Focus on Gender: Moving on from top-down gender policies

Copyright: N. Durrell McKenna/Wellcome Images

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  • Donor-driven gender policies are failing to help poor women
  • Projects in Nepal and India show the value of giving local women a say
  • Building on such work could help ensure policies are grounded in the realities of those they are intended to serve

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The process of creating new global development goals offers a chance to move away from top-down gender policies, says Henrietta Miers.

Successful sustainable development initiatives from the least developed countries will be highlighted through a series of reports and open dialogues in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals debate — starting at a meeting in New York next month — with a panel of experts tasked to transform the image of these countries from victims to participants on the global stage.

Here is a much-needed chance to move away from donor-driven gender policies and listen to southern women's voices, resulting in a home-grown feminist agenda that reflects the voices of the poor women whose needs gender policies have been striving to serve. There are hopeful signs that this is happening.

Last December, the UK Gender and Development Network hosted an online discussion entitled 'Feminist Alternatives to Development' in which a consensus was reached that gender policies, imposed on the South by Northern donors, are depoliticised, technocratic and lacking in transformatory potential. A synthesis report of the discussions made it clear that feminist movements from poor countries must have their voices heard on the international stage. [1]

The discussion cited innovative sustainable development projects that raise poor women's profile as examples of what to strive for. For example, women in remote Nepalese communities have become advocates for change by communicating their climate change concerns to policymakers through video technology in a project initiated by the charity Action Aid in 2008. And the Community Awareness Centre — a small NGO in the Indian Himalayas — promotes women as community leaders in local efforts to combat climate change through the more sustainable use of forests. [2]

The UK Institute of Development Studies has provided a wealth of material on gender and climate change, including several case studies that showcase women as leaders and innovators of adaptation.

In Malawi, for example, female smallholders have taken advantage of changing rainfall patterns to produce a second maize crop and overcome acute food shortages.

The panel of experts tasked with listening to voices from poor countries in the post-2015 debate must continue what has already been started by ensuring that the rich and varied experiences of poor women are included in their activities. Widely circulating summaries and analyses of these experiences would be a good start, and would go some way towards moving away from the top-down gender policies that have dominated development for so long.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Gender and Development Network Feminist Alternativesto Development:Online Discussion Report (Gender and Development Network, April 2013)

[2] United Nations Rural women in the Himalayas are making their voices heard (United Nations Radio, Retrieved 29 May)