Bringing 'Gender' Back into Development Policy

The 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing was seen as a landmark in setting a global policy framework to advance gender equality, but post-Beijing achievements in gender equality were 'more ambivalent and the causal influences more diverse and less unidirectional' (Molyneux and Razavi 2005, p. iv). Dominant development paradigms continued to equate development with economic growth and to assume that reductions in gender inequality in well-being have a linear relationship with development.[1] While some stark gender inequalities were reduced over time, others remain resistant to change or have even taken new forms. There is also considerable variation amongst countries with respect to reduction in gender inequality and no clear relationship is evident with the pace and level of human development. Structural adjustment of the 1980s and 1990s, left gender-specific impacts and put the burden of economic reforms relatively more upon women in the poorest households. In fact, three decades of development policy focused on economic growth and gender mainstreaming has not delivered secure livelihoods and an 'enabling economic environment', which were considered preconditions for attaining gender equality and women's rights.

While the term 'gender' has permeated through to national governments and policymaking institutions, southern feminists at Beijing asserted that the focus on gender rather than women had become counterproductive as it shifted discussion from 'a focus on women, to women and men, and finally back to men'[2] (Baden and Goetz 1998, p. 21). By 2000 there was a 'wave of reassessment of gender mainstreaming which demonstrated that the mere narrowing of gender gaps and equality in numbers were not enough to remove inequality in access to economic and political resources nor dismantle gender asymmetries'. Gender mainstreaming as the primary strategy for pursuing gender equity in and through development lost credibility since concerns with 'gender equality' were not enough to 'redress' ongoing gender injustices (Mukhopadhyay and Singh 2007). Gender analysis was reduced to technocratic discourse and gender mainstreaming via WID units had become a technical project, difficult to fit with the political project of challenging inequality and promoting women's rights (Baden and Goetz 1998; Mukhopadhyay and Singh 2007). Feminist phrases and concepts for understanding women's position in the development process were co-opted by international development agencies and national governments and became filled with new meanings to suit institutional needs. Within international and national institutions gender-mainstreaming practice faced continued bureaucratic resistance. A review[3] of gender-mainstreaming policy implemented by the World Bank, UNDP, and the ILO found inadequate budgeting for the gender component of projects, insufficient development of analytical skills, and a general lack of political commitment, both within the organization, and at country level (Charlesworth 2005, p. 11). Clearly, as Staudt pointed out, there was need 'to know more about men who dominate decision-making in the bureaucracy and how they vary in diverse institutional settings' (Staudt 1997, p. 4).

On the positive side, however, the fact that social policy, good governance, participation, and decentralization are now high on the development policy agenda provides a critical moment to bring gender back into the discourse and practice in transformative ways. This moment has opened up the possibility of bringing to the foreground gender justice, rights, and citizenship in the process of development; created entry points for action to address gender injustices. It may also lead to the creation of new spaces for participation by poor people and by women to claim rights, and to raise voices against gender specific capacity and accountability failures on the part of the state and private sector. But the risk remains that claims of 'participation' and 'empowerment' are driven by gendered interests leaving the least powerful without voice or choice, and of poor accountability to women's groups and constituencies (Cornwall et al. 2005).

  • [1] The World Bank claimed that countries with higher GDP had greater gender equality,implying that promotion of economic growth through liberalization was an important tool forclosing gender gaps in well-being (World Bank 2001a).
  • [2] Nighat Khan, Director, Applied Socio Economic Research, Pakistan.
  • [3] See Razavi and Miller (1995).
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