Photo: Evandro Sudré

There is broad agreement in international development on the higher incidence of women amongst the global poor and on the role that gender inequalities play in women's poverty. Yet there is little understanding of the role complex legal pluralities play in producing gendered forms of poverty. Since the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, international law on the human rights of women has become entrenched in development practice. Rights-based approaches to development assume that the strengthening of respect for human rights through national law will contribute to greater gender equity and ultimately to a reduction in women's poverty. However, the connections between law, gender justice and poverty reduction are often over-simplified and the legal and social contexts within which human rights and poverty reduction are promoted are insufficiently understood.

This project seeks to explore the relationship between complex legal pluralities and gendered forms of poverty. Complex legal pluralities - the multiple norms, institutions, practices and beliefs that characterise post-colonial societies - play a fundamental role in shaping understandings of gender, justice, community and personhood. Discourses rooted in culture, custom, tradition and religion exercise considerable power in shaping, regulating and ordering personal, social, political and economic conduct in all societies, as indeed do notions of rights. By shaping opportunities for personal autonomy, political participation and access to economic resources (such as education, health, land, water or employment), complex legal pluralities play a critical role in gendered livelihood prospects and in shaping prospects for escaping poverty

This project will combine a desk-based study with qualitative research in a number of countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa where gendered marginalisation and legal pluralism is in evidence. Through a range of specific, grounded studies, it aims to explore how contemporary legal pluralism - characterized by the dynamic interrelation between specific local and international norms - affects gender justice and women's livelihood prospects. The lead researchers are based at the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI), Bergen, and the Centre for Postgraduate Teaching and Research in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico, both institutions which have a strong and longstanding research profile in law, poverty and legal pluralism: CMI through its "Courts and the Poor" project and CIESAS through its work on indigenous justice and marginalization in Mexico.

The core research aims of the project are:

  1. To consider the extent to which situations of complex legal plurality can favour or disadvantage possibilities for escaping poverty.
  2. To consider the extent to which situation of complex legal plurality can favour or disadvantage gendered rights claims within different cultural contexts.
  3. To examine the nature of ambiguity between law and practice, and to consider the possibilities and difficulties such "spaces of misreading" create for poverty reduction.