Focus on Gender: Put politics back into gender debates

Women politics rights.jpg
Copyright: Sanjit Das / Panos

Speed read

  • The case for investing in women and girls is increasingly made in economic terms
  • Gender equality is a human right and not just a means to another end
  • It’s time to reignite this political ideal as the driver of women’s empowerment

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A recent paper has criticised girl-centred development campaigns, claiming that they attempt to further economic growth under the guise of ‘girl empowerment’. Hopefully such criticism will encourage deeper reflection on the ethics of using economic, technocratic arguments to promote gender equality. All girls are entitled to gender equality as a human right, not as a means to make their countries richer.  

Aid agencies promote the economic case for investing in women and girls and thus obscure the more fundamental reasons for doing so. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last year (22-25 January), the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon claimed that each percent increase in female education translates into an average GDP growth of 0.3 percentage points. [1] A paper for the World Bank estimated that the economic cost of violence by intimate partners against women and girls can amount to between 1.2 per cent and 3.7 per cent of GDP. [2] But causal links such as these are impossible to prove.
Development initiatives to promote ‘women’s economic empowerment’ are often characterised by short-term planning cycles and hubristic, unrealistic targets.  For example, the UK’s Department for International Development, in its New Strategic Vision for Girls and Women published in 2011, boasted of its planned initiatives to improve access to financial services for over 18 million women, to secure access to land for 4.5 million women and, by 2014, to support 700,000 girls in secondary education. [3]

“Gender equality is a human right, not a means to national growth.”

Henrietta Miers

Technocratic approaches to gender equality have strayed a long way from transformative feminist theories of development, which sought to reshape institutions to be more inclusive and equal. For example, the network of southern feminists called DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era) who came together in 1984 to work for gender justice, dreamed of a world where hierarchies, power and gender subordination were broken down. [4]
Caroline Moser’s seminal work on gender planning in the early 1990s acknowledged its political element. [5] She argued for a focus on women’s strategic as well as practical needs — through measures to target women’s political participation and to tackle institutionalised discrimination and male violence, for example.  
Two years later, following the 4th UN Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, the phrase ‘gender mainstreaming’ came to the fore. It became a means of articulating the implementation of post-Beijing policies, and it is around this phrase that much of the recent criticism about ‘girl empowerment’ lies. Ten years after Beijing, a review of progress concluded there had been limited success: the failure to transform institutions, the evaporation of policies, negative organisational culture, and continuing resistance to change were identified as persistent problems. [6] Somewhere along the way the political element of donor gender policies has gone astray. Too often, as the academic Ruth Pearson wrote in 1999, ‘rather than gender mainstreaming leading to transformed development, “gender” itself has been transformed…it has been depoliticised’. [7]
Gender equality is a human right, not a means to national growth. We need to return to the political ideology of the feminists who acknowledged this.  We need to remember the words of the feminist Patti O’Neill who, referring to her experience working for government bureaucracies, said “I see gender equality and women’s empowerment as profoundly, profoundly political”. [8]

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.


[1] Ban Ki-moon The case for investing in girls (United Nations, 22 January 2014)
[2] Violence against women and girls resource guide (The World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and The Global Women’s Institute, 2014)
[3] A new strategic vision for girls and women: stopping poverty before it starts (DFID, 2011)
[4] Gita Sen & Caren Grown (for DAWN): Development, crises and alternative visions: Third World women’s perspectives (DAWN,1987)
[5] Caroline Moser Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training (Routledge, 1993)
[6] Fenella Porter and Caroline Sweetman (editors) Mainstreaming Gender in Development, A Critical Review (Oxfam, 2005)
[7] Ruth Pearson Rethinking gender matters in development. In: Tim Allen & Allen Thomas (editors) Poverty and development in the 1990s (Open University,1999)
[8] Patti O’Neill in conversation with Rosalind Eyben ‘It’s fundamentally political’: renovating the master’s house. In: Rosalind Eyben and Laura Turquet (editors) Feminists in development organizations: changes from the margins (Practical Action Publishing, 2013)