Gender and Politics in the media

2017 Essay Competition Winners

We are delighted to announce the winners of our 2017 Essay Competition. This year the first prize was awarded jointly to two students – you can read their prize-winning essays below.

Many thanks to Dr Toni Haastrup, Lecturer in International Security at the University of Kent, for judging this year’s competition.


Isabel Abbs has just completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout her degree she was particularly interested in studying the power imbalances which create and control marginalised groups, and their intersection. Isabel is now working in a law firm, and ishoping to move on to a post-graduate law degree next year with an ultimate aim of working in policy for international NGOs.

Judge Dr Toni Haastrup’s comments on Isabel’s essay: One of the many strengths of this paper is the ability to maintain its coherent narrative while engaging various policy choices and at the same time maintaining the analytical focus of feminist political economy. Overall, the argument is sophisticated and generally impressive at this level.

Conor Michaels is a recent graduate in Geography and Politics from Oxford Brookes University. He is interested in local and global geographies of power and embodied experiences, particularly in relation to the ways in which bodies are raced, classed, gendered, sexed and sexualised. Conor is keen to continue his studies at postgraduate level in the near future, and to further develop his research interests. He currently works at Clapton Girls’ Academy in Hackney in a role responsible for the school’s Humanities department.

Judge Dr Toni Haastrup’s comments on Conor’s essay: There are two main strengths of the essay: first, it convincingly elaborates on why and how gay rights may be considered human rights; second, the tension inherent in accepting the claim that human rights exists is western or not.


Sarah Vowden staying on at Goldsmiths to do an MA in Research Architecture, a bit of a departure from previous studies but hoping to further her interests in spatial politics.

Judge Dr Toni Haastrup’s comments on Sarah’s essay: “The essay underscores the tendency to erase disabled bodies from protest/resistance narrative, highlighting a blind spot of some feminist activism. It offers a sophisticated reading of feminist (intersectional) texts.”


‘Human rights is a Western concept that does not apply to postcolonial cultures’. Critically discuss this statement with reference to at least one practical example.

by Conor Michaels

Something similar appears to be at work in the contemporary eagerness of white gays to save brown gays from brown homophobes.

Rao, 2010 p.182, my italicising

The question whether human rights apply to postcolonial cultures is perhaps an ultimate one – for postcolonial theory and beyond. This essay responds to this dilemma by assessing current discourses of queer human rights (Liu, 2012) or gay rights as human rights (Weber, 2016 pp.104-42). Understanding the politics of gay rights presents to us a more complicated case than we may easily assume, in what has been dubbed ‘a postcolonial predicament’, whereby both intervention and non-intervention is riddled with difficulties (Awwad, 2011). This essay builds on this perspective by exploring the ways in which discourses of gay rights parallel the ones of human rights; employing the analytical scope offered by a sexualised analysis of world politics (e.g. Weber, 2016) including the advent of the globalised ‘homosexual question’[1] as argued by Rahul Rao (2014). In this way it is hoped that a fresh discussion of gay rights within wider cognition of human rights politics can be brought forward.

Before this can be achieved the essay contextualises gay rights within histories of colonial and postcolonial imperial encounters. This includes exploring how the globalised categories of sexual and gender identities, which are often taken for granted, are a product of this colonialism. Such discussion turns to explain how (apparently) emancipatory queer politics involving gay rights may in fact be subject to the liminal scope of queer liberalism, which is itself entrenched in contemporary liberal imperialism and exclusion. What is the backlash of such a politics? Finally, towards the end of the essay, a distinctive reading of gay rights as human rights is offered specifically drawing on the perspectives of postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak and her work on how human rights cannot not be used. This essay is proceeded by a word play on a well-known quote by Spivak citing instances whereby ‘white men are saving brown women from brown men’ (Spivak, 1988 p.98). It is suggested that this systematic silencing of the feminine-or-woman’s ‘voice’, in which gendered liberation and rights is a token of imperialism masked as a moral endeavour, now has a something of a sexual equivalent. If gay rights mean that white gays are saving brown gays from brown homophobes we may tease out a hierarchy of value, or those who can ‘speak’ and those who are ‘silent’, through the discourse of gay rights (and/as human rights). However, as this essay demonstrates, much remains to be contested about the way in which postcolonial and critical perspectives narrate the use and abuse of gay rights in postcolonial spaces. Through such discussion we can hope to negotiate the applicability of human rights, by reference of gay rights discourse, to postcolonial cultures.

From colonial past to post/colonial present: protraction of sexualised binaries

On an unprecedented scale the development of colonialism brought with it the exportation of (European) sexual morals across the world (Cornwall, 2014). Beyond this, legal practices too, such as sodomy laws, were exported and still remain enacted in many postcolonial nations (dubbed ‘England’s least lovely criminal law export’ (Kirby, 2011)). With colonialism then came ‘an ordering of the world into rigid gender and sexual binaries, with the naturalisation of categories “women” and “men”, and the late nineteenth-century European categories “heterosexual” and ‘homosexual”’ (Cornwall, 2014, p.425; Lugones, 2010). In this sense, not only is the concept of homosexuality a modern Western construct (Foucault, 1978) but the dawn of colonialism privileged discourse about homosexuals where none existed before. This is not to say that non-reproductive sexual expressions did not flourish in precolonial times, but rather that they were not categorised (and penalised) under the entity of ‘homosexual’[2] (Kapoor, 2015). Colonial powers distributed these sexual ontologies on cultures which they constructed as queer (ibid), not least through a wealth of intertextual re-presentations of the apparent sexual perversions that manifested in an ‘erotic East’ (Kabbani, 1994 pp.26, 66). Such representations were dehumanizing thus legitimising the extremities of the colonial gender system (Lugones, 2010).  The sexual dimensions of colonial power had unmistakably been tied to the straightening (read oppressing) of the queerly-constructed-Other.

Today we must still seek not to take the naturalisation of these sexualised and gendered ontologies for granted – they were and are constantly renewed (Lugones 2010, p.748). Especially due to the recent (and apparent) sexual liberation in the West which in part explains why questions of sexuality (i.e. the homosexual question) have induced ‘saving brown gays from brown homophobes’ in acts of homonationalist (Puar, 2010; Puar, 2011) or even homocolonialist (Rahman, 2014) global subordination. Beyond the Occident and the Orient (Said, 1978) emerge tropes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ geopolitics in which we now observe binary locations of hope, such as India and Brazil, contrasted with locations of phobia like Uganda and Iran (Rao, 2014 p.201).  It seems that conceptualised as historically too-queer or contemporarily not-queer-enough we can interpret sexual representations of the non-West as restricting movement beyond a peripheralized position (Kapoor, 2015). Colonial and postcolonial sexual politics are ‘equally orientalist technologies of power aiming at estranging the Third World, belittling it, putting it in its place’ (ibid, p.1617). Having briefly contextualised the complex relation between sexuality and imperial power we now move on to the discourse of gay rights as human rights.

‘Gay rights are human rights’

On a global platform in Geneva, Hilary Clinton declared that ‘gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights’ (Clinton, 2011) almost sixteen years after she famously championed ‘women’s rights are human rights’ (Rao, 2014 p.211). However, to map out gay rights as human rights and interrogate its applicability to postcolonial cultures, we must first understand the specifics of human rights discourse. The ‘human’ in human rights is due much academic scrutiny. As Butler (2004, p.2) articulates:

The human is understood differentially depending on its race, the legibility of that race, its morphology, the recognizability of that morphology, its sex, the perpetual verifiability of that sex, its ethnicity, the categorical understanding of that ethnicity. Certain humans are recognized as less than human, and that form of qualified recognition does not lead to a viable life. Certain humans are not recognized as human at all…

When understanding human rights we must think about the depth and scope of ‘human’ acknowledging a systematic hierarchical de/valuing of life. Human rights are liminal in that the ‘human’ is subject to privilege rather than universality, and this necessary exclusion also runs true within what some scholars call queer human rights (Liu, 2012).

Building on this exclusion, and in terms of the Clinton’s speech, it is said ‘Clinton imposes a will to knowledge about the ‘homosexual’ to figure a new ‘normal homosexual’’ (Weber, 2016 p.137). Although there are ‘dangers of assuming that (Western) calls for ‘gay rights as human rights’ are always made exclusively in support of a (neo)imperialism’ (ibid, p.144) Weber is clear in her analysis that gay rights as human rights constitutes a (homo)normative discourse. Such normative discourse is ingrained in queer liberalism, or the means by which queer politics is co-opted into a politics of (neo-)liberalism, avoiding core intersectional concerns (Puar, 2010; Sabsay, 2012; Liu, 2012 pp.79-80; Kapoor, 2016 pp.1613-14). Elsewhere, analysis has shown too that newly embraced gay rights enact a sexual citizenship which presupposes a Euro-American Orientalist gaze (Sabsay, 2012). This normative queer liberalism then advocates not a radically hopeful politics, but rather an embrace of late capitalist ideology, which is inevitably systematically violent (Duggan, 2003) and caught up in this sexualised sub-ordering of the global South in a postcolonial world. We can begin to depict that discourses of gay rights and human rights, in their entrapment within a globalised queer liberalism, are necessarily exclusive and violent. Beyond this, however, what are the effects on postcolonial cultures and politics?


Queer(ed)[3] bodies in postcolonial spaces may now be subject to extremities beyond the absolute legacy of colonial laws and sexual categories. It is argued that those identified as homosexuals by the state are established as homo sacer or mere biopolitical subjects. Postcolonial nations may assert jurisdiction in establishing sovereignty in spectated ‘anti-gay’ acts which can be read as a backlash against global queer liberalism (Awwad, 2011 p.102) such as Uganda’s controversial and mediatized Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014 (Hanley,, 2015). Prompted by postcolonial nationalisms (e.g. Chatterjee, 1993) and crisis of sovereignty, brought about by liberal (and ‘queer’) human rights discourses (Spivak, 2004 p.525), some postcolonial cultures resist their representation of the Third-World-as-queer[4]. However by attempting to ‘unqueer’ oneself such resistance actually empowers normative and orientalist discourses based on sexualised binaries (Kapoor, 2015 p.1619; Awwad, 2011). Postcolonial representations of non-reproductive desires as merely a ‘Western import’ are dangerous in that it means ‘buying into and reproducing (symbolically and materially) its oppressor’s binary structure of signification’ (ibid). Gay rights as human rights means that gay rights politics is a ‘discursive battleground upon which supporters and opponents of gay rights fight their battles, it appears, characterised by cultural authenticity leitmotif’ (Awwad, 2011 p.106). In this sense both evoke a romanticised account of precolonial culture and thereby re-ascribe the naturalisation of Western categorical logic. Cultural nationalists are unwillingly caught up in the logic of colonialism without realising it (ibid, p.108). But where does this leave the queered people that (gay) rights are meant to protect? What does this mean for understanding the applicability of global rights?

Reading gay rights (as human rights) with Spivak

Critical perspectives may wish to quickly disrupt the hegemony of gay rights by default as a critique of hegemonic liberalism. However, such perspectives should probably not systematically blame liberal rights agendas. It may be that these ‘discourses are selectively appropriated, ignored, subverted and re-signified by a range of other actors, both elite and subaltern, so that the eventual hegemony of particular tropes cannot be attributed purely to activist intentionally’ (Rao, 2014 p.202). This reading that reflects on wider structure and agency parallels Spivak’s conceptualisation of worldwide class apartheid (Spivak, 2004 p.529). Here it is argued the North-South nexus should be reconsidered in postcolonial thought including consideration of class (in the Marxist sense) to enlighten the ‘internal lines of difference’ between the postcolonial elite and the subaltern. This is why Spivak has influentially, but also unconventionally, described the typical framing of (human) rights discourses as Eurocentric ‘disingenuous’ (Spivak, 2004 p.524) by not painting the complete picture of our unequal world.

Furthermore, although the concept of universalism is problematic, critical theorists have spoken of the potential of the ‘unrealised’ and the ‘not yet’ universalism. It is an idea that can never be fully articulated but nonetheless hopeful to invest positive social change (Butler, cited in Rao, 2014 pp.212-14). In a very similar vein to Spivak’s deconstructionist readings of Marx, and in the context of queer human rights, it is argued that ‘we need a theory of the human that bridges the gap between the economic and the cultural’ (Liu, 2012 p.86) recognising the ‘constructions of the queer, the subhuman, and liberalism in hierarchical ways’ (ibid, p.83).

We can begin to comprehend the fragile value of human, and gay, rights discourses. Accepting this value must not however disregard the form of epistemic violence that is committed against localised acts of desires when they are immediately presumed a part of (the globalised) discourse on non-reproductive sexuality (e.g. Awwad, 2011 p.112). In the global South many with such desire are either ignorant or dismissive of the ontologies of ‘gay’ – nonetheless gay rights activism obsessively classes their behaviour as such (ibid; Massad, 2002). Maybe in a Spivakian sense we can understand the position of the poor and possibly nonurban bodies that exhibit non-reproductive desire, but do not identify as gay, as the subaltern. They do not ‘speak’ the ‘language’ of gay rights; this particular language is relatively exclusive to the elites of imperialism including native informants, and the subaltern are systematically ‘silenced’ (Spivak, 1988). In some instances imperially prescribed categories of being (e.g. ‘gay’, transgender’) are adopted as resistive identities and are ‘proclaimed from below, by those marginalised in these hegemonic foundations’ (Phillips, 2000 p.17-18). However, in cases whereby such identities are not occupied, is it right for gay rights as human rights to impose such a discourse? Spivak would encourage us to think critically about this, for as she controversially explained, the subaltern cannot always ‘speak’ (Spivak, 1998; Kapoor, 2004). In terms of the politics of gay rights and anti-gay rights in postcolonial spaces we must not adopt uncritical approaches but equally:

Nor should one only simply oppose the hegemon by criticising homophobia and orientalism or valorising a non-Western nativist or nationalist authenticity (eg homosexuality is “un-African”), since these, too, are an acceptance of, and entrapment within, the given binary logic (Kapoor, 2015 p.1621)

Instead we must approach the case of gay rights as indeed riddled with hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion but unable to be simply diminished. Rights discourse exhibits a complex hegemony in which the subaltern (i.e. those with non-reproductive desire) cannot easily be separated from this over-privileged discourse of human and gay rights.

Therefore, as Spivak explains, ‘one cannot write off the rightings of wrong. The enablement must be used even as the violation is renegotiated’ (2004 p.524). In short, the colonial violation of prescriptive sexual and gender identities is written in history and cannot be undone. The space in which one may disregard gay rights (and ontology) risks a nativist approach, which is violent too, in its entrapment within binaries and reanimation of colonial logic of Other. For illustration elites who evoke nativist narratives (i.e. gay rights is only a Western import that enforces imperial power) are at risk of ‘not realizing the historically established discontinuity between themselves and the subaltern’ (Spivak, 2004 p.535.) Under this perspective, with consideration of ‘internal lines of difference’, we can appreciate the abandoning of a gay rights framework vis-à-vis the further ‘silencing’ of the subaltern. Accordingly, and still thinking critically, we should seek to ‘renegotiate’ the scope of gay rights (as human rights) and the gayed subject to constitute an ‘enabling violation’ by the least violent means. It may be that discourses of human rights and ‘sexual rights belong to a structure that one critiques, yet it is impossible to dismiss, a structure that one intimately inhabits’ (Awwad, 2011 p.112). We know the ‘silenced’ subaltern here may be faced with de jure and de facto state-sanctioned violence on an unprecedented scale. From the legacy of colonial and the development of new anti-‘gay’ laws as in Uganda and elsewhere to the systematic and localised forms of prejudice, exclusion and extremities that queer bodies experience across our world. This postcolonial question means that ‘resorting to some notions of rights may very well be the most expedient and available way to address to plight of those experiencing state oppression’ (ibid).

Final thoughts / conclusion                                          

What could the necessary applicability of gay rights look like? Maybe whilst remaining alert to possible acts of homonationalism, proponents of gay rights must not feel ‘paralysed’ in the quest for full legal and social recognition (e.g. Zanghellini, 2012 p.13). But this reading risks offering little beyond the constraints of a particular queer liberalism and the good queer subject. Instead we must aim for ‘nonconforming, intersectional and politically messy engagements that yield a queer Third World politics of the real’ (Kapoor, 2015 p.1623). Yet we must recognise that such radical and deviant politics always risks elitist or state repression (ibid) so we must ‘work without guarantees’ (Kapoor, 2004 p.644). This notwithstanding, the acknowledgement of such heterotopia—a space for reclamation of a radical queer politics—means we can hope to renegotiate gay rights as human rights beyond appropriation into queer liberal imperialism. This possibility must be enjoyable and alluring (Awwad, 2011; Cornwall, 2014; Kapoor, 2015) and will probably entail the liberation of education (Spivak, 2004) with new (and exciting) ways of conceptualising queer human rights. An encouraging example may be found in the teaching of pleasure as a human right to subalterns (e.g. Seral, 2013).

Conclusively, if we are to simply decide that gay rights and/as human rights is a Western concept that does not apply to postcolonial cultures, we risk reanimating the multi-layered and sexualised binaries of colonialism empowering nativist narratives which can be violent in the subordinating and silencing of the subaltern. That said, the necessary application of gay rights is not to undermine critical underscoring of the limitations of such rights discourses. Of course, we must still seek to robustly comprehend rights in their use as ‘alibis’ (Spivak, 2004 p.524) in queer liberal interventions, as this essay has described. As Spivak’s final words in Righting Wrongs explains ‘the name of “man” in “human” rights (or the name or “woman” in “woman’s rights are human rights”) will continue to trouble me’ (2004, p.564). Similarly, and in terms of gay rights are human rights, it might be that the typifying of ‘gay’ and ‘human’ is deeply troubling in terms of exclusivity and mandating of imperial power. Equally so, and as Spivak would surely encourage, critical postcolonial thought does not necessitate rights to be too simply ‘written off’ for otherwise the violence of this logic, too, remains to be played out.


Awwad, J. (2011), ‘The Postcolonial Predicament of Gay Rights in the Queen Boat Affair’, in Erni, J (ed.), Cultural Studies of Rights: Critical Articulations, Abingdon: Routledge, 98-116

Butler, J. (2004), Undoing gender, New York: Routledge

Chatterjee, P. (1993), The nation and its fragments, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Clinton, H.R (2011), Human Rights Day speech, Geneva, 6 December 2011, available at, accessed 25 October 2016

Cornwall, A. (2014), ‘Sexuality and development’, in Desai, V. and R.B. Potter (ed.), The Companion to Development Studies, Abingdon: Routledge, pp.425-430

Duggan, L. (2003), ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism’, in Costronovo, R. and D. Nelson (ed.), Materializing Democracy: Towards a Revitalized Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, pp.175-194

Foucault, M. (1978), The History of Sexuality Vol. 1 (trans. R. Hurley), New York: Pantheon

Hanley, P. and Lee, J. (2017). ‘Leviticus Rising: The Origin of Uganda’s Anti-Gay Law’, available at, Accessed 11 June 2016

Kabbani, R. (1994), Imperial Fictions: Europe’s Myths of the Orient, London: Pandora

Kapoor, I. (2004), ‘Hyper‐self‐reflexive development? Spivak on representing the Third World ‘Other’’, Third World Quarterly, 25(4), 627-647

Kapoor, I. (2015), ‘The queer Third World’, Third World Quarterly, 36(9), 1611-1628

Kirby, M. (2011), ‘The Sodomy Offence: England’s Least Lovely Criminal Law Export?’ Journal of Commonwealth Criminal Law, 22-43

Liu, P. (2012), ‘Queer Human Rights in and against China: Marxism and the Figuration of the Human’, Social Text, 30(1110), 71-89

Lugones, M. (2010), ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism’, Hypatia, 25(4), pp.742-759

Massad, J. (2002), ‘Re-orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World’, Public Culture, 14(2), 361-385

Phillips, O. (2000), ‘Constituting the Global Gay: Issues of Individual Subjectivity and Sexuality in Southern Africa’, in Herman, D. and C. Stychin (ed.), Sexuality in the Legal Arena, London: Athlone Press

Puar, J, (2010), ‘To be gay and racist is no anomaly’, available at, accessed 25 October 2016

Puar, J. (2011), ‘Citation and Censorship: The Politics of Talking About the Sexual Politics of Israel’, Feminist Legal Studies, 19, 133–142

Rahman, M. (2014), ‘Queer Rights and the Triangulation of Western Exceptionalism’, Journal of Human Rights, 13(3), 274-289

Rao, R. (2010), Third World Protest: Between Home and the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rao, R. (2014), ‘Queer Questions’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 16(2), 199-217

Sabsay, L. (2012), ‘The emergence of the other sexual citizen: orientalism and the modernisation of sexuality’, Citizenship Studies, 16(5-6), 605-623

Seral, G. (2013), ‘Sexual Pleasure as a Woman’s Human Right: Experiences from a Human Rights Training Program for Women in Turkey’, in Jolly, S., A. Cornwall and K.Hawkins (ed.), Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure, London: Zed Books

Spivak, G.C. (1988), ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, in Nelson, C. and L. Greensberg (ed.), Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Spivak, G.C. (2004), ‘Righting Wrongs’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2-3), 523-581

Weber, C. (2016), Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Zanghellini, A. (2012), ‘Are Gay Rights Islamophobic? A Critique of Some Uses of the Concept of Homonationalism in Activism and Academia’ Social & Legal Studies, 21(3), 357-374


[1] The ‘homosexual question’ is a reference to the work of Jasbir Puar (2011) who argues the ‘woman question’ (i.e. how well do you treat your woman) is being transformed into a ‘homosexual question’. Rahul Rao (2014, p.2004) performs critical reading of this ‘question’ of the upmost importance comparing it to other ‘troubling’ postcolonial questions such as ‘the question of Palestine’.

[2] It should be made clear for clarification that (the discourse of) homosexuality and (the act of) same-sex desire are not the same thing.

[3]  I use this term ‘queered bodies’ loosely without ascribing identity to describe all those with non-reproductive desire and/or who do not conform to the hegemonic and globalised gender binary.

[4] I understand Third-World-as-queer in terms of Ilan Kapoor’s thesis (2015) whereby the meaning of queering the Third World is differentiated relative to time but has ultimately meant the systematic subjugation of postcolonial spaces.


Critically assess progress made since the 1994 Cairo Conference on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Southeast Asia

by Isabel Abbs

            This paper will discuss progress made on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in Southeast Asia[1] since the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, at which states adopted the Cairo Programme of Action (PoA). “Progress” in this context refers to increasing normative consensus on the importance of establishing and fulfilling a progressive sexual and reproductive rights agenda, and increasing fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health needs. The paper will assess progress through the approach of feminist political economics, arguing positive change on SRHR has been limited in Southeast Asia by the PoA’s neoliberal macroeconomic character; it was “a testament to the hegemony of market values” (Petchesky, 1995, p.156). Claire Duncanson (2016) categorised feminist critiques of United Nations Resolution 1325 (2000) into issues concerning conceptualization, implementation and ambition (Duncanson, 2016, p.22). This paper will apply Duncanson’s framework to feminist political economic critiques of the PoA in terms of its ability to generate progress on SRHR in Southeast Asia. In terms of conceptualisation, it will argue the PoA failed to establish the fundamentality of expansive sexual and reproductive rights. In particular, the PoA conservatively defined reproductive rights, and omitted sexual rights, due to the strength of religious forces who are empowered by the social consequences of neoliberal economics (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006, p.18). In terms of implementation, the paper will argue the strategies suggested by the PoA failed to take into account existing inequalities. For example, its funding strategies all related to family planning in an echo of Neo-Malthusianism, a development approach that has a disproportionately negative effect on oppressed ethnic groups, such as disadvantaged castes in India (Rao, 2005, p.23). This section will also consider economically disadvantaged groups, and neoliberalism’s treatment of gender. Finally, the paper will argue that the PoA’s lack of ambition made it an insufficient generator of change—its narrow focus represented a desire for progress without challenging the economic status quo (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006). Thus, it will conclude progress in Southeast Asia on SRHR, though at times impressive, has been marred by the macroeconomic paradigm the PoA represents.

Firstly, to provide clarification, this paper will outline its approach and key terms. It will assess progress by looking at both statistics[2] (on indicators such as maternal mortality ratios) and cultural practices. The PoA defined reproductive health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being … in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes” (United Nations Population Fund, 2004, p.45). Reproductive rights refer to the human rights that concern freedoms in reproductive choices, access to relevant information, and entitlements to a high standard of reproductive health (Abdul Cader, 2017, p.10). The WHO defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality…” (2006, p.5). Finally, the WHO defines sexual rights as “The application of existing human rights to sexuality and sexual health”, which serve to protect freedoms to fulfil and express one’s sexuality, and the entitlement to a high standard of sexual health (2010, p.4).

The PoA marked a shift from the previous outcome documents of population and development conferences. Traditionally, these focused on Neo-Malthusian population control strategies. The PoA placed heavy emphasis on the link between population programmes and the promotion of reproductive health, including, in Principle 8, the responsibility of states to ensure “universal access … to reproductive health care, which includes family planning and sexual health” (United Nations Population Fund, 2004, p.10). It moved the conversation from family planning alone to consideration of reproductive and sexual health and reproductive rights (Petchesky, 1995, p.152). Additionally, it represented a broad understanding of these concepts to include a consideration of gendered issues such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation and female genital mutilation and the link between gender discrimination and poverty (Petchesky, 1995, p.153). Though the commitments made by state parties of the PoA were not legally binding, they gave non-governmental organizations leverage in their work to pressure states into action, and generate normative consensus around these issues (Miller and Roseman, 2011, p.105).

Despite shifting focus from Neo-Malthusianism, the PoA did not diverge from the dominant macroeconomic paradigm of neoliberalism. The document was largely silent on the repercussions of neoliberal economic institutions on sustainable human development, such as Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs), Bretton Woods financial institutions (the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank), free trade and foreign debt (Petchesky, 1995, p.156). Further, the PoA advocated for privatization of reproductive and sexual health care (Petchesky, 1995, p 157). Thus, it both reinforced and reflected the general macroeconomic paradigm of its time; the values it represented were echoes of the wider world (Corrêa, Germain and Petchesky, 2005, p.110).

The PoA’s conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights was inadequate. Reduction in public spending causes insecurities and unemployment, social needs that traditional religious organisations may exploit (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006, p.18). These organisations are thus empowered, enabling them to claim to represent developing countries, and frame progressive movements as Western “cultural imperialism” (Petchesky, 1995, p.159). Their influence prevented the PoA from mentioning the rights related harms of abortion restrictions, such as how the criminalization of abortion denies women the right of autonomous decision making over their bodies and potential parenthood (Miller and Roseman, 2011, p.111). Neither did the PoA mention sexual rights (Corrêa, Germain and Petchesky, 2005, p.110). Thus, the PoA did not contribute to normative consensus on progressive conceptualisations of sexual and reproductive rights. In particular, in reducing human sexuality to reproductive, heteronormative relations, it excluded those whose sexual behaviour does not fit into these categories, such as sexual minorities and sex workers (Corrêa, Germain and Petchesky, 2005, p.119). These groups suffer from this exclusion. For example, the PoA been ineffective in ending sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, which is “considered to be the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world” (The Center for Reproductive Rights, 2004, p.20). Additionally, religious extremism is increasing in Southeast Asia across most religions (Abdul Cader, 2017, p.16). This is likely to limit progress on sexual liberties further, particularly through the enforcement of patriarchal norms, which negatively affect women and girls (Abdul Cader, 2017, p.16). There have been indications the situation may improve; at the ICPD Beyond 2014 review conference of the UN Economic and Social Commissions for Asia and the Pacific (2013), sexual rights and comprehensive sexuality education were both mentioned (Haslegrave, 2013, p.65). Therefore, traditional religious forces, emboldened by the social consequences of neoliberal economics, have limited progress on sexual and reproductive rights in Southeast Asia through restricting conceptualisations of these issues in the PoA and beyond. Moving forward, progress will depend on an expansive and progressive conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights (Miller and Roseman, 2011, p.111).

The PoA’s implementation strategy has limited progress in certain areas of SRHR in Southeast Asia since 1994. In analyzing progress, it is important to take an intersectional approach, taking into consideration the many sources of social identity, power, and oppression such as gender, ethnicity, socio-economic class, and sexuality (Steans, 2013, p.36). Initiatives that seek to improve human development outcomes (in health, income and education) face the challenge of existing differentials within target populations, resulting from direct discrimination or the complex dynamics of exclusion (Bernstein, 2005, p.104). A major issue with the PoA’s neoliberal economic approach to SRHR development is that it does not account for these existing inequalities. This paper will now consider the manifestations of this disregard in the PoA’s implementation strategies.

Firstly, the PoA promoted privatization of health care services (Petchesky, 1995, p.157). Privatisation damages the provision of primary health care, as commercial providers focus only on profitable services, and non-profit providers lack the resources to fulfil demand (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006, p.9). Many health care services become prohibitively expensive, or non-existent. These circumstances effectively discriminate against society’s neediest members, who cannot afford user fees, particularly in addition to hidden expenditures such as travel and lost wages (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006, p.10). This has meant progress in Southeast Asia on SRHR suffers from high intrastate inequalities. For example, statistics on the percentage of births assisted by skilled personnel by wealth quintile exhibit large disparities between the richest and poorest groups (see Appendix 1).  Further disparities between these groups exist in access to antenatal care, women’s use of family planning services, total and adolescent fertility rates and infant mortality (Gwatkin et al., 2007). Therefore, the PoA’s recommendation of privatization has excluded impoverished groups from the process of positive change.

Secondly, ethnic discrimination has marred progress (Bernstein, 2005, p.102). The PoA failed to recognize that oppressed ethnic groups face specific reproductive and sexual issues, such as rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or forced sterilization (Petchesky, 1995, p.158). For example, in India, adolescent Muslim women are less likely than adolescent Hindu women to give birth in safe conditions (Singh, Rai and Singh, 2011, p.13). Additionally, the PoA’s implementation recommendations contradicted with its shift from Neo-Malthusianism; its funding considerations heavily prioritised family planning services (Petchesky, 1995, p.158). Therefore, it failed to move focus away from restrictive population control policies. These have had a particular impact on disadvantaged ethnic groups.  For example, a number of Indian states have implemented a two-child limit for those running for election to rural local governments (Rao, 2005, p.23). This has disproportionally affected disadvantaged castes, which have high fertility rates, effectively excluding them from this form of political participation (Rao, 2005, p.25). Thus, the PoA failed to consider the particular disadvantages facing oppressed ethnic groups in its recommendations for implementation, which has limited progress on SRHR for these groups in Southeast Asia.

Thirdly, neoliberal economics attempts to bring women into the workforce (predominantly as inexpensive labour) whilst relying upon, and failing to recognize, their unpaid work in traditional roles (Bandarage, 1997, p.203). This paper argues neoliberalism is founded upon an essentially exploitative gender ideology. As the PoA reflects and reinforces neoliberalism, it fails to fully address global power imbalances in gender relations. These imbalances have a significant impact on the fulfilment of SRHR for all people. For example, within sexual health these imbalances limit women’s sexual autonomy, and expand men’s sexual freedom, increasing both gender’s risk and vulnerability in the HIV/AIDS pandemic (Rao Gupta, 2000, p.3). Additionally, in Southeast Asia Neo-Malthusian priorities have limited investment in infertility treatment, yet in certain communities in Nepal and Bangladesh polygamy is legal when a man’s first wife is infertile (The Center for Reproductive Rights, 2004, p.13). Despite these implications, the institutions that influence the development of SRHR in Southeast Asia (such as The World Bank) have thus far resisted a gendered approach to policy (Corrêa, Germain and Petchesky, 2005, p.117). This fails to recognize that in order for policy to promote gender equality, institutions must integrate gendered perspectives into policymaking (Walby, 2005, p.372). Thus, the PoA’s implementation strategy set a neoliberalist tone for approaches to SRHR policies, which thence fail to consider this policymaking the light of its gendered implications. Moving forward, progress on SRHR in Southeast Asia will depend on improvements in economic, ethnic and gender equality.

In terms of ambition, the PoA has been an insufficient generator of change. The neoliberal economic agenda ensured it considered reproductive rights separately from rights to sustenance conditions (such as food and employment) (Nair, Sexton and Kirbat, 2006, p.15). Yet, these rights represent the enabling conditions of sexual and reproductive rights (Petchesky, 1995, p.160). Later documents on and targets for international development, built on the PoA’s legacy, reflect its lack of ambition. For example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (2000) display “a desire for results without changing the status quo” (Qadeer, 2005, p.122). MDG 5, Improve Maternal Health, was monitored by reference to maternal mortality ratios and proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel (Millennium Project, 2006). There has been heavy, and successful, focus on these issues; since 1994, every country in Southeast Asia has reduced their maternal mortality ratio[3] (The World Bank, 2015). However, narrow approaches limit broader analyses of need and multi-sectoral approaches to wellbeing (Bernstein, 2005, p.102). Furthermore, the commodification of healthcare in Southeast Asia has driven progress only where profitable. For example, in obstetric surgery, a lucrative market for health technology sales, outcomes have significantly improved, though most maternal mortalities result from underlying issues, such as nutritional deficiency anaemia causing postpartum haemorrhage (Qadeer, 2005, p.123). The Sri Lankan experience displays the benefits of taking an expansive approach to wellbeing. The state provides comprehensive public services: universal free health care, a specialised health package for married women of reproductive age, nationwide free education (since 1939), a food subsidy scheme (since 1942), and has invested in related infrastructure (Fernando, 2005, pp.131-133). As a result, Sri Lanka has the lowest maternal mortality ratio in Southeast Asia, at 30 out of every 100,000 live births (The World Bank, 2015). Sri Lanka is in the minority, however. Generally, international neoliberal funding and development organizations have pushed Southeast Asian states towards privatization and international free market competition over public services (Qadeer, 2005, p.125). Thus, although the PoA has driven progress in specific areas, there has been a failure to address the underlying factors that guarantee wellbeing. Long-term advancement will depend upon broadening the ambition of such international agreements, and prioritising “the quality of life and necessary investments in social and human capital over economic growth, militarism and market incentives” (Petchesky, 1995, p.158).

In conclusion, this paper has argued the neoliberal macroeconomic paradigm embodied and promoted by the Cairo PoA has limited progress made on SRHR in Southeast Asia since 1994. Neoliberalist economics empower traditionalist religious groups, who restricted conceptualization of sexual and reproductive rights in the PoA, and in Southeast Asia constrain sexual liberties. Further, the neoliberal nature of the PoA’s implementation recommendations has meant they disregarded economic, ethnic and gendered differentials within target populations. Thus, the process of positive change on SRHR in Southeast Asia has often excluded marginalized groups. Finally, neoliberalist economic priorities limited the PoA’s ambitions; it sought change on those issues that would not upset the economic status quo. Thus, it did not adequately address the underlying conditions that guarantee health and the opportunity to enjoy one’s sexual and reproductive rights to the full. Future progress will depend on the resolution of these issues.


Appendix 1

% Births Assisted by Skilled Personnel

Country Richest Quintile Poorest Quintile
Bangladesh 63.4 11
Nepal 81.5 10.7
Indonesia 96.6 57.5
Myanmar 96.1 51
India 88.4 18.1

Sources: Based on Demographic Health Survey (DHS) 2011 for Bangladesh, DHS 2011 for Nepal, DHS 2012 for Indonesia, DHS 2009-10 for Myanmar and DHS 2005-6 for India. Data unavailable for the other Southeast Asian countries. (World Health Organization, 2015a-e).
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[1] The World Health Organization (WHO) includes the following states within the sub-region of Southeast Asia: Bhutan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Timor-Leste (2017).

[2] Though feminist scholars have criticized statistics as hiding the realities of patriarchal oppression, they are able to indicate genuine change (Walby, 2005, p.372).

[3] With the exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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