1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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The European Journal of Development Research, review on "Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World", by United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva, 2005.

6 Apr 2009

In marking the 10-year anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Women, the UNRISD publication: Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World is a useful and timely review of the progress made in addressing gender inequality over the past decade. The findings presented in this book represent the research of more than 60 specially commissioned studies. The book also draws on key feminist academic literature making the report a well-rounded and insightful commentary on the progress and challenges facing women today.

The primary focus of the report is on the economic and political reforms of the 1990s. The reforms reflect mixed results for gender equality and the advancement of women. As a result, the report calls for significant changes to current development practices (especially economic expansion, social programs, democratic processes and structural transformation). Overall, the UNRISD report on gender inequality is a road map documenting how far countries have come in addressing gender inequality, what policies and procedures are currently in place and where we still need to go to make gender equality a reality.

The book is divided into four sections (macroeconomics, well-being and gender equality; women, work and social policy; women in politics and public life; and gender, armed conflict and the search for peace) and I summarise each section briefly here.

The first section of the report is on macroeconomics, well-being and gender equality in which the report highlights how economic transformations such as liberalisation and deregulation have not addressed women’s overall well-being or gender inequality. The guiding argument here is that neoliberalism has been unsuccessful in eliminating inequalities. Women have increasingly entered labour markets and women’s pay and conditions have improved in export-sector jobs; however, women’s work remains insecure. The authors propose improving labour standards, developing new policy measures that are family-friendly and gender-sensitive, and gender-responsive budget audits as the way forward in addressing gender inequality.

Section two is on women, work and social policy and it picks up on the above themes noting that more people are employed globally but that labour markets remain segmented by gender. Women’s work continues to be largely part-time employment and, overall, women continue to earn lower wages than men. Ongoing challenges experienced by women also include shifts in agricultural practices reflecting the replacement of food crops with cash crops.

In the third section, women in politics and public life, the report maps out the progress made in recent years and over the past decade in terms of the number and representation of women in office and how this has come about (through democratic shifts as well as quotas/representational voting, party systems and ideologies, etc.). There has been an overall increase in women’s representation in national assemblies in the past decade from nine per cent to 16 per cent demonstrating some significant improvements. African countries are among those countries witnessing some of the biggest gains in the increasing representation of women in senior bureaucratic positions. However, higher numbers of women in bureaucracy does not necessary translate into improved gender sensitive policies. The report documents the important role played by national and transnational women’s movements in mobilising women and fighting for international gender-responsive policies. Good governance is highlighted in this section as the way forward. One way to achieve good governance is through the implementation of gender budgets to ensure spending is done in a way that promotes gender equality. Decentralisation and local-level political activity offers another way for women to gain entry into political life.

The fourth and final section of the book deals with gender, armed conflict and the search for peace. In this section, the report notes the ongoing conflicts and their impacts on women around the world. The report highlights the successes achieved through the UN Security Council’s Resolution number 1325, which encourages governments to involve women in the decision-making positions around managing and resolving conflict. Despite these efforts, most war crimes against women continue to go unpunished.

An important advantage to this report is its reflection on progress made and areas for ongoing attention in gender equality work. As such, the book is a balanced account of what has worked in international policy-making, how governments have responded and what are the areas for improvement. In terms of progress made, gains include women’s increased presence in political positions, improvements in educational enrolments, increased number of women in the labour force, and lower fertility rates. These successes, however, are tempered by gender asymmetries including women’s overall limited access to income, power and political decision-making.

One of the core critiques raised in the book is that despite growing women’s movements and their increasing presence and attention to gender equality, mainstream international policies continue to ignore gender issues. Gender research and scholarship, the report argues, is not adequately mainstreamed into economic policies, good governance agendas and conflict prevention programs. In the end, international policies have resulted in increased insecurities for women and their dependents. Successes are observed in the area of women gaining access to political positions. Harnessing this achievement is essential to getting gender issues on the table and keeping them there.

The main shortcoming or challenge arising from this report is its global perspective. Sweeping generalisations are not surprising in a report that attempts to highlight how the world is doing in the areas of gender equality. Conditions of women therefore tend to be generalised. Throughout the report, however, specific examples are highlighted to demonstrate changes and ongoing challenges.

This United Nations report is an important contribution to feminist scholarship. It is well-written, engaging, critical and reflective. The UNRISD report Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World will be a welcome addition to course readings in political science, international development, gender studies and international relations. It will also act as a useful resource for development practitioners and bureaucrats alike.

by Rebecca Tiessen
Department of International Development Studies, Dalhousie University

This review is posted with permission of "The European Journal of Development Research", Palgrave Macmillan http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ejdr/index.html, Volume 18, Number 1, March 2006.