International activism has been a defining feature
of both first- and second-wave feminisms in Latin America and most other
world regions. From the onset of the contemporary wave, periodic Latin
American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros (region-wide feminist
meetings, literally "encounters") helped forge a self-consciously regional
feminist political identity, affirming a feminism distinct from its putatively
bourgeois, imperialist North American and European variants. By the early
1990s, the bonds of solidarity created and strategic issues debated at
these periodic gatherings had facilitated the emergence of dozens of region-wide
issue- or identity-based feminist networks—such as the Latin American and
Caribbean Network against Violence against Women and the Afro-Latin American
and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Network.
The 1990s witnessed the ascendance of a new form
of international activism among growing numbers of feminists in the region—one
targeting inter-governmental organizations (IGOs) and international policy
arenas and thereby hoping to gain global leverage in pressuring for changes
in gender policy on the home front. The UN Summits held during the first
half of the 1990s—culminating with the Fourth World Conference on Women
(FWCW) in Beijing in 1995—prompted thousands of women’s rights advocates
in Latin America and around the globe to intensify their transnational
organizing efforts and catapulted feminism onto the regional and world
policy stages. Seeking to influence the international norms and accords
forged at these inter-governmental meetings, feminist activists fashioned
new transnational advocacy networks and fortified pre-existing linkages
with their counterparts across national borders.
Women’s rights advocates’ heightened participation
in international policy arenas is now fairly well documented and global
feminisms’ efficacy in promoting changes in gender-related policy at the
international and national levels has been subjected to considerable scrutiny.
But the literature has largely ignored the flip side of the much-celebrated
"globalization of feminism"—the impact "back home" of local activists’
involvement in international networks and policy arenas, which Elisabeth
Friedman (1999) has dubbed the effects of "transnationalism reversed."
We now have considerable evidence that feminist networking
and advocacy on a global scale has enabled local women’s rights advocates
to "‘leap frog’ past the boundaries of state sovereignty to propose visions
of women’s liberation that national governments might not countenance"
(Baden and Goetz 1997, 45). It also arguably has sometimes enhanced their
leverage vis-à-vis recalcitrant local policy-makers (Keck and Sikkink
1998a; Htun 1998). But few studies have explored the critical question
of how feminist activists’ engagement with policy advocacy on a supra-national
plane translates locally in terms of movement dynamics, discourses
and practices. By analyzing some of the local impacts of a wide array of
transborder activities undertaken by Latin American feminists over the
past two decades, I want to draw attention to three oft-neglected dimensions
of the transnationalization of local feminist discourses and practices.
The local and transnational forces shaping feminist
movement dynamics are, of course, mutually constitutive and therefore difficult
to disentangle analytically. In the sense used here, transnationalization
refers to local movement actors’ deployment of discursive frames and organizational
and political practices that are inspired, (re)affirmed or reinforced—though
not necessarily caused—by their engagement with other actors beyond national
borders through a wide range of transnational contacts, discussions, transactions,
and networks, both virtual and "real."
First, whereas many recent studies suggest that contemporary
international feminist activism largely has been propelled by a top-down
process or is the outgrowth of the UN Women’s Decade (1976-1985) and the
World Summits of the 1990s, I want to stress that, in the case of Latin
America, the particularities of the regional and national political contexts
in which feminisms unfolded also impelled local movement actors to build
transborder connections from the bottom-up. Feminists throughout the
region have been involved in a variety of dense "transnational civil society
exchanges" (Fox 1999)—such as the periodic Latin American and Caribbean
Feminist Encuentros and the vast array of region-wide redes
or networks—since at least the early 1980s.
Second, I will suggest that the logic informing such
transnational exchanges differed significantly from that driving an increasing
number of international and intra-regional feminist advocacy efforts in
Latin America in the 1990s. Among Latin American feminisms, I will argue,
an internationalist identity-solidarity logic prevailed in the "encuentro-like"
intra-regional feminist activism of the 1980s and 1990s, whereas a transnational
IGO-advocacy logic came to predominate in region-wide feminist organizing
around the Rio, Vienna, Cairo and Beijing Summits of the 1990s.
My conception of transnational activist logics is
akin to what Sidney Tarrow (1998) has called social movement "repertoires."
For Tarrow, a "repertoire is at once a structural and a cultural concept,
involving not only what people do when they are engaged in conflict
with others but what they know how to do and what others expect
to do" (1998, 30, emphasis in the original). Non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) engaged in transnational advocacy around the UN Summits of the 1990s,
for instance, also developed repertoires or "specific ways … to insert
themselves into the conference process" (Clark, Friedman, and Hochstetler
1998, 4). Transnational activist logics, similarly, inform why and
how local movement actors pursue international linkages and what they expect
to achieve or gain locally as a consequence of their involvement
with supra-national official and alternative public spaces.
I will suggest that local movement actors pursue
transnational linkages with their counterparts beyond the boundaries of
the nation-state for (at least) two distinct reasons. First, local
movement actors have sought out transnational contacts as a means to (re)construct
or reaffirm subaltern or politically marginalized identities and to establish
personal and strategic bonds of solidarity with others who share locally
stigmatized values (e.g. feminist ideals) or identities (e.g. Afro-Latin
Americans or lesbians). Second, activists also have organized
across borders in an effort to expand formal rights or affect public policy,
seeking to enhance their local political leverage via what Margaret Keck
and Kathryn Sikkink (1998a, 12-13) call the "boomerang pattern" of influence—whereby
transnational coalitions of non-governmental, governmental and inter-governmental
actors put pressure on more powerful states and IGOs to bring pressure
to bear in turn on a particular government which violates rights or resists
the desired policy change.
These two transnational activist logics, of course,
are seldom entirely separable in actual movement practices. In fact, they
often operate within the same governmental, inter-governmental or movement
spaces and can be mutually reinforcing. For example, as Ann Clark, Elisabeth
Friedman and Kathryn Hochstetler rightly note, "[b]eyond efforts to influence
official positions [at UN World Conferences], a separate and often complimentary
NGO strategy is networking" or engaging in informal NGO-to-NGO strategic
discussions (1998, 19). Similarly, as I will explore below, the Latin American
advocacy coalition established in the early 1990s to influence the regional
preparatory process for Beijing was built upon many years of previous intra-regional
identity-solidarity exchanges among feminists—especially among those who
increasingly became involved in national gender policy matters over the
course of the 1980s.
Finally, I will maintain that these distinctive
transnational activist logics nonetheless can have different effects
on local movement organizational dynamics and power relations and can sometimes
clash in local movement arenas. Whereas the existing literature typically
lumps all cross-border organizing efforts under a single analytical rubric
(e.g. "global civil society" or transnational social movements), I want
to suggest that different modalities of transborder activism not only can
have differential impacts on promoting desired policy changes, but also
can have distinct political consequences for activist discourses and practices
and intra-movement power relations on the home front. In conclusion, I
will argue that while the interplay of these two transnational activist
logics has brought numerous benefits to local movements, the predominance
of IGO-advocacy activities among growing sectors of Latin American feminist
movements in recent years has had more ambiguous and sometimes contradictory
Encountering’ Feminism: Intra-Regional Solidarity
and the Configuration of Latin American Feminist Identities
In November of 1999, over 1,200 women from virtually
every country in the Latin America and the Caribbean region gathered in
the coastal city of Juan Dolio, Dominican Republic, to participate in the
eighth regional feminist Encuentro. As with the previous seven such
region-wide meetings, activists flocked to Juan Dolio because the Encuentros
have come to be regarded by many as "the place and the moment in which,
as feminists, we come together to revitalize and reinforce our diverse
practices. [They are an] instance in which we give expression to all our
different forms of doing politics—with debates, with workshops, by thematic
areas, by ideological currents, with our bodies, with art, with discussion,
with dancing, with whatever we can and we want" (Abrancinskas 1998, 54).
Billed as the "last feminist Encuentro of the millennium,"
the Juan Dolio meeting’s declared aim was to take stock of where the second
wave of Latin American feminism came from, where it has been, and where
it is or should be headed. Similar debates about the state and fate of
the movement were staged at earlier Encuentros, which have served as alternative
international public spaces or critical transnational sites in which distinctively
Latin American and Caribbean feminist identities, discourses and practices
have been constantly (re)invented by local activists over the past two
In a region where the Left initially saw feminism
as a "bourgeois, imperialist import" that divided the class struggle and
the Right and the Church continue to denounce it as an affront to national
customs and Christian family values, the Encuentros have been crucial supra-national
arenas in which local activists—often politically marginalized or ridiculed
in their own countries—could "find themselves" in "feminist others" who
practiced their politics in analogous political, cultural and economic
conditions, shaped by shared colonial and neocolonial legacies. It was
precisely such a quest for affirmation, identity and solidarity, coupled
with "the feeling of political isolation in their own country" that compelled
Colombian feminists to organize the first region-wide feminist meeting
in 1981 (Sternbach et al. 1992, 214; Navarro 1982).
Early second-wave feminism’s origins in and continuing
ties to the Left also help explain this impulse to forge ties of solidarity
with like-minded others in the region. As Peter Waterman suggests, "[i]n
so far as [Latin American feminists] came from the socialist tradition,
they also shared its internationalist ethic" (1998, 166). The "logic" driving
such transborder exchanges, then, was guided not only by a "striving for
human identity, but also reciprocity (mutual advantage),
(shared feelings), complimentarity (differential contribution) and
(taking the part or place of the other)" (Waterman 1998, 50, 52, emphasis
in the original).
Building on internationalist solidarities, the regional
Encuentros helped fashion an "imagined" Latin American feminist community
whose proper boundaries have been continually renegotiated and redrawn.
Who rightfully "belongs" to that community has been a subject of considerable
contention locally and those contests often have been re-enacted and redefined
in critical transnational sites such as the periodic regional meetings.
Whether or not women who continued to identify primarily with the Left
and to privilege the "general" struggle for revolutionary transformation
should be included in that imagined feminist community, for instance, has
been a key axis of regional and local debate since the First Encuentro.
The geographical as well as ideological boundaries
of the Latin American feminist community also have been continually remapped
in these transnational spaces. Whereas a handful of Latinas from the US
and Europe have participated since the First Encuentro and were still counted
as "foreign participants" by the organizers of the Fourth in Mexico in
1987, for example, we attended the Juan Dolio meeting by the hundreds and
the Eighth Encuentro’s program included, for the first time, numerous sessions
devoted to issues confronting women in the Latin American "diaspora."
The sense of "group-ness" and the transnational feminist
community imagined at the Encuentros, of course, sometimes drew less-than-inclusive
boundaries that were actively contested by those excluded. At the Mexico
meeting, for instance, hundreds of poor and working-class women active
in community struggles, human rights organizations, and other sectors of
the grassroots women’s movement in the region, who had come to identify
as "popular feminists," insisted that they too "belonged." Black women
and lesbians—whose needs and concerns were often excluded as a consequence
of the racism and heterosexism prevalent among many feminists locally—also
sought out transnational linkages as a means to reaffirm their distinctive
identities, exchange strategies for advancing their race- and sexuality-specific
claims, and imagine alternative feminist communities of their own. Indeed,
the transactions made possible by the periodic Encuentros and other regional
or sub-regional workshops, meetings, and events facilitated the configuration
of a number of "identity-based" transborder networks. A network of Latin
American lesbian feminists was established in 1987, at a region-wide meeting
held in Mexico in tandem with the Fourth Encuentro. The Afro-Latin American
and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Network was founded during the Fifth Encuentro
in Argentina and has held two regional meetings (1993 and 1996) of its
own since then. Young women organized a number of workshops during the
Juan Dolio Encuentro—claiming a distinctive identity as a new generation
of feminists whose political and personal experiences and agendas differ
significantly from those of "veteran" organizers—and discussed forming
a regional network of their own.
The diverse women who today form part of the increasingly
expansive, polycentric, heterogeneous Latin American feminist field (Alvarez
1998, 295) continue to view the Encuentros and other alternative transnational
arenas such as the regional networks as crucial sites in which to re-view
and refine their feminist discourses and practices, in dialogue with those
of others in the region. The Encuentros have brought together thousands
of women active in a broad range of public spaces—from lesbian-feminist
collectives, to rural and urban trade unions, Black and indigenous movements,
landless movements, research NGOs and university women’s studies programs,
guerrilla organizations and mainstream political parties. Whether or not
participants self-identified as feminists, the Encuentros provided a unique
space for activists to debate collectively the always-contested meanings
and goals of feminism and its relationship to other struggles for rights
and social justice in the region. They therefore have played a critical
role in fashioning common discourses, fostering a shared (though polysemic)
Latin American feminist political grammar, and providing activists in individual
countries with key theoretical and strategic insights and symbolic resources
which they subsequently "translated" and redeployed locally.
The kinds of internationalist identity-solidarity
exchanges of which the Encuentros are emblematic, as Peruvian feminist
Virginia Vargas suggests, were "fundamentally oriented toward recreating
collective practices, deploying new categories of analysis, new visibilities
and even new languages which feminisms at the national level were outlining,
to name that which heretofore had no name: sexuality, domestic violence,
sexual harassment, marital rape, the feminization of poverty [and so on].
These were some of the new signifiers that feminism placed at the center
of democratic debates" (1998, 3). A Latin American feminist cultural politics—understood
as a process "enacted when sets of actors shaped by, and embodying, different
cultural meanings and practices come into conflict with one another" (Alvarez,
Dagnino and Escobar 1998, 7)— thus was fostered in such transnational spaces,
in interaction with local movement arenas. These transborder exchanges
furnished local feminist activists with new discursive repertoires, reinforcing
the "symbolic, ludic-cultural dimension" of feminism which accompanied
the practices of the movement, "creating dates, recovering leaders, histories,
symbols . . ." (Vargas 1998, 3).
Region-wide "days of protest" or feminist action
proposed by participants in the Encuentros, for example, not only helped
draw public attention to particular feminist issues, they also contributed
to a sense that activists—who most often are a relatively small minority
in their own national context—were not "not alone" in their local struggles
for gender(ed) justice. At the First Encuentro, for instance, participants
decided to proclaim November 25 the "Day against Violence against Women,"
in honor of three sisters from the Dominican Republic who were murdered
by security forces of the Trujillo dictatorship on that day in 1960. Since
the Bogotá meeting, feminists throughout the region have commemorated
that occasion simultaneously but by whatever means appeared most appropriate
to local conditions—mounting demonstrations and other protest actions,
holding workshops, lobbying legislators, staging dramatic performances,
or launching public education campaigns on sexual and domestic violence
(Keck and Sikkink 1998a, 178). Many other dates have come to mark the feminist
calendar region-wide, such as September 28, the Day of Struggle for the
Decriminalization of Abortion, and October 11, Indigenous Women’s Day.
These simultaneous commemorative occasions, along
with the many theoretical and strategic exchanges facilitated by the Encuentros
and other innumerable intra-regional meetings, publications, electronic
communications and websites, moreover, often have fueled deeper feminist
reflection among local activists and introduced new ways of discursively
framing local feminist struggles. Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida’s
(Women for Dignity and Life or DIGNAS) is a case in point. Today one of
El Salvador’s leading feminist organizations, the group originally was
created as an arm of the National Resistance (RN), one of the political-military
organizations that made up to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation
Front. The question of movement autonomy or feminisms’ proper relationship
to the Left, to the larger women’s movement or movimiento de mujeres,
and to the State has long been a key axis of debate at the Encuentros (see
especially Beckman 1998). And those "transnationalized" movement debates
clearly influenced the DIGNAS’ evolving understanding of feminism and autonomy.
In her richly detailed account of the organization’s
political trajectory, Lynn Stephen suggests that DIGNAS members’ participation
in the Fifth Encuentro in Argentina in 1990 stimulated "a period of intense
self-reflection on the causes of female subordination" within the group,
a process furthered by their increased contacts with Mexican and Central
American feminist NGOs who helped them organize workshops on issues such
as sexuality and violence against women, issues around which local activists
had little prior organizing experience. The DIGNAS’ growing commitment
to feminist ideals was further reinforced by their participation in gatherings
of Central American feminists in preparation for a sub-regional Encuentro
held in Nicaragua in 1992. As one DIGNAS member explained to Stephen, "All
of these experiences gave us a whole new set of elements to work with .
. . the meeting in Argentina, the meetings in Nicaragua, a workshop in
Guatemala, all the workshops we did here. It brought us to another level
of identification that was very important. We knew that we had to focus
on what was important to women and not take on other people’s platforms,
like that of labor. We had our own work to do" (Stephen 1997, 73-74). By
1992, the DIGNAS publicly had declared their organizational autonomy from
the RN. Though it was, of course, primarily the DIGNAS’ own contradictory
experience with the local Left that led them to challenge its sexist ideology
and practices, their involvement in transnational feminist exchanges gave
them access to new ways to frame that critique. As with the DIGNAS, thousands
of local activists in other countries in the region have gained access
to new theoretical frameworks and strategic insights through their participation
in cross-border feminist exchanges of the identity-solidarity variety.
The structure and organizational dynamics of the
Encuentros themselves also contributed to the development of local feminist
practices distinct from those prevailing on the Left. Whereas early movement
practices in many countries often mirrored the organizational hierarchies
inherited from Leftist organizations—for example, organizing women’s congresses
and centralized coordinations in which different sectors of the women’s
movement would be "represented," "manifestos" would be drafted, and "palabras
de orden" (slogans or marching orders) would be "consensually" agreed
upon—the regional Encuentros both reflected and reinforced the more fluid,
less hierarchical practices that came to typify "feminist ways of doing
politics" in the late 1970s and 1980s. From the first Encuentro on, organizers
emphatically distinguished the regional "encounters" from more formal party-
or trade union-like congresses and feminist academic conferences or meetings
of experts. The majority of participants rejected formal leadership roles,
claims to specialized knowledge or expertise, and representational schemes
of any sort. Emphasis was placed on each woman "speaking for herself" and
not in the name of her feminist group, political party or class organization
(Alvarez 1998, 297; see also Heilborn and Arruda 1995). The national feminist
encounters now regularly held in virtually every country in the region
and many of the local and translocal meetings and events sponsored by the
region-wide identity-focused redes typically adhere to a similar
The Encuentros also have had particularly important
consequences for local movement dynamics in each of the countries or sub-regions
that hosted them. Since the Bogotá meeting, movement coordinations
or coalitions of local volunteers have been responsible for organizing
the region-wide gatherings. One of their important local effects thus has
been to foster debate and promote networking, (re)mobilization and greater
articulation among feminists in the country or sub-region in which they
are held—even when organizing and fundraising for the regional meetings
sometimes has triggered acerbic conflicts among local organizers. The process
of networking among Central American feminists, initiated in the preparations
for a 1992 sub-regional feminist meeting in Nicaragua, for instance, was
intensified greatly by the cross-border organizing necessitated by the
hosting the Sixth Encuentro (Aguilar et al. 1997). In the Dominican Republic,
organizers similarly promoted numerous local workshops, engaged in many
new transnational exchanges with Dominican women from the diaspora, and
organized both a national and a Caribbean-wide feminist encounter in preparation
for the Eighth.
The Encuentros also have enhanced the public visibility
of feminisms in the host country and "brought women’s issues into the news
media—though not always with desirable publicity" (Stephen 1997, 17). In
El Salvador, for instance, feminist organizing for the Sixth Encuentro
led local conservative forces to try to cancel the meeting, alleging "that
all of the women who have come together every two or three years since
1980 from different countries are linked to the FMLN and are trying to
create forums for the expression of lesbianism and homosexuality" and claiming
that the Encuentro would "degrade Salvadoran morality and culture and bring
on an AIDS epidemic" (Stephen 1997, 17-18, 82). Still, as Stephen notes,
the "effort to shut down the encuentro backfired, and the DIGNAS
and others involved in the regional organizing committee gained far more
legitimation and publicity than they would have if the Salvadoran government
had simply allowed the encuentro to take place unimpeded" (1997,
In sum, the effects of intra-regional activist exchanges
informed by this internationalist identity-solidarity logic arguably have
been largely salutary for local movements. The Encuentros have enhanced
the public visibility of feminist claims and movements in the host country,
provided local activists with a shared, though continually resignified,
Latin American feminist political language that helped shield them from
domestic opponents’ charges that feminism is a "foreign import," and enhanced
activist access to contextually appropriate discursive frameworks and organizational
Local cultural and political resistance to feminism
in general, along with the marginalization of subaltern voices within
local feminist movements, impelled diverse movement actors to construct
a variety of transnational linkages from the bottom-up. Feminists engaged
in the wide range of intra-regional movement activities described above
pursued transborder connections in search of affinities and complimentarities
with non-local feminist others. They sought to forge bonds of solidarity
that enabled them to feel they were "not alone" in their feminist values
and commitments, even if they were still relatively politically marginalized
or culturally stigmatized "back home." Such exchanges, then, are driven
less by pragmatic objectives or instrumental rationales and more by politicized
identities, principled goals and ideological affinities.
The repercussions of such internationalist identity-solidarity
exchanges for local intra-movement power relations, moreover, have been
relatively benign. Participation in alternative international movement
publics does not require that actors possess any particular kinds of specialized
skills or material, political or cultural resources—beyond, perhaps, scrounging
up the money for the plane ticket to get to an Encuentro. Participation
is nominally open to any woman who wishes to identify with or simply explore
feminist ideas and principles. Beyond building international ties of solidarity
that might on occasion be mobilized in the interest of some local cause
and gaining new theoretical and strategic insights that might enhance their
particular feminist practices at home, individual activists participating
in supra-national alternative public spaces stand little to gain in terms
of national or international power or political clout from doing so. Though
power certainly also circulates in alternative transnational spaces such
as the Encuentros, the kind of capital that accrues to participants is
principally of the "social" variety and does not necessarily translate
into greater access to national or international policy elites or material
Finally, the impact of such exchanges on securing
more progressive local or international gender policies is, at best, indirect.
In that respect, their principal effects have been to reinforce local activists’
resolve to promote policy change locally, provide them with strategic information
about how gender policy struggles have been waged in other country contexts
with analogous political conditions, and furnished them with theoretical
insights and symbolic resources that they can deploy in their local policy
battles. And as I shall discuss below, internationalist-solidarity exchanges
also fostered the dense transnational social networks which were sometimes
transformed into more formalized transborder activist coalitions purposefully
designed to advocate for gender policy change.
The UN’s Knocking at Your Door: The "Globalization"
of Local Latin American Feminist Policy Advocacy in the 1990s
In the early 1990s, a very different activist logic
began propelling increasing numbers of Latin American feminist NGOs to
pursue transnational linkages with their counterparts throughout the region
and across the globe. Largely inspired by the UN’s declared intention to
promote greater NGO participation in the "megaconferences" or World Summits
it sponsored during the first half of that decade (Clark, Friedman and
Hochstetler 1998, 6; Otto 1996; Weiss and Gordenker 1996), many feminists
in Latin America for the first time came to view IGOs and the inter-governmental
arena as potential venues for advancing women’s rights locally.
The organized, regionally coordinated participation
of Latin American feminists in "official" international publics such as
the UN or ECLAC (the Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean)—as
compared to the many "alternative" transnational arenas discussed above—was
a novelty. As Marysa Navarro recounts, "[f]or Latin American and Caribbean
feminists, the first World Conferences on Women did not have great relevance
(with the exception of the Brazilians and Mexicans who did see themselves
affected by the beginning of the Women’s Decade). [At the World Conference
of the International Women’s Year] in Mexico, the presence of Latin American
feminism was minimal since, though groups had emerged in some countries,
there still were no movements [as such]" (1998, 108).
By the time of the Beijing conference, in contrast,
"the [regional] women’s movement (and its feminist expression) took part
in the official conference process, with its many currents, issues, and
forces" in expressive numbers, whereas "[a]t previous conferences on women
. . . it participated only in the World [NGO] Forum and barely managed
to establish relations with official circles" (Vargas and Olea 1998a, 16).
Though most were inexperienced in "global policy advocacy," a specialized
skill perfected by feminist international NGOs (INGOs) based mostly in
the North, many local activists were by then persuaded that influencing
their government’s reports to the UN and lobbying for changes in international
legal norms might provide them with additional political leverage on the
The difference between Latin American feminists’
scant presence in Mexico and their significant participation in the Beijing
process was not just due to the impressive expansion or feminist movements
in the region in the two intervening decades, however. It is also attributable
to changes in the national political contexts in which the movements unfolded.
With the return of electoral democracy (however flawed and still restricted)
and liberal rights discourses (however hollow and "neo") to much of the
region by the end of the 1980s, many governments in the mid-1990s claimed
to be more receptive to select feminist claims. Whereas during the 1970s
and much of the 1980s, feminists mostly turned their backs on the State
and eschewed the conventional political arena—then (rightly) viewed as
exclusionary, oppressive and self-evidently inimical to any and all claims
for social justice, let alone gender justice—by the 1990s growing numbers
of feminists were directing their organizing efforts at influencing gender
policies (Alvarez 1998, 1999). The possibility of pursuing local policy
changes through inter-governmental venues such as the UN conferences, then,
appealed particularly to that sizable subset of Latin American feminist
activists who had become most directly involved in local gender policy
matters during the previous decade.
Intensified contacts and involvement with international
policy forums reinforced this growing local interest in "transnationalized"
policy advocacy. Beginning with the United Nations Conference on Envirnoment
and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, many local NGOs and several
of the regional networks became more directly involved with the UN process
and with the Northern-based feminist INGOs and transnational rights advocacy
networks which have dominated the "global women’s lobby." At the Rio Summit,
a Brazilian national feminist network, the Coalition of Women’s NGOs for
the Environment, Population and Development, hosted the women’s caucus
space, dubbed Planeta Fêmea or Female Planet, at the
NGO Forum. Other issue-focused regional networks subsequently played an
important role in global feminist coalitions set up to incorporate women’s
rights into the Platforms for Action of the Vienna Human Rights Summit
in 1993 and the UN Population and Development Conference in Cairo in 1994.
As Navarro points out, "At Río de Janeiro, Vienna, Cairo and Copenhagen
Latin American feminists learned that they belonged to international networks
on how to lobby, that is, how to influence the content of documents discussed
by government representatives" (1998, 106-107).
But two additional, "top-down" factors fueled the
unprecedented involvement of Latin American feminist activists in the Beijing
process: the deliberate efforts of feminist allies working within UN agencies
such at UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) and the Women’s
Unit of ECLAC to encourage feminist NGOs to participate more fully in the
official preparatory process; and the considerable amounts of targeted
bilateral and multilateral agency and foundation funding that enabled some
local NGOs to do so. UNIFEM and other UN agencies, according feminist activists
involved early on in the process, "took the initiative to rally NGOs .
. . and assumed the challenge of pressuring governments to be receptive
to NGOs proposals" (Vargas and Olea 1998a, 21; Gúzman and Guerrero
1998, 192-193). The Beijing "initiative groups" set up in many countries,
moreover, were a direct response to the proposal put forth by the Subregional
Coordinator of UNIFEM in Brazil, who was herself a "veteran" feminist activist
from the 1970s (Gúzman and Guerrero 1998, 197). Both UNIFEM and
the ECLAC Women’s Unit played a key role in explaining byzantine UN procedures
and the vagaries of political negotiation in inter-governmental arenas
to the Latin American NGOs who opted to participate in the UN process.
And substantial funding provided a further incentive for participation:
In the two years prior to the Beijing Summit, the Regional Coordination
received at total of $1,007,403 to develop region-wide lobbying strategies
and support sub-regional organizing in relation to the conference (Vargas
and Olea 1998b, 55, 13n).
The Complimentarity of Transnational Activist
Logics in Latin America
The new transnational activist logic spurred particularly
by the Beijing preparatory process built upon and sometimes reinforced
the internationalist solidarity exchanges of the 1980s and early 1990s.
That is, the two transnational activist logics outlined in the introduction,
though sometimes running on parallel, seldom-intersecting tracks, at times
proved to be mutually complimentary, with largely positive consequences
for local movement dynamics, discourses and practices.
The NGO Forums at the Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi
UN women’s conferences, for instance, had been "important for the development
of a regional feminist movement. They played a significant role in fostering
bonds of solidarity . . . [and] provided the foundations for an intense
and informal network of relationships and exchange . . ." (Vargas and Olea
1998a, 16, 2n). Indeed, it was at the mid-Decade Conference in Copenhagen
(1980) that some Venezuelan feminists decided to promote the first regional
Encuentro, which Colombian feminists organized the following year (Navarro
1998, 108; Navarro 1982).
The Encuentros and other intra-regional feminist
gatherings and exchanges, in turn, facilitated the formation of transnational
social networks and fomented intense personal and political bonds and affinities
among feminists in far-flung reaches of the sub-continent which provided
a crucial backdrop for the creation of policy-focused networks and regional
advocacy coalitions. The variety of internationalist identity-solidarity
exchanges discussed in the preceding section gave impetus to the more formalized,
policy-centered feminist networks, such as the Network of Women in Politics
(established at the Argentine Encuentro) and others which combined an identity-solidarity
logic with an emphasis on promoting policy change, such as the Latin American
and Caribbean Network against Violence against Women and the regional women’s
health and reproductive rights network. And movement debates about the
possible political benefits and pitfalls of setting up a regional advocacy
coalition to participate in the preparatory processes for the Beijing Summit
can be traced to the 1993 Encuentro in El Salvador (Navarro 1998, 108).
Given its origins in earlier identity-solidarity
exchanges, it is not surprising that the Latin American and Caribbean NGO
Coordination for the FWCW—headquartered in Lima and charged with articulating
six sub-regional "focal points" in the region—declared in its core organizing
slogan that Beijing would serve as both "Texto y Pretexto" (Text
and Pretext) for feminist movements in the region. That is, while feminists
involved hoped to influence the actual texts of national reports
and regional and global Platforms for Action, Virginia Vargas—nominated
by some participants at the 1993 Encuentro to be NGO Forum Coordinator
for Latin America and the Caribbean—explained that Beijing also provided
a pretext for remobilizing and revitalizing feminist movements and
fomenting public debate about gender inequality and its remedies. The dynamic
interplay of the two transantional activist logics, then, guided much of
Latin American NGOs’ involvement in the UN process and had a number of
positive consequences for local movement discourses and practices.
The transnational IGO-advocacy logic of the 1990s
sometimes built on, reinforced or extended the affinities and complimentarities
fostered by earlier identity-solidarity exchanges. This was particularly
evident in the case of Black and indigenous women, lesbians, and others
whose voices were often muted in local movement arenas despite their considerable
prior local and cross-border organizing efforts. Those efforts contributed
to the "globalization" of feminist discourses about difference and diversity
among women and pressures from the global women’s lobby led to the incorporation
of elements of those discourses by IGOs and the Northern States that are
hegemonic in international policy arenas. As a consequence, UN agencies
and Northern-based private foundations and INGOs often conditioned funding
for participation in international forums on local movements’ ability to
"incorporate diversity." The Beijing process thus furnished a new "top-down"
incentive for Afro-Latin American women, lesbians, disabled women, young
women and indigenous women to engage in "transnationalized" rights advocacy
around their specific needs and concerns. This participation, in turn,
emboldened them to assert a more vocal presence in local, national and
regional women’s movement arenas.
Afro-Latin American women in some countries, for
instance, were able to translate IGO’s and agencies’ declared interest
in "promoting diversity" into expressive participation in the Beijing preparatory
process and organized national and regional networks to guarantee "the
active participation of diverse ethnic and racial sectors of women" in
both government and movement Beijing-related fora. With targeted funds
from several liberal US foundations such as Ford, one of Brazil’s foremost
Black feminist NGOs, Geledés, coordinated a national network
of Afro-Brazilian women’s organizations to participate in the national
Beijing preparatory process. Black women’s organizations in Brazil already
had been engaged in identity-solidarity exchanges on a national scale since
the First National Encounter of Black Women in 1988 (Ribeiro 1995, 450).
They subsequently transformed the contacts established at this and several
other Black women’s events into coordinated nationwide efforts to advance
race-specific political claims via the "boomerang pattern of influence"—such
as the National Seminar on Public Policy and Black Women’s Reproductive
Rights held in 1993, organized explicitly to influence the national preparatory
process for the Cairo Summit.
The Beijing "logic" reinforced this trend, further
propelling Black women’s demands into the center of national and regional
movement and government debates about women’s rights and gender policy.
At the national level, targeted agency and IGO funding enabled some Afro-Brazilian
women activists to participate as "experts" in government seminars held
to prepare the government’s report to the UN and to play a leadership role
in the national movement coalition aimed at influencing the Beijing process—the
Articulation of Brazilian Women for Beijing ’95.
At the regional level, Afro-Brazilians took the lead
in organizing a three-day session at the Mar del Plata NGO Forum, held
in tandem with the official ECLAC conference to formulate a regional platform
for Beijing, which brought together Black activists from eight countries
and called on governments to "implement development policies to repay the
debt incurred with our populations and that Black women be the priority
beneficiaries [of such policies]" (Ribeiro 1995, 455). The ECLAC Platform
for Action incorporated several of the demands advanced by the "Proposal
of Latin American and Caribbean Black Women for Beijing."
In other national contexts where Black women’s voices
had been largely absent from local feminist movement debates, UN and funding
agencies’ exigencies concerning the participation of "diverse women" in
the Beijing process lent Black women activists newfound local visibility
and legitimacy. Emboldened by IGO’s discursive sanctioning of diversity
and by their involvement with regional and global Afro-Latin American women’s
organizing coalitions surrounding Beijing, for instance, Afro-Colombian
women’s organizations rapidly gained a new foothold within the historically
predominantly white and mestiza local feminist movement. Until the early
1990s, most Afro-Colombian women activists had had limited contact with
local feminist organizations. And many had been reluctant to proclaim themselves
feminists—partly due to the racism and elitism they perceived to be rampant
among Colombia’s "historic" feminist groups. The transnational contacts
with Black feminists from throughout Latin America and other regions of
the world facilitated by their participation in the Beijing process, however,
heightened their exposure to alternative Afro-centric and anti-racist feminist
discourses and appear to have triggered new debates about the relevance
of feminism within the local Black women’s movement. As one Afro-Colombian
activist who today adamantly identifies as a feminist proclaimed, "There’s
feminism and then there’s the feminists. That is, we have learned that
there is much to feminism that speaks to our experience as Black women
and we need to separate that out from the discriminatory attitudes and
practices that have prevailed among feminist groups here." The transnational
IGO-advocacy logic thus sometimes can foster new processes identity-solidarity
The heightened visibility of Latin American feminist
NGOs in official international policy arenas also appears to have helped
legitimate feminist claims vis-à-vis (non-feminist) parallel sectors
of national and international civil society, prompting both INGOs such
as Human Rights Watch as well as local human rights groups to be more attentive
to women’s rights and to seek out alliances with local and transnational
feminist NGOs. As Peruvian activist and former regional coordinator of
the Comité Latinoamericano de Defensa de los Derechos de las
Mujeres (the Latin American Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights
or CLADEM), Roxana Vasquez told me, "Vienna forced the National Coordination
of Human Rights Organizations to seat us at the table. Vienna legitimated
the topic of women’s human rights and obliged them to pay attention to
violence against women," a rights violation until then seldom addressed
by national and regional mainstream human rights organizations.
In some contexts, local activists’ engagement in
exchanges driven by an IGO-advocacy logic also spurred the geographical,
intra-national decentering of feminism—that is, its diffusion beyond an
original, usually small, "hegemonic core" of activists, organizations and
issues (Stein 1995). The sanctioning and even encouragement of "civil society
participation" in UN conference processes by local, national and international
public authorities confers "official" legitimacy on related movement activities—providing
an additional "top down" incentive for participation by activists who might
not otherwise have been involved and sometimes granting participants increased
access to local and national policy microphones.
In Brazil, for instance, more than 800 local groups
became involved in the national Articulation of Brazilian Women for Beijing
’95 and the Beijing process fostered the creation or reactivation women's
movement forums or local advocacy coalitions in 25 of Brazil's 26 states
and the Federal District. These forums played a crucial role promoting
dialogue and collaboration among diverse groups of women activists from
all corners of Brazil. Whereas funding for national feminist "encounters"
and other translocal identity-solidarity activities has always been hard
to come by, IGO and foundation resources targeted for UN conference-related
activities made this unprecedented nationwide movement mobilizational effort
Significantly, the most active of these forums were
found in the Central, North and Northeast regions of Brazil—areas where
the feminist movement historically has been weakest. Whereas Rio de Janeiro
and São Paulo dominated the national coalition during the preparatory
process for Beijing, activists from the North and Northeast were most invested
in sustaining it after the "pretext" provided by the Summit had passed.
As one of the members of the steering committee of the national "post-Beijing"
coalition told me in 1998,
In smaller towns and more remote regions, where
there may be but a handful of women’s movement activists, the Articulation
has become an important referent. Knowing there are other women ‘out there’
in Brazil and around the world organizing around similar issues makes them
feel less isolated, part of a larger cause. And local Articulation members
often summon to the Beijing platform when making demands on municipal or
state political authorities. NGOs from Rio and São Paulo have been
less active in the Articulation since Beijing because they are already
connected to numerous other national and international networks.
Engagement with "transnationalized" gender policy advocacy
thus also has provided advocates with new, internationally sanctioned political
scripts they can deploy locally, which, unlike the shared feminist movement
signifiers diffused through inward-oriented identity-solidarity exchanges,
have greater potential political "resonance" vis-à-vis local policy
makers. Latin American rights advocates now more regularly invoke international
human rights law to pressure for local compliance with new global gender
equity norms and appeal to UN and OAS (Organization of American States)
conventions in promoting women’s rights locally. In late 1996, for instance,
Brazilian members of CLADEM brought two local cases of violence against
women before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Invoking the
Inter-American Convention on Violence against Women—ratified by Brazil
in 1995 and promulgated by Decree 149 in 1996—local feminists argued that
the Brazilian government had failed to investigate and prosecute those
responsible for the death by strangulation and gunshot of two São
Paulo women by their male lovers, thereby violating the fundamental rights
assured to women by the Convention. "The simple fact of bringing these
women’s rights violations to the attention of the international community,"
local CLADEM members argued, "imposes a political and moral condemnation
on the Brazilian State."
Regionally, CLADEM, in collaboration with the US-based
Center for Women’s Global Leadership, spearheaded a global effort to rethink
universal human rights from a feminist perspective and launched an international
petition drive and public education campaign to question of the false universalism
prevailing in androcentric, classist, Western, and racialized post-war
interpretations of human rights. The campaign’s slogan, "Without Women,
Rights are not Human," (Sin las Mujeres, los Derechos no son Humanos)
aptly summarized CLADEM’s endeavor to rewrite women into human rights law
at home and abroad.
CLADEM argued that by separating out "the specificities
of different human conditions: [such as] women, children, older people,
the disabled, among others," from "general" human rights law, instruments
such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against
Women (CEDAW) construct "differentiated social subjects and, thereby, subjects
with specific [rather than ‘human’] rights." As an alternative, CLADEM
proposed that: "We must return to the whole, but in a way that it dialectically
encompasses, in the abstract, each and every concrete being, and in generality,
each and every singular being." They argued that "[s]pecific feminine experiences
must be taken into account not only through supplementing existing [human
rights] instruments and mechanisms, but by seeking, through a radical critique,
to reconstruct those very instruments and mechanisms."
A feminist cultural politics—in this case, a confrontation
between feminist and mainstream-IGO understandings of human rights—is clearly
implicated in many of the transnational IGO-advocacy efforts undertaken
by local and regional feminist coalitions in recent years. Beyond sometimes
reinforcing the identity-solidarity exchanges facilitated by "encuentro-like"
transborder transactions, then, participation in cross-border exchanges
aimed at influencing "official" international publics in some cases has
provided activists with access to new discursive framings and legal instruments
that, at least potentially, bolster their local political leverage.
Those local activists most centrally involved in
IGO-related advocacy in recent years also have felt compelled to develop
new lobbying skills and organizing practices. The very notion of policy
long considered a highly specialized skill among the Northern-based liberal
NGO and INGO feminist lobbyists who perfected it, was foreign to most Latin
American activists who became involved at the outset of the Beijing preparatory
Excerting influence in inter-governmental forums,
according to those Northern feminist activists who have been most involved
in "global women’s rights advocacy," requires developing specific organizing
"repertoires": compiling "expert" information to support one’s political
claims or desired policy changes; "framing [one’s] points of view and formulating
so they can be comprehended" by policy makers (Kyte 1998, 54); forging
alliances with sympathetic national and IGO public officials; and developing
a pragmatic willingness to "work within the system" because "to
influence the current political decision-making system, one must understand
and accept to work with the establishment in order to change it" (Beyond
Cairo and Beijing 1999, 8). "Systems analysis" and strategic planning,
according to "advocacy specialists," are at the core of "success": Advocacy
"is a way of ordering work . . . [It] implies knowing how to argue your
case, and this requires substantial concrete information and elements to
make your case a strong one. Advocacy is thus both a strategy and a skill
. . ." (Beyond Cairo and Beijing 1999, 7).
In a region historically governed by military regimes
or exclusionary elite democracies, it should not be surprising that this
kind of "advocacy repertoire" was not familiar to local feminist activists
confronting hostile and often repressive public officials and less-than-receptive,
anti-, when not pseudo-, liberal policy arenas. Moreover, with the exception
of the relatively few activists and NGOs involved in the issue-focused
regional networks’ efforts to influence the Rio, Vienna and Cairo processes,
most of the core organizers of the regional and sub-regional movement coalitions
established in relation to Beijing had little prior experience in inter-governmental
The September 1994 NGO Forum in Mar del Plata, Argentina,
for instance, was still viewed by most participants as a "pretext" for
fomenting intra-regional networking of the identity-solidarity variety.
In fact, some have suggested in retrospect that the regional Forum "was
more like a feminist encuentro than a forum in preparation for an international
conference" (Olea and Vargas 1998, 153). Most of the over 1,200 women in
attendance principally engaged in heated debates about women’s inequality
in the region rather than in strategizing about how to "frame" women’s
issues in ways that might "resonate" with government representatives at
the ECLAC conference. But at later stages of the preparatory process, the
regional Coordination and the sub-regional "focal points," along with a
relatively small subset of Mar del Plata participants, attuned their "repertoires"
to better suit the UN conference "logic." By the time of the November 1994
ECLAC meeting to draft the final version of the Latin American and Caribbean
Platform for Action, for instance, the Regional NGO Coordination had "prepared
a ‘negotiating instrument’ to facilitate lobbying with governments and
to explicitly outline NGO proposals on each of the points to be addressed
at the meeting" (Vargas and Olea 1998a, 30). Strategic planning meetings
among an increasingly reduced number of "specialized" activists focused
on influencing Beijing-related "texts" gradually came to prevail over more
inclusive events or activities that had served as "pretexts" for revitalizing
local movements and influencing public opinion.
In the aftermath of the Beijing conference, some
of the core local organizers of the Cairo and Beijing NGO processes identified
feminists’ relative inexperience in lobbying as a key obstacle to securing
the local implementation of international agreements on women’s rights.
They gained substantial funding from the Ford Foundation to mount a region-wide
"advocacy training" project. One of the basic premises of that project
was that "the vast majority of Latin American NGO activists still don’t
handle themselves well in undertaking ‘advocacy’ or trying to promote and
defend . . . rights before local, national, and regional political institutions"
(Beyond Cairo and Beijing 1999, 4). The project thus set out to select
a group of younger, "middle-level" movement leaders or cadres who were
"working to promote sexual and reproductive rights and gender equity" in
eight countries in the region to train them in developing "long-term strategic
plans based on sound analyses of political contexts and to develop their
skills in communication and coalition-building" (Beyond Cairo and Beijing
1999, 5). An important further consequence of the transnational IGO-advocacy
logic on local movement dynamics, then, has been to reinforce the formation
of a relatively small cadre of activists who would devote their energies
to policy-focused advocacy on both the national and international planes.
In sum, the IGO-advocacy logic informing many transnational
organizing efforts among Latin American feminists as of the early 1990s
was guided largely by pragmatic, policy-driven objectives that arguably
were more "instrumental" than principled—even when it sometimes built upon
and reinforced shared ideals and processes of identity (re)affirmation
among some sectors of local movements. Participating in transnationalized
policy advocacy requires nurturing contacts and alliances with State and
IGO officials; "framing" feminist issues in ways that are palatable to
such official circles; developing movement "cadres" with specific kinds
of (advocacy) skills and (policy) specializations (which in turn necessitates
access to particular kinds of cultural capital); and securing the sizable
material resources that make on-site and "virtual" transnational strategizing
and lobbying possible.
Contradictory Consequences of "Transnationalized"
Feminist Policy Advocacy for Local Movement Discourses, Practices and Power
The new transnationalized advocacy repertoires developed
by those sectors of the Latin American women’s movements most centrally
involved in the UN conference processes of the 1990s did not always translate
smoothly in local policy and movement arenas. First, though analysts of
transnational advocacy networks and local social movements alike have stressed
the centrality of "frame resonance"—"the relationship between a movement
organization’s interpretive work and its ability to influence broader public
understanding" (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 17)—to advocates’ success in promoting
desired policy changes (see also Tarrow 1998; McAdam, McCarthy and Zald
1996), I want to suggest that the "framing processes" appropriate when
persuading State or IGO public officials are sometimes more problematic
when what is desired is also broad cultural change. This is a particularly
tricky issue for feminist rights advocates, since framing their claims
in ways that will have "cultural resonance" in local policy arenas may
clash with their principled quest to transform larger publics’ cultural
understandings of gender power relations. Though such "framing dilemmas"
arise mostly from local political conditions, I will further maintain,
they can be exacerbated when local feminists’ "interpretive struggles"
(Franco 1989) become transnationalized.
Several local feminist interpretive contests were
"globalized" during preparations for the Beijing conference. Local and
transnational conservative and fundamentalist movements, often commandeered
by the Vatican, for instance, sought to undermine feminism "by staging
an apparently trivial sideshow—namely an attack on the use of the word
‘gender’" (Franco 1998, 279).
For several months preceding the Beijing conference,
the Chilean Church, the Right, and sectors of the Christian Democratic
Party—in cohoots with the Vatican and Opus Dei—went to war with feminists
working in the ruling Concertación government over the inclusion
of the term "gender," plural conceptions of the family, and reproductive
rights in the government’s report to the UN on the status of Chilean women.To
the leaders of this assault on "gender rights," like Renovación
Nacional (National Renovation) Congresswoman María Angélica
Cristi, "the preparations for the Summit were controlled by feminists .
. . the rights of woman as mother were left out of the deliberations."
Allusions to the need to fashion public policy in ways that acknowledged
multiple forms of family, according to Cristi, "opened the way for lesbian
and gay families" in a manner inimical to Chilean cultural values. Some
Christian Democratic women leaders in the ruling coalition echoed the Right-wing
congresswoman’s arguments, suggesting that the adoption of the term gender
in government policy documents portended the "legalization of a third sex."
Such proclamations reflected the Chilean Right’s
own transnational organizing activities in tandem with the recent string
of UN Summits and in response to local and global feminisms’ challenge
to traditional gender power arrangements. Indeed, anti-feminist
forces are also increasingly articulated on a global scale (see Basu, this
issue). As Sally Baden and Anne Marie Goetz suggest,
conservative opposition to the concept [of gender
during the Beijing process] expressed a second-wind reaction after the
failure to prevent agreement at the International Conference on Population
and Development in Cairo in 1994 on a broad definition of women’s reproductive
health rights. Other factors explaining the conservative fixation on gender
may include the perceived greater influence and presence of feminist NGOs,
the greater visibility of lesbians in NGOs, and the inclusion, for the
first time in the U. N. series of Conferences on Women, of very openlanguage
on sexual and reproductive rights (1997, 45).
On both the global and local levels, the Right’s counter-discourses
on gender have become more consistent, more mature, its arguments more
elaborate (Grau, Olea, and Pérez 1997, 97). According to several
feminists I interviewed in Santiago in 1997, however, Chilean feminist
NGO activists involved in the local Beijing "initiative group" did not
intervene as effectively as they might have in the heated public debate
that ensued from the conservative attack on "gender rights." Most Chilean
feminists I interviewed were quick to point out that the Right-wing-controlled
mass media deliberately silenced feminist voices in civil society. However,
several attributed feminism’s relative quiescence in that debate to what
Chilean feminist cultural critics Grau, Olea, and Pérez (1997) have
dubbed a tendency toward "discursive accommodation" among those sectors
of the feminist movement who had riveted their organizing efforts on influencing
the text of their government’s report to the United Nations.
According to these authors, discursive accommodation
consists of "[adapting] one’s own discursive profile to the explicit or
implicit requirements of the interlocutor involved in the conflict" (1997,
91). They argue that this can lead to "self-determined frame of ‘what it
is possible to say’ that operates as self-imposed censorship, making it
difficult to articulate an autonomous line of argument that makes explicit
and sustains the most problematic [discursive] nodes: sexuality, the family,
the concept of gender" (1997, 74). As Raquel Olea succinctly put it, "there
is a dominant discourse and too often one speaks from inside that discourse".
This is particularly evident in what Chileans refer to as the prevailing
political culture of "consenso prévio" (prior consensus),
wherein, as several interviewees remarked, one pre-assumes the adversary’s
limits and strives for a minimalist consensus before one even takes a seat
at the policy-making table.
Beyond seeking "frame resonance" in policy circles,
then, as Chilean Federal Deputy and long-time women’s and human rights
movement activist Fanny Pollarolo suggested, feminist activists sometimes
fail to see policy arenas as forums in which they can do more than advocate
for gender policy change: "the initiatives of parliamentarians can open
up the debate . . . we’re much more agents of the public debate rather
than mere law-makers". The Congress and the UN, in other words, are simultaneously
cultural and political forums. Though political give-and-take, cautious
language and a willingness to make discursive concessions may well be essential
to effective policy advocacy, public policies, of course, have cultural
effects. That is, policies help (re)shape cultural understandings of
particular social problems. Thus, if the feminist "framing process" is
reduced to "discursive accommodation" and spills over the negotiating table
and onto the streets, into the larger public debate about women’s rights
or gender justice, it can have troubling implications.
In Chile, as in several other Latin American nations,
for example, the Congress—at the urging of local feminist policy advocates
and under pressure from new international women’s rights norms—enacted
legislation on "intra-familial violence" (violencia intra-familiar).
Local feminist rights advocates engaged in protracted negotiations to persuade
policy-makers of the urgency of legislating on this issue and the law unquestionably
represents an important step in combating violence against women. However,
the watered-down law that ultimately prevailed centered on "strengthening
the family," prescribed efforts at "family reconciliation," recommended
"couples’ therapy" and largely ignored the gendered power relations so
central to feminist understandings of the causes and remedies for this
dramatic and systematic violation of women’s human rights.
Though such "semantic operations" (Franco 1991, in
Barrig 1996, 65) or discursive maneuvers on the part of the masculinist
State are hardly surprising in themselves, what is remarkable is
that the majority of Chilean feminists I interviewed in 1997 appeared to
have adopted the term "intra-familial violence" in their own quotidian
discourse and seemed to be deploying it in the larger public debate about
gender inequality. Yet the concrete policy remedies implied in these distinct
representations of this pressing social problem are quite different. Framed
as "violence against women," solutions would necessitate both policy- and
culturally-centered strategies to empower women to resist and transform
(when not leave) violent personal relationships, e.g. providing employment
and educational opportunities for abused women or sheltered temporary housing
for them and their children. An "intra-familial violence" framing, conversely,
might well find greater "resonance" among local policy makers but might
also easily be construed by public authorities and the courts (as has apparently
been the case in Chile) as consonant with local conservative efforts to
bolster the family, to mediate abusive situations so that "loving parents"
can stay together in the interests of "the" family (Gúzman et al.
1999; El Agua Consultores 1997).
While so-called "framing processes" aimed at influencing
policy may well require advocates to "translate" their points of view and
(re)formulate them so they can be comprehended by policy makers (Kyte 1998),
then, it would seem crucial that feminists also "re-translate" the often-problematic
cultural representations of gender power relations embedded in public policies
when "re-framing" and re-deploying their claims in the larger public debate.
Chilean feminist rights advocates apparent failure to do so in the case
of violence against women, I want to suggest, was not only shaped by local
political culture but also may have been reinforced by the activist "logic"
guiding IGO-policy advocacy.
As Vargas herself argues in one of several incisive
retrospective analyses, while "text" and "pretext" were articulated explicitly
in regional organizing for the Beijing preparatory process,
Part of the [local] feminist logic has somehow
gotten ‘stuck’ (enganchada) in the forms of relationship, negotiation,
and alliance building that took place around Beijing. But the relationship
between civil societies and States at the national level are not the same
as at the transnational level . . . In Beijing, the prevailing dynamics
revolved around the search for alliances to ensure that [the Platform for
Action] included what had been advanced [at previous UN conferences] and
left the door open on those issues that were most resisted. To this end,
conciliation, negotiation, and alliances with [government officials] was
key (1998, 13).
But when such practices of conciliation and mutual accommodation
are transferred to the local level, Vargas contends, "they run up against
the [Latin America’s] ‘actually existing democracies’ (or almost non-existent
ones, as in the case of Peru)" (1998, 14). Peruvian feminist Giulia Tamayo
similarly argues that the global women’s lobby’s relative success in Vienna,
Cairo and Beijing seems to have convinced some local feminists that "[w]e
should celebrate the efficacy of negotiating on the terrain of ‘the possible,’
even if what we achieved were essentially rhetorical gains (una puja
argumental.) . . . . It was incumbent upon women’s movements on a local
level to act upon (with? within? from?) political institutions, while holding
in hand the texts of international accords and commitments" (Tamayo 1998,
210). As a consequence, Vargas further insists "[t]he equilibrium between
‘text’ and ‘pretext’ did not resist the confrontation of the global with
the local. [Locally,] the emphasis on the text has prevailed, while strategies
aimed at cultural, symbolic and political transformations have been relegated
to a secondary plane . . ." (1998, 14). Increased involvement in transnationalized
rights advocacy, then, appears to have reinforced a growing tendency among
some local activists to focus almost exclusively on policy-centered activism,
to the actual or potential neglect of the "symbolic," "ludic-cultural"
dimensions of feminism that are bolstered by internationalist identity-solidarity
To counter this tendency, some local feminists have
begun to promote broader and more "contextually appropriate" conceptions
and practices of advocacy which seek to recover those cultural-symbolic
dimensions. At the conclusion of the above-described region-wide advocacy
training project, for instance, the three NGOs coordinating the project,
as well as the majority of "trainees," had decided they needed to "translate"
the narrowly policy-centered conception of advocacy prevailing among Northern-based
"specialists" who operate in liberal national and international policy
arenas. In one of the final project reports, the coordinators redefined
feminist advocacy in ways that emphasized both its policy-focused and wider
We define advocacy as a strategy for strengthening
leaderships—in this case feminist ones—oriented toward the capacity to
argue for and influence political-institutional transformations, in both
the public-social (civil society) and the public-political (the State),
on the basis of specifically feminist contents and proposals. This implies
developing the capacity to broaden both the movement’s social base of support
(strengthening the ‘critical mass’) as well as to generate alliances with
other spaces, movements, and agendas for transformation. Influencing actors
and social, cultural and political institutions is sustained by the mobilization
and consequent amplification of the meanings of democracy and citizenship
in our societies. This strategy, to be effective, requires a long-term
vision, strategic planning, a command of political contexts from a feminist
perspective, and the use and development of specific technical skills (Beyond
Cairo and Beijing 1999, 7-8).
Most of the close to 200 young feminist "cadres" trained
by the project similarly endorsed this resignification of the practices
of advocacy that have prevailed in the Northern-dominated global women’s
lobby. As one put it, "though the definition that they’ve given us—in some
instances—that advocacy refers fundamentally to changes in public policies,
I believe that the feminist proposal concerning advocacy places more emphasis
on changes in social relations, establishing an interconnection between
both levels." (Beyond Cairo and Beijing 1999, 94). Another declared that
though she initially found the concept abstract and foreign, "it has been
mixing with my Latin American mestizaje (mestiza identity), and
I have appropriated it and ascribed it new meaning from Latin America and
from my own experience" (Beyond Cairo and Beijing 1999, 95). These kinds
of translations or local appropriations arguably reflect deliberate efforts
to reconcile the sometimes-contradictory consequences of the two transnational
activist logics for movement practices in the region.
Still, given that the revised Latin American understanding
continued to view advocacy as a highly specialized skill that only a few
activists need master, only a small subset of the region’s "young feminist
leaders" were selected to participate in this training program—with explicit
preference given to those who had played a significant role in the Cairo
and Beijing preparatory and follow-up processes. Participation in transnationalized
feminist advocacy circles, such as the sub-regional Beijing "initiative
groups" or the advocacy training initiative that grew out of the Cairo
and Beijing experiences, then, confers a relatively few actors in local
movement arenas with greater access to political, cultural, and "actual"
capital. The transnational IGO-advocacy logic can therefore "translate"
locally in ways that exacerbate existing power imbalances among activists
In terms of political capital, for instance, local
activists who have learned to navigate in IGO-advocacy circles, by virtue
of their international experience or recognition, often have gained greater
access to national microphones and become the privileged interlocutors
of domestic policy-makers and international donors. With regards to cultural
capital, moreover, those activists with greater formal education and foreign
(particularly English) language skills—typically, then, from locally dominant
racial groups and social classes—have found it easier to transit in official
international public spaces and thereby often have accrued greater political
International funding agencies and private foundations,
moreover, tend to favor larger, already well-resourced, more professionalized
feminist NGOs whose work has measurable "policy relevance" over smaller,
less formalized, typically more grassroots- or identity-solidarity-oriented
movement organizations (Alvarez 1999). Foundation funding not only "introduces
significant asymmetries into [transnational advocacy networks]," as Keck
and Sikkink rightly note (1998a, 182), but also exacerbates power and resource
imbalances among activist organizations on the home front. "Criteria for
funding, such as ‘absorptive capacity’ or ‘financial accountability’,"
not only "may preclude the participation of many NGOs based in the developing
world" (Keck and Sikkink 1998a, 182), it also typically favors local groups
who meet those criteria over those who don’t. As Vargas and Olea suggest,
funding for participation in the Beijing process, for instance,
caused friction when distributed and was more available
to some groups than others . . . [it] created problems with the relationship
between money and decision-making power, with defining strategies and assigning
priority to certain issues or aspects of the agenda as opposed to others.
The difference in power that accompanies inequitable access to resources
also threatens to undermine proposed autonomy, to lessen the visibility
of feminist organizations without financing, to heighten competition for
access to increased funding, and to weaken feminine solidarity as a result
Finally, some of the less-than-inclusive organizing
practices reinforced by the transnational IGO-advocacy logic can lead activists
to sacrifice the anti-hierarchical radical democratic principles, historically
so dear to feminism, at the altar of efficiency and expediency. When "expert
information" needs to be compiled or "negotiating instruments" drafted
in time to lobby for a particular policy change at the local or international
levels, for instance, the "logic" guiding the timing and extent of broader
involvement of or consultations with larger movement constituencies is
determined by the rules or procedures of the UN or local policy-making
arenas—rather than by "principled ideals." Strategic planning meetings,
typically involving only a few movement "representatives" and gender "experts"—so
summarily condemned in the context of internationalist identity-solidarity
exchanges such as the regional Encuentros—prevailed in local activists’
efforts to influence the Beijing process region-wide, for instance. Operating
within the IGO-advocacy logic can make it difficult for transnational advocates
to involve local movement or larger civil society constituencies meaningfully
in their local and international advocacy campaigns and thereby make it
less likely that they will serve as genuine intermediaries between such
constituencies and State and IGO policy arenas.
Though sometimes complimentary or mutually reinforcing,
then, the two transnational activist logics can also clash in local movement
arenas—as when the power conferred upon and capital gained by transnational
IGO advocates is seen by other actors in local movements to threaten the
solidarity and radical democratic ideals held dear by most of the region’s
feminists (including by most of those engaged in transnational IGO advocacy).
The clash between the two transnational logics, moreover, seems to have
further fueled the growing local schism between the so-called "institucionalizadas"
or "institutionalized feminists"—as their critics have dubbed those activists
who in recent years have gone to work in government institutions or focus
their activism on lobbying those official arenas—and the self-proclaimed
"pure" and radical "autónomas" or "autonomous" feminists
who view any involvement with local or international policy arenas as an
automatic capitulation to the forces of "global, neoliberal patriarchy."
This clash, appropriately enough, came to a head
precisely in one of those "alternative international public spaces" so
central to fomenting the bonds of solidarity which made the formation of
transnational advocacy coalitions possible—the VII Latin American and Caribbean
Feminist Encuentro, held in Cartagena, Chile, in November of 1996. During
the often-acrimonious debates at that Encuentro, the autónomas—a
recent, relatively small, but highly vocal political current within the
Latin American feminist field—accused transnationalized, policy-centered
NGOs of having "sold out" the women’s movement to IGOs and local States.
Though the ideal of "identity" among feminists now engaged in very different
kinds of local and transnational practices was shattered once and for all
at the Cartagena Encuentro, the logic of "solidarity" and "complimentarity"
appeared to have kicked back in by the time the Eighth was held in the
Dominican Republic. There, the continual reassessment and re-visioning
of feminisms in the region, historically fostered and reinforced in such
"alternative" transnational spaces, was again in evidence. The Cartagena
debates had by then been re-enacted in a number of other transnational
and local movement arenas. While most participants revealed a newfound
appreciation of some of the pitfalls and contradictions triggered by the
logic of transnationalized policy advocacy, the discussions at Juan Dolio
suggested that the majority of local activists present believed the apparent
clash of organizing logics need not lead to permanent political schisms
and seemed determined to work toward strengthening their mutually complimentary
features in re-imagining Latin American and Caribbean feminisms for the
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