by Mariana Rodrigues Meriqui
On September 10th, 2016, at the AWID Forum, held in Costa do Sauípe (Bahia,Brazil), SPW (Sexuality Policy Watch), in collaboration with CAL – Coalition of African Lesbians, CONECTAS Human Rights, DAWN – Development Alternative with Women for a New Era –, organized a session/workshop entitled ‘Emerging Powers, gender, sexuality and human rights. The main objective of this session was to deepen and share insights about the implications of global political and economic shifts, more specifically manifested in the formation of new geopolitical blocks, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and its correlation with the politics of gender, sexuality and human rights.
The session shared the results of the latest round of analyses developed by SPW, a global research project that examined the dynamic of the so called emergence in the four global South countries, namely Brazil, China, India and South Africa (Russia was not included because, among other reasons, it does not fit into this category). This research effort unfolded from previous initiatives: the project SexPolitics: Reports from the Frontlines (2004-2007) and the Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and (Geo) Politics in Asia, Latin America and Africa, developed by SPW (2009-2014). [links]
The session examined how the geopolitical shifts implied in the articulation of these global South countries in new blocs, especially the BRICS, has generated expectations that this emergence of “powers from the South” would eventually open up space for new platforms for the political work on sexuality, gender and human rights, that would not be caught by overlapping North-South tensions (or post-colonial effects) that perennially cross these fields of debate. Thus, the session looked into if and how gender and sexuality dimensions are or not manifested in dynamics of emergence of new geopolitical blocks, exactly because these realms are not visible in the analyses and discourses deployed by mainstream actors who are reflecting on the phenomenon, research institutes, scholars, economists, international relations analysts or even non-governmental organizations.
One first observation made in the discussion was that the emergence itself and the formation of the BRICS is a vast and complex object to be interpreted even from an economic or development point of view as it encompasses a wide range of economic exchanges and bilateral, multilateral and cooperation agreements. This examining is still more challenging and complex gender and sexuality are added to this churn.
A second reflection developed in the session was that while, on the one hand gender and sexuality, are not seen as relevant topics is the official BRICS speeches or related media and academic analyses, suffice to look more closely at the block formal photos and state advertisement materials to realize that gender and sexuality can not exactly been circumvented when these new economic configurations are critically examined. This is blatant in the discomfort expressed by Dilma in some photos and most principally in Putin’s body language in practically all BRICS Summit, photos. The same can be said of a recent video released by the Chinese government that projects blatant expressions of masculinity femininity or else an India video calling for the transformation of the nation, which circulated few years ago in which a peculiar expression of stern masculinity overlaps with the road towards development.
Another important aspects highlighted in the debate was the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) of the BRICS, announced as alternative to existing multilateral financial organizations, and whose model is based on the frame of national development banks as, such as BNDS in Brazil. Although the new bank code of ethics include references to valuing diversity and creating an enabling environment for gender equality, in fact and in practice, the policy guidelines so far presented by NDB are not people-centered and human rights centered, but grossly prioritize, once again, conventional economic goals. The loans already approved by the bank are all in area of infrastructure projects such as new energy sources, solar panels and data transmission platforms. The mention to the promotion of equity in the principle documents does not mean that this will be translated to practice. Given that, the involvement and active participation of civil society in discussions around the NDB is now crucial as to establish some form of social control over the policies that will be implemented by the institution, whose current portfolio does not include much beyond conventional development projects?
Then, an observation exercise of the BRICs and emerging powers was proposed in which the participants were invited to create a visual representation of the block. The resulting visual representations while very diverse emphasize, however, that the geopolitical reconfiguration may appear to be already established, but in fact it is a process underway. It is still in shift. The images also indicated that the meanings and effects of the block must be examined beyond the five countries themselves. For example, will recent changes of government in Latin America that point towards increasingly conservatism and a strong neoliberal component in the design of internal and external policies affect the BRICS? Another aspect underlined was growing presence of large Chinese capitals – or more recently Gulf companies in the construction of mega-projects in Latin America and Africa. This trends were depicted by some participants are as “monstrous shadow” of the BRICS when looked through a social and environmental justice lens. This understanding suggests that we cannot dodge the question whether the BRICs are or not the expression of a new imperialist cycle, especially in the case of African countries.
To gather knowledge and find venues of participation and is therefore vital for resisting the potential impacts of this new formations in terms of re-trenched expressions of national sovereignty, the role of Southern based transnational enterprises, continuity of neoliberal economic policies and most principally the debilitation of social policies, in articulation with aspect relating to human rights, gender and sexuality. This means critically examining the new geopolitical formations both in terms of labor rights and access to land and water and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
These reflections indicate that we must think of BRICS not only as a formation of national states in the global South, but as a complex conglomerate that articulates state and capitalist forces from both South and North, whose potential effect is to deepen inequalities. It also implies to understand that even if China occupies a central place in the BRICS formation it is just a key a cog in the global production and consumption chain. China does not only intensively consume natural resources from other Southern countries. What is produced by Chinese industry is consumed everywhere. Suffice to check where your cell phone was manufactured. We must also recall that BRICS member countries comprises a substantial portion of the world population and are themselves traversed by internal inequalities that combine class, gender, race / ethnicity inequities and are determined by sexuality.
Last but not least the AWID session called attention to the heterogeneities amongst BRICS countries. For example, what does it mean for South Africa to be part of the BRICS given its complex post-apartheid political context and when the country projects itself as an emerging power in Africa. Or what does it mean to the South African BRICS agenda the glaring facts that sharp economic inequality persists, or the high incidence of rape and HIV/AIDS.
Or, what do mean the BRICS, or perhaps China, for Brazil in the Temer era, either from the economic point of view or from the perspective of a human rights, gender and sexuality agendas. If nothing else because we do know that the forces that are now politically hegemonic in the country have gained space and power by openly attacking these agendas. It should be also noted that the recent illegitimate shift of leadership in Brazil, does not seem to be cause for concern for China. As soon and the impeachment Dilma Roussef took place, the Chinese government, published a full-page ad in Folha de São Paulo whose text begun with the affirmation that relationship between China and Brazil has not been and will not be among governments, but it fundamentally based on structural and strategic long term cooperation. This implies entirely sidelining politics and we should ask what exactly these terms – structural and strategic – mean.
Finally in the case of India it is not possible to think of BRICS without situating the recent economic emergence of the country in relation to renewed constructs and of charismatic masculinity imbricated with ideologies of strength and sovereignty, presently embodied in the figure of the Prime Minister. It can be said perhaps that with the recent removal of the president Dilma, the BRICS brand is taken back fully back to masculinity and power.
Among the many learning of the session, the most significant is perhaps the call for thinking of BRICS as a complex assemblage that combines in paradoxical ways capitalism, sovereignty and nationalist discourses, strong traces of militarism and various forms of the political return of the religious. But from whatever angle this formation is examined gender sexual politics cannot be circumvented.
Check SPW reports and video on Emerging Powers, Sexuality and Human Rights