Feminism : the radical notion that women are people

Photo credit: Oxfam/Policy & Practice Blog

As the latest issue of Gender & Development examines the role of solidarity, editor Caroline Sweetman emphasises the importance of collective action to feminism. 

Feminism is 'the radical notion that women are people...' in the words of activist and academic Cheris Kramarae. Whether we choose to use this word or not, we're all feminists if we believe in equality between the sexes and think it's a principle worth fighting for. 

To change millennia of cultural conditioning and the laws and practices which go with it requires political action - from the struggles of women to get the vote alongside men, to the struggles of women marching against violence and discrimination in the home and the workplace. 

As writers in the new issue of the journalGender & Development show, feminism isn't about individual women managing to overcome the system on their own without challenging the system itself. Instead it's about fighting for the equal rights of every last woman and girl - and to do that requires the power of collective commitment and action: 'power-with' to take on and vanquish 'power-over'. 

Feminism is the difference between one woman trying to stop her husband beating her and a whole villageful of women banding together to shame abusive an husband by beating metal cooking pans outside his door, shaming him in the eyes of the community. 

This type of collective action has a long, long history.  Raising the alarm outside a house to show disapproval of wife-beating inside was called 'rough music' in English villages in the early nineteenth century. Similar strategies have evolved down the centuries all over the world and remain in use by feminist activists in communities today. 

An example comes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where one woman started a campaign against men spending household income on alcohol, encouraging her friends in her village to picket the liquor shop, go on strike at home, and support each other against reprisals. Together, the campaign spread and women ultimately succeeded not only in stopping their menfolk from buying drink, but actually persuaded the government to ban the sale of liquor in the state - despite state reluctance to lose the income from this. As a result, savings went up, violence levels dropped, and the lives of poor women began to improve.

Where and how does feminism meet international development? 

Collective action has a long history in development organisations informed by a left-wing perspective on inequality as the cause of poverty and suffering.  If we believe that inequality is the reason people don't have enough to eat in our world, we have to believe that ending gender inequality is as critical as ending inequality arising from race or class-based discrimination. If we believe in a vision of human development which is about everyone having enough, and ensuring we can claim this as a right, we work on what's now called 'gender justice' - asserting women's rights in development.

How have these values of feminist solidarity and collective action been taken up and used in development practice, with its interest in gender justice and equality, and women's rights? The new issue of the journal explores how feminist ideas and practices have been adopted, adapted and morphed, and considers whether we recognise them in their new incarnation as parts of development methods and process. 

Feminists inside and outside development have worked together throughout the past thirty years to lobby for development resources to be channelled to women and - most importantly - to campaign for women to shape the course of development itself through political participation and leadership at all levels of society. In the 1980s and 1990s, we used our different identities and locations to press for recognition of gender issues as development issues and the importance of women's empowerment to achieving a better world for all.

So solidarity and collective action are essential ingredients in a recipe for women's rights. They spell the difference between individual women making good, and women as a sex being able to depend on gender equality as their right - not only in principle, but in practice.  The ideals of togetherness, sisterhood and a belief that together,  'we will overcome' fire women all over the world to join groups to take action to improve their lives, fighting sexism wherever they find it.

No technical fixes, no magic bullets

Yet the tendency in development to see the virtues of 'technical fixes' and 'magic bullets' has often led to a dilution of political purpose; to a focus on the checklists and bullet points of policy statements on the one hand, and on particular kinds of programming - most notably, the provision of loans to individual women or groups who police each individual member to ensure she feels the pressure to pay back on time. Neither technical fixes nor magic bullets leave space for the most important ingredient in a recipe for gender equality - concerted political action among women.  In this issue, Mala Htun and S Laurel Weldon present their research showing the most important element in reducing violence against women in 70 countries from 1975 to 2005 was the existence of vibrant feminist activism to hold states to account on their duty to address the issue.  Amy Dunckel-Graglia shows how state provision of 'pink transport' (women-friendly public transport) in Mexico City had a wider impact, facilitating women's own activism to make their city safe. Naila Kabeer, Kirsty Milward and Ratna Sudarshan focus on women workers' activism to secure their right to decent work. Sally Baden explores women's collective action in livelihoods work in Ethiopia, Mali and Tanzania.

Good development work leaves space for the transformation which occurs when women get the chance to build solidarity with each other. This means working with existing women's organisations to further shared goals; building opportunities into community development work for women to foster relationships with each other and share views on what needs to change in their lives; understanding the link between 'economic empowerment' and the social and political empowerment which needs to accompany increased prosperity if women are to live their lives as equal citizens alongside men.

The key message of this issue of Gender & Development is that international development needs to  work in genuine, equal partnership with the women's movements worldwide. They're the experts on gender equality!  

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Caroline Sweetman, Editor, Gender & Development Journal

Caroline Sweetman is Editor of Oxfam's international journal Gender & Development. The journal is published by Routledge and aims to support development workers to integrate gender justice and women's rights into their work.

This blog first appeared on Oxfam's Policy and Practice Blog. To read the blog as it originally appeared, click here.