GADN at the AWID Forum: what have we learnt?

A number of GADN members attended the AWID Forum in Brazil. The Forum, titled ‘Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice’ brought together almost 2000 activists from 130 countries for four high energy, inspiring days in the beautiful setting of Costa de Sauipe, near Salvador da Bahia. There is an array of blogs and articles on the Forum, you can review the highlights on Twitter search for #FeministFutures and #AWIDForum.

GADN co-hosted a session called ‘Making the economy work for women, not vice-versa: learning lessons from challenging macroeconomics for gender justice’ which attracted a good crowd even though it was at the end of a very busy first day. The session presented the work we have carried out so far in the context of the GEM project and explore with an open discussion the challenges feminists faces when advocating to neoliberal institutions. The main takeaway from the meeting was the need for feminist to educate themselves on economic issues and to start proposing alternatives, rather than limiting ourselves to critiquing the current model. The issues of climate change and planetary boundaries was also part of the discussion as well as a major theme during the Forum, exposing the degree to which the current economic model is destroying lives and the planet.

Dinah Musindarwezo, Ana Tallada, Chiara Capraro, Patricia Miranda Tapia, Emma Bürgisser at the event organised by GADN  Making the Economy Work for Women, Not Vice-versa: Learning Lessons from Challenging Macroeconomics for Gender Justice

Dinah Musindarwezo, Ana Tallada, Chiara Capraro, Patricia Miranda Tapia, Emma Bürgisser at the event organised by GADN Making the Economy Work for Women, Not Vice-versa: Learning Lessons from Challenging Macroeconomics for Gender Justice

We have asked GADN members who attended the Forum to share their highlights and what they will take back to their own organisations as well as to GADN.

A celebration of strong and diverse feminist movements: we are many!

For all of us, the main highlight was being able to witness the strenght and diversity of the global feminist movement. Diversity and solidarity were  at the forefront with strong participation from women living with disability, LGBTI activists and sex workers. Another strong aspect was intergenerational dialogue: there was a strong cohort of young feminists, very much walking side by side with the older generation. We saw intersectionality in action:  this does not mean erasing diversity in name of a common cause but drawing strengths from that diversity and building relationships that can show us a glimpse of that better world we are fighting for. It means looking for and building common ground and supporting each other. It was clear by being at the Forum than an intersectional space requires a lot of work to be built and the value of a space free of judgement where emotion, in addition to expertise and experience counted, was felt by all.

Another important theme of the Forum was the need to organise across movements, to bring a feminist perspective into broader social justice movements as well as learning from those challenging structural issues of economics, climate change, the shrinking space of civil society. In particular a strong case was made on climate change as an issue we can no longer ignore.

The context of Brazil’s parliamentary coup provided a powerful reminder of the current global backlash against human rights, which is a gendered process, partly as a result of how far we have come. The threats and violence faced by women human rights defenders were brought alive through powerful stories from  indigenous women in Latin America standing up to mining companies to those in the Middle East who are criminalised because of their activism for civil and political rights.

One of the main challenges hovering over all, is the issue of  funding for women’s rights organising. This was one of the main strands of the Forum with many donors present who heard directly from grassroots activists in a safe space. Hopefully the conversations will lead to different practices and more resources reaching those who are working at the coalface in very challenging contexts.

Building solidarity and  creativity, valuing relationships and diversity

For many of us what we are looking forward to bring back into our own organisations is a more intersectional approach and an intention to nurture relationships with diverse constituents of women’s movements, in particular women living with disabilities. This resonated as well with the need to build solidarity especially at this time when so much is under threat we must work together and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.  This means learning from the struggles the past to inform our present strategies and tactics. Another important issue was the use of technology and art to advocate for women’s rights as well as to build solidarity and communicate across borders.

We all found the Forum was a challenging and important opportunity to critically reflect on our position as Northern feminists working in development institutions vis-a-vis the struggle of our sisters.

We are also keen to bring these same reflections back into our contribution to GADN. On the one hand, to strengthen our own capacity to be inclusive and intersectional and learn from Southern women’s rights organisations. On the other, to invest more in working across movements, especially with those who are working on alternative social and economic models for a fairer, feminist world.

If you want to read more from the perspective of those who were there the following are links to members' blogs:





Envisioning feminist futures: GADN's newest project tackles alternative development from ideas to outcomes

In June 2016, GADN released a pack of papers under the banner of Feminist Development Alternatives, the product of many months’ deliberation around the question of what feminist visions of development might look like – and what steps we need to take to achieve them. This project was an opportunity for GADN’s members and allies to take a step back from the priorities and imperatives set by government agendas, funding possibilities and news cycles to reflect on why and how we each engage in gender and development work.

Very early on, it became clear that this project could not take the form of a single paper, a single vision for feminist development approaches and ideals. Thus, the Feminist Development Alternatives project comprises seven papers, plus an overview paper that roots the project in GADN’s core mission and values. The pack inspired a members meeting in July 2016, where a wide selection of GADN’s members and allies shared their own concerns, aspirations and ideals for our work as gender and development specialists.

Here are some of the questions that the Feminist Development Alternatives project has raised, through the papers themselves and the discussion that they have inspired.

Co-optation of feminist language and goals

Almost across the board, there is concern amongst advocates for gender equality that feminist ideals have been co-opted in the service of other goals. Where we have advocated for women’s rights as an inherently good thing, we increasingly hear that empowerment promotes economic growth, peace or family wellbeing, perhaps to the detriment of women’s rights work broadly writ. As contributor Zohra Moosa of Mama Cash said in our meeting, we need to think in terms of checking power and be clear that women’s rights matter because women’s rights matter, not as means to any other goals.

Fragmentation of the gender and development agenda

This issue finds expression in two key areas: the ever-increasing drive towards project-based rather than core funding, and the compartmentalisation of agendas into bite-sized, decontextualised pieces. Diminishing funding pots for gender equality and development more broadly have bred a need for demonstrable and immediate results, binding practitioners to a set of pre-approved themes and goals and stifling more durable, comprehensive, sustainable feminist work and thinking.

At the same time, agendas like ending violence against women and girls has fragmented into a piecemeal set of goals including sexual violence in armed conflict, domestic and intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation/cutting and so forth. A more holistic and contextualised approach that acknowledges the pervasive and systemic nature of violence in women’s lives would seem to be in recession. Many in our networks are calling for a more integrated feminist agenda, as Neelanjana Mukhia highlighted in her contribution to the debate.

Supporting women’s rights organisations – in the UK and in the Global South

A number of contributors spoke about how smaller women’s rights organisations are being edged out by larger international NGOs and private sector actors like philanthropic foundations.

These voices call for more of us to walk the talk on our principles with gender audits, assessments of how we’re approaching the funding landscape as a sector, and even new alliances with other networks and feminist organisations at home and abroad.

Some attendees advocated for greater engagement with activists, academics and networks in the Global South – giving platform to feminist voices, and especially those that aren’t often heard in our circles, by inviting and promoting feminist speakers, citing feminist sources in our reports (no matter the subject matter) and sharing the stage with allies wherever possible.

Walking the talk on intersectionality

As Neelanjana pointed out, gender inequality exists within a neoliberal system where different inequalities and oppressions intersect. Race, gender, sexuality, social class and ability, amongst other axes of repression, can come together to create barriers to equality that are more than just the sum of their parts. The structures and institutions that make these injustices possible and propel them forward will need to be addressed before we can see real equality. This is another area our members encouraged us to build alliances with UK-based and Southern feminist networks, and especially with feminists of colour around the world. By seeking out and amplifying their voices, we can give them a platform to speak back to the UK development sector and challenge all of us to improve our work.

Continuing the conversation

Amidst considerable change and uncertainty, GADN is taking this opportunity to continue this conversation about feminist ideals and approaches to development. We hope the pack of papers captures the spirit of debate around these issues, but that debate does not end here. We invite your input and engagement with the papers and the question of Feminist Development Alternatives in a spirit of optimism.

The space below will function as a discussion platform for all of us where we can share concerns, questions and ideas on feminist development principles and practice.

How can we best express that women's rights matter because women's rights matter?

What needs to change in how we do our work as gender advocates?

How can we account for women’s intersectional identities?

Join the conversation and share your ideas for a better, more feminist vision of development.

Now is the time to be brave!

20 years of gender mainstreaming: how can we do it better?

Theory of Change. This diagram sets out the relationship between the 3 components of gender mainstreaming: organisational commitment, technical processes and vision and results.

Theory of Change. This diagram sets out the relationship between the 3 components of gender mainstreaming: organisational commitment, technical processes and vision and results.

by Helen Derbyshire, Kanwal Ahluwalia and Nadja Dolata

In 1995 at the UN International Conference on Women in Beijing, gender mainstreaming was agreed as the international strategy for achieving gender equality and women’s rights. Today, most development organisations engage in some form of gender mainstreaming - with activities to promote greater equality through mainstream policy and spending (“gender mainstreaming”) complementing targeted initiatives to promote women’s rights.

But, 20 years on, gender mainstreaming is subject to harsh criticism by many women’s rights organisations struggling to promote women’s rights in society as a whole. Some feel so bitterly disappointed and betrayed by gender mainstreaming in practice that they argue that gender mainstreaming has been a complete failure and should be abandoned.

A new GADN paper “Untangling gender mainstreaming: a Theory of Change based on experience and reflection’’ argues that this criticism, whilst understandable, is misdirected.  The question should not be whether to mainstream gender but how to do it better – and there is now a lot of experience and evidence to draw on to help with this. The alternative to gender mainstreaming is to leave the promotion of women’s and girls’ rights and gender equality to targeted initiatives alone, and the overwhelming majority of development policy and spending untouched, reinforcing the inequalities of the status quo.

There is no doubt that implementation of gender mainstreaming is challenging and disappointing in many contexts. Under-investment (for example, notions that a one-off gender training course is all that is needed to change practice); too much re-direction of resources away from targeted initiatives; de-contextualised donor-driven strategies; and over-ambitious expectations of short-term transformation in highly challenging contexts all play a part in this.  Gender mainstreaming as a concept is also complex and obscure – too often a “black box” of activity taking place within development organisations opaque to and mistrusted by those outside.

However, there are also many development organisations and programmes which – as a result of very effective gender mainstreaming efforts - have moved commitment to gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights to the centre of their development agenda. This is reflected in their policy making, planning, and spending; in their recruitment and staff development – as well as in increased support for projects for women and girls.

Our paper clarifies and simplifies the concept of gender mainstreaming through a practical Theory of Change.  This is based on the extensive first-hand experience of the authors and GADN members, both in UK-based international development organisations and with their partner organisations and programmes in aid recipient countries. Our aim is to share learning from experience; support and improve implementation; promote scale-up; and – particularly – to assist communications and complementary working relationships between those working to promote gender equality and women’s rights within development organisations and those campaigning for change in wider society.

Our Theory of Change presents gender mainstreaming as two separate but interconnected processes:

  • processes of organisational change in development organisations required to promote the necessary leadership and constituency of support and resources for the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights

  • technical processes of gender sensitive/transformative planning which development organisations use to promote gender equality and women’s rights through their mainstream policy-making, programming and internal processes

Promoting women’s rights and gender equality is a long-term, highly contested, complex struggle that takes place uniquely in every context.

Our experience is that the key challenge inhibiting progress on gender mainstreaming is organisational commitment. Leadership, political will and resource allocation are all essential to creating the right kind of enabling environment in mainstream development organisations for gender equality and women’s rights to be prioritised and taken seriously, and for effective technical processes gender sensitive planning to take place. If work on technical processes outstrips progress on organisational change (through, for example, meeting donor targets for production of gender policies), the technical processes are not embedded, institutionalised or sustained.  On the other hand, once genuine organisational commitment and leadership are in place, technical processes of mainstreaming can be institutionalised much more easily.

Most mainstream organisations – particularly in aid recipient countries - are struggling with weak organisational leadership and weak organisational commitment to gender equality and women’s rights. Arguments to change this need to be culturally appropriate and championed by advocates from within the local culture. Women’s organisations and champions for gender equality and women’s rights in wider society have a critical role to play, hand in hand with champions for change working within the challenging context of these mainstream organisations.


Turning Promises into Progress for Gender Equality and Women's and Girls' Rights

The Beijing Conference on Women marked an important moment in the struggle for gender equality and the rights of women and girls but, twenty years on, what’s changed?

For a start, gender is now firmly on the agenda at least here in the UK. Internationally too there is more talk of gender equality than in previous decades.  But, sadly, talk is often all there is.  The plethora of international commitments has not really translated into the achievement of gender equality.

There have been some successes, most notably where the MDGs brought new funding and some political pressure; more girls in school, more women in parliaments.  But we still live in a world where one in three women will be subjected to sexual or intimate partner violence in their lifetime, where women continue to earn less than men for doing the same work and are more likely to be living in poverty, and where women are excluded from meaningful decision making whether at home or in international negotiations.  In every country in the world women and girls still face discrimination and the denial of their rights simply because of their gender.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, and fifteen years after the ground-breaking United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 recognised the importance of women’s full and equal participation as actors for peace and security, we at the Gender and Development network have joined with colleagues at Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS) and the UK Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) network to produce a new report Turning Promises into Progress.  Combining our expertise enabled us to look in more depth across eight issue areas central to gender equality (women, peace and security, violence against women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and rights, political participation and influence, education, economic justice, unpaid care and discriminatory social norms) to consider the advances made or, more often, not made.

Throughout the report we have made concrete recommendations which we hope can inform development thinking in the future.  In particular we suggest how to begin tackling the causes of gender equality to make real progress in the decades to come for example by building women’s ability to make their own choices, supporting women’s rights organisations and collective action, promoting positive social norms, and rethinking government approaches to the economy. 

As we reflect on the landmark anniversaries and look forward to the implementation of the post-2015 agenda we can perhaps allow ourselves some cautious optimism.  Technical expertise is greater and the women’s movement is growing stronger; organisations around the world have marked the Beijing anniversary with calls to action that are both practical and inspiring.  The question now is whether we can garner the necessary political will and resources over the coming decade to secure the rights of women and girls and achieve gender equality.

A tribute to Afghanistan’s courageous women fighters

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit:    Children in Crisis

Afghan girls and women have fought hard for the right to learn. Photo credit: Children in Crisis

Afghanistan seems an unlikely place to find stories of women’s leadership and political power, even after the tremendous progress made over the last decade to restore women’s rights. However, even amid massive current national uncertainties, women’s rights organisations like the Jalal Foundation are successfully challenging discrimination and violence against women - although they also fear a reversal of their hard-won gains with the new government and withdrawal of international troops.

The roll call of outstanding Afghan women leaders is impressive and their activism is a powerful symbol of hope for the country. They include (among many others) Fawzia Koofi – left out in the sun to die as a baby and going on to run for president in the 2014 elections. Azra Jafari – Afghanistan’s first female mayor – who says that after massive resistance, she succeeded in winning respect from male members of the community for her work to improve living standards in a poor rural province which had virtually no infrastructure. And Dr Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan’s first female presidential candidate in 2004 and former Minister of Women’s Affairs, who through the Jalal Foundation has succeeded in uniting over 15,000 women and men in activism for women’s rights, representing 1,280 women’s councils and NGOs.

To appreciate the courageous stance these women are taking, Amnesty International’s Real lives feature is a chilling reminder of Taliban brutality towards women activists. Of Amnesty’s three strategic priorities in Afghanistan, one is to protect defenders of women’s rights. Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, and herself a female Afghan campaigner, explains: “Women activists in Kabul are playing the role of ‘gatekeeper’ for women across Afghanistan - they speak English, have access to computers and internet, and can tell the world what is happening. The reality for women activists living and working in insecure provinces and outside Kabul is very different – they don’t have many of these opportunities, and they face a completely different level of risk.”

The world must know about the many atrocities committed against women to keep up international pressure and support. But too much negative reporting means that the considerable pressure for change within Afghanistan is not understood, therefore potentially undermining international support for the country.

A young blogger and English teacher in Kabul - Yosuf Warastah - tells me of his frustration with Afghanistan’s poor international image.  “People shouldn’t judge Afghanistan by the gossip or the media or politicians. I have read a lot of untrue stories about Afghanistan and also experienced inhumane treatment abroad just because I am an Afghan. Yes, it’s true that the country is full of problems and any Afghan can give you a long list. But there has been so much progress. There has been an explosion in the number of people wanting to study in the last decade and there are now 10 million students in schools and universities. People realise the value of education and they want to learn. Nearly 7 million people voted in the election – that’s a real achievement for Afghan people, as there was a lot of fear. Democracy does not come easily. To have a free and democratic society, we need to pay the price.”

These are major achievements: primary school enrolment shot up from 21% in 2001 to 97% in 2011 [World Bank], with girls’ education - formerly banned - now encouraged by the government. Afghanistan now has a thriving telecoms industry and growing community of internet users and civil society activists. The defiant pictures posted online of traditional Nowruz celebrations (formerly banned under the Taliban) speak to confidence in Afghan cultural identity and a degree of freedom of speech. So do the stories of rural demonstrations against President Karzai, with some communities turning out with traditional lamps and grass mats to challenge the president and demonstrate his powerlessness to bring tarmac roads and electricity in his 13-year rule. But most of all, Afghans themselves have spoken loud and clear through the ballot box – 7 million people risked their lives to vote and the international community owes them its continued support.

But the prospect of a Taliban resurgence casts a dark shadow over the country. “We are waiting for the future” says Yosuf.  “There’s a lot of gossip about post-2014 and re-Talibanisation.” Last year, Dr Jalal wrote:  “As the departure of the international security forces approaches, each day turns every bit of hope into desperation for advocates of Afghan women’s rights. The gains on women’s rights during the past twelve years are in danger of being challenged and overturned by policy makers who are un-enlightened about international standards of human rights. The future is likely to see once again the use of religion as an instrument of extreme gender based oppression in Afghanistan.”

For the radical Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) the withdrawal cannot come soon enough: "There are three enemies in this country: the Taliban, the [former mujahadeen commanders] and the Karzai government, and foreign troops. All three of them commit crimes against our people. When the foreign troops go, we will only have two left to deal with."

RAWA entered the international limelight when it released video footage of the first Taliban execution of a woman in Ghazi football stadium in Kabul in 1999. While the stadium has been fully renovated to reflect the country’s new beginning, the threat of re-Talibanisation is real. The Taliban still have tremendous power in Afghanistan. The BBC reported that Afghan leaders estimate the Taliban receive £65 million annually from taxing poppy farmers and drug traders - many see the withdrawal of the US and allied troops as leaving the country wide open for Taliban resurgence.

The Jalal Foundation has repeatedly denounced national and international attempts to negotiate with so-called ‘moderate Taliban’ saying: “Our leaders do not see that the reason the Taliban is so obsessed with women’s oppression is because it is the key to the inter-generational perpetuation of their control.” The Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria is a vivid reminder of this. What we know about the powerful benefits of girls’ education and women’s empowerment apply equally in reverse: oppress women and deprive them of education and voice, and you oppress a nation.

Dr Jalal explains that even as an educated leader, “I am not any different from any other Afghan woman - I often experience ridicule, insult, intimidation, denial of rights, and restrictions in my movements. I cannot debate openly with men without the society feeling uncomfortable about my guts and tenacity. We need to transform the thinking of the current and next generations to see that the status of women is a barometer of social progress. If we cannot make this happen, women professionals and leaders will continue to function with invisible ‘shackles’ and a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.”

The foundation has maintained a diplomatic stance in relation to government while continuing to push for change, but others have been more outspoken and subsequently shut out of the negotiations. Malalai Joya – another extraordinary female activist – was expelled from parliament in 2007 after interrupting the constitutional process to accuse the Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of harbouring warlords and criminals. She continues to be an outspoken critic of the government (facing multiple assassination attempts) and has denounced the 2014 elections as sham due to Afghan corruption, US manipulation and the continued presence of warlords in the parliament.

The Jalal Foundation maintains a robustly optimistic outlook, determined to deliver improvements to the lives of Afghan women within the complex and volatile political landscape. Among their achievements are training programmes to improve women’s employment opportunities, from literacy, English, IT, leadership and political participation. They produce a weekly newsletter on democracy and human rights with a readership of 10,000, and secured 1,000,000 male and female signatories to a statement of zero tolerance to violence against women. These are major wins in a country where the fight for recognition of women’s rights is an ongoing battle.

Most recently, the Jalal Foundation was among the women’s organisations that successfully prevented enactment of a new Criminal Procedure Code which would prohibit a defendant’s relatives from testifying against him. In a context where domestic violence and ‘honour’ crimes are the greatest threat to women’s safety, this law would have effectively annulled legal protection for women victims of violence – a massive retrograde step.

The foundation’s ambitious plans include a women’s radio station to raise awareness about women’s rights and tackle Taliban propaganda (now more sophisticated and widespread as Taliban embrace modern media), mass training for young women to improve employment prospects and continued advocacy at the highest levels to keep the concerns of Afghan women at the top of the national and international agenda. It is not an overstatement to say that the hope of Afghan women is in their hands.

But right now they are still waiting for their future. Jubilant celebrations of the unprecedented election turnout have been replaced with anxiety that the delays in confirming the president will fuel political and ethnic divisions. As troops depart, Afghan activists fear the departure of foreign aid investment. According to Horia Mosadiq “Too much funding has been linked to military presence. Afghan NGOs are already seeing a decrease in NGO funding and government projects are left stranded”. When the political dust has settled, Afghanistan desperately needs vibrant civil society organisations like the Jalal Foundation to challenge conservative elements within Afghanistan’s parliament and champion the rights and development of its people. Let’s support their inspirational work.

Naomi Rouse, girls’ education consultant