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22 October 2014,

Women, the UN and altered realities

It is evident that the UN’s institutions have lost their power to negotiate for justice. As the MDG programme draws to an end in 2015, its rhetoric must be replaced by new structures that recognise context-specific economic realities, and processes rooted in the knowledge of feminist groups all over the world

Development economist, activist and Gandhian

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The role of women at and with the United Nations has been through flows and ebbs. Over time, women have gradually strengthened themselves with their networks and grounded knowledge—and states have taken note, or the movement has made the state take note, of their collective strength.

However, during this evolution, the UN group of institutions has lost its space as a critical entity, as the game-changer that it was during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. With the growth of globalisation and the increasing power of the private sector, of multinational corporations and international capital on a global scale, governments and intergovernmental organisations like the UN were pushed backstage. In the process, they have lost their power to negotiate for justice.

In this essay we argue that international goal-setting and monitoring of progress, as was done for the Millennium Development Goals, is an inappropriate method of stimulating programmes for the removal of poverty or for stimulating energy among state parties.

Feminist groups all over the world are now involved not only in resistance movements as they were in the past, but also in remaking policies and laws, and at the high end of economic transactions. Their influence on the status of women can be much greater than a UN bureaucracy and UN-generated ideas.

Given these changes, this essay argues for a significant shift in the linking of women to the mainstream. These links must be derived from feminist thought and from reasoning based in experience. It must be a contribution rather than an intervention.

It is not enough to call for the participation of women in existing patterns of market-based production, or for the empowerment of women within the current paradigms of development, or for gender mainstreaming within prevailing configurations of institutional power. It is the forms of production, the paradigms, and the institutions themselves that must be questioned and transformed, through changes in the ideas that generate economic policies as well as through social mobilisation.

As noted economist Amartya Sen said in a speech on freedom and sustainability in Tokyo in the year 2000: “Women should be seen not as patients whose interests have to be looked after, but as agents who can do effective things—both individually and jointly. We also have to go beyond their role specifically as ‘consumers’ or as ‘people with needs’, and consider, more broadly, their general role as agents of change who can—given the opportunity—think, assess, evaluate, resolve, inspire, agitate, and through these means, reshape the world.”


Devaki Jain graduated in economics from Oxford University, UK, and then taught the honours course in economics at Miranda House, Delhi University. She is a Gandhian, feminist economist, and a writer on public affairs with a special focus on poverty-removal.  

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