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  • Focus on Gender: The opaque language of gender studies

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Speed read

  • The vast majority of gender papers are by academics in northern institutions

  • The language used in articles and on gender courses can be hard to understand

  • Clear, practical guidance is rare and it may best to produce it outside academia

Top development journals are largely managed and written by academics from the global North, a recent study claims. When it comes to scholarly texts on gender and development, this is certainly true. 

Prominent feminist academics who write about gender inequality are mostly based in Northern institutions. Even if they are from the global South they adopt the opaque ‘northern’ language used in gender and development studies.

“The question is not only whether academic journals need more voices from the South, but also whether development practitioners should be led by academics at all.”

Henrietta Miers


On numerous occasions I have been asked by people in Africa — many working for governments or aid agencies — how they can secure a place on a gender-related course at a British academic institution. Such training is rarely available in Africa, although it is in parts of South America and Asia.

If they secure a place on one of these courses they will arrive to find reading lists that predominantly feature the names of northern scholars, from which they will learn the language of gender and development. They can then return home to apply for a job as a gender expert with the UN or other donor organisations in their capital city.

Too often, these academics write in an opaque language that is only fully understood by their peers. These feminist academics can be a prickly bunch so I am loathe to give concrete examples, but look out, for example, for the different interpretations of ‘women’s economic empowerment’.

Not all northern-based academics write in a parallel world. In 1993 Caroline Moser, a leading academic who remains a fixture on the reading lists of hopeful development practitioners, wrote the definitive guide to gender planning, in which she clearly lists practical actions for integrating a gender perspective to development programming. [1] Moser suggests that an essential step is to carry out an analysis of the practical and strategic needs of women; the former being daily basic needs, the latter being long-term transformative ones. 

Inevitably, feminist academics have devoted pages to critiquing Moser’s manual. They question, for instance, whether a ‘gender need’ should not in fact be considered a ‘gender interest’. This has turned what Moser intended as a practical guide into a focus for academic deliberation. I wonder whether the rights of poor women are in any way enhanced by such a debate?

The question is not only whether academic journals need more voices from the South, but also whether development practitioners should be led by academics at all. A Ugandan lawyer and women’s rights advocate once said to me: “gender language becomes lost in translation — it has remained an academic exercise and people struggle with what it means.”

Practical thinkers who understand the realities of poor women and who speak a language that everyone understands should guide the development community, not feminists in ivory towers.
 
Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 20 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting economic opportunities for poor women.

References

[1] Caroline Moser Gender planning and development: theory, practice and training. (Routledge, 1993)
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