Feminists want system change!
What do we want?
One of our mottos is the demand for system change. However, as ecofeminists working towards transformation, we dance on a tightrope: we juggle the expectations of underpaid work and unpaid care work, and deal with the slow or immediate impact of climate disasters. Simultaneously, we imagine – and fight for – genuine structural change.
Feminist writer Irmtraud Morgner described this vividly in The life and adventures of Trobadora Beatrice: to manage all her gendered responsibilities and interests, the protagonist spun a tightrope across her city to be able to move quickly and efficiently.
What do we mean by system change?
Actually, a myriad of interlocked structurally violent systems must change.
Patriarchy and racism permeate how we live and work. It is an acknowledged statistic that no country, no society has achieved gender equity. Women and girls in all their diversity face exploitation in financial terms - pay, lifetime earnings, pensions- , in access to quality education and health, in politics, when it comes to time poverty, and even in their bodily autonomy. In acute crises, women and girls face hunger and malnutrition – in part because of patriarchal patterns. Care work rests on our shoulders – the actual, never-ending tasks, and their mental load. Global care chains and globalised labour markets compound these glaring inequities in the systematic exploitation of racialised women and of disadvantaged castes.
Neocolonialism and extractivism exploit people and the planet. There are old and new colonialist powers, global and regional hegemons, who via their hierarchical power systems, and solely for their own economic and political benefit, perpetuate land grabs, mine the earth and the oceans for resources, pollute the planet with fossil fuels and nuclear power plants, and destroy it with military weapons. Weaker countries, indigenous communities, non-conforming groups, children and future generations are victims of this. Women and girls are massively impacted as a direct consequence of climate change, in manifold forms of gender-based violence. The rights of nature are violated. In 2021, more than 300 human and environmental rights defenders were murdered – the most open form of systematic violence.
Hypercapitalism at national and international levels is the driver of all these processes. We tend to blame neoliberal policies for the inequities, but one could argue that it was the requirements of expanding and then globalising national capitalisms that bred the neoliberal approach in the 1980s in the first place, enabling the unleashing of structural violence. In the interest of hyper-capitalism, governments adopted thousands of bi- and plurilateral investment agreements, agreed to unequitable trade deals, built unregulated industrial processing zones and industrialised agriculture. Business stretched its global production chains ever deeper, defying core human rights, labour and environmental standards. Most of the world’s adult population works in the so-called informal economy, often void of social or environmental decency standards. Wealth inequalities are at the highest rate in decades, as is the number of persons – 100 million - forcibly displaced from their homes and livelihoods. At least 160 million children are labourers, partly because their parents or caregivers cannot earn sufficient incomes, and have minimal or no access to any form of social protection. Many households now in addition face rampant inflation, due at least as much to profitable corporate price markups and misguided monetary policies as it is to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or various supply chain bottlenecks.
Neoliberalism tore down governance structures, undermined tax systems, turned a blind eye on illicit capital flows, and privatised core public goods, including education, health and access to drinking water. As a result, many systems have now succumbed to the unfettered generation and private accumulation of profit. After decades of hyper-capitalism and neoliberalism, governments face unserviceable debt levels – over 50 countries might default under current international financial rules. The International Financial Institutions are nevertheless prescribing that these countries intensify fiscal austerity – sacrificing the rights of the lowest income groups, the socially and politically excluded, to public goods and services and to social protection. This further deepens the global and national-level gendered disparities
These structural violences must be addressed. The systems must change.
Systems change: how do we get it?
For this, we need to argue, convince and fight at multiple levels: in our families, communities, workplaces, our countries and regions, and also at the global level. That is another tightrope balancing act, and we are already strung thinly across so many arenas and processes. Nevertheless, we need the multilateral negotiating venues at the UN, including
- The rights-based processes at the Human Rights Council with many of the outspoken special rapporteurs as our allies: the Universal Periodic Reviews and the reporting on the Conventions such as the CEDAW, the CRC, the CERD, the Convention on migration, and many others – where we can advocate for social justice;
- The country reports on the ILO fundamental conventions as well as the tripartite ILO talks on new conventions, such as that on harassment at work - where we can advocate for economic justice;
- The “Rio conventions” conferences (COPs)– notably under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity - where we can advocate for climate justice;
- The non-binding yet normative processes under the UN General Assembly, such as the movement for an eco-social contract, the efforts towards an international tax cooperation framework or instrument, or the annual reviews of Agenda 2030 with its SDGs - where we can show how all the systems are actually interdependent.
Each of these venues are institutionally and geographically disconnected, so that monitoring them as civil society is extremely money-, time-, knowledge-, emotions- and energy-intensive. Moreover, progress at the multilateral level is often microscopic, and the actual claiming of rights then needs to happen in persistent, tedious, often contentious further actions at local levels.
Systems change: when do we want it? Now!
Perhaps this is too high a tightrope: but perhaps one venue that could conceivably tackle several systems in one effort could be the negotiations on a binding treaty for business and human rights at the UN Human Rights Council. The remit here is to create a normative order that would regulate the world economy and its global production chains. It could rein in hyper-capitalism by setting agreed and monitorable standards for human rights, labour rights, climate and environmental rights. Its current draft puts the rights-holders into the centre, and underlines the rights of human rights defenders. It includes a reference to the UN’s Guiding Principles which require that a “gender lens” be applied because “women and girls experience adverse impacts of business activities differently and often disproportionately.”
Could this particular negotiation bundle our energies? An obligatory global agreement on business and human rights will not come about easily nor change the system instantaneously - but perhaps it would help us walk the tightrope more quickly, efficiently – and successfully.