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Twenty Years after Beijing: Time to Re-evaluate Policy Engagements with the State?

7 May 2015

Twenty Years after Beijing: Time to Re-evaluate Policy Engagements with the State?
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

Two decades after Beijing, the Indian balance sheet on feminist efforts at policy influencing is blotched with red. Gains on the social policy front have more often than not been neutralized by economic policies. Past advances are being rolled back as the government moves to insulate policy-making from public scrutiny. Is it time for feminists to walk away from the policy table and join the struggles and movements that are challenging neoliberalism on the streets?

Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist activist and researcher based in Delhi, India, whose work focuses on the impacts of neoliberal economic policies on women.

(....) Accelerated economic growth, although necessary for social development, does not by itself improve the quality of life of the population. In some cases, conditions can arise which can aggravate social inequality and marginalization. Hence, it is indispensable to search for new alternatives that ensure that all members of society benefit from economic growth based on a holistic approach to all aspects of development: growth, equality between women and men, social justice, conservation and protection of the environment, sustainability, solidarity, participation, peace and respect for human rights.
Beijing Platform of Action (Clause 14)

Twenty years after Beijing, this oft-repeated and many-times proven fact—that the rising tide does not lift all boats, that economic development is no guarantee of human development, that growing GDP results all too often in growing inequality—continues to be strenuously denied, ignored and rationalized by governments across the world.

We are told that all we need to do is wait patiently for the Achilles of economic policy to catch up with the tortoise of social policy.1 Perhaps it is time to admit to ourselves that things are no longer what they seem. The truth is that Achilles is running a different race, on a different track – one strewn with the corpses of tortoises who thought they could survive, if not stay ahead.

Professor Vina Majumdar, a pioneering Indian feminist, would often recount the story of the South African Member of Parliament who visited India in the late 1980s. “Why do you need a women's movement when your bureaucrats and your women's movements are saying the same things!” was her tongue-in-cheek comment after a meeting with the Planning Commission. Those were the heady days when feminists like Professor Majumdar herself were in the thick of policy-making, and feminist language and analysis appeared in key policy documents like the National Policy on Education (1988) and the Approach Paper of the Ninth Five Year Plan (1995) (Majumdar 2000).

Those days are gone. So comprehensively gone that, even as it fulminates against a BBC film on the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and declares war (yet again) on violence against women, the Indian government has quietly backtracked on its own promise to set up 660 rape crisis centres across the country. Less than a year after the proclamation of this intention by the Prime Minister as part of his election campaign, we are informed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development that only 36 centres are going to be set up. The government has not responded to the outcry from women's groups or given any justification for this action. We are left to speculate on the real reason behind trimming down this proposal and cutting outlays on other programmes that directly impact women's lives, such as the employment guarantee scheme, the food security scheme and the child health and nutrition scheme. Is this only because these schemes are relics of the bad old regime and its failed model of subsidy-based governance? Hard to believe, when the current Indian government's own estimate of revenues forgone through tax concessions to corporates is $88 billion. Even though these concessions are justified as “incentives” and not subsidies, the fact remains that the amount of money involved is enough to keep the employment guarantee scheme going for 121 years, and pay for food subsidies for 34 years at present rates of spending.

One may well ask how the government can get away with such egregious violations of its commitments to women's rights when it claims to be using gender-responsive budgeting as a tool to advance gender equality. The steady increase in the number of government entities committing to gender budgeting exercises is coupled with an equally steady decline in budgetary allocations for women and gender equality. This apparent paradox rests on the mistaken assumption that gender budgeting and budget-making share the same policy space. In fact, gender budgeting in India has never gone beyond the basic step of disaggregating budget items on the basis of their possible impacts on gender equality and women's rights. The results of this exercise are presented as an appendix to the budget, with no comment whatsoever on the obvious lack of fit between policy commitments (such as justice for survivors of rape) and allocations to the schemes (such as rape crisis centres) that are expected to translate these commitments into reality. Concerns raised by women's movements—whether on implementation mechanisms for targeted schemes or the gender-differentiated impacts of non-targeted schemes—are unheard and invisible in the stratospheric spaces where the budget is birthed.

Going by previous experience, it is futile to expect the opposition parties to pick up on these concerns, since there is no longer any fundamental ideological disagreement on the economic policy regime. The rightness of corporate capitalism as the prescription for growth is seldom, if ever, the subject of debate in Parliament. The contestation is around the quantum and pace of change, with the protagonists accusing each other of either heartlessness or inefficiency in the implementation of economic reforms.

Meanwhile, life on the slow track proceeds at its own pace, seemingly insulated from the goings-on elsewhere. A mere ten days after the finance minister presented a budget that left women's movements stunned by its unabashed obeisance to corporate power, the Ministry of Women and Child Development sends out invitations for yet another round of gender budgeting workshops.

Neoliberalism and patriarchy: A marriage of convenience

The gender budgeting story is a reminder that the neoliberal consensus is also a patriarchal consensus. Feminists and women's rights advocates who entered policy spaces in the 1980s have discovered that retaining their hard-won seats at the table demands deft balancing and manoeuvring. In a situation where the terms of engagement are always set by the government (even in its weaker avatars such as women's machineries), women's groups find themselves under pressure to be pragmatic and settle for “the best possible option” instead of sticking to the original radical goal. The strategic gains of engaging with the state take on grey shades when set against the ideological and political compromises involved, such as the “bowdlerized, impoverished or just plain wrong” representations of gender that are now well embedded in development discourses (Cornwall et al. 2007).

Women's groups who have entered into issue-based partnerships with the state are taken unawares when they find that the resulting policy packages contain components that are antithetical to their politics. Nuanced and contextualized feminist positions are appropriated and regurgitated as black-and-white precepts. For instance, women's movement campaigns on public safety have become the trigger for measures such as installing surveillance cameras in public transport, intensified police presence in public spaces, expansion of police powers and targeting certain supposedly “crime-prone” communities. In another instance, campaigns against sex-trafficking in the Indian state of Goa have been used by the government to justify attacks and evictions of local fisherfolk who were resisting commercial development in ecologically sensitive coastal regions.

Questions on feminist engagements with legal reform and law enforcement—where the battles have been fiercest and the gains most dramatic—are being raised by some who have been in the thick of the process. One such feminist lawyer is disgusted by the continued impunity of the citadels of patriarchy despite the hope generated by the public protests against the gang-rape and murder of a young student in Delhi in December 2012. Former UN Special Rapporteur Radhika Coomaraswamy has expressed dismay at the emergence of a “law and order feminism” which capitalizes on the victim-subject discourse to advocate for draconian legal provisions, sometimes with a cavalier attitude towards the human rights of alleged perpetrators. This approach has already had some disturbing consequences in India, such as the increasing visibility of men's groups who allege “anti-men biases” in family laws and laws against violence. Despite their open hostility to the constitutional commitment to gender equality, groups such as Save Indian Family are now positioning themselves as legitimate interlocutors on an equal footing with women's movement groups.

Engaging with the state: Diminishing returns?

There is no doubt that the Beijing Conference opened the door for a huge expansion in feminist partnerships with the government under the rubric of “gender mainstreaming”. Twenty years later, it is clear that successes in advancing women's rights through government programmes are attributable not so much to transformation of the state machinery as to the involvement of feminists and women's movements at every stage of conceptualization and implementation. The time, energy and resources that have been poured into these partnerships by feminist activists are rendered invisible in the official accounting. The protective cordon that feminists have attempted to build around these initiatives have not prevented them from being trimmed down and re-shaped to match a vision of women's empowerment that has very little to do with feminism, or even with gender equality. Feminists are today confronted with the possibility that these programmes may have domesticated dissent at the grassroots instead of providing support to women who are challenging the status quo on the ground (Cornwall et al. 2008).

Beijing +20 seems like an appropriate moment for women's movements to draw up a balance sheet on the pros and cons of two decades of experience in engaging with the state. The old platforms and spaces for this engagement—the five-year plans and the consultative process of drawing up the approach papers for each sector, advisory committees at the ministerial and departmental levels, the Planning Commission itself—are being rapidly dismantled. Where are the new spaces? What new strategies can feminists employ to influence the development agenda of a government that makes no secret of its patriarchal, fundamentalist and majoritarian ideological commitment? Has the intensity of our engagement on some issues come at the cost of our silence on others? Why isn't there a more visible and vocal feminist presence in mobilizations against trade agreements, patent regimes and biotechnology? Surely all these issues are as much women's issues as they were when the slogan “All issues are women's issues” was first coined? How is it that the popular upsurge against the government's draconian law on land acquisition is not seen as a women's movement, even though women outnumber men in the massive rallies and protests on the streets of the capital?

At the same time, in India as in other parts of the world, the political terrain is changing in ways we could not have imagined twenty years ago. We are seeing the implosion of the neoliberal consensus and the emergence of radical alternatives in Europe and Latin America. The Green Party, with its bold proposals for systemic change, is emerging as a serious contender for political power in the UK. New models of democracy and government are being thrown up by the “unruly politics” of movements on the street and are moving rapidly from the fringes to the centre of the stage.

Perhaps the other world that we all dreamt of is taking shape like this, in scattered bits and pieces that will one day coalesce into a wave, sweeping away old structures and making old political positions irrelevant. The question for feminists is: Will it happen with us or without us?

1The paradox of “Achilles and the tortoise” is attributed to the Greek philosopher Zeno and is usually stated as follows: In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead. This paradox is intended to make the metaphysical point that contrary to the evidence of one's senses, motion and change are illusionary.

Cornwall, Andrea, Jasmine Gideon and Kalpana Wilson. 2008. "Reclaiming Feminism: Gender and Neoliberalism." IDS Bulletin, 39(6):1-9.

Cornwall, Andrea, Elizabeth Harrison and Ann Whitehead. 2007. “Beyond Gender Myths and Feminist Fables: The Struggle for Interpretive Power in Gender and Development.” Development and Change, 38(1)1-20.

Majumdar, Vina. 2000. “From Equality to Empowerment for Women: Variations in Perspectives or the Politics of Language?” Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi (mimeo).

    Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist activist and researcher based in Delhi, India. Her work focuses on the impacts of neoliberal economic policies on women. She is a member of Women Against Sexual Violence and State Repression, an unfunded activist platform that challenges state agencies and their role in perpetrating and condoning violence against women. She also has a long association with Mahila Samakhya, a programme of women's education for empowerment.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.