Transformative public policies require a feminist perspective

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Liz Meléndez, Executive Director of the Peruvian Women’s Centre Flora Tristán

The spread of authoritarian and fundamentalist ideas, together with weakening democracies in Latin America, endanger women’s rights and equality which has served as an ethical and principled basis on which momentous changes were being achieved.

In recent years, conservative sectors with a broad power base have deployed strategies such as the so-called “Don’t mess with my kids” movement seeking to delegitimize the feminist struggle, dispute social ideas, and eradicate the gender equality approach from national public policy. They have also placed political operators in decision-making positions and in so doing have retreated in the fight against discrimination and blocked progress aimed at bolstering the rights of women and the LGBTIQ+ community.

The objective of these sectors is to thwart further progress in the form of regulatory, cultural, political, and economic change as such change has a direct impact on the patriarchal order that dominates our societies. It is important to note that those who oppose equality also promote a narrative that runs counter to human rights and democracy.

Although the outlook is quite discouraging in Peru and the rest of Latin America, there is a variable that helps us hold our ground in these situations: strong, permanent, and diverse forms of feminism with a great capacity to question, mobilize and transform.

These feminisms are recognized as a source of critical thinking and political action. They call absolute truths into question and shed light on the systems of oppression that exacerbate inequality. They not only reject the patriarchal order but also link it to other systems of oppression and expropriation that perpetuate violence and exclusion.

Decolonial, anti-racist, intersectional, and ecologist feminisms draw attention to the damage caused by patriarchal societies by reproducing a political, economic, and racialized system under a regulatory order of domination and moral superiority where women (and everything feminised) are the object of suspicion (Segato, 2021).

The existence of the feminist movement and its broad and diverse agenda, as well as its strength and ability to bring about far-reaching transnational debates, represent opportunities for the construction of a true democracy resting on the fundamental pillars of autonomy of all people, equality, and the effective exercising of individual and collective rights.

A democratic state must promote public policies to address social problems and guarantee the well-being of those most vulnerable who find themselves in situations of exclusion. What I propose here is that the feminist approach (not a mere gender approach) can contribute to a proper design and implementation of comprehensive measures that ensure citizens’ well-being in the short, medium, and long term. In other words, the feminist approach should be followed designing, building, implementing, and evaluating public policy as the degree of analysis offered by this perspective is not only broad but also comprehensive of the different contexts and historical power relations that impact social relations, the daily life of all people and social institutions.

In this connection, the feminist perspective has great potential to the extent that it can: (1) enable us to understand the complexity of specific problems and (2) design transformative proposals aimed at ensuring real or substantive equality.

Before continuing, it is important to clarify what we mean by public policy. According to Subirats and Lahera, a public policy is a set of coherent, inter-related decisions and actions that must be intrinsically understood as related to the prevailing political and historical context. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights points out that a ‘public policy’ refers to courses of action that contribute to changing, creating, or transforming conditions that affect the lives of individuals or groups of a population (IACHR 2018: 143). In other words, the IACHR places rights-based social transformation at the centre, highlighting the role played by states not only in addressing social problems but also in preventing them, an obligation consistent with the mandate of non-discrimination. From this perspective, public policies are not only aimed at addressing a specific problem but also at promoting sustained transformations that contribute to the eradication of discrimination.

Feminist theory has developed two frameworks of analysis to understand the complexity of social problems shedding light on power relations and how they have become anchored in society: the framework of intersectionality and the approaches of decolonial feminism.

Intersectionality suggests viewing social injustice through a new prism (Crenshaw, 2016), leaving aside the classic paradigms of understanding and explanation and building new points of reference that acknowledge different identities. It is a tool with which to question neutral analyses and draw attention to the individual experience of each case, considering the impact of racism, classism, and heteronormativity.

This category has come to enrich the discussion surrounding structural and symbolic violence forming the basis of multiple aggressions, especially those directed at women. Its usefulness lies not only in providing us with a broad framework within which to understand discrimination and violence but also, at the level of public policy, helps to bring scenarios of vulnerability into focus through public policy.

Thanks to this conceptual framework we can conclude that, while the gender approach is fundamental, it is insufficient. It needs to link up with other conceptual frameworks to understand how discrimination works, for example, in the lives of women and survivors of violence, and no longer treat them as a homogeneous group.

Decolonial feminism addresses the problematic reality of racialized women impacted by colonialism and institutional narratives. It first questions hegemonic western feminism and criticizes racialized, heterosexual, colonial and capitalist gender oppression as a way to transform the social order and break with the subjective dichotomies that have continued to colonize thought (Lugones 2011).

Intersectional and decolonial feminism provide us with tools to understand the complexity of power relations and how these are inscribed in women’s lives and bodies. Both are feminist conceptual frameworks that should be used in the construction of public policies to the extent that they contribute to generating true transformation. They define levels of vulnerability within the population, and propose measures that take both history and context into consideration.

A public policy with a feminist approach is aimed at eroding power relations and is, therefore, highly transformative. However, as mentioned above, we are facing the expansion of sectors opposed to human rights and equality whose biologistic, absolutist and authoritarian narrative normalizes exclusion and stigmatizes rights defenders and feminists. And this only serves to exacerbate resistance to change and weakens the state’s gender approach while also posing a strong barrier to the implementation of transformative and comprehensive approaches such as the feminist frameworks described.

Perhaps one of today’s main challenges is that of facing extremisms and thoughts and practices contrary to human rights. This fundamentalism puts wind in the sails of movements seeking to curtail women’s rights and do away with gender equality.

Developing public policies from a feminist perspective requires political will, democratic values, and a rights-based approach since this way of viewing society seeks to go far beyond the rationale of equal opportunity and suggests recognizing and unveiling power relations, and implementing transformative measures for real change. This is a challenge that remains to be tackled.

Transformative public policies require a feminist perspective

Bibliography

Crenshaw, Kimberly (1991). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”. Stanford Law Review, 43 (6), pp. 1241-1299.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – IACHR (2018). A Human Rights Approach to Public Policy.

La Barbera, María Caterina (2016). “Interseccionalidad, un “concepto viajero”: orígenes, desarrollo e implementación en la Unión Europea“. Interdisciplina 4(8): 105-122 (2016). Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. https://digital.csic.es/handle/10261/258324

Lugones, María (2011). “Hacia un feminismo decolonial”. En: La manzana de la discordia, Julio – Diciembre, Año 2011, Vol. 6, No. 2: 105-119. https://repositorio.unal.edu.co/bitstream/handle/unal/53791/haciaelfeminismodecolonial.traducci%c3%b3npdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Segato, Rita (2021). Las estructuras elementales de la violencia: Ensayos sobre género entre la antropología, el psicoanálisis y los derechos humanos. Third Edition. Prometeo Libro. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Segato, Rita (2016). La guerra contra las mujeres, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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