Volume 2 No 3 (2005)


PERHAPS IT IS purely coincidental, but within a couple of days a number of talk show hosts on national radio recently asked their guests a similar question: are South African men now not more disempowered than they were a decade ago? Giving rise to such a question is of course the fact that the principle of gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution and that Parliament has passed legislation aimed at promoting and protecting the rights of women. The assumption here is that empowerment of one person (or group) equals disempowerment of someone else. In this view, power is a finite concept: like a cake, it can be shared up to a point, but once it is cut up and handed out (or taken), the majority of us can only look with envy at those who are enjoying eating their cake – unless the cake-eaters in their graciousness are willing to give the odd bite of cake away. But this also suggests that power stems from having something others don’t have – it has to be exclusive, otherwise its value and strength would be diminished. It also points to an understanding of power as the ability (if not the right) to make decisions about and for others, regardless of their views, wishes or experiences; in other words, power as having complete authority over other people.

If power is viewed as the unquestionably right to have power over others and decide for and about them (without them), then the disempowerment of those wielding this power is certainly not a bad thing. But is less power – or an end to exclusive power – the same as disempowerment? Is it not possible to find different sources of power that are inclusive, rather than exclusive, collective, rather than hierarchical, democratic, rather than authoritarian, and compassionate, rather than aggressive?

Among gender activists, and indeed anyone concerned with social change, understanding and engaging with the issue of power is critical. In Thought Matters, Joy Watson and Carmine Rustin give an insightful account of the behind-the-scenes power dynamics that influence deliberations at global meetings. Joy and Carmine, who are both researchers at the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, have written this article in their personal capacities and the views do not reflect or are in no way ascribed to Parliament. 


Holding on to

by Joy Watson and Carmine Rustin

THE 49th SESSION of the Commission of the Status of Women was characterised by a sense of great expectation. We had not anticipated the extent to which there would be concerted attempts to undermine the achievements made at the Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995. A primary objective of the 49th session was to review progress made towards furthering gender equity since 1995. The 49th session therefore sought to reiterate, renew and enhance the commitments. At some point in the course of the Commission’s deliberations, these objectives appeared to be in jeopardy. The objective then became not so much to “enhance” the commitments made at Beijing, but to hold on to them.

It was an eye-opening experience for us to learn how important decisions are caucused in the corridors, the politics entailed in negotiation processes, the campaigns to win allies to support particular viewpoints and the ways in which potential losses have to be strategically mitigated. Therefore, apart from learning much about the workings of the United Nations (UN) system, we experienced the complexities of global politics. It is common knowledge that decision-making processes at a global level should not be determined by unilateral approaches and that multi-lateral approaches are better suited to serve collective global interests. Yet, at times, national interests prevailed and decision-making revolved around the ability to strategise, caucus and engage in political trade-offs. Whilst this reflects the nature of multi-lateral processes, it was interesting to note the fluidity of alliances. Alliances shifted depending on the issue at hand. 

The most important lesson we learnt came from witnessing the tensions between the transformatory agenda of activists trying to subvert gender disparities at a political and economic level and the conservative elements seeking to maintain the status quo. It became apparent during the course of negotiations that a very conservative, hegemonic power bloc that wields significant economic power impacts upon the system of global politics. This bloc, because of the economic clout it has, plays a significant role in determining and moulding global social and economic policies. It further became apparent that the majority of people around the world would not allow themselves to become passive recipients of the decisions that this bloc tries to enforce on global society. The Beijing +10 meeting became an interesting illustration of how the power dynamics of these diverging viewpoints played itself out between the groups with essentially conservative agendas and the more progressive agendas. It reaffirmed that the gender “agenda” is essentially a transformative one, which meets resistance from many quarters.

Defending the Right to Reproductive Health

One example of how the political dynamics between conservative and more progressive blocs played itself out relates to the different stances taken on the right to termination of pregnancy. The question whether or not the Beijing Declaration made provision for this right emerged as a key concern. From the outset, the session’s declaration was under threat of being derailed by countries such as the United States of America (USA), the Holy See and Costa Rica. These countries argued that the declaration does not provide any new rights to women with respect to accessing abortion services. Using this reasoning, the USA proposed an amendment to the declaration. In the words of USA Ambassador Sauerbrey to the General Assembly:

“As colleagues in this meeting know, the United States has had concerns about efforts to mischaracterise the outcome documents of Beijing and Beijing +5 in the creation of new international rights. It is clear that there was no intent on the part of the states supporting the Beijing documents to create new rights. While those documents express important political goals, they do not create rights or legally binding obligations on states under international law, including the right to abortion. The United States recognises the International Conference on Population Development principle that abortion policies are a matter of national sovereignty.” 

The proposed amendment resulted in vehement objection from a number of states and women’s groups. On 8 March 2005, Gem News reported that women activists scuffled with UN security personnel and police officers following a protest march against the US government’s attempt to derail the final declaration. Approximately 200 women participated in the march held on International Women’s Day. Strong opposition to the USA position also came from the head of the EU delegation, Mady Mulheims:

“We hope that the US will reconsider its position. After one week of ping pong I am afraid we might not have a declaration. After ten years, there will be nothing to show.”

In response to opposition from states and women’s groups, the conservative bloc engaged in a targeted campaign to win support for its position. This encompassed caucusing with states both in bi-laterals and multi-laterals. Attempts were simultaneously made to win support from civil society. For example, the USA issued a pamphlet that claimed it had received 500 000 emails in support of its position from concerned citizens across the globe. This pamphlet listed the states where citizens had indicated their support, including South Africa. It argued that there was a need to prevent the Beijing documents from being used to “promote abortion as a human right worldwide.” It further argued that the amendment was necessary to protect national sovereignty of states and prevent the liberalisation of abortion. The pamphlet caused concern and a number of states questioned its authenticity.

There was clearly controversy around the interpretation of the text of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA). Provisions in these documents can be used to argue that access to abortion constitutes an important part of creating conditions for women to exercise their reproductive rights in a manner that ensures full respect for their “integrity of person”. Whilst the declaration in no way intends to encroach upon the national sovereignty of individual states, it does serve to provide the basis upon which states at a global level begin to enhance the quality of women’s lives. What is important is that the spirit of the declaration is to promote rights, not to impede them.  

The right to termination of pregnancy led to an interesting shift in alliances. States that generally tended to align themselves on most issues were divided on this issue. For example, the JUSCANZ alliance (originally Japan, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but it now also includes Switzerland, Norway, Mexico and Iceland) did not take a united stance on the issue. States opposing the legalisation of abortion were also able to play on the divisions in the Group of 77 and China. The Africa bloc was similarly divided on the issue. This meant that the political playing field was open to being completely reconstituted as states engaged in initiatives to form new alliances on the abortion issue.

Impacting on the international agenda

The final declaration shows intent on the part of states to give full effect to the outcomes of 1995 and 2000. Yet, a number of states had asserted that the issue of abortion is a matter of national sovereignty. This generates debate as to what extent the declaration is legally binding and to what extent states can be held accountable for its implementation. This question is particularly pertinent in light of the fact that a number of states were adamant that they would not promote abortion as a reproductive right.

The Beijing +10 meeting saw the UN become the site where traditional alliances changed and new alliances were formed. These were informed by the common policy agendas of national states. The reproductive rights controversy shows how national agendas were being used to influence and work against the important gains that had been made in 1995. The question that should be asked is why, at this particular juncture, reproductive rights were used as an instrument to subvert global processes.

This question needs to be considered in the context of the politics of women’s rights and the contestation around the global gender “agenda”. The 49th session clearly highlighted this point. As expected, countries differed around political interests, each trying to influence the final global agenda. It is imperative that political interests are represented in the international arena, and that alliances are built around collective areas of concern. The content of international agreements is generally determined by the alliances built around these common concerns. This is important because it establishes international standards and determines the allocation of global and national resources. In practice, this directly affects the lives of poor and vulnerable women, particularly in developing countries.

It is our observation that when states were not successfully influencing the global agenda, they shifted from a multi-lateral approach to protecting national sovereignty. This is a common challenge that serves to undermine the global agenda. States with vast economic power and global influence have the ability to impact upon the policy directions in which resources are allocated. They also have the means to significantly impact upon societal consciousness and shift the focus of the struggle for gender equity to more conservative agendas. 

Whilst the Beijing +10 meeting did not necessarily achieve much more than what had been accomplished in 1995, it is important to celebrate the victories that are ascribed to the processes of this meeting. The meeting revealed the strength of collective action, advocacy and the lobbying of role-players both within and outside of the UN system. This was evident in the actions of both civil society and nation states.  It was only through the collective bargaining of all role-players that the outcomes were achieved.

The lack of a strong declaration was a trade-off that states made in return for resisting proposed amendments to the declaration. So whilst the 49th session did not end up with a more substantive declaration, it did manage to resist attempts to detract from its content. This was a victory in itself. It remains for progressive states to be vigilant of attempts to undermine hard-won achievements, which could so easily be lost.

This piece benefited from discussions with Ekhsaan Jawoodeen.

PERHAPS THE ISSUES raised in the article above have triggered some reaction? Our Talk Back section is there to reflect your comments, thoughts, experiences, concerns, questions or suggestions. Feel free to send your reactions to admin@isandla.co.za.    



APOLOGIES IF YOU have not been able to access our latest publications on the website. We have experienced a problem recently, but this has now been rectified. Among the more recent publications is Charlotte Lemanski’s Dark Roast Occasional Paper No 21 on gated communities and previous issues of the newsletter Isandla Development Communiqué.




On Thursday 23 June, Isandla Institute and the Open Society Foundation will be hosting a Development Dialogue in Cape Town. The theme of the event is “The nature of democratic debate in South Africa”. The dialogue will take place between 4.30pm and 6pm at the Centre of the Book. If you are interested in attending, please send an email to admin@isandla.co.za. A notice with more information will be circulated closer to the time.


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Editorial collective: Edgar Pieterse, Mirjam van Donk