Women’s rights in the developing world: Build it and it will come?

As originally post at opendemocracy.net.

By Valerie Percival

Mozambique is a land of contradictions.

Women were active in the independence struggle. Strong female civic leaders, like Graça Machel, participate actively in public life. And the government unequivocally supports international norms on women’s equality, such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Millennium Development Goals. Even the UN Website in Mozambique proudly asserts “there is a juridical, political and institutional structure in Mozambique favourable to the promotion of gender issues and the empowerment of women.”

Yet Mozambique remains a very difficult place for girls and women. Female literacy rates, their education attainment and poverty levels, and their health outcomes are appalling. Sexual and physical abuse is widespread. It has one of the world’s highest rates of child marriage. Sexual assault in school is common, from boys as well as some teachers who demand sex as a condition for grade promotion.

Clearly the rights of women and girls are not respected, protected, or even properly understood.

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Canada: A Teflon State?

Canada does not have a pristine human rights record. Many First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities are struggling through a housing crisis and are enduring limited access to food, potable water, health care, and education. Furthermore, the government has failed to atone for a long history of discriminatory policies against these groups.

Indigenous groups within Canada demand that these issues be remedied. Unfortunately, these demands, to date, have either been met with half measures or overlooked altogether.

An often-heard argument in the literature on human rights reform is that when domestic groups are unable to convince their government to better respect human rights they can appeal to more powerful transnational actors to help pressure the target state to change. Based on this argument, it would seem that the next step for Indigenous groups in Canada would be to reach out to key international actors in the field of human rights including international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), and other states.

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The Uncertain Future of Idle No More

Proclamations that the Idle No More movement is a fast growing and widely supported cause seems reasonable given the solidarity protests being held across Canada and outside its borders. There are reasons, however, to doubt this claim.

Idle No More is a social movement protesting the unjust treatment of First Nations, Metis, and Inuits by Canada’s federal government. The movement gained attention in November 2012 when Chief Theresa Spence of the Attawapiskat First Nation began a hunger strike protesting a housing crisis in her community and the enactment of Bill C-45, a piece of federal legislation that, according to activists, undermine Canada’s environmental protection laws.

Between November 2012 and January 2013, Idle No More quickly attracted support in pockets across Canada, the US, Australia, and Sweden. The movement and the peaceful protests held in its name made headlines in the Canadian press and were hot topics across social media platforms. In combination, press and social media exposure gave the movement considerable presence in the minds of many Canadians and led to claims that Idle No More enjoyed rapidly growing support.

Those celebrating the growth of the movement, however, failed to note that Idle No More never gained the attention (let alone the support) of major news sources outside of Canada or the major human right international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). Only one US newspaper reported on the movement (the Tampa Bay Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post, in contrast, remained silent on the issue. Looking at newspapers outside of North America, only two UK sources and one New Zealand newspaper reported on Idle No More. Perhaps more telling of the inability to movement to gain traction outside of Canada, however, is the lack of reporting on the issue by human rights INGOs. Human Rights Watch makes no mention of it. Amnesty International, in contrast, reported on the movement once but only once.

Given that Idle No More has yet to penetrate the reporting of some of the most respect news source and human rights INGOs I feel it is only fair to ask: how truly successful has the movement been in gaining international support? I believe the answer to that question is: less successful than existing supporters would like to think.

This unflattering assessment, however, leads to another question: is the modest success of Idle No More typical of how transnational social movements start? In theory, international social movements do have modest beginnings: budding domestic movements attract the attention of larger, more powerful actors outside state borders. In combination, the smaller domestic actors and larger international actors pressure the target government to reform. It is unclear, however, if the theories that advance this causal argument (there are many) is relevant to Idle No More. The above argument is the result of research on states transitioning out of conflict or transitioning out of autocracy/anocracy towards democracy. Canada is doing neither.

In sum, at this point, growing interest in Idle No More seems questionable, particularly outside of Canada’s borders. The lack of international attention, however, does not mean that the goals of the movement are not worth pursuing nor does it mean that these goals cannot be reached through domestic activism alone. But if Idle No More wants to gain considerable support outside of Canada, it must find away to gain the attention of the key media outlets and human rights INGOs. Additionally, the movement must be realistic about the progress it has made thus far.

Stephanie Soiffer

Ph.D. Candidate