Kate Nash (2015: 127-128) notes that many who oppose women’s rights do so because these are “Western” and “elitist.” The ideals of human rights thus may draw local objections to the type of “cultural relativism” implicitly embedded in reservations. Locals may oppose a universal standard based on their community, religion, or family law, from which they draw immediate support. Likewise, Sally Merry (2006) argues that activists for women’s rights import and apply international norms to bring about changes within nation-states. To be effective, change agents must translate international laws, so they make sense at the local level for individuals in very different cultural contexts and existential situations. Nonetheless, the meanings must stay close to the framings of international law. “Human rights can only work insofar as, drawing on international norms that emphasize the freedom of the individual and the obligations of the state, they are able to disrupt local, established common sense” (Nash 2015: 128).
Nash develops this idea from the work of Radhika Coomaraswamy, who “names the kind of person constructed in international human rights law as ‘the Enlightenment individual’. This is a woman who defines herself as a free, choosing individual rather than through her connection to family, community, or religion. It is also an image with which few women in the world would identify…” (Nash 2015: 128).
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How do these ideas help us understand the role, function, and complexity of NGOs and INGOs? These organizations risk enhancing conflict between women and their local support networks through the unrealistic ideal of the “autonomous Enlightened individual” presupposed by international law. Change agents risk forming an elite cadre that deploys rational and secular bureaucratic strategies to be effective in interactions with global governance and thereby may alienate themselves from the very women they seek to help and serve.
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