This article examines how the term ‘gender’ found its way into development and explores the consequences of the transposition of an activist analytical category onto the world of aid. It points out the simplifications and slogans that have accompanied its ‘mainstreaming’ and challenges the assumptions on which these ideas have come to depend. It argues for a renewed focus on analysing and transforming unequal and unjust power relations.
‘Gender’ has become a catch-all term for a plethora of competing meanings and agendas. What ‘gender’ means to development workers in developing countries is restricted to a universal set of stock phrases that have little resonance with local interpretations of social relations and practices. The language of gender and development fails to resonate with most people’s lived experience of the varied relationships between and among women and men in different cultural contexts.
‘Gender’ as it has come to be used in development, may close off as well as open up avenues for advocacy or action. ‘Gender’ tends to become fixed as sexual difference. This frames two mutually exclusive categories, ‘women’ and ‘men’. ‘Men’ comes to be equated with power: ‘women’ with powerlessness. ‘Men’ are the victimisers: ‘women’ are their victims. Anything that fails to fit the frame is disregarded. This produces a collection of normative categories that are often shaped more by the preoccupations of development actors than the women they seek to ‘help’.
Recent refocusing of attention on women’s rights and empowerment offers a potential way forward for making visible and transforming inequitable power relations. However, in the development mainstream, women’s empowerment can also become a double-edged sword:
- It creates the space to talk once more of rights and power.
- It serves to highlight the discrimination against women and the persistent material, social and political disadvantages they face.
- On the other hand, it can shift the spotlight away from structural issues of social and economic justice onto the self-improving individual, dislocating the ‘gender agenda’ from the concern with the relational dimensions of power.
In order, effectively, to repoliticise and reinvigorate the ‘gender agenda’, there is a need to see ‘women’ and ‘men’ as plural categories constituted by social practices, including those of development agencies themselves. It is also important to:
- Pay closer attention to everyday lives and struggles in diverse contexts.
- Understand and articulate better what it takes to make a real difference to the relations of power that euphemistic talk about ‘gender equality’ obscures.
- Shift the frame from unhelpful presumptions to a closer analysis of the power relations that create and sustain social injustice.
- Focus on those social practices, including those of development agencies, that can offer liberating alternatives.