VIEWPOINT: Rights, Policies and Politics for Gender Justice in an Unjust World: Researching and Resisting

VIEWPOINT: Rights, Policies and Politics for Gender Justice in an Unjust World: Researching and Resisting

Paula Campos Pinto

In current times, the, often astonished, world is witnessing the rise of political regimes shaped by neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, right-wing populism and fundamentalism, but also the emergence of new forms of social protest and resistance. How do feminist and LGBTI struggles for social justice, sexual and reproductive rights, and equality fit into this wider global landscape, and what specific contradictions and obstacles do they face?

Structuring the argument along three axes – rights, politics and resistance – we will seek to develop this reflection throughout this article. Rather than finding answers, it is our goal to raise critical questions about the meaning of these new forms of social inequality and injustice that are emerging structured around the gender category, and the role of academia and knowledge in resisting them.

Much of the struggle against male domination, homophobic practices, racism and misogyny is today expressed in struggles for and the conquest of human rights, but the question is to understand, on the one hand, what are the possibilities and, on the other, what are the limits of these struggles and achievements that have rights as their expression?

The issue of gender equality is obviously at the heart of the UN human rights values and project, and has been taken up in the Sustainable Development Goals. A fundamental principle of the Charter of Fundamental Rights is ‘the equality between men and women’, and the protection of women’s rights as the States’ responsibility.

Moreover, it is now widely recognized that girls and women do not form a homogeneous group and that it is therefore important to focus on those who are most marginalized due to intersectional forms of discrimination in consequence of factors such as their age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic status. It is also recognized that human beings embrace a broad spectrum of gender identities, and to this extent the concept of gender equality must become broad and include, not only heterosexual women and men, but also lesbians and gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and all other non-binary people.

Despite an undeniable path taken to achieve rights, for example women’s rights, it is certain that:

  • Millions of women around the world continue to be discriminated against by laws and policies prohibiting their equal access to land, property and housing;
  • Social and economic discrimination persists by limiting their life choices and pushing them to situations of poverty where they become more vulnerable to human trafficking;
  • Gender violence, according to the United Nations, continues to affect 30% of women worldwide;
  • Sexual and reproductive rights are denied to women in many parts of the world;
  • Women’s crucial role in peace and security is overlooked, as are the increased risks they face in conflict situations.

Yet, none of this is new.

Nor is new the transnational movement that links discourses of national, ethnic and racial identity with ‘crusades’ against the so-called ‘gender ideology’, made in the name of the values of Christian civilization. Crusades that demonize and oppose gender equality, oppose feminist and LGBTI activism as well as the rights of transgender people, same-sex marriage and women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

What seems new, in certain contexts, is the populist right’s appropriation of the language of rights precisely to advance an agenda that is profoundly anti-gender and, to that extent, profoundly destructive of rights – e.g. the populist right in Nordic countries and its arguments around the right to choose ‘not to have an abortion’; or when children’s rights to protection and security are invoked to state that gender ideology  ‘sexualizes children’ and facilitates pedophilia!

On the other hand, it is important to stress that in order to ensure human rights de facto, and not just in theory, up-to-date and in-depth knowledge of the structures and power relations that shape laws and policies, social and economic dynamics, economic, family and community life, is absolutely necessary.

At a recent international meeting of UN experts to discuss challenges and good practices in mainstreaming gender in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, four areas of action were listed, among which the first one was:

  • Improve monitoring of the progress achieved by enhancing the development of statistics and indicators disaggregated by gender and other gender identities;

We know, for example, that there is a large gap in research and disaggregated data on women, but even more on LGBTI people or women with disabilities around the world which, is yet another inhibiting factor in protecting and promoting their human rights.  According to World Bank data, only about 5% of the small budget devoted to LGBTI issues is spent on research. The same is true for women with disabilities, migrant women, refugees, or ethnic and religious minorities. More robust data on income disparities and poverty levels, health disparities and inequalities in access to health care, violence and abuse, access to education and decent work, and civic and political participation, to name but a few areas, is essential for informing more effective policies in promoting rights, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable, at both national and international levels. And this brings me to the second axis.

We now know very well that public policy in general, and social protection programmes and services in particular, can help transform unequal power relations, particularly between men and women. Social policies, for example, are key to freeing women from responsibilities, time and work spent on social reproduction.

In the global context women’s social reproduction work involves a very wide range of activities – in the poorer countries of the Global South it falls upon women, from a very young age, to undertake very difficult but essential tasks for family survival such as walking for kilometers on dirty roads to fetch water. But even in the EU-27 countries, including Portugal, as our recent research has shown (Torres et al., 2018), Women continue to devote more time to domestic and care work than men – and this despite the fact that the dual full-time earner couple model is the standard today in this region of the globe, with the exception of two countries – Germany and the Netherlands. In Portugal, our data showed, for example, that between the ages of 15 and 29, women devote almost twice as many hours as men  (32 hours to 17 hours) to either taking care of their family or doing domestic work, and that this female overload persists in the subsequent stages of life.

What our study has also shown is that work-family balance policies in most European countries (the Nordic countries are the exception) have focused on fostering female employability as a goal to ensure the sustainability of social security systems and economic growth, while neglecting gender equality issues. In most countries, these policies overemphasized the emancipatory aspects of paid work, but ignored the value of caring work, reifying liberal and individualistic values of personal choice, rather than seeking to make structural and more effective changes.

Women, however, save a lot of time and gain the opportunity to develop paid work on a more equal footing with men when childcare and care services are public, universally accessible and exempt or of low cost. Public policies and services also provide women with opportunities when they secure well-paid jobs, access to trade unions through which they can organize to achieve broader economic and social change and better social protection.

However, in the neoliberal era – and we understand neoliberalism here as Wendy Brown described it, that is, “as a process of saturation of democracy with market values” (2015: 9), the potential of public services to promote equality for women and other vulnerable groups by their sexual orientation or gender identity is being threatened by privatisation, which often results in more expensive and poorer quality services, with user-fees that destroy the universality of services, more precarious jobs and lower wages.

In the face of these neoliberal policies the question that emerges is to understand how are we resisting? This is the third aspect I will address in this paper.

Politics and resistance
First, it must be said that the word resistance can take on a double meaning, and can be understood, say, from both sides of the barricade.

We can, on the one hand, talk about resistance to change, resistance to acceptance of gender equality as a common value and common good. Margaert and Lombardo identified that these resistance processes may take individual or institutional forms, such as individual action (or inaction) or a repeated and collectively orchestrated pattern of actions / inactions; Resistance processes can also be either formal or informal, depending on whether they are based on rules and regulations, or appeal to symbolic and cultural dimensions. Certainly, these categories often interpenetrate, but the symbolic dimension that is contained in today’s anti-gender and anti-ideology discourses seems nowadays paramount.

At the same time we are witnessing the emergence of new forms of resistance, on this side of the barricade, or of the counter-resistances, of the politics of gendered, racialised and sexualised ‘bodies in resistance’ (Harcour, 2017); a resistance that takes place on the streets, in communities, in homes, which unfolds in shouts and silences and which we find in social media and marginal places, when people and groups fight for their rights, for their territories, for their physical integrity and their survival.

These struggles and resistances are intended to overthrow the hegemonic forces and established hierarchies, because as Gramsci has taught us, if power is omnipresent, it is always relational and negotiated, and we are all potential agents of resistance. Or, as Sylvia Walby has pointed out, inequality systems are always simultaneously ‘stable’ and ‘fragile’, and to that extent also, if on the one hand institutionalised, at the same time, permeable to change.

What then are these spaces and opportunities for resistance? What configuration and settings should they take? What alliances and coalitions are possible or desirable?

And is there also a space for academia? In analysing the struggles for social justice and rights, we certainly perceive resistance in current actions and strategies to challenge the manifestations of hegemonic power, but can we not also perceive resistance in efforts to understand the conditions under which such power is produced and reproduced? It seems to me that, in order to deal with these new challenges, we need to better understand the lived experiences of those who engage in these struggles for democratic power and capture the fluidity of current conceptualisations and understandings of identities, bodies and power relations, in the complex contemporary world.

On the other hand, what are the dangers and limits of anchoring these struggles and resistances in the discourse of rights? Does having a right as a woman, as trans, as lesbian or gay, truly free us from the subordinate position of this gender identity? Or does it rewrite this designation, and while protecting us, allows and perpetuates other forms of regulation over these bodies?

Yet if rights that address the specificity of identity and gender inequality risk enclosing us in that identity, defined by a place of subordination, do not those who neglect this specificity support the invisibility of this subordination and even enforce it? How then to overcome this paradox? Or rather, how can we integrate these paradoxical elements of the struggle for rights and counter-resistance into an emancipatory context that articulates a field of social justice that, as Wendy Brown wrote, ‘cannot be undesirable’?

Finally, if the present moment is one of discouragement, almost despair, what gaps, what vulnerabilities, what opportunities can we foresee to create spaces to design more progressive, inclusive and democratic alternatives?  That is, I believe, where we need to place our efforts and hopes.

Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolut. New York: Zone books.
Harcourt, Wendy. 2017. Bodies in resistance: Gender and Sexual Politics in the Age of Neoliberalism. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Torres, Anália (Coord.), Pinto, Paula Campos, Costa, Dália, Coelho, Bernardo, Maciel, Diana, Reigadinha, Tânia, Theodoro, Ellen. 2018. Igualdade de género ao longo da vida: Portugal no contexto europeu. Lisboa: Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos.


Paula Campos Pinto holds a PhD in Sociology from York University, Toronto, Canada and a MSc in Family Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. She is an Associate Professor at the School for Social and Political Sciences of the University of Lisbon and a joint coordinator at the Interdisciplinary Center on Gender Research (CIEG). She is also the founder and coordinator of the Observatory on Disability and Human Rights (, a platform that brings together academics, disability organizations and decision-makers to support disability Research, including from a gender perspective. Her research interests focus on intersectionality, social policy and gender equality.