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Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement

Christine Verschuur

Circulation de connaissances féministes et institutions de développement : lost in translation ?

From feminist knowledge to public action: The role of power and ideology

Shahra Razavi

Note de l’éditeur

Référence papier : Razavi, S. 2017 From feminist knowledge to public action: The role of power and ideology’, in C. Verschuur (dir.), Qui sait ? Expertes en genre et connaissances féministes sur le développement, Paris : L’Harmattan. Collection Genre et développement. Rencontres, pp. 221-227. Acheter le .pdf chapitre éditeur.

Texte intégral

1Let us begin with three vignettes taken from different arenas of policy that feminist ideas and feminist knowledge seem to have permeated, promising to create the momentum for policy change.

2In June 2014 a global summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict was convened by the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague. The event was the culmination of a two-year process masterminded by the Foreign Secretary and his team to take advantage of the UK’s Presidency of the G8 and place the issue on the agenda of the world’s super powers. At long last, the campaign to address sexual violence in conflict became a high profile issue on the global political and diplomatic agenda, grabbing headlines in the world’s media (which was also helped by Angelina Jolie’s accompanying William Hague during the four-day summit).

3On 26 June 2015, the US Supreme Court recognised the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The decision came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, which struck down the clause in the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined “marriage” and “spouse” as excluding same-sex partners.

4In September 2015 the McKinsey Global Institute launched its new report, The Power of Parity. The launch statement read:

Gender inequality is not only a pressing moral and social issue but also a critical economic challenge. If women – who account for half the world’s working-age population – do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer. While all types of inequality have economic consequences, in our new McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report, The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, we focus on the economic implications of lack of parity between men and women. (McKinsey Global Institute 2015, 25)

5The report identifies impact zones – including blocked economic potential, time spent in unpaid care work (my emphasis), fewer legal rights, political underrepresentation and violence against women – where action could move more than 75% of women affected by gender inequality globally closer to parity.

6These three vignettes or snapshots point to some important changes that are taking place before our eyes, thanks to the persistence and hard work of feminist researchers and women’s rights advocates – two categories with a blurred boundary between them – who have produced the ideas and evidence and brought them into the public arena of policy debate and action. Feminist vocabulary – “empowerment”, “sexual violence”, “unpaid care work” – is on the lips of those whom one would not normally associate with the movement (foreign ministers, corporations and their allies, supreme courts, etc.). What is going on here? Are these just “buzzwords” (Cornwall and Brock 2005) or is something more meaningful happening here with the potential to impact policy and the lives of real people, women and men, on the ground?

7Beyond these three particular snapshots (about which I will have more to say) there has been progress on a number of important fronts. In a comprehensive 20-year review that UN Women carried out on the Beijing Platform for Action, it was clear that some positive changes are happening from a gender equality perspective. There has been considerable progress, for example, in removing discriminatory provisions from existing laws and in passing new laws that promote women’s rights, particularly when it comes to violence against women. We have also seen considerable normative advances in the global agenda on “women, peace and security” into which the first vignette fits. Another area of progress across all regions has been the significant gains in girls’ enrolment in primary and secondary education, problems with the quality of education notwithstanding.

8We often hear that there is “unevenness” in the progress we have seen in gender equality. I think the term “uneven” is misleading, because it suggests a degree of randomness in how progress is being made. I think a better term is selectivity. The selectivity in progress has two sources: first, structural inequalities that are stubbornly in place in all societies (inequalities of class, race, ethnicity and so forth), which intersect with gender and mean that some women are better able to enjoy their rights than others. AND second, more relevant to our discussion here, those with power have responded selectively to women’s progressive demands, taking up some issues from the women’s rights agenda (as we see in the three snapshots) but leaving other interrelated concerns aside. Let me go back to our three vignettes.

9In the women, peace and security agenda policy, attention is focused on sexual violence. This is a shockingly egregious violation of rights (of women’s rights, but also the rights of others who are subjected to sexual violence), and an issue that has been repeatedly highlighted by women’s rights activists from around the world over many decades. It was only after the Beijing conference that the normative foundations for the “women, peace and security” agenda, as it is now called, were set, starting with Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 (and 6 other Security Council (SC) resolutions subsequently) and international transitional justice processes that started responding to the crimes to which women are subjected in wartime (in 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda issued the first verdict on sexual violence in war, calling it an act of genocide when it is committed with the intent of destroying a particular group).

10But as feminists have argued, there are other equally important elements of women’s peace activism agenda that have not been picked up with the same degree of enthusiasm and zeal: for example, women’s active participation in preventing conflict, peace-building and in post-conflict processes (underlined in SC Resolution 2122) has received lukewarm reception. As Anne Marie Goetz and Rob Jenkins (2015, 74) argue, through the passing of a whole set of resolutions, the Security Council has “carved the protection-from-sexual violence element of the 1325 agenda away from those measures aimed primarily at women’s empowerment, including their equal representation within rule-forming and decision-making bodies”. This, they argue, reinforces gender stereotypes of women as sexually subordinated and “offers mainly male security officials the kind of role with which they are comfortable: as protectors of women’s virtue” (Goetz and Jenkins 2015, 75). Women’s collective participation in conflict resolution and recovery falls by the way side. One would hope that foreign ministers like William Hague, and even more aptly Margaret Wallstrom of Sweden who speaks of “feminist foreign policy”, will open the doors to the organised voices of women in conflict-ridden countries and bring them to the negotiating table.

11Even more disconcerting, there is little space, if any, for contesting disarmament and demilitarisation, which have been central planks in the long history of women’s peace activism and are among the root causes of violent conflict. Whatever happened to feminist analyses of militarism and masculinity? As Amina Mama explains (2013):

Militarism and heteronormative gender identities are co-constitutive. It is not that “masculinity” generates war, as the question has been put, but rather that the process of militarization both draws on and exaggerates the bipolarization of gender identities in extremis. Mustering troops is all about the mobilization of men into aggressive expressions of hypermasculinity – they are “pumped up” and as it were to facilitate their most murderous and pornographic capabilities. This is not just a masculinizing process… but an intersectional dynamic that also “works” ethnicity, religion and other social distinctions, and very often appeals to racial supremacist constructions of “the enemy”.

12And as Jacqui True (2015) reminds us, even with a “feminine” social democratic government in power, it is extremely hard to address the unregulated global arms trade – one of the root causes of conflict – when it is so lucrative (talking here of the military-industrial complex). The “spontaneous solidarity of a diverse group of captains of industry and of state power, nearly all men, who support the accumulation of profits over people’s lives and basic freedoms” reveals that “this is patriarchy at work – and a feminist foreign policy worth its salt needs to confront regimes of masculine hegemonies and the unequal entitlements that hold such hierarchical political economic orders together at every level”.

13Another example of selectivity comes from the global policy developments around sexual and reproductive health and rights – taking us to the second vignette. As we know all too well, the expansive Cairo agenda that was the product of immense hard work and collaboration by women’s health rights activists was reduced to maternal health rather than a comprehensive approach to women’s health across the life cycle in the now nearly forgotten Millenium Development Goals agenda. Are things looking better under the new Sustainable Development Goals agenda? One of the most contentious targets of the new agenda has been the one on “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights”– which reflects the lowest common denominator of “agreed language” rather than the more progressive demand of feminist and human rights organisations for “sexual and reproductive health and rights” which would include sexual rights in its definition. Nor is it clear from the way this target is formulated if “reproductive health and rights” are inclusive of women’s right to access safe abortion services, a right that is being clawed back in a number of countries – including in some of the countries that are moving ahead with progressive legislation on same-sex marriage.

14So again we see selectivity and the fragmentation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights agenda: some sexual rights are moving forward – same-sex issues and trans rights are seen as “modern” (driven by organised groups of gay men and many others) – but abortion rights have stalled and there is very little attention to women’s sexual rights within marriage. It is well-known that when laws severely restrict women’s access to abortion services, the cost is disproportionately borne by poorer and more marginalised women who cannot afford access to higher quality services provided by private clinics and practitioners, which may also be located at a distance, and also by adolescent girls. This means that they often resort to unregulated services that are unsafe, at the peril of their own health.

15And our trilogy would not be complete without some mention of women’s economic empowerment. “Economic empowerment” is the flavour of the day and everyone (from governments to corporations) seems to want to promote it. The fact that Citibank and McKinsey, not to mention Christine Lagarde of the IMF, all speak the same discourse is a significant achievement of the women’s movement, which has been able to catapult a concept that was developed in feminist research and advocacy networks into the mainstream of policy debate. However, as in the case of other concepts that have gained widespread traction, up-take by powerful actors and institutions often means that the concepts are reinterpreted and used in ways that fit the interests of those who use them. In the process, they may lose their original clarity and edge, and become fuzzy and ambiguous.

16This is quite clear in the way “empowerment” is being used these days. Some see in women a largely untapped market of consumers (good for boosting profits), while others talk about unleashing women’s economic power and potential as a means to solve the lingering problems caused by the global financial crisis and stalled growth (good for growth). No one would deny the importance of nurturing synergies between women’s economic empowerment and wider economic prosperity and growth. Women’s participation in the workforce, for example, contributes to economic dynamism by bringing more income into the household, boosting aggregate demand and expanding the tax base. A fundamental question, however, that we need to ask is whether these presumed “win-win” scenarios stand up to scrutiny, and what is in it for women. Does it expand their practical enjoyment of their rights? Or does it simply harness their time, knowledge and resourcefulness to serve development ends with little or no benefit to women themselves?

17This is where a strong anchoring within the human rights and women’s rights framework becomes essential. Going beyond the headline figures on women’s labour force participation or the number of jobs created, we need to ask if women’s participation in the workforce is translating into concrete outcomes in terms of their right to a safe and healthy working environment, fair and adequate earnings and access to a pension for their elderly years, and whether they are able to reduce and redistribute their unpaid care work as they take on more paid work.

18In the hands of some actors, the agenda is very narrowly defined and has come to mean having more women inserted in global value chains as “entrepreneurs” (a “glamorous” way of talking about women in informal self-employment) to contribute to capital accumulation, and not about removing structural barriers so women can claim their rights to work AND their rights at work, which would need to include some element of collective action and of government regulation of private, for-profit entities. But these elements do not sit comfortably with the new “common sense” understanding of women’s economic empowerment.

19So what is happening here? Are these vignettes, especially the last one, examples of what Nancy Fraser (2009) calls the “elective affinity” between neoliberalism and feminism? Does feminism just provide a “human face” (or more aptly, a human mask) to legitimise deeply exploitative forms of capital accumulation (sweetening the bitter pill of austerity)? Are feminist ideas, knowledge, and vocabulary being simply brought into the service of a masculinist capitalist juggernaut? Are there no spaces of power and no politics? Is it all about cooptation and capture?

20I am very persuaded by a different reading that does not erase the possibility of spaces of agency and politics even as we recognise the incredible power and dominance of finance in the 21st century – a dominance that wreaks havoc with the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, of military-industrial complexes that fuel and drive wars, and of a one percent that pushes democracies towards what Stiglitz (2012) calls “a one dollar, one vote” plutocracy (he is talking about the US, but the argument could be extended further). It is clearly not a “level playing field” out there where feminist organisations and social movements enjoy the same visibility and power as Microsoft, Unilever and the IMF (certainly not within the UN, and I would be surprised if it were any better outside the UN).

21As Janet Newman (2013) has helpfully argued, rather than seeing neoliberalism as a given, or a globalising phenomenon that rolls all before it, we need to open up questions about how different elements of what we may call neoliberalism are not only contested but also far from a fixed and coherent whole. Neoliberalism itself is de-articulated and re-articulated in new ways as it comes into contact with local politics and cultures. In encountering feminism, neoliberalism itself has had to change – recognising the need for state benefits, the importance of social services and of even childcare provision (many problems in how it sees unpaid care work, basically as something that has to be removed and reduced to unleash women’s economic potential). So it has been a two-way street, though the traffic is far from equal. In other words, even as we recognise the selective incorporation of feminist agendas as a triumph of neoliberal forms of appropriation, we must not lose sight of how feminist concerns are also being responded to, even if timidly and partially. Employers and States now have to bear some of the cost of childcare provision if they want to “retain talent”, transitional justice systems have to respond to sexual violations and crimes, and societies and legal systems have to think of sexuality and marriage beyond their heteronormative comfort zones.

22And, the fact that they are using feminist language, as Gita Sen persuasively argues, “is not a sign of failure, but of success in the first level of the struggle for change. If knowledge is power, then changing the terrain of discourse is the first but very important step. It makes it possible to fight the opposition on the ground of one’s choosing” (2006, 139).

23The challenge for feminists now then is to push back: working towards a “woman, peace and security” agenda that has peace as its centrepiece, a sexual and reproductive rights agenda that brings together the full range of women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and an economic empowerment agenda that is grounded in women’s (and men’s) rights to decent work and universal social protection. These are the spaces on which many feminist organisations and scholars are already engaging in contestation, “speaking to power” and using knowledge and activism to “lever open cracks and spaces within the dominant” (Newman 2013, 214).


Cornwall, A. and K. Brock. 2005. What Do Buzzwords Do for Development Policy? A critical look at “participation”, “empowerment” and “poverty reduction”. Third World Quarterly. 26(7): 1043-1060.

Fraser, N. 2009. Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History. New Left Review. 56: 97-117.

Goetz, A. M. and R. Jenkins. 2015. Taking Stock: Protection without Empowerment? Evolution of the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda since the Beijing Platform for Action. In Women and Girls Rising. Progress and resistance around the world. (Eds.) E. Chesler and T. McGovern. 69-81. London and New York: Routledge.

Mama, A. 2013. Challenging Militarized Masculinities. Published online on

McKinsey Global Institute. 2015. The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add 12 trillion to Global Growth. McKinsey & Company.

Newman, J. 2013. Spaces of Power: Feminism, Neoliberalism and Gendered Labor. Social Politics. 20(2): 200-221.

Sen, G. 2006. The Quest for Gender Equality. In Reclaiming Development Agendas: Knowledge, Power and International Policy Making. (Ed.) P. Ütting. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Stiglitz, J. 2012. The Price of Inequality. How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future. New York, London: W. W. Norton ] Company.

True, J. 2015. Why We Need a Feminist Foreign Policy to Stop War. Published online on


Shahra Razavi dirige la section recherche et données à ONU Femmes. Ses recherches et ses publications portent sur les dimensions de genre du développement, avec un accent sur les questions agraires, la politique sociale et l’économie du care. Depuis qu’elle a rejoint ONU Femmes en janvier 2013, Shahra Razavi a supervisé la recherche sur deux des rapports phares de l’organisation : Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016. Transforming the Economy, Realizing Rights et le World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014. Gender Equality and Sustainable Development. Avant de rejoindre l’ONU Femmes, Shahra Razavi était chercheure à l’Institut de recherche des Nations Unies pour le développement social (UNRISD) à Genève. Elle a grandi en Iran, et a obtenu son Bachelor à la London School of Economics (LSE), et son masters et son doctorat (D. Phil.) de l’Université d’Oxford.

Shahra Razavi is the Chief of the Research and Data Section at UN Women. Her research and publications have been on gender dimensions of development, with a focus on agrarian issues, social policy and the care economy. Since January 2013 when she joined UN Women, Shahra Razavi has overseen the research on UN Women’s flagship reports, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 (Transforming the Economy, Realizing Rights) and the World Survey on the Role of Women in Development 2014 (Gender Equality and Sustainable Development). Before joining UN Women, Shahra Razavi was a senior researcher at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva. She grew up in Iran, and obtained her Bachelors from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and her Masters and PhD (D.Phil.) from Oxford University.


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