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A new language of ‘transformation’ has emerged. The next step is to go beyond rhetoric, says Henrietta Miers.

The development sector’s focus on gender has moved away from the paradigms of the past — now believed to be too technical and ‘boxed’ into logical frameworks, time-bound, results-oriented, and focused only on addressing women’s needs in specific sectors rather than on reversing balances of power.

Traditional projects targeting women such as vegetable gardening, or poultry production, are no longer considered enough for promoting gender equality.

A new feminist language is emerging, and there are signs of it everywhere.

In the New Strategic Vision for Girls and Women produced by the UK Department of International Development (DFID) in 2011, ‘gender’ was barely mentioned, with a more succinct focus on ‘women and girls’. 

Last year, the government of Sweden announced that a feminist perspective will be applied to all aspects of the country’s foreign policy.

We heard both Neven Mimica, EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, and Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, both calling themselves feminists.  

And the UK Gender and Development Network crystallised the concept by publishing a series of papers analysing feminist alternatives to development and summarising the discussion so far.

So the word ‘feminism’ is becoming more commonplace. This feminist dialogue has reached a consensus that greater participation in the struggle for equal rights is needed by those very women whose rights are being denied. 

Feminist researchers for DFID’s Pathways of Women’s Empowerment programme found that shifts in women’s empowerment are not caused by outsiders’ efforts. Rather, they are the result of women’s movement-building, which is critical for social change. 

Beyond familiar messages

Many papers and guidelines now exist on how to measure the pace of social transformation. These also come with qualitative research to assess changes in concepts such as ‘control’, ‘power’ and ‘social norms’.

Such fresh concepts of social change now sit side by side with old-fashioned technical talk of gender equality. The next challenge is to focus on going beyond lofty rhetoric and putting the feminist paradigm into action.

One conference, held in Rome last month – ‘Step it up together with rural women to end hunger and poverty’ – tried to do just this.

On the face of it, the main messages from the conference, a joint EU/UN initiative, covered familiar ground: inequalities for rural women that stem from a lack of access to land, livestock, water, credit, technology, training and information. These inequalities, it was agreed, must be overcome to end hunger, poverty and malnutrition

We heard that rural women are “active agents of change” whose inequality imposes “significant costs on society” and whose empowerment can provide “multiple development dividends”. And there was evidence quoted to prove the point: if women had the same access to productive resources and rural employment as men, for example, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 per cent, reducing the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.

“For women, one clear step is to translate feminist rhetoric into long-term and informed support for women’s movements — our best chance to redress the gender power imbalances embedded in so many societies.”

Henrietta Miers

A careful listener, however, would have taken home more than these instrumentalist messages that treat women’s equality as a means to an end.

The ‘how’ of transformation

The clue was in the way the conference was introduced on the event’s website, which highlighted what needs to be done differently. 

Signs came up early, in opening speeches that referred to the need to “urgently address the deep-rooted economic, social and cultural barriers” faced by rural women and girls, to “transform underlying social norms, attitudes, behaviours and social systems”, and to “change relations between women and men”.

But it was in the day’s final Round Table – ‘A Gender Transformative Approach to Ending Poverty, Hunger and Undernutition’ – where the language of transformation came clearly to the fore, and the conversation centred around the most important question: how to achieve it.

Fatima Shabodien, Country Director of the NGO Action Aid based in South Africa, challenged the audience by telling them that you cannot ‘projectify’ women’s freedom — locking it into a logical framework with indicators to measure change. Social change is not a linear process but involves contradictions, resistance and setbacks. Action Aid works in communities for a minimum of 10 years and even then it is difficult to perceive the signs of change, she said, adding that the way forward for rural women and girls is clear: women must be placed at the centre of their own struggle. And that takes supporting women’s movements.

Estrella Penunia, Secretary General of the Asian Farmer’s Association, shared an example from Nepal, where the association and other civil society organisations organised activities such as workshops, demonstrations, art work and street drama to advocate for a change in policy to allow land to be registered in the name of both husband and wife. The change in policy came after three years of action, raising the percentage of women with some form of ownership from 10.3 to 19 per cent.

But not all cases of disempowerment are clear-cut. There are women in Northern Nigeria, for example, who control incomes within their home but yet still live in seclusion. Fatimah Kelleher, women’s rights senior associate of WISE Development, said that understanding such complex scenarios calls for accurate on-the-ground information about the lives of women and girls.  

The 2030 sustainable development agenda hopes for “bold and transformative steps”, and stresses the need to realise the human rights of all. For women, one clear step is to translate feminist rhetoric into long-term and informed support for women’s movements — our best chance to redress the gender power imbalances embedded in so many societies.

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. She can be contacted at [email protected]