What Have We Done To Bodies? Wendy Harcourt’s Reflections On Body Politics
AWID shares highlights from Wendy Harcourt’s new book Body Politics in Development and speaks with the author about the implications of her arguments for women’s rights activists, advocates, academics and development practitioners.
by Masum Momaya
In Body Politics in Development, Wendy Harcourt re-centers what has become invisible through processes of advocacy and action: bodies. Bodies that are reproductive, productive and caring, violated, sexualized and rendered through technologies.
As Harcourt points out, historically, women’s experiences of their bodies, whether violated, exploited or commodified, have long catalyzed their political engagement; and, in aggregate, “body politics [has been] a key mobilizing force for human rights over the last few decades” (p. 24).
Harcourt argues that unpacking and understanding body politics is particularly important because, in the process of bringing women’s multiple needs and concerns into the development discourse, female bodies have often been essentialized and robbed of their agency - even within the global women’s movement.
To curtail this in the future, Harcourt takes both a retrospective and prospective look at how bodies are taken up in gender and development discourses and practices - and suggests self-reflective, alternate approaches that seek to re-center embodied experiences in development processes and policymaking, without essentializing them.
In Body Politics in Development, the author organizes her discussions of how the female body has been and is positioned in gender and development discourses into five categories of bodies: reproductive bodies, productive bodies, violated bodies, sexualized bodies and techno-bodies. For each category, she traces both how the body is positioned and what this means for activists and advocates working on various issues.
Below are highlights of Harcourt’s arguments for each of the five categories, accompanied by a partial list of organizations** that are working with alternate approaches.
Historically, policymakers and practitioners have tied the agency, experiences and needs of women to their biological abilities to give birth and their social roles as mothers. In the developing world, women have been targeted as sites of medical and social intervention in policies aimed at curbing population growth.
By the 1980s, neoliberal policies were undermining the reproductive health agenda. Pressured to invest more in growing their economies by international lending institutions, governments in developing countries cut back on spending for social welfare, including health and education. Resources for ensuring reproductive health diminished.
After decades of lobbying by feminist activists, by the mid-1990s, the Cairo Programme of Action represented a shift from a longstanding paradigm focused on population control to one that emphasized reproductive rights. Gains were made in terms of reproductive rights agendas, which viewed women as subjects with agency rather than simply as sites of intervention, but social and economic inequities related to reproductive rights and health remained unchallenged and unaddressed.
Yet, in the late 1990s, women’s rights activists were, for the most part, left out of the construction of the Millennium Development Goals, a set of priorities adopted by United Nations member states to spur development. The Cairo language, based in autonomy and rights, was replaced by technocratic language focused on service provision. An example of this is the emphasis on reducing maternal mortality.
Currently, given the paucity of government money available for service provision almost everywhere in the world, most services have been privatized, opening up a commercial market for biomedical goods and services and potential exploitation of women’s bodies. This includes, for example, the provision of health-related information by corporations rather than governments or civil society organizations and the testing and “dumping” of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines for disease prevention and treatment.
Some feminist and women’s rights organizations are fighting for an approach based in autonomy and rights in which structural inequities, as well as legacies of racism, homophobia, fundamentalism and militarism are considered and addressed.
Examples of Organizations Working From Alternate Approaches
African Partnership for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls (AMANITARE)
Articulacion Feminista Marcosur
Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
Catholics for Choice
Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR)
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)
International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC)
Reproductive Health Outlook (RHO)
SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective
Historically, development practitioners and policymakers highlighted women’s economic contributions in order to position them as agentic subjects in development processes rather than simply as passive recipients of aid. International lending institutions such as International Monetary Fund and World Bank began to view making “investing in women” as important to furthering development and achieving returns on loans and investments. Interestingly, recent language from the United Nations, governments and even NGOs has paralleled this, emphasizing that women are “good investments” in business, government and development projects.
In some cases, this rhetoric reaffirms that “poor women from the South are a source of globally flexible, docile and cheap labor” (p. 69) and that women are valuable as sources of free labor and producers of goods that bring money into economies - but not necessarily as human beings, in and of themselves, with human rights.
Alternatives to this rhetoric include a rights-based approach, in which women and all people are seen as bearers of rights with intrinsic value. Also, community economies, whereby producers and consumers are local and means of exchange can be more closely monitored, provide alternatives to exploitative global production chains where women are trapped in a “race to the bottom.” Furthermore, transnational feminist solidarities, especially amongst workers organizing across borders and economies, serve to resist this rhetoric and its accompanying exploitative practices.
Examples of Organizations Providing Alternatives to the “Investing in Women” Rhetoric
Over the last half-century, sexual and gender-based violence has been mainstreamed into gender and development discourse through its framing as a health issue, causing organizations such as the World Health Organization and government ministries of health to pay attention to it as part of achieving health outcomes.
This framing raised the visibility of multiple forms sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence, rape, femicide and honor killings, amongst organizations and the general public, sometimes through shock. It also catalyzed a charity approach, in which people acted and donated to “help poor, pitiful victims over there in that remote, primitive part of the world.” This approach often supplanted an approach that holds perpetrators, governments and legal systems accountable for human rights violations or allows or recognizes agency for those who have been violated.
Furthermore, celebrities made the issue visible via films and campaigns for NGOs. In considering these campaigns, Harcourt wonders if there is a “risk of confusing real life misery and tragedy with the glamour and fictional lives of the stars? (p. 103) And, she asks, “are we just adding one more story to a billion dollar industry based on violence and sexism?” (p. 106)
Moreover, recently, military aggression has been justified in the “guise of protecting subjugated women and bringing civilization and prosperity to natives who are unable to govern autonomously” (p. 115) as is the case of the United States’ military intervention in Afghanistan.
Alternatives to solely health-based, celebrity-driven, charity-oriented approaches to sexual and gender-based violence include rights-based approaches that recognize longstanding legacies of power and domination across lines of gender, socioeconomic status, membership in religious communities, nationality and global positioning.
Examples of Organizations Employing a Rights-Based Approach to Counter Gender-Based Violence
African Partnership for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women and Girls (AMANITARE)
Articulacion Feminista Marcosur
INCITE Women of Color Against Violence
Pathways of Women’s Empowerment
Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Within development discourse, black and brown bodies are sexualized and characterized as needing to be saved, rescued and re-educated, e.g. in discussions around FGM and prostitution. Sex, particularly amongst those in the Global South, has been articulated as problematic, i.e. “people are having too much sex,” “people are having unprotected sex,” and “people are engaging in nonconformative sexual practices.” These opinions have validated and legitimated intensified regulation of bodies and sexual practices and harnessed anxieties about sex.
Some governments and NGOs based in the Global North, sometimes in conjunction with some religious institutions in the Global South, have pushed to enact policies that, according to Harcourt, “further advance imperialist ambitions,” for example the George W. Bush administration’s Global Gag rule.
Activists have been working to reclaim the subjectivity of their own sexuality. For example, sex worker rights movements speak of “selling sex as a livelihood choice through which people have agency, including the right to self-determination, to work and to self-express” (p. 141). Some of them fight for erotic justice. According to Harcourt, erotic justice “recasts sexual pleasure as a source of physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual well-being;
instead of othering traditional practices or sexual minorities, [it] conceptualizes everyone as having potential for diversity in sexual desire, including same-sex desire” (p. 154)
Through technologies, bodies are fragmented and commodified. The process of development often entails delivering technologies in ways that are racist, gendered and heteronormative. An underlying assumption is that if money and skills are available, inserting high-tech solutions into the mix is the best option to address any problem, regardless of ethical and environmental consequences. In most cases, given global power inequities, developing countries have no choice but to embrace these technologies if they want to build successful economies.
With the advent of new methods of research and intellectual property laws, life and life forms (e.g. seeds, genes, etc.) are privatized and can be owned. Common heritage is no longer off-limits to either commercial or scientific interests seeking exclusive control.
Moreover, biotechnology has made the entire notion of the body more fluid. A new eugenics and enabling of building the perfect self, body and abilities labels any deviations as deficient. Further research is needed to unpack the gendered dimensions of rapidly developing technologies.
Harcourt asks, “what are the responsibilities of companies, scientists, policymakers and the public in the global north towards poor women and men in the global south who are bearing the brunt of the unregulated and unethical practices of biotech research and industry?” (p. 188-189)
Examples Organizations Monitoring the Technologization of Bodies through a Feminist Lens
Center for Genetics and Society
Committee on Women, Population and the Environment
The Corner House
Population and Development Program at Hampshire College
Related AWID Resources
Factsheet on Why New Technology is a Women’s Rights Issue
Factsheet on Facing the Challenges of New Reproductive Technologies
Factsheet on Nanotechnology
Factsheet on Gender Equality and New Technologies
In conversation with AWID, Wendy Harcourt reflects on what her analysis means in practice for women’s rights advocates.
Given the current ways in which bodies are taken up in development discourse and practice, are there particular issues and conversations that women’s rights activists should monitor and be trying to influence?
Issues to watch for include the continued backlash around abortion rights, and the increase in gender based violence linked to militarism, fundamentalism and racism. We also need to make the links with LGBT issues. It is very important to break down fears of differences and help challenge heterosexual dominance, however one self-identifies.
Similarly, it is vital to link our analysis with environmental issues. This is where technology and science need to be taken up more seriously as a feminist issues, as they are deeply linked to economic injustice and to body politics. Climate change is a buzzword these days, but climate injustice has huge implications for all of our lives, and we are somewhat innocent in our engagement with it.
Do you see gender and development discourses, and body politics more specifically, shifting amidst this current global economic and financial crisis?
I think self-reflective gender and development dialogue can defeat neoliberal thinking. We need to find ways to sustainable development not solely focused on economic growth. The current financial and climate crises open up the space to rethink economic imperatives, and we need to bring into these spaces what we have learnt as feminists in and out of the gender and development discourses around body politics. Here, I think the term “care crisis” could be a very useful one to take up as a key way to bring in our issues around economic injustice as well as body politics and to recognize women’s power and oppression at the crossroads of production and reproduction.
Finally, what do you hope this book will achieve in terms of supporting women's rights activism in the areas you identify?
I wrote the book to find my voice, and in doing so, support women’s rights activism by providing a herstory of what we’ve done. I wanted to put in writing what we have collectively been doing and therefore value it, and not lose the insider stories of all the important achievements of women’s rights organizations. But, though celebratory, the book also questions my own work along with others who work around the margins of development. It asks what our work has achieved and why it is relevant.
I also wanted to break down divisions of analytical knowledge, practical knowledge and knowledge for advocacy. There is an assumption that what is useful to feminists is what is practical or useful for advocacy. My point is precisely that our work needs to be built on self-reflection and analysis to be useful. I have learnt a lot from women who see themselves as hands-on people, and yet as they shape their programmes, they are analyzing and thinking through their every day practice and politics. Similarly, I learn from academics who step back and put feminist scholarship into conversations within the practical aspects of feminist movements.
For more information about Body Politics in Development, see Wendy Harcourt’s website.
** We have only provided a partial list of organizations working from alternate approaches. If you are part of an organization that works from alternate approaches mentioned and is not listed here, please email email@example.com if you would like to be included in our links directory on awid.org.