To ensure women’s rights move forward, we need to repoliticise – outcomes from the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming Learning Project

Gender, Gender & Development Journal, Methodology

Last year, Gender & Development set out to discover where Gender Mainstreaming is 15 years on from when the approach was first agreed. The Learning Project brought together activists and development professionals in online debates, face-to-face encounters and a special issue of the journal which is out today. Journal editor Caroline Sweetman explains

Gender & Development journal cover

Gender & Development‘s Special Issue on Beyond Gender Mainstreaming is out today amid sighs of relief from me and the contributors. The issue is the final activity in a wider Learning Project on gender mainstreaming – the process of integrating gender issues into development and humanitarian work of governments, NGOs and community groups – which
began a year ago with a meeting with activists, academics and bureaucrats in Beirut, Lebanon, hosted by the Arab feminist regional organisation CRTD-A.  

CRTD-A’s Executive Director, Lina Abou-Habib, is a very active member of the journal’s editorial advisory group and a long-standing friend and colleague. She chaired an amazing encounter between women who were really enraged by what they saw as gender mainstreaming’s inherently colonial take on the ‘woman question’ in the Middle East, and ‘femocrats’ from international institutions, universities and the state who know the reality that if gender mainstreaming is not on the agenda, their organisations will be still more conservative and women’s rights will
go ignored. 

This debate between radicals and pragmatists is a key aspect of any discussion of gender mainstreaming. Radicals point to the top-down imposition of a UN-formulated ‘recipe’ for mainstreaming – focusing on establishing ‘gender machinery’ in governments and civil services; running training sessions for civil servants; contracting foreign consultants to formulate plans and undertake evaluations based on their own imported ideas of what gender equality and women’s empowerment may be. They speak of a lack of respect for local priorities and for diverse agendas of
different women – ranging from citizenship to sexuality and violence. 

Feminists working on gender issues within mainstream organisations are doing amazing work to push the agenda of women’s movements as far and as fast as they can in really challenging contexts.

Pragmatists, meanwhile, ask what the alternatives are, in a world where sudden transformative changes are rare unless heralded by conflict, revolutions or other wider upheavals. The feminists who work in ‘mainstream’ institutions are usually painfully aware of the shortcomings of gender mainstreaming. However, they have no appetite to move to reject gender mainstreaming as a term and a concept – concerned that this would pose a risk of losing global, international and national ‘buy-in’ to gender justice as a key to sustainable, decent human development – and to
women’s rights as human rights.  Not all who work on gender and development see it as a political issue in a world where careers are founded on jumping on the bandwagon of funding and power associated with fashionable fads. 

‘Femocrats’ may be complicit in situations where flows of funding and external analyses of what the problem is have distorted the local agendas and work priorities of women in dramatically varying contexts. But feminists working on gender issues within mainstream organisations are doing amazing work to push the agenda of women’s movements as far and as fast as they can in really challenging contexts. 

Our Beyond Gender Mainstreaming project progressed from the initial meeting in Beirut to an international online conversation between feminist activists and gender and development policymakers and practitioners – and from there, to a learning event in London in February, covered in an earlier blog by me at the time. Materials in the journal have been worked up from the encounter there.

Gender mainstreaming has achieved much, but needs to do much more

So what are the headlines in the issue?

For most, gender mainstreaming has achieved much, but needs to do much more if progress on women’s economic, political and social rights is to continue at a time of complex crises, where worsening poverty and challenges to key social and political rights are threatening women’s wellbeing in the global South and North. 

There is no room for complacency on the part of development organisations – to ensure women’s rights move forward, we need to repoliticise. For some, this means arguing for a complete change of pace and a new focus on women’s rights as gender mainstreaming has failed to deliver what the world’s women need – for themselves and for humanity. Talk of a fifth UN World Conference on Women, debates on what should replace the Millennium Development Goals, and increasing recognition of the threats to humanity posed by climate change, food crises, economic austerity
in the North, and growing fundamentalisms (both religious and secular) – all these elements of a ‘perfect storm’ are occurring. Progress on some aspects of women’s rights is being paralleled by threats and setbacks on other fronts.  

While we wait to see what happens at a time of real instability and global uncertainty about what development in the future will look like, feminists working in development need to be savvy about the need to resist battening down and focusing solely on economic rights – critical though they are. Such a focus leads us to concentrate reductively on what gender equality can do for development, rather than what development should be doing for women.  

Why does this matter? Because we need to challenge inequality and ideas of development as synonymous with economic growth – to save the planet, and ensure a decent life for all. Women are not some deviation from the norm, but the majority of the human race, whose rights include not only rights shared by men – to education, to land, to fair and decent pay and conditions – but also rights they do not share with men including  reproductive rights and freedom from gender-based violence. Only then will we see a world with empowered women leaders from every part of

To achieve this, our organisations need to adopt a twin-track approach to mainstreaming, focusing critically on ‘stand-alone’ work on women’s rights as well as integrating gender analysis and working with women on other goals.

Read more  

  • Gender & Development Journal, volume 20, issue 3: Beyond Gender Mainstreaming.
  • More on our work on gender justice
  • See Joanne Sandler talk at the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming workshop in February 2012:

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