Beyond Gender Mainstreaming: what’s changed since Beijing 1995?

Gender, Methodology

Two decades after the phrase ‘gender mainstreaming’ was first coined at the 1995 Beijing UN World Conference on Women, the Gender & Development journal gathered leading feminists from across the world together at a conference in London to examine what has been achieved and what challenges remain. 

Gender mainstreaming.  The phrase may remind me sometimes of Jane Austen’s comment on Basingstoke – ‘there is something direful in the very sound’…yet I, and other gender and development specialists, spend my life doing it. Gender Mainstreaming is the process of integrating the aims of gender equality and women’s rights into the agendas, policies, and practices of governments and NGOs throughout the world. It was first coined as a concept in the wake of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing
in 1995. In the two decades since, gender mainstreaming has encompassed many thousands of plans, strategies and initiatives, and different approaches to it have been developed, refined and sometimes challenged.

So what is gender mainstreaming, what has it achieved so far…and how do feminists inside and outside development organisations feel about doing some more of it? Do we push the concept aside and move on to something better able to deliver a world where women share equal rights with men, where unpaid work is factored into all economic decision-making, where violence against women and maternal mortality are eradicated, where girls of 14 are all in school, where they have a hope of a career as an alternative to marriage and childbearing? Last week in a wintry London with leaden skies, I
joined a group of 28 gender and development researchers, workers and activists at a two-day learning event called Beyond Gender Mainstreaming, to look into these issues.

The London event was part of a series of activities in a learning project led by Gender & Development  in partnership with members of the UK Gender and Development Network (GADN), a UK-based group of international development organisations, all of which work on gender justice and women’s rights. The learning project kicked off back in November 2011 with an electronic discussion hosted by Eldis Communities. The event in London carried on the debates started there, and the ultimate
output of the project will be articles created and published in a Special Issue of Gender & Development, to come out in November 2012.

While gender mainstreaming is no more intimidating or annoying than other jargon used in policy environments, it’s attracted a special kind of opprobrium. The kind of phrase that makes many development workers’ hearts sink, for some  it conjures up thoughts of the ‘gender police’ – angry feminists challenging development interventions to do better in support of the empowerment of women and gender equality. Many colleagues still see this as a distraction from the plans they’ve already made to bring practical resources into needy communities, or to further other
political aims in favour of marginalised groups such as indigenous peoples, or people living with disabilities. In fact, of course, these goals will not be properly realised without taking steps to ensure that the women within these communities and groups are able to reap the benefits alongside the men. And that takes effort – to research the realities women and girls face, the obstacles they encounter to gaining resources and voicing their needs and concerns. All the familiar terrain of ‘gender mainstreaming’.

As feminists working in development and government, we have learnt over the years since gender mainstreaming began in the wake of the Beijing Conference, about the gains – and the costs – of a political movement entering the mainstream of government and international development agencies. Only a minority of the women and men at the learning event were actually in China in 1995 – some were still in primary school – but we all know the power of that moment. Governments listened to the arguments for gender equality and the
empowerment of women – and pledged to pursue the strategy of ‘mainstreaming’ these concerns into their work, and link with NGOs and the women’s movement – from community to international level – to deliver the ultimate goals of peace, democracy and sustainable development.

Eighteen years later, last week in London, we challenged each other to debate our very different experiences of working on gender issues in development via the concept of mainstreaming. The room contained very different women and men – ranging from those who remember the second wave of feminist struggle in the 1970s which first challenged international development and governments to take gender inequality seriously, to much younger participants whose commitment was framed by learning about those struggles twenty years on. One participant, Yiping Cai, joined us from China and brought
her experience of working locally for the famous international feminist network Development  Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN). Joanne Sandler, until recently Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, and Caroline Moser, professor of urban development anthropology  and (to most of us) Gender Planner Extraordinaire by virtue of her groundbreaking  book from 1989 suggesting how development workers might ‘do’ gender, were also with us.  At the sharp end of community development, Rose Thamae joined us from Orange Farm, South Africa, where she works with HIV positive women and girls, boys and men, via her organisation Let Us Grow, partnered by Oxfam, and sees daily the gender inequality issues which shape their ability to survive and thrive in a context of poverty and stigma.

We came together from these extremely polarised identities and locations via a group exercise to construct a ‘River of Life’ for gender mainstreaming. Some elements were clear to all of us: the incredible power of the mainstreaming project as it entered development and government visions, policies and plans from 1995, but the ways in which gender mainstreaming has met difficulties and challenges along the way: it has (repeatedly) hit the rocks of economic austerity and crisis; it has been strengthened by powerful tributaries flowing into it from the feminist movement, and has
sometimes strengthened feminist work and sometimes, sadly, weakened and derailed it. In the 1990s, the ‘discovery’ of men and masculinities as gender issues has resulted in the involvement of men – gay and straight, avowed feminists and those who don’t use the word – in mainstreaming.

Conservative men – and women – and the increasing power of different kinds of political, economic and religious fundamentalisms are also threatening to wash gender equality and women’s rights onto the shores.  But what’s clear is the enduring, incredible, amazing energy of us all to realise the vision we keep before us all these years after mainstreaming began.

On the second morning, we focused on the report card we’d give gender mainstreaming. We considered many of the ways in which we’ve tried to assess and further progress, from our different positions in the global South and North, as researchers, community workers, international consultants and NGO workers. Using a chat show format, four participants at the event reflected on their own journeys into this work and shared their views on whether the concept of gender mainstreaming remains valid and important, or whether the actual experience of the work has left it
depoliticised and tainted with too much failure and negativity.

We know that gender mainstreaming has sometimes been derailed and impoverished through its encounter with the policies, planning procedures and other technical aspects of working in governments and NGOs. Conversations about gender mainstreaming involve voicing concerns about the words and concepts used in development and how this helps or hinders our political project;  passionately-held views about the ways (sometimes supportive, sometimes undermining) that development organisations work with women at the grassroots and their organisations.

Grace Uziweye from Equality Now spoke of the incredible power of the concept in her work in Kenya, while Caroline Moser saw mainstreaming as radically different from how it started: it’s been politicised, adopted and owned by women from the global South. Ultimately it seemed the workshop showed a positivity and energy about gender mainstreaming, an acceptance that we need this concept – and that it has been taken on anyway and used by radical visionary work in so many countries and regions – it has an impetus of its own. 

We’re at a moment when other actors, for example Nike with its Girl Effect, are discovering the links between gender equality, economic growth and poverty eradication. Some of us embrace this, some are profoundly uneasy. But what’s clear is that this is a moment where feminists need to work with them to strengthen the transformatory potential of what they’re doing. Most of all,  we need to ensure we record and learn from our experiences and stories of where mainstreaming  has been transformational and delivered on the
visions of a radically different, fairer world where gender, class and race-based inequalities are eradicated.

We have massive challenges to overcome – not only political backlash, but also a lack of money and other resources available for sustained, long-term support to this enormous project. A key part of gender mainstreaming is about reforming the inbuilt bias against women which results in discriminatory outcomes, with the needs and interests of women and girls being ignored or deprioritised.

At times of crisis, gender issues are dropped by planners and implementers who still see them as desirable but not intrinsically necessary for success. Part of gender mainstreaming means reforming governments and NGOs to ‘get them right for women’. But we need to keep the focus on the outcome of all this on women, men and children themselves.

Gender mainstreaming should be continually repoliticised and the Special Issue of the Gender & Development journal will focus on ways to do this, drawing on real-life accounts of what has worked to date.  Development and humanitarian work needs to support the struggles of women everywhere – and particularly, bearing in mind the concerns of international development, in the global South – for an end to the domination of white, elite men over our lives, our bodies and our choices.


Caroline Moser on gender mainstreaming

 See more videos from the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming workshop

Author: Caroline Sweetman
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.