International Handbooks on Gender series
Edited by Jill Steans and Daniela Tepe
Chapter 17: Gender and international law
International law has been slow to pay attention to the concept of gender. To some extent this reflects the power of the traditional account of law: in contrast to politics, goes the legal story, the law offers an objective and impartial system of reasoning about problems, distinct from the actual biases of human decision-makers. International institutions have adopted a range of legal instruments relating to women’s rights, most notably the 1979 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), but there was no discussion of gender in the international legal system as a whole until the last two decades. Feminist voices began to emerge in international law in the early 1990s. They were inspired by a broad range of feminist scholarship, but the most immediate influences were those of feminist international relations (IR) specialists, such as Cynthia Enloe, V. Spike Peterson, Jan Jindy Pettman and J. Ann Tickner. These scholars provided perspectives that helped international lawyers unpack the gendered building blocks of international law, including the state, sovereignty, conflict and peace. Feminist IR theorists also pointed to the relationship of gender to other forms of power, such as race, nationality and class, and paid attention to the way that relations of power are constructed between diverse groups of women. This scholarship offered international lawyers the tools, and the inspiration, to challenge the claim that international law offers a rational, detached, universal form of justice.
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