The Emergence of a Global Gender Equality Regime

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INTRODUCTION

International regimes embody mutually accepted principles and practices on which there is, for the most part, compliance. Thus, a regime constitutes a high level of acceptance by states and comes close to international law. Gender issues have recently emerged as a global concern, but scholars have not yet asked whether there is a global gender equality regime or, if there is, how it can be identified, how it arose, and how it is being implemented.

Since the early 1980s, gender equality has received unprecedented attention at international forums. There is a growing international understanding that gender equality is a prerequisite to achieving human and sustainable development. Over the past quarter century, the United Nations has convened five world conferences on women's issues: Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), Beijing (1995), and New York (2000). Each marked a stage in a process that has raised gender equality to the centre of the global agenda.(1) Together they underscored the fact that women lag behind in virtually all aspects of life (education, health, literacy, access to income, labour markets, and so on) and established platforms of action to promote gender equality.(2) They also provided a platform for women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and global women's networks to lobby for a gender perspective in development policies and strategies. The cross-cutting coalitions they generated from all classes and economic groups from North and South have had an unprecedented and indisputable effect on changing awareness and programmes for women in many countries.(3)

In the two decades between Mexico City and Beijing, gender equality has been embodied in an international legal instrument, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which entered into force in 1981 and has been ratified by 169 countries - more than two-thirds of the members of the United Nations.(4) Signature of CEDAW, the various platforms of action, and other regional conventions constitute a set of norms and rules related to gender equality. Some states have established national women's mechanisms on gender issues (bureaucracies, departments, policies, and programmes) and some have changed laws and policies to follow up on global commitments. Together these actions point to the possibility of a regime.

Fields as diverse as international financial exchanges, security, and climate change have tried in recent years to utilize 'regimes' to address global problems.(5) They have drawn on a wide literature on the factors that lead to regime formation, affect regime maintenance, and determine how regimes can be utilized to address global problems in the future.(6) International relations scholars are also exploring the tensions and contradictions among normative principles in international life and how states are embedded in dense networks of transnational and international relations that shape their perceptions and their preferences. But, surprisingly, even though there is an extensive literature on global women's networks and the role of the United Nations as an ally, gender issues have not been systematically explored from the perspective of international regimes.

IDENTIFYING A GENDER REGIME

One could examine the rise and maintenance of a gender equality regime in terms of both its legal instruments and compliance mechanisms and its underlying normative principles, that is, the tensions and contradictions of gender equality that have begun to shape perceptions and preferences of states.

Virtually all discussions of international regimes proceed from Stephen Krasner's 'consensus definition' in which regimes are 'implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given area of international relations. Principles are beliefs of fact, causation and rectitude. Norms are standards of behavior defined in terms of rights and obligations. …