How can an understanding of gender and citizenship inform development policy and empower women? This paper from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) discusses gender and citizenship in the context of development debates and research. Development is largely inattentive to the dynamics of state-society relations – preferring instead to create new models of governance that leave untouched the political relationships that animate society and perpetuate inequality.
Citizenship holds out the promise of releasing the citizen from the constraints of ascribed social relations into a relationship with a neutral arbiter, the state. The development of citizenship in the global South has followed a very different trajectory to that in Europe. While there was progress on women’s rights at an international level in the 1990s there was little progress in making these rights real on the ground.
Despite an increasing focus in development discourse on citizenship, participation and social inclusion, gender relations have not automatically become a starting point for investigating the distribution of rights, resources and recognition. Gender injustice thus remains largely unchallenged:
- For most women in postcolonial societies, ascribed relations shape identity and entitlements. They constrain their ability to access rights and exercise agency beyond the norms, values and practices of ‘bounded’ communities.
- Despite the existence of equality clauses in constitutions, unequal treatment sanctioned by custom, kinship and religious regulations continues to hold sway.
- Customary and religious law is often invoked to maintain inequality. Sometimes the cultural specificity of a group is cited as justification.
- Decentralised government can be as discriminatory as centralised government. It can serve to reproduce elite power at a local level operating along the fault lines of gender, caste and ethnicity inequality.
- Women’s subordinate position in the hierarchical social relations of gender results in self-definitions that mitigate against rights-claiming beyond their socially ascribed entitlements.
Development research, policy and practice have hitherto been averse to incorporating historical evidence in ways that throw light on present relationships and practices. This in turn has reinforced those very relationships and practices that perpetuate inequality. Attempts to build a more inclusive citizenship should focus on:
- exploring forms of association and collective action that can either open up or prevent the democratic space for women’s specific organising
- differentiating between different groups of women and context-specific ways in which women’s rights are framed and fought for
- tailoring the construction of rights to the needs of women who are most affected by the lack of rights which the particular reforms target
- investigating institutions’ accountability, which is key to revealing how they operate: the constitution of gender injustices can be seen in how basic contracts shape membership in a range of social institutions
- exploring the ways in which a sense of entitlement and an identity based on having rights actually develop, and the processes which bring this about.