Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights

Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights

Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights

Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: Gender Violence and Reproductive Rights


In the mid-1990s, when the United Nations adopted positions affirming a woman's right to be free from bodily harm and to control her own reproductive health, it was both a coup for the international women's rights movement and an instructive moment for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to influence UN decision making.

Prior to the UN General Assembly's 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women and the 1994 decision by the UN's Conference on Population and Development to vault women's reproductive rights and health to the forefront of its global population growth management program, there was little consensus among governments as to what constituted violence against women and how much control a woman should have over reproduction. Jutta Joachim tells the story of how, in the years leading up to these decisions, women's organizations got savvy -- framing the issues strategically, seizing political opportunities in the international environment, and taking advantage of mobilizing structures -- and overcame the cultural opposition of many UN-member states to broadly define the two issues and ultimately cement women's rights as an international cause.

Joachim's deft examination of the documents, proceedings, and actions of the UN and women's advocacy NGOs -- supplemented by interviews with key players from concerned parties, and her own participant-observation -- reveals flaws in state-centered international relations theories as applied to UN policy, details the tactics and methods that NGOs can employ in order to push rights issues onto the UN agenda, and offers insights into the factors that affect NGO influence. In so doing, Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs departs from conventional international relations theory by drawing on social movement literature to illustrate how rights groups can motivate change at the international level.


This book started out as one on the emergence of the international women's rights regime. My plans changed, however, when I arrived in New York to gather documents and materials at the United Nations libraries. There, the last preparatory conference for the International Conference on Population and Development was taking place, and in the midst of it women's organizations were busily lobbying and making their presence felt. So I changed my plans. Rather than tracing the evolution of international norms historically, I shifted my focus to what was happening. The events at the UN gave me an opportunity to write about those who had been missing from most of the international relations texts I had been reading: the agents—in this case the members of women's organizations—who are actively shaping international agendas and are involved in crafting new norms.

Little did I know about the challenges ahead. Theoretically, it meant leaving the familiar plain of international relations theory and venturing into the less-well-known terrain of social movement approaches to explore their goodness of fit for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) engaged at the global level. In terms of data collection, the recommendations one generally finds in method books about [how to gain access] did not seem feasible with an organization such as the UN. It took creativity and great patience when I confronted the voicemail of an interview partner for the fifth time or when I learned that an agency had moved and that the boxes with the information I needed would remain unpacked—unless, of course, I would be willing to open, sort through, and file the documents. Also, doing research at the UN sometimes simply required luck, for example, when the person with whom . . .

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