Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Democracy, Citizenship and Participation

Democracy. In exploring what "democracy, participation, and citizenship" mean from women’s perspectives, inclusiveness was a recurring theme in the working session. This theme was highlighted on at least two levels: first, the inclusion of women in the exercise of power and decision making throughout society and second, the question of inclusiveness within the women’s movement.

Regarding the official institutions of democracy, participants felt that "we cannot wait for politicians to find ways of including women. We have to develop our own strategies and methods to introduce more women into underrepresented areas" and to lobby to "make women’s voices heard." For example, with respect to party politics, we need to ensure that existing women party members are given greater visibility and are not passed over in favour of token or high-profile women from outside. Some participants argued that the strategy of a women-only party is a means of challenging the boundaries of the traditional male political sphere, and in doing so, supporting women in all parties.

On a general point, one woman expressed the concern that democracy is only "as strong as it allows the right to dissent and oppose" and yet "is this stirring up a hornets nest?" We need to recognise and address the fact that democratic practice does include conflict (or potential conflict) among individuals living in a given country as well as between them and the state.

The participants felt that there are "no hard rules" for defining democracy, but that from the perspective of women "it must mean equality." This includes "equal rights for men and women" in a broader context of equal respect for all groups in society. The validity of any democracy is undermined if it does not reflect the diversity of the people living within it’s boundaries. There was general agreement that current structures need to change to become more participative and more representative. At present, in terms of local government reform, there is no commitment to women’s inclusion. To the degree that women have been included in community work and at certain political levels "it has been at the bottom." There needs to be a proper analysis of the obstacles to women’s inclusion in these areas and "not just a numbers exercise."

Citizenship. The working session argued that "citizenship is invalid without the framework to use it." Rural women living in isolation or young women – especially those in marginalized communities like West Belfast – often lack the resources needed to realise their citizenship. We need to acknowledge that "if the rights we fight for are not owned by women who are furthest out from the power base then they are not rights at all." The working session had mixed ideas of what citizenship is and some felt that the term can be used flippantly. Citizenship should not be understood solely in terms of "representative politics which does not lend itself to real participation."

Deepening Democracy. Much of the discussion continued in this vein and focused on the desirability of developing deeper and more extensive models of democracy and citizenship. Some women advocated fostering "democracy in the home." Others underscored the need to "increase participation and democracy in our own spheres of operation" and organisations. One woman asserted that

Democracy is not just about political parties. We must start with the structures of our own groups – are they democratic and inclusive? . . . You don’t look at who is in the room, but who is not in the room. Who are they and what are the barriers that exclude them? Full participation, however, means "taking power from some people and giving it over to others" and this can be very difficult. Another participant posed the question from a different angle: "are we gatekeepers or facilitators?" A number of suggestions were given as to how we can take the "facilitator" route. For example, bringing the expertise of professionals in the human rights field into local settings for use by grassroots groups. Another idea to maximise participation and bridge the urban-rural divide is to hold a number of smaller events regionally/locally alongside major events in the cities.

More generally, in order to achieve greater participation by women, women must have "ownership" of the agenda and a "clear vision" of what the issues are, what must be achieved, and how to proceed. We need to find "mechanisms" to encourage this sense of ownership – mechanisms that are "warm, generous and fair." One example given was of women from Cashel and Kiltyelougher who "walked to each other across a closed border road singing – claiming the road to each other."

Extensive consultation with women to identify local issues and local concerns is a key to promoting women’s citizenship and participation. In this context, community development processes are opportunities to give women ownership and power in agenda setting – as part of a general move towards democratising community development. Indeed, "developing a gender analysis of power at local levels is about changing structures" – modes of agenda setting and decision making – and not just a question of adding to the numbers of women involved. In response to the concern of some women about "excluding men" in the effort to secure greater participation of women, one participant reminded the group that while "women worry about excluding the men, you will never hear men worrying about excluding women."

When we talk about women’s human rights, an important first step is "women owning rights" and participating in their definition. One part of this is providing the space and time for women to explore these issues, "allowing them to move from the personal explorative to the more collective activity" while "acknowledging the necessity of moving on from the personal."

Furthermore, there is an important discussion to be opened about how women use power. "Having power can be beneficial in our organisations." Women need to discuss "how we use power – not abuse it" and "not being afraid of power." Included in this discussion is the question of "whether women choose not to take power" and why.

A related topic is the politics of funding. All groups need funding to do their work. Yet we often must use "the language of the funders" to secure the resources needed and risk "losing sight of the issues" as they would be defined and prioritized by local groups and the constituencies they work with on the ground. We need to be aware that there can be a conflict between meeting funders’ criteria and staying focused on our independent purpose and basic principles.

While many called for new approaches and revised definitions of democracy, there was also an acknowledgement that "there is a tension between maintaining democracy and opening it up further" and that advances to date should be consolidated. Another area of concern raised is the fact that citizenship can be "bought" in return for investment. Participants felt that this is questionable in terms of democratic principles and that the criteria for granting citizenship need to be examined.

Using a Human Rights Framework. The realisation of human rights takes place on multiple levels. In many ways it is "a life-long process" in which human rights education plays a major role. Girls and young women need to be made aware of their human rights from early on. Likewise, policy-makers need to be educated about human rights standards and women need to use them to hold politicians and the state accountable. We also need education and training to learn how to use human rights as lobbying tools. Human rights documents and conventions must be translated into accessible language and ways must be devised for using them more creatively. We need to demystify human rights so that complicated language is not used to "exclude and to mask inaction."

A major challenge in utilising a human rights framework locally therefore is "translating the language of human rights to actions which can take place at a local level." There is sometimes "a gap between the women on the ground and the women with the knowledge of human rights law and mechanisms." Instead there must be a two-way process. The Commission for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in Northern Ireland has set up "ways of listening to community groups on the ground and then developing the action strategies." In the CAJ Racism Sub-Group, for example, "representatives of ethnic minorities are to the forefront, and the lawyers assist with the campaign." To make human rights work at the local level, such networking is very important in fostering solidarity, providing access to information, and allowing for the exchange of skills.

The current situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland raises many questions about human rights and citizenship in this country. In particular, there are gender dimensions to political asylum issues which need to be examined. Generally, the majority of asylum seekers are men even though the vast majority of refugees and displaced persons globally are women. Male refugees are more likely to have the economic and cultural resources to flee their countries and to seek political asylum in another country. Women are less likely to leave their children in addition to lacking the resources to flee – either alone or with children. Also, direct state-sponsored persecution which is more likely to be accepted as grounds for asylum (as compared to female genital mutilation or domestic violence, for example) affects men more than women. The situation of refugees and asylum seekers is a major human rights concern around the world and in Ireland. We need to ensure that laws and policies are implemented which respect human rights with special attention given to the plight of women refugees.

It is also important for women to be critical as they begin to utilise human rights language and frameworks. As one woman put it, there is a "risk of being sucked into a male-defined code of ethics." Women need to reinterpret universal human rights from their perspectives so that their human rights concerns are addressed. However, there was agreement that "Feminism can challenge the human rights agenda and produce genuine change".

Social and Economic Rights. Social and economic rights have been marginalised within human rights. A debate needs to happen around how this affects women’s citizenship and democratic participation. The links between women’s lower economic status and their limited access to economic resources and women’s poor representation in public life, for example, should be examined. There needs to be "a multi-faceted approach" to supporting women’s entry into public life that includes pooling resources, education and other strategies. Access to education is a human right and needs to be recognised as such. But while greater access to education is important to women achieving "competence and power," some participants questioned the idea that "personal development is the road to empowerment." They also argued that "power is not given, it has to be taken."

The way in which national statistics are gathered and defined underscores a number of deficiencies with respect to women’s social and economic rights in Ireland. Women’s contribution to the economy through their unpaid work in the home is not recognised or given value in national statistics. Further, many women who work in the home but who would wish to have paid employment are not included in the unemployment figures. As a result, both women’s role in the home and their needs with respect to paid employment are invisible. This failure to recognise women in national statistics diminishes women’s citizenship and undermines their social and economic rights. The census figures best reflect the total citizenship of the country and these should be the basis for all economic and social statistics. Statistics should reflect the diversity of women.

The "changing nature of work and women’s employment" also have human rights implications with "contract workers" and the "absence of rights" (in relation to employment) becoming more common. In the realm of cultural rights, given the strength to religious institutions in Ireland, one participant argued the need for feminist theologians to safeguard women’s human rights in the interpretation of religious beliefs.

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