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.


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!  

Read more


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.

Cherie Blair: 'Don't drop gender from equality fight'

London, England (CNN) -- With only days to go before the U.N. High Level Panel puts forward its recommendations on development goals beyond 2015, after the current Millennium Development Goals expire, progress towards gender equality and increased empowerment of women hangs in the balance. It is vital that this issue does not slip down the global agenda but retains its rightful position as one of the key, stand-alone development goals.


The current goals contain a specific commitment to women's equality and empowerment, which has -- while not perfect -- succeeded in putting the subject firmly on the global map, giving impetus and strength to organizations working in this field, in their relations with governments, their ability to push against cultural barriers, and their capacity to raise funds for their work.

Read: Can 'womenomics' save Japan?

That's why we've seen some progress in recent years. More girls are going to school, and the gender gap in formal education is closing in the majority of countries. In some areas such as North Africa and the Middle East, more women than men are enrolled in tertiary education, but women have yet to catch up in political representation, technology, access to capital and management skills, to name but a few examples.

In the discussions that are taking place about what will replace the Millennium Development Goals post-2015, there are voices arguing for abandonment of this stand-alone commitment to women's equality, in favor of a more generalized commitment to tackle 'inequality.' Were these voices to carry the day, the negative effect on progress towards gender equality would be substantial, but crucially it would also undermine the cause of reducing 'inequality.'

This is because improving the status of women is crucial to tackling the very inequalities that it is suggested the new goals should focus on. Whether it's making sure that children have access to education or health care, or bringing in more income for the family, so many of these core development goals are primarily delivered by women. Women are on the road to becoming drivers of their economies, running businesses, and creating jobs and opportunities within their communities and beyond.

Read: 5 minutes with Cherie Blair

According to the World Bank, we need to create 600 million jobs globally by 2020, mainly in developing countries, just to keep up with population growth. But we will inevitably fail to achieve employment targets unless many more women have economic opportunities. The more power they have, the more they can deliver.

I have seen for myself how women's financial independence delivers benefits to their families and to wider society. On a recent trip to Israel and Palestine, I spoke with some women entrepreneurs and asked them what they spent their money on and they said their families. On educating their children and taking care of their health.

On investing back into their businesses and hiring additional employees. Not one had spent the income on themselves.Families, communities and economies suffer when women are treated as unequal to men. Furthermore, without female role models for future generations of women, progress will not just stall -- it will reverse.

Leveling the playing field -- where women and men have equal chances to become economically, socially and politically active, make decisions, and shape policies -- is likely to lead over time to more representative, and more inclusive, institutions and policy choices and thus to a better development path. In order for us to achieve real progress in development, gender equality must be a standalone goal.

Read: Gender equality won't happen if men don't speak, Sandberg says

I am not alone in this view. There are many others who have been calling for the same for months. The OECD has called for women and girls to be front and center in the post-2015 framework.

The Gender and Development Network has convened 85 of the UK's leading development NGOs and gender experts to ensure women's empowerment is promoted in the next framework.

Their most recent report argues that the next framework must tackle the underlying causes of gender inequality to achieve sustainable change. U.N. Women have called for a goal that includes issues specifically about women, such as eliminating violence against women and girls, expanding women's choices and opportunities, ensuring their full participation in decision-making at all levels, and including targets and indicators that specifically relate to women.

As the High-Level Panel on Post-2015 Development issue their recommendations, we must keep up the pressure. Women are at the heart of every family. They are the mothers, the carers, the managers, the peacemakers. But they can deliver so much more. As we look ahead to a new framework, we cannot afford to let gender equality slip off the world agenda. Our future depends on it. Give women equality of opportunity and the rest will follow.


Cherie Blair

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more. Cherie Blair is a leading UK barrister who in 2008, founded the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

This blog first appeared on CNN's Leading Women page. To see the original version click here. 

From Global To Local And Back Again: Building Links For Stronger Campaigns

Photo Credit: Spark

Photo Credit: Spark

A smart commenter on our first blog post in March posed a very interesting question. How should UK-based organizations campaigning on women's rights with an international focus link with women's rights organizations and movements within the UK? 

I’ve been active in the UK women’s movement, and built links with women’s rights activists internationally, and so I want to try to give some personal reflections on what it means to me to build links between movements, and raise some points that I think as feminists we need to discuss.  Please leave comments, it would be great to share experiences to make all our activism stronger and more effective.

First up, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know, gender inequality is not something that happens ‘over there’, to ‘other’ women, although sometimes in international development campaigning we stray too close to the path of portraying exactly that.   Nowhere in the world have women reached equality with men: globally, violence against women will reach one in three of us in our lifetimes; in the UK two women a week are killed by our partners; we earn 14.9% less than men for the same work, and a whopping 55% less if we work in the finance sector; we get fired because we’re pregnant; we’re the first to feel the brunt of the government spending cuts and they cut us deeper.  I could go on, but you get the picture, and it’s not a good one.

There are many feminist activists in the UK, campaigning for change in women’s lives.  A Guardian article last month hailed an “explosion in new grassroots groups” of feminists.  But it was the responses to this article – criticising the lack of representation of black women, of disabled women, of working class women, of older women and of LGBT women in the original article – that gave a more insightful view of the breadth and depth of activism taking place across the country, and the struggles that the women’s movement still needs to face to become inclusive.  As a post by Black Feminists said, “feminism is not All White”.   The Brighton Feminist Collective stated that “if every feminist is not treated as equal, then every single one of us has failed, and we need to shut up shop right now”.  As activists we have to address these issues, have some uncomfortable conversations and challenge ourselves on our own part in perpetuating an image of feminism led by white, middle-class women.

These are important issues to grapple with when thinking about engaging with the women’s movement in the UK.  Which women are we talking to?  How do we engage UK feminists in campaigning for women’s rights in developing countries, whilst ensuring that women’s rights activists from those countries remain in the driving seats of their campaigns?  How can we ensure that the women we engage in our campaigns reflect as broad a spectrum of activists as possible? What do we have to offer women activists in the South anyway, if we can’t get our own house in order? 

From talking to many members of the women’s movement in the UK, through Twitter, over pints, and at demos, I know there’s a huge desire to take action in solidarity with women around the world. But feminists are smart, they want to campaign in the most appropriate way – a way that will support, and not drown out or misappropriate, the voices of women in the global south. 

Feminists have passion, commitment and a multitude of skills to share, often built through collective organisation and action.  So wouldn’t want them on side?  Yet sometimes, campaigns simply put feminists off.  The way that Lush, for instance, have recently shown a woman being violently assaulted to make a point about animal testing, raises huge problems for many feminists I know.  PETA are also repeat offenders for using naked women in their messaging.  Living in a society where women’s bodies are objectified to market the latest goods, we know that the links to inequality, gender stereotyping and discrimination are significant, and many wish that this objectification was not perpetuated by those seeking to advance ‘good causes’.  

A good example of building links between local and global is the No women, no peace campaign, which links women’s rights advocates in Afghanistan, and those who want to support their demands in the UK.  In this case, the campaign coalition clearly stated that the demands were those of women’s rights activists in Kabul towards the international community, and asked UK feminists to reinforce those demands to MPs and government ministers, through petitions, letters, green scarves and vigils.

Whilst there are examples of good practice, genuine linking between international development campaigns and UK based feminists is still a mixed picture.  Building bridges between movements is, I feel, the only way forward to true solidarity and strengthening of our global women’s rights campaigning.  It’s not a straight path to a unified global feminist vision: the path has twists, turns and hazards along the way.  But tread it carefully, and with respect, and we’ll have ourselves a true force to be reckoned with.  


Lee Webster, Womankind

Everyone Seems To Be Talking Women's Rights These Days, So What's The Problem?

This International Women’s Day has highlighted a growing interest in women’s rights from all quarters. However, much of it is focused on women’s rights as a way to bring about economic growth. I would question whether this is really progress. 

Back in 2006 the World Bank’s gender unit proclaimed that ‘gender equality is smart economics’ and this is now mainstream mantra throughout the Bank. Similarly, the Department for International Development (DfID) published a new policy on gender equality in 2007, making the case that tackling gender inequality would increase women's productivity, reduce poverty and hunger, and that educating girls and women would help them lift them and their families out of poverty. And more recently, the Girl Effect proudly states that ‘an educated girl will invest 90% of her future income in her family, compared to 35% for a boy… so as long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change’.

So some powerful institutions – many of whom are often the targets of our campaigning - are now focusing on women and girls as a way to address poverty. What’s not to like?

Well first of all, whatever happened to promoting gender equality and women’s rights as an end in itself? Rather than taking an ‘instrumentalist’ approach that presents gender equality as an investment and a route towards achieving something else – typically economic growth – surely our starting point should be that women's rights are human rights? It is an injustice that women and girls are denied their rights to education, health or a livelihood on the basis of their gender. This is the change we should be calling for.

Secondly, the risk of promoting women’s rights in order to bring economic growth is that it can neglect the root causes of why women are denied these rights in the first place.A strategy built around achieving economic growth ignores the role that the growth agenda has actually played in creating and exacerbating inequalities between men and women. Thirdly, it also results in a narrow focus of advancing women’s rights that is limited to the economic dimensions of women’s empowerment.

Effective campaigning relies on having simple and compelling messages supported by clear demands for change. The key challenge therefore is how do we effectively communicate the multiple causes and dimensions of gender inequality and the limits of an instrumentalist approach to change, whilst at the same time presenting the complex pathways to women’s empowerment? Trying to cram all this in could be a sure-fire way of turning away supporters and campaign targets alike.  It seems so much more tempting to say ‘educate a girl and we can change the world’ than ‘actually we need to address the patriarchal system and neo-liberal agenda that lie at the heart of women’s disempowerment (but I’m afraid we don’t have any quick fixes or easy answers of how we go about it).’

Obviously our campaigning needs to be rooted in addressing the underlying causes and consequences of gender inequality. Otherwise our work is just skating over the surface and missing a valuable opportunity to bring about long term sustainable change in the lives of the women we work with. But this requires tough conversations, often about controversial issues, and the need to build public understanding and support for women’s rights in and of itself. For me, one starting point is to show how our work supporting women’s rights has already made a difference, why it has made a difference, and why realising women’s rights is the real end game.

What do you think? Is there a case for making instrumental arguments for change? If so, where and how can they be made? If not, how can we make rights-based arguments attractive within an instrumentalist-dominated environment? And is it always a case of either-or?


Lucy Hurn, ActionAid