Context: Limitations of Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Bias in Liberal Political Theory

The Politics of the Discourse around Gender and Development Policy

The gender and development arena has always been politically contentious because it confronts the basis of social organization in any society, that of the relationship between women and men. It has evolved through a difficult relationship between the international development agencies and feminist scholars and activists. The story of this evolution is well documented but worth reviewing for the general development establishment.

Although under certain political contexts women's inclusion in political institutions came about from their active participation in fairly large numbers in anti-colonial, anti-authoritarian, and anti-apartheid struggles, their 'political entitlements' (Agarwal 2011) led to mixed outcomes with respect to women's inclusion into policy processes. In India (1930s) this entitlement was confined to reserved membership in the local government and party membership; in Chile (1990s), despite the establishment of an effective national gender machinery, SERNAM, it failed to enable women's greater inclusion into public policy spaces; in South Africa (1990s) women who entered policy spaces included gender equity concerns in the policy agenda but there were huge accountability failures in implementation.

Within the development community, women first emerged as a distinct constituency in the 1970s. Boserup's (1970) path-breaking book Women's Role in Economic Development demonstrated how conventional development activities had bypassed women and the 'fruits of development were not trickling down to women'. Boserup's critique and the subsequent efforts of early women in development (WID) advocates exposed the hitherto unacknowledged but powerful assumption of development planners and policymakers about women's family responsibilities and tasks and the subsequent promotion of their domestic roles in development policy. This was instrumental in shifting the earlier view of women as dependents on men and passive recipients of welfare[1] to the view of women as economic producers who contribute to household and country economies.

Within official development agencies, however, the new focus on women soon became linked with poverty reduction and basic needs in which women were cast as 'managers of low income households and providers of family basic needs' (Kabeer 1994, p. 7). This approach failed to define women's problems in terms of unequal access to resources. In the late 1970s, some feminists distanced themselves from this approach, and problematized social and gender relations in developing countries and questioned the positivist models of development interventions: education and training, employment, agricultural technological change, and so on (Jackson and Pearson 1998, p. 3). They rejected the portrayal of women as a separate but homogenous category in development literature and emphasized that relations between men and women are social and therefore not immutable. In any historical situation, the form taken by gender relations is specific to that context and needs to be constructed inductively (Jackson and Pearson 1998).

During the 1980s the efficiency argument of WID policy was reinforced by emphasizing women as economic agents in their own rights and that women's exclusion would have an adverse impact on development. But such recognition coincided with the shift in the approach of the international financial institutions (IFI) (World Bank, IMF) to development itself, in which the role of the government as a development agency was required to be curtailed to meet the objectives of fiscal austerity, and reduce balance of payments deficits and domestic government deficits. The many activities previously carried out by governments (transport, communications, tertiary health care, higher education) were to be privatized and social services (most closely connected to reproductive activities) would be reorganized and not-for-profit non-governmental organizations (NGO) would take on many of those functions.

The dominant development models also assumed that improvement in human well-being including women's well-being would not be possible without economic growth; in fact economic growth was seen as synonymous with development. Kabeer (1994) and others diagnosed this as confusing means and ends but with a political agenda that postponed redistributive measures and policies to redress inequality, with serious implications for gender equality. At the same time the tendency to frame gender equity concerns at national levels on instrumental arguments (in terms of social and economic gains for development) ran the risk of overlooking concerns with gender justice and women's citizenship entitlements. Feminists pointed out the hidden 'gender trap' (Kabeer 1994, p. 26) within the market solution: increased monetary costs of welfare services and of health and education services, increased reliance on women's unpaid care work, women's entrance into informal unprotected low-paid casual labour to supplement dwindling household incomes (Goetz 1995; Molyneux and Razavi 2005).

On the other hand, this new scenario opened up space for women's organizations and particularly the creation of women's NGOs, which were believed to be more responsive to the needs of people at the grassroots level (Jackson and Pearson 1998). Around this time Third World feminists raised concerns that economic growth-oriented development overlooked the needs and aspirations of poor women. Southern feminists also countered the WID assumption that it was the prejudice of planners that was primarily responsible for women's marginalization from the development process, and critiqued the absence of a deeper examination of structural factors that caused women's subordination in the development process (Razavi 1997). They claimed that the clearest lens for understanding the problems of development processes was the lived experience of poor Third World women in their struggles for basic survival, arguing that alternative development strategies were needed and that women should be targeted as beneficiaries of these new organizations in order to gain access to international development funding (Sen and Grown 1988). They also criticized the official language of gender mainstreaming that was adopted by the Beijing Platform For Action, first because of its preoccupation with procedures rather than outcomes, and second because despite its roots in social feminism, gender had become a technocratic term failing to address issues of power relations. More significantly, the lack of accountability of international development agencies (UN bodies included) to the Southern women in whose interests they claim to be acting is not commonly seen as part of the gendered politics of development (see Baden and Goetz 1998, p. 24).

By 2000 there was growing realization about the fragility of an international order based on unregulated financial flows. There was a 'new moment' (Molyneux 2002, cited in Molyneux and Razavi 2005) in the development policy agenda of the IFIs: a greater willingness to focus on social policy and poverty reduction, good governance through democracy, participation, and decentralization, but maintaining the core elements of trade and financial liberalization and tight monetary/fiscal policies (Molyneux and Razavi 2005). The trade-off between growth and equity was less clear-cut, but did not disappear, highlighting the need for greater attention to structures of global and local power and the evolution of gender injustices. The feminist critique that poverty analyses of policy are not necessarily adequate for addressing gender issues since women's subordination is not caused by poverty (Kabeer 1994; Jackson 1999), was validated by assessments of the poverty reduction strategy (PRS) process since the late 1990s. Women's groups and rights activists were energetic on gaining recognition for the need to bring gender perspectives in forums discussing macro-economic policies and forging political alliances with governments, NGOs, and social movements (Molyneux and Razavi 2005).

Clearly, feminist critiques and activists have been in the forefront of the discourse on gender and development, and the selective uptake of gender concerns by the IFIs present useful insights into the politics of this discursive context. One such group were women active within international financial and development bureaucracies (like the World Bank, ILO, UNDP) in getting women's interests and gender equality included into the development agendas of these agencies. Just as gender and development policy discourse has evolved over time, feminist advocates have used diverse strategies to mobilize and influence development agendas within their respective organizations. Razavi (1997) concludes that even in the face of persistent criticism from feminist scholars, the basic strategy of these transnational actors was to 'make a range of instrumental arguments that link gender equality to more "legitimate” policy concerns, market efficiency, growth and human resource development' to convince hardened bureaucrats (Razavi 1997, p. 1111). These efforts culminated in a range of high visibility policy documents of the World Bank and UN bodies where gender mainstreaming was projected as a dominant theme in development policy.[2] Later, with the advent of the anti-poverty approach feminist policy advocates took advantage of the paradigm shift and resorted to puting emphasis on poor women, and poor men, to present the gender equality agenda as less threatening to male bureaucrats and programme implementers. In the wake of structural adjustment another genre of feminist advocates engaged with mainstream economists in the development establishment using neoclassical efficiency argument: gender was introduced sometimes as a means for understanding the complexities of the adjustment process (i.e. intra-household allocations and inequalities and bargaining), and sometimes politically to demonstrate how gender biases and rigidities can frustrate adjustment policies (Razavi 1997, p. 1115). These accounts highlight the institutional constraints within which feminist advocates operate. They also point to the significance of those working outside the institutional contexts, namely citizen groups, feminist scholars, NGOs, who can take advantage of strategic entry points and more transformative discourse to influence the policy agenda.

  • [1] Development resources are directed to market-oriented economic growth and the residualis welfare assistance for the dependent and vulnerable groups (Kabeer 1994, p. 6).
  • [2] For example, World Bank (1995b) 'Towards Gender Equality: The Role of Public Policy'; theUNDP Human Development Report (1995).
 
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