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Handbook of International Social WorkHuman Rights, Development, and the Global Profession$

Lynne M. Healy and Rosemary J. Link

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195333619

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195333619.001.0001

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Claiming Women’s Places in the World: Social Workers’ Roles in Eradicating Gender Inequalities Globally

Claiming Women’s Places in the World: Social Workers’ Roles in Eradicating Gender Inequalities Globally

(p.63) 9 Claiming Women’s Places in the World: Social Workers’ Roles in Eradicating Gender Inequalities Globally
Handbook of International Social Work

Lena Dominelli

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores how women, including social work educators and practitioners, have used civil society organizations, international institutions, and networking skills to promote gender equality; change economic, political, and social realities locally, nationally, and internationally; embed gains in everyday routines; and develop relevant social work curricula. Social workers have advocated for gender equality and participated in struggles for social change as individuals active in the women's movement; as development workers tackling structural inequalities; as therapists addressing individual women's woes; and as participants in the UN, its related agencies, and international organizations such as the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW). Some gender-blind interventions have had positive impacts on women's personal well-being. Others are overtly feminist and seek structural changes in the social distribution of power and resources.

Keywords:   social work practice, social workers, social word educators, gender equality, social change, women's movement

Social workers are committed to enhancing human well-being by providing individuals, groups, and communities with services that meet their needs. Working at the local, national, and international levels as individual professionals, through civil society organizations, and through official channels such as the United Nations (UN), they have contributed to identifying the specificity of gender inequalities that discriminate against women throughout the life span, place them at the lower echelons of the waged labor hierarchy, and ignore unpaid work in the home. They have sought a gender equality that values women’s activities and opens public spaces to them. Although there are commonalities, women’s experiences of gender oppression vary according to race, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, and other factors. Women’s struggles became labeled feminist, but many women do not associate with the feminist movement (e.g., black women call themselves womanists). Women continue to be discriminated against despite having organized against gender inequalities for centuries. Even in progressive Sweden, women earn 80 percent of men’s earnings.

Globalization has exacerbated gendered inequalities by producing winners and losers. This concerns social workers because the majority of losers are women and children. Of the 946 billionaires worldwide in 2006, 63 were women, and the richest man held $62 billion compared with the richest woman’s $20 billion (Kroll & Fass, 2007). Male children are favored in many countries. Illiteracy remains higher among girls. Women bear the burden of ill health if they are of childbearing age and are sexually active. Around 600,000 women die needlessly in childbirth each year. Many women do not have the rights to control their bodies or have reproductive rights. Women in industrializing countries are adversely affected by lack of clean water and sanitation facilities, do most of the agricultural work, and are the least likely to own land; in Cameroon, for example, women do 75 percent of the agricultural work but own 25 percent of the land. In most countries—the Nordic states, Rwanda, and Mozambique being notable exceptions—women form a majority of the population but are underrepresented among elected politicians.

This chapter explores how women, including social work educators and practitioners, have used civil society organizations, international institutions, and networking skills to promote gender equality; change economic, political, and social realities locally, nationally, and internationally; embed gains in everyday routines; and develop relevant social work curricula. Social workers have advocated for gender equality and participated in struggles for social change as individuals active in the women’s movement, development workers tackling structural inequalities, therapists addressing individual women’s woes, and participants in the UN, its related agencies, and international organizations such as the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), and International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW). (The IASSW, IFSW, and ICSW endorse the UN Charter and human rights conventions and contribute to shaping policy and practice.)

Some gender-blind interventions have had positive impacts on women’s personal well-being. Others are overtly feminist and seek structural changes in the social distribution of power and resources (Dominelli, 2002). Social workers’ activities often lack professional visibility; in fact, social workers were successful (p.64) in getting the UN to recognize the professional basis of social work, but as Kendall (2010) recalls, the report she authored for the UN in 1950 was credited to the secretary-general.

Naming Women’s Oppression: Organizing Against Gender Inequalities Globally

Women activists named their inequalities gender oppression. The movement for gender equality spread globally during the 1960s. United by the common aim of ending patriarchal social relations that privileged men by devaluing women’s contributions to societies, including their unpaid domestic labor that facilitated family survival, a diverse women’s movement ranging from radical feminists (Banks, 1981) to postmodernists (Nicholson, 1990) emerged. Thousands of women participated in a global women’s movement (Ferree & Tripp, 2006), united by the desire to eradicate the oppression of women.

The movement fractured as smaller groups organized around specific demands. In the West, working-class women wanted pay equality and access to positions restricted to men; middle-class women desired control of their time, reproductive capacities, and sexual expression; and black women wanted to eliminate racial oppression (Friedan, 1963; Lorde, 1984). In industrializing countries (variously called developing countries, the Global South, Third World, or Two-Thirds World), women sought the means for raising families, including water, sanitation, food, education, and decent housing, as well as an end to exploitative Western aid (Mohanty, 1991). Differences between women constantly emerged and reemerged, reflecting unique country positions as each group prioritized local and national matters. This fluidity suggests not a global movement but a loosely organized endeavor in which various groups united to progress women’s equality by leveraging support.

Group membership overlapped as women interacted around their own priorities and approaches to change (Dominelli, 1997). The Wages for Housework Campaign, for example, highlighted the importance of women’s domestic work to economic and family success. Americans argued for women’s role in the public sphere, while Mexican women sought decent housing for people with low incomes and exposed the complexities of women’s individual and collective actions. Social workers’ professional participation included organizing women’s groups to raise consciousness of the links among women’s personal troubles, lack of recognition, and social location. They worked to reduce women’s social isolation within family relationships and challenged doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and police officers for ignoring social restrictions on women’s well-being, especially domestic violence and mental ill health. Additionally, they developed alternative framings of social problems and created services designed and run by women.

Tensions arose between segments of the movement because some proclaimed a singular view of women’s oppression while others demanded recognition of the specificity of local struggles and cultural uniqueness. Groups celebrating women’s achievements in the home felt excluded. Working across borders became problematic when women in the Global South identified the contributions of women in the North as oppressive for not listening to locality-specific concerns, devaluing local cultural knowledge and traditions in problem resolution, and not acknowledging the implications of women’s diverse life experiences for collective action (Mohanty, 2003). Women’s unique trajectories and the legacy of divisive assumptions whereby white Western women configured other women as similar to themselves hindered the formation of transnational alliances and allowed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) distributing development funds to undermine initiatives undertaken by local women and the state (Stubbs, 2007).

These strains persist, although women in the South organized powerful collectives to advance their views locally, nationally, and internationally, particularly in the UN (Sen & Grown, 1987). Southern women also worked with women from the North in civil society organizations, which included social workers, to resolve these differences and ensure acceptance as equal partners with their own agendas and contributions to the overall effort of enhancing women’s status and life circumstances. Despite differences in priorities and approaches, feminist organizers of women’s rights began to listen to diverse voices within the movement, learn from one another, and use lessons gained in one country to enlighten activities elsewhere. Thus, consciousness-raising initiatives for empowering American women interacting with health professionals drew heavily on the “speak bitterness” meetings that Chinese community organizers formed to highlight domestic violence in Mao’s China (Frankfort, 1972). In these meetings, women brought community members (p.65) together to monitor men’s behavior and shame men into behaving appropriately toward their wives.

Not all demands of the women’s movement focused on single issues. Some sought to change everyday routines through which individuals related to each other in families and communities and the relationships between citizens and their nation-states. Though local domestic issues became starting points for changing social relations, they turned transnational as women sought commonalities for forging strong alliances without losing their rootedness in local concerns and traditions. This gave regional women’s organizations roles in linking national concerns to international ones with the help of social workers (Mies, 1986); examples are FEMNET (African Women’s Development and Communications Network) in Africa and Encuentros (regional meetings addressing domestic violence) in Latin America.

Social Workers Engage With Women’s Multiple Oppressions

The contributions of social work educators and practitioners highlighted the multiple oppressions women faced locally, nationally, and internationally in the private and public domains and alongside social divisions, including race, age, and disability. Despite being labeled oppressive, social work educators and practitioners continued to press for women’s equality (Dominelli, 2002). From the origins of social work as a profession in late nineteenth-century Europe, women created a profession that recognized women’s contributions to the social good. However, lack of resources among women meant that it became a profession dependent on men and the state for resources. At the same time, the main concerns of the profession were poor people in general, not women’s specific interests. These were picked up by individual social work practitioners and educators but did not become wider topics of concern until the second wave of feminists started challenging mainstream practices in the profession (Dominelli, 1997).

Social workers were part of and drew upon the wider social movements of the 1960s to develop practice, undertake research that highlighted multiple and persistent oppressions and actions that respected local cultures and traditions, and empower women to organize. Fraser (2003) has suggested that tackling multiple oppressions requires human rights to be supplemented with social justice. Both have been incorporated into social work interventions internationally (Healy, 2001). Parker (2006) applied these insights to disability to expose weaknesses in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities for not meeting the diverse and marginalized needs of women with disabilities (Frohmader, 2002).

Increased recognition of women’s multiple and fluid identities did not prevent the UN, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and international NGOs from endorsing development policies that depicted women’s identities as monolithic, fixed, and essentialized and that ignored the differential impact of place and social divisions upon women’s experiences of oppression. For example, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) configure women’s health, education, and income needs as if they were all the same. Translated into social policies at local, national, and international levels, these goals are incorporated into professional practice.

Some social workers searched for commonalities that did not submerge differences. They developed mechanisms that celebrated diversity when improving women’s circumstances and creating policies to meet women’s diverse needs. By recognizing difference, women can forge points of commonality that underpin collective action. Hence, struggles for women’s reproductive rights in the West have differed from those in Africa, where local traditions play more prominent roles, or in China, where the Communist Party initiated the one-child policy and made contraceptive devices freely available. Respecting these differences turned women’s right to abortion to their right to choose.

Women have been key actors in realizing gender equality in their localities, often inspiring women globally. A notable example is SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), formed in 1972 in Ahmadabad, India. It includes social workers doing community development and supporting microcredit schemes to finance women’s activities in holistic approaches to empowerment. SEWA has empowered 600,000 poor women as self-employed entrepreneurs, lobbied for women’s rights, and followed Gandhian principles of nonviolence to secure social change.

Women’s activism has led to their rights being encompassed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), especially Articles 22 to 27, which refer to social services, health, and education. Redefining women’s rights as human rights at the Nairobi (p.66) World Conference on Women in 1985 gave credence to a rights-based approach to women’s well-being. Social workers supported this shift and the Beijing Platform for Action (issued at the 1995 World Conference on Women) that enabled a rights-based approach to link sustainable development with human rights and set equality for women as a universal goal. This approach created a grassroots universalism to accompany the specificities of women’s experiences. Human rights–based universalism has been rejected by traditionalists, including religious fundamentalists who defend cultural practices that presume the subordination of women (Ferree & Tripp, 2006). Women Against Fundamentalism, a global network that includes social work educators and policy analysts, challenges this fundamentalist position (Yuval-Davis, 1997).

Social Workers Support Gender Equality Through the United Nations

International social action to promote gender equality has been embedded in UN activities since its inception in San Francisco in 1945, when four female delegates from Brazil, China, Dominican Republic, and the United States urged equality of rights among men and women in its charter. They stimulated action by nineteen female delegates who demanded a commission for women at the UN’s first General Assembly in London. This was granted in 1947 as the Commission on the Status of Women to promote women’s equality and rights under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The IASSW obtained consultative status in ECOSOC in 1947 and benefited from the boundless energies of Katherine Kendall as social affairs officer at the UN (Kendall, 2010). The organization retains that status, contributing to UN deliberations as a civil society organization. Its activities include attending summits; changing policies, especially those affecting social development, old age, women, and racial equality; organizing seminars and educational exchanges for staff and students (Dominelli, 2010); developing curricula (Healy, 2001); and providing training in social work. The reconstruction of Europe under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) established social work practices that continue. Some have been gender blind—initiatives highlighting social development—while others have focused specifically on women, such as actions by the IASSW Women’s Caucus, including its significant contributions to the 1995 Beijing conference (Dominelli, 1998).

Ongoing United Nations Efforts on Gender Equality

Progress on gender equality remains uneven. Women activists, including social workers, were delighted when the UN declared 1975 the International Women’s Year and held the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City. This was followed by the Decade for Women, building institutions that promoted women’s equality within a framework of social and human development for men and women in industrializing countries. March 8 was proclaimed International Women’s Day to celebrate women’s achievements. In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Ratified by 177 countries (but not the United States), CEDAW was the first human rights treaty to focus specifically on women, and it signaled the UN’s role as advocate for and guardian of women’s human rights and involvement in development (Ferree & Tripp, 2006). For a more in-depth examination of CEDAW, see Chapter 67 on human rights of women later in this volume. The Second World Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980 and the third conference in Nairobi in 1985 highlighted the importance of monitoring progress. Disagreements about purposes, roles, and positions in social development led to acrimonious exchanges in Mexico City and Copenhagen. Delegates from industrializing countries felt that those from the West dominated proceedings and programs of work.

Subsequent dialogues enhanced understanding of diversity, reduced the privileging of Western women, strengthened women’s resolve to support each other by recognizing different standpoints, and redefined women’s concerns away from simply critiquing patriarchal relations to embracing struggles for social justice and human rights. This brought economic, social, and political domination under feminists’ gaze and encouraged women to seek commonalities while acknowledging differences in struggles against all inequalities. These dialogues reinforced views of women as agents of change and highlighted their interdependencies. Dialogue eased relationships between women and enabled those at the Nairobi conference to engage with each other, promote specific issues, and build solidarity that affirmed each (p.67) group’s contributions to the overall objective of improving women’s lives in accordance with local goals and perceptions. This dialogue created new networks, such as Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS). These networks highlight the significant roles enacted by women from industrializing countries, the women’s confidence in setting agendas that met their needs, and organization in achieving them. Women’s empowerment became buzzwords in these networks (Sen & Grown, 1987).

Mohanty (2003) recently articulated the feminist solidarity model that seeks commonalities between women and assists them in addressing diversities and needs. Social workers supported these goals and networks and brought them into play at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Fearing that the Nairobi conference reflected lower international priorities for women, they used the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 to mobilize against violence against women and insist on the relevance of human rights to women. Women’s equality was also discussed at the UN’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where social workers were present. Controversies regarding women’s reproductive rights led to these rights being reformulated as important to economic development and slowing population growth rather than the right of women to control their bodies. Social workers argued for women’s right to information about and access to contraceptive devices to enhance women’s health in caring for families.

Women in Development

Parallel processes between these events resulted in women being acknowledged as central to development, a view articulated by Women in Development (WID). Feminists in industrializing countries initially challenged WID for emphasizing Western women’s definitions of development and stereotyping other women. This view was consistent with earlier demands that the UN prioritize poverty, non-Western models of modernization and development, and the centrality of women to a country’s economy. Their efforts were supported by a (re)emerging women’s movement in the West that pressed for the inclusion of women in initiatives affecting the Global South, an issue initially raised by Boserup (1970). Women redefined their roles in economic development as integral to a social and human development that promotes social justice (Yuval-Davis, 1997). Increasing pressures from women, chiefly from countries reacquiring independence after colonization; strong civil society organizations that advanced women’s interests (Sylvester, 1994); and feminist research and scholarship led to demands for funding for women’s initiatives. These produced the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, Women’s World Banking (loan guarantees), and International Women’s Tribune Centre (communications). Social workers participated in these organizations, raising similar debates in their ranks as did women more generally.

During the 1990s, women’s attention moved toward environmental and anti-globalization movements to resist corporate entrepreneurs who were undermining their interests. Women’s research and experiences exposed corporations as impoverishing women, appropriating intellectual property rooted in local knowledge and land, and degrading environments where women raised their families (Mies, 1986). Feminist activists like Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy, renowned for opposing environmental  degradation and exploitation of women’s labor and knowledge by global capital, demanded development that enhanced human life. This included safe physical environments, respect and dignity in meeting needs, and economic growth for all.

Slow progress in improving human well-being, including women’s conditions globally, and the persistence of gender inequalities led the UN to include targets for gender equity in the MDGs in 2000. These targeted poverty, the well-being of women and children, education, and health. Targets set by the MDGs seem unreachable and have reduced gender equality to a few measurable indicators in education and maternal mortality. In 2006, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated that of $11 billion needed annually to provide primary schooling for children in industrializing countries, only $7 billion became available. Most analysts blame reduced resources, reduced commodity prices, and expensive food and fuel. Correll (2008) critiqued the conceptual weaknesses of the MDGs for moving away from the commitments reached at the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development in 1995, where the ICSW, IFSW, and IASSW played prominent roles. Copenhagen’s more holistic, integrated intervention programs would have better served the needs of women and children. Social workers have supported the fulfillment of the MDGs in the (p.68) Global South but critiqued their failures to address structural inequalities (Dominelli, 2010).

The new millennium ushered in a backlash that reasserted patriarchal relations privileging men in family relationships and public life. This backlash diminished the role of women in the UN and reduced upfront support for their activities. Significant in this regard was the UN Security Council’s rejection of Mary Robinson for a second term as commissioner for human rights for being too outspoken (Crossette, 2002).

Social Workers Supporting Women’s Equality Transform the IASSW

The IASSW became a target of women’s transformative action. It can be proud of its beginnings, when Alice Salomon, a German academic and researcher with a specific interest in women, became the first chair of the International Committee of Schools of Social Work in Paris in 1928. Women did not head the organization after she left office until 1964, when Eileen Younghusband became president. She was succeeded by men until Lena Dominelli’s election in 1996. This emphasizes that even in a profession where the front lines and academy are dominated by women, men disproportionately occupy the top posts. Before 1990, IASSW involvement in UN initiatives on women occurred primarily through individual female members of IASSW. A group of women considered the exclusion of women in IASSW so serious that they organized a Women’s Caucus at the 1984 Montreal Congress to press for their inclusion in its decision-making structures and conference proceedings (Dominelli, 1998).

The Women’s Caucus, later renamed the Women’s Interest Group (WIG) and given a specific voting position on the IASSW Board, involved a substantial number of member schools. Its followers, active in the women’s liberation movement in their own countries, played major roles in developing gender-sensitive and feminist materials for use in social work curricula and fieldwork placements and opened up new areas for research and practice in domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and female offenders (Campbell, 1992).

In the early 1990s, WIG members prepared papers for the Copenhagen World Summit for Social Development as the IASSW reaffirmed its role internationally and promoted women’s issues in the IASSW and UN. Janice Wood Wetzel as chair of WIG and Lena Dominelli as vice president worked with others to plan presentations on mental ill health and domestic violence for the Beijing conference. Working with other women in NGO deliberations in Huairou, China, they mobilized around women’s concerns and conveyed these to government delegates for inclusion in the Beijing Platform for Action that the UN adopted. This platform embodied women’s rights as human rights, strengthening coalitions that supported women’s equality and scrutinizing policies for their gender-specific impact. Women’s activities suffered a blow in 2004 when the United States withdrew support for the Beijing platform. In contrast, the European Union has been active in Beijing Plus Five (2000) and Beijing Plus Ten (2005) and has gender mainstreamed its own institutions.

The IASSW adopted the Beijing platform at its 1998 Congress and contributed seminars in the follow-up to the World Summit on Social Development, Beijing Plus Five Conference in New York, and related activities in Geneva and Vienna. Women’s issues were included in IASSW submissions on social development, resisting racism and xenophobia, active old age, and social services for all. Limited resources have subsequently reduced some of the organization’s innovative thrust on gender equality.


Women continue to fight to claim their places despite gains in gender equality. Although their endeavors have influenced theory and practice in social work, the bulk of women’s aspirations remain unrealized across the world. Each country has its own women’s movement, feminist or otherwise. These are committed to promoting the well-being of women, men, and children, albeit each in its own terms, giving a global movement of women a rich diversity and commitment to working together under the right conditions, valuing each others’ contributions from their own perspectives while working toward common aims. Social workers back these goals through various roles and means. Their responses to eradicating gender oppression over forty years have linked the local with the global and have included support for the following:

  1. * Political, social, and economic rights of citizenship in particular nation-states

  2. * Cultural rights to protect social traditions

  3. * Local language rights and exposure of power relations embedded in their formulation

  4. (p.69)
  5. * End of unequal power relations in interpersonal relationships and social structures that disadvantage women

  6. * Reproductive rights and bodily integrity for women in managing pregnancy and bodily health

  7. * Rights to the following:

    1. o Sexual expression

    2. o Education

    3. o Housing

    4. o Food and other basic needs like shelter, clothing, heating, and lighting

    5. o Security, both economic and physical

    6. o Peace

  8. * Environmental rights, including clean water, reliable sanitation facilities, and unpolluted land, air, and skies

The struggle to realize these demands continues; no group of women has achieved all their rights except as short-term promises at the most legalistic level.

The IASSW has had an uneven involvement in women’s issues. Its first leader was deeply involved in the women’s equality movement of the early twentieth century. It was at the UN in 1947 when it acquired consultative status as one of the few NGOs present at an exciting point in human history. Its concerns soon became more generalized and lost a gender-specific focus. As an organization, it did not engage fully with the specificity of women’s issues in the UN again until the mid-1990s, although a Women’s Caucus (now the Women’s Interest Group) was formed at the Montreal Congress in 1984 to promote women’s specific interests and eventually secure a voting position on the IASSW Board at the Congress in Washington in 1992 (Dominelli, 1998). The challenge for the organization remains how to best support women’s struggles for gender equality—by supporting women’s issues as women’s issues or by improving the position of all people in the hopes that women’s specific concerns will be addressed as a by-product? It is a question that troubles the UN and its member governments.


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