and examines the ways in which human rights violations by non-state actors, such as spouses and transnational corporations, have been generally ignored.

Perhaps the most interesting analysis is offered in the chapter "Development and Globalisation and Women's Human Rights". Here, Reilly's focus shifts to the way in which women's economic and social rights have had a lower priority than civil and political rights. She goes on to show how contemporary neoliberal logic, which excludes development concerns from human rights, is pervasive and invisible, and argues that the gender dimensions of the marginalisation of social and economic rights within mainstream human rights are rarely examined.

This pinpoints the importance of what she sets out to do - namely, to explore the emergence of rights-based development discourse in the 1990s and how it worked to build bridges between the fields of gender and development, and women's human rights. But it is here that the limits of her argument become evident. Her attempts to "reclaim" the radical elements of human rights remain at the level of possibility. When it comes to providing concrete examples of the transformative potential of human rights, her analysis can be sketchy. She is quick to realise that "yawning gaps persist between global norms and local implementation", but it is a pity that gaps are also evident here.

Women's Human Rights: Seeking Gender Justice in a Globalising Age

By Niamh Reilly. Polity, 224pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780745636993 and 7006. Published 2 October 2009

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