Is it time for women?

Every Woman for Himself began as a feminist blog but was overtaken by my inability to focus on a single subject for an extended period  and by the excitement of Arab revolutions.

However, despite initial reservations, I have decided to pursue a PhD (if the university will have me). The topic I have arrived at, after much bush-beating about, hemming and hawing and every other euphemism for procrastinating, will have something to do with the gap between rhetoric and action in pursuing women’s equality in the international development sector.

It's a subject that I've been involved in for the last five years and was a source of pain and frustration.

There is a never ceasing discussion on women’s rights and what must be done to empower women and achieve equality. However, real action with tangible results is almost impossible to find. There are women’s organisations and projects around every corner in a country such as Zambia, volunteers, experts and consultants clog our schedules with interviews and we develop sheaves of policies that translate into nothing more than footrests and doorstops.   

At the heart of this ineffectiveness is the nature of the international development sector. This development sector is difficult to define, it not the same as activism nor is it based on community work or a grassroots sector, but it does (in both the north and south) encompass such organisations through funding and networking. Furthermore, it extends to include recipient and donor government structures and agencies. The international sector generally has access to money and expertise that would theoretically cause it to have a far greater impact than grassroots non-governmental organisations.    

But, it does not have a greater impact. In fact one could claim that of all the effort poured into women’s rights and empowerment in Zambia no tangible results can be seen, especially when compared to the amount of time and money invested. Or instance, we can claim that 100% of girls now enrol in school and we can produce a dozen other statistics that show how far we’ve come, but further analysis can illustrate the superficiality of such “progress.”

My proposal will (hopefully) analyse the processes in which international development organisations circumvent the essence of gender equality - confronting power relations with the explicit aim of change that leads to equality for women and other marginalised people.

I detect the moans already. “But equality is different in the south, “imposing foreign concepts” ad nauseam, ad infinitum.

But my questions will include, in relation to the development sector; how can we know what equality in the south looks like, when we have yet to witness it? Is the trend towards cultural and definitional relativism in gender equality work an indication of the failure (or the fear of failure) of current paradigms of gender equality in the development sector? Additionally, are current systems of prioritisation, indicator and results based programming and management in development organisations compatible with the programmatic needs of women’s rights and empowerment work? How does political interference limit the effectiveness of such work?

The last two questions are reinforced by the news that the UN’s new agency for women, UN Womenis an organisation that could easily sink into obscurity” and that it doesn’t have the resources it requires to make an impact. What possible mass effect can an organisation have when its political agenda and programmatic needs are already limited?

With luck and a pinch of tenacity this may become my proposal and I would be really glad to hear opinions and suggestions.

Photographs: Alessandro Vannucci, Flickr; L Thompson, Water Aid       


Samuli said...

You go girl! This sounds great, I'll try to comment a bit:

On scope: It may be difficult to draw the line between the international development sector and the so-called grass-roots organizations, which are often financed by the same donors. Observing the (mis)communication between gender advocates and 'the communities' could also shed light on why the agenda is going nowhere.

On resources: Maybe you are saying it there already, but just to reiterate that the level of funding of UN Women or whatever they call it this week is not relevant as long as they have no clue how the money could be effectively used.

On the solution: It'll take some years before you are writing the conclusions of your study, but if you believe that there is a better way to do things, maybe it is possible to include some cases where real change has happened and try to understand what caused it. If any real change is outside the realistic working scope of an aid agency, it would be good for them and their funders to know it too.

Heidi said...

Hi Mwila -
This is super exciting! I wish you all the best refining your topic and also getting University acceptance/support. I don't have any academic expertise that would help refine your topic, but here are three aspects of your ideas that I find interesting. Feel free to ignore them if they aren't helpful! Lots of love, Heidi

Aspect 1: "Awareness Raising". It seems like huge efforts have been put into awareness raising initiatives for gender issues in Zambia, just like they have for HIV/AIDS. At most meetings I went to in Zambia, people talked about the importance of having women present and speaking. However, I also didn't observe this awareness raising having any notable effect. Women were often reluctant to speak up if their opinion was counter to a man's opinion, or if they did speak up their views were seen as less important.

Aspect 2: The Culture Quandary. I often found myself wondering how you tell the difference between a cultural norm that should be respected and a repressive cultural practice that should be challenged. I think that many development agencies ponder this question too - or should be pondering it. For example, consider the cultural practice that women do all the housework. It is certainly a cultural norm that goes way back, but yet it also holds women back from pursuing education.

Aspect 3: Community Driven Initiatives. It seems like this is getting a lot of air-play in the development world now. Agencies should be doing what the community wants them to do. I believe this is important, but I also recognize situations in which a community is so insular that it does not have a vision of how it can improve in a way that is at all in-line with what an agency is interested in or mandated to do. The answer here I am sure is found somehow in mutual education (both the community and the agency) and creative compromise, but I don't think it's a clear or easy answer. For example, if a community places a high value on motherhood, it will be challenging for a program that postpones/prevents motherhood to find a productive partnership.