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.