ABSTRACT

How are global norms about gender actually understood and used on the ground? Between 2003 and 2008, we studied the circulation and localization

of women’s human rights ideas and practices in four locations: Beijing, China; Baroda, India; Lima, Peru; and New York City, United States.1

In each site, we compared several women’s rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to see if and how they translated global concepts into local terms. We asked what women’s human rights look like in the day-to-day work of these organizations and sought to explain why different organizations in different contexts translated allegedly universal concepts in distinct ways. We found that, in practice, the discourses of human rights are malleable,

subject to different interpretations and meanings that activists apply to particular problems in specific situations. We call this process vernacularization. Instead of simply applying human rights ideas as articulated in international law and conventions to local situations, the leaders and staff in the organizations we studied redefined and adapted these ideas so that they would be easier to understand and use. They modified aspects of women’s human rights so that they were comprehensible and relevant. Vernacularization on the ground is a process of creating meaning by connecting, in various ways, the discourse of the global with local social justice ideologies, within the context of a particular organizational style and ethos. Our fieldwork revealed three types of vernacularization. The first relied

on the imaginative space created by women’s human rights rather than

the discourse of rights itself. It drew on the aspirational possibilities created by words. Staff did not talk about rights directly in their work but used the momentum and power provided by the backdrop of global discourses about rights to advance their cause. The second type vernacularized ideas. It stretched the boundary of issues considered by women’s groups by using the language of human rights to tackle new issues, thereby expanding the repertoire of what could and should be fought for. In the Indian case, staff used English words and linked them to local narratives and symbols to connect the human rights framework to the struggle for sexuality rights. They appealed to the magic and allure of the West and combined it with a strong claim that these same ideas had deep Indian roots. The third type of vernacularization involves using the core concepts of women’s human rights, articulating them in locally appropriate ways, and putting them into practice. It goes beyond the realm of ideas to the domain of practice. Staff explicitly referenced women’s human rights to encourage the women they worked with to shift their understandings of self and act upon them in familiar and acceptable venues like street plays and community celebrations. Like its second counterpart, this third type of vernacularization expands the range of issues organizations consider but also specifies appropriate technologies, behaviors, and arenas to fight for them. In all three types of vernacularization, the ideas and resources women

used on the ground did not rely directly on the texts of international human rights law or on United Nations (UN) declarations. They did not appeal to international bodies nor did they reference particular articles or sections of conventions. Indeed, we heard very little discussion about the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or the UN apparatus. These organizations use women’s human rights largely as discursive and aspirational resources rather than as legal ones. In fact, a second kind of reworking and adaptation would be needed to move from women’s human rights as a concept for social movement/mobilization to using rights as law. UN Women, the new body that merged four UN women’s agencies, which are the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues (OSAGI) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), might have a special role in advancing this process. In this article, we focus on the case of women’s rights in Peru. The

Peruvian case compellingly illustrates how the pathways through which rights travel strongly influence how and where they circulate. It also

drives home the ways in which vernacularization changes over time, in response to different changing geopolitical conditions.