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Gender Fatigue: What can we do to overcome it?

Written by Nicola Jones


There is a growing concern in academic and practitioner circles alike that 12 years after the lofty optimism of the 1995 UN Beijing Conference on Women we have reached a state of ‘gender fatigue’. The energy of global women’s movements appears to be waning; gender mainstreaming initiatives have not lived up to expectations; and donor and government funding for gender equality remains static or in some cases is even in decline, despite the fact that a significant number of countries are off-track in terms of meeting the Millennium Development Goal on gender empowerment. What steps can we as development researchers and practitioners take to tackle such weariness?

Foster more realistic expectations about women’s role in ‘solving poverty’
As highlighted by last month’s high level World Bank meeting in Berlin on 'Gender Equality as Smart Economics' (more>), it is encouraging that mainstream development discourses are increasingly recognising the linkages between gender empowerment and broader poverty reduction and development goals. However, there is a persistent danger that in the absence of more fundamental shifts in power relations between men and women, that these policy interventions are placing unrealistic expectations on women in poverty. Recent work that ODI has contributed to for example in India and Peru suggests that we need to ask hard questions about the trade-offs between government and donors’ enthusiasm for using women targeted programmes as a conduit for broader social service delivery on the one hand, and the capacities and desires of the women involved, as well as providing resources to compensate for their time, on the other. (PDF>). There is a tendency to want to achieve too much with too little. For instance, many of Andhra Pradesh’s (India) 500,000 plus women’s self-help groups are being called upon to deliver school meals, monitor local health service providers, administer pension payments etc. but without adequate investment in loan provision, vocational skills training or adult literacy, all necessary components to facilitate the original purpose of these groups, women’s economic empowerment. (PDF>).

Take history seriously
On hindsight many development analysts and practitioners have been insufficiently realistic about the scale and depth of change that is required in order to bring about more gender equal societies. As a rich body of feminist historical analysis documents, gendered social structures and institutions across diverse country contexts and historical junctures have proven remarkably malleable. While specific legal or institutional manifestations may change, gender remains deeply embedded throughout society (political institutions, communities, households), in people’s daily beliefs and practices, and as such is frequently used by political actors as a mobilising or labelling tool. Therefore we need to be encouraging donors and governments to invest in long-term, multi-faceted initiatives if we are to create the enabling conditions for sustainable change. Perhaps nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in ODI and others’ work on inter-generational transfers of poverty and the multiple interfaces at which poverty and gender intersect in this process (PDF>).

Recognise achievements and best practices
A sobering look at the weight of history needs to be balanced however with initiatives to remember the histories of struggle to combat gender discrimination and improvements to date in advancing women’s political, civil and socio-economic rights (for an innovative community of practice on just this topic check out: www.iknowpolitics.org). My first reaction when I hear talk of a ‘post-feminist’ age and gender dismissed as an unimportant social cleavage is to get upset – statistics on the ubiquity of gender violence and the woeful record of prosecution for such crimes should alone be enough to convince any sceptic about the dangerous realities of gender inequalities (more>). But a smarter response would be to take occasions like International Women’s Day (March 8) to encourage school and university teachers to teach students about the history of the first and second wave women’s movements (in the North and South) and what these activists achieved, often at considerable personal and social cost. Too often there is a rather simplistic assumption that greater gender equality will simply follow economic development rather than being a dynamic process in which deliberate collective action efforts to reshape gender relations often play a critical role. (Here one only has to look at the stark contrast between national GDP and HDI rankings on the one hand, and corresponding Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) scores in parts of East Asia and the Middle East).

Gender equality is as much about men and masculinities as women and feminism…
Despite an emphasis on relationships in gender analysis, too many development initiatives continue to focus on women in isolation. But if we are going to invest in programmes to empower girls and women and tackle internalised attitudes of gender-based inferiority, we also need to be working with boys and men and addressing equally harmful understandings of masculinity. While we should perhaps be weary of some of the implications of the WB’s latest call for a 'Menstreaming' approach (more>), broader recognition that development initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality and social justice need to involve men more centrally is doubtlessly welcome. For example, we urgently need to explore ways in which care economy responsibilities can simultaneously become de-linked from notions of femininity alone and positively associated with new constructs of male identity in diverse cultural contexts.

Context-specificity matters
Recent gender mainstreaming evaluations have underscored the failure to translate conceptual knowledge into programmatic practice (more>). In order to encourage greater local ownership of the gender equality agenda, there is a clear need to combat what some scholars are terming ‘gender fables’ and ‘stylised myths’ – i.e. overly simplistic arguments about gender relations that have been widely adopted in the development field – and promote more historically and culturally-sensitive gender analyses across diverse policy sectors. Just as empirical experience is demonstrating that there are multiple paths to poverty reduction, economic and political development, so too will there be diverse routes to gender equality. We should not await a technocratic quick-fix to gender inequalities (as some mainstreaming initiatives have tended to do) but instead brace for a long-haul, deeply political challenge.