Improving development impact on gender


Poverty has a woman’s face. You cannot be serious about tackling poverty unless you deal with gender inequality. Seventy percent of people who live in extreme poverty (less than US$1 per day) are women and girls.

The unequal power relations between men and women play out in hundreds of ways: women are prevented from owning land and property; two-thirds of children without primary education are girls; and worst of all, perhaps, the violence against women, including trafficking and sexual abuse, which is prevalent in so many countries. As an international NGO, Oxfam is quite clear about why it has to focus on promoting and achieving gender equality in its work.

So far, so good. The key challenge then is how to build in gender issues right across the organisation and across all our work. It is not enough to have programmes specifically relating to women’s development, important though these are.

All development work and humanitarian action has to be considered in the light of gender inequality.

It is also important that gender issues are looked at in terms of human rights. We have to be careful that we are not imposing our values on other societies, but international conventions and agreements about people’s basic rights do exist.

Yet in so many countries of the world women are not able to access rights enshrined in conventions, or even in international laws. There will still be dilemmas about what we do and how we do it, but using basic human rights for women gives Oxfam and our partners in the field a sound platform on which to build.

Gender and organisations Organisations need to show they are serious about gender by setting out their policies and providing leade ership. There is often an apparent contradiction between setting up a special unit to champion gender issues and mainstreaming gender across the organisation.

There are dangers in seeing these as opposing strategies. It is very easy to pigeon-hole gender into a separate unit and assume ‘they’ are doing it. Equally, mainstreaming can mean disappearance, and little getting done if gender is just ‘added on’ to people’s jobs.

Oxfam has tried various mixes in its time. For twelve years, 1984–96, it had a gender and development unit, which dramatically moved the organisation forward,  so that Oxfam was known as a leading institution in gender and development. The unit was eventually closed because it was felt it had become isolated and was not developing the whole organisation.

Recently, we have undertaken a gender review and realised that again we have to put increased leadership and effort int o achieving gender equality. Our current strategy is to ensure that gender specialists are spread throughout the organisation, with support from centrally-based advisers and, crucially, from managers at every level.

Most development agencies are now strongly aware of gender issues and try to build them into programmes. Some of the best known development work has also empowered women, from micro-credit schemes to give women more economic control, or support to women’s organisations so they can fight for their rights, through to legal change and changing attitudes.

But we can hardly feel proud of what we have achieved when we also have continuing exposure of sexual abuse issues in humanitarian situations in which staff of aid agencies have been implicated.

We all have to ensure that we have basic codes of conduct in place so that all staff know what is and is not expected of them, and that beneficiaries know this too, so that they know where to go if things go wrong.

We have to go further though. We have to build in ways of working that reduce the possibility of abuse in humanitarian responses   for example, by ensuring that women can exercise control in food distribution, and staff members monitor the situation.

It is hard to imagine anything more devastating than having to give your own or your young daughter’s body to get the meagre rations to keep your family alive and to which you are entitled.

That is the worst case of aid agencies’ behaviour around gender, and I am looking forward to experimenting with new approaches to peer review across agencies so that we can become much more accountable to beneficiaries, our donors, and the wider public – before our reputations are tarnished forever.

Change in power relations Beyond getting our own houses in order, we do have to do more thinking about how change can be brought about in power relations. In Oxfam we are planning to do more on advoc cacy and campaigning issues, alongside our programme work. For example, we are leading a public campaign on violence against women in South Asia.

Of course we are undertaking, with partners, work on the ground in communities, but we think we will need to move to change hearts and minds more widely if we are going to make a difference. In many countries,  we are  lobbying governments to change laws and to build gender issues into national planning, for example into Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.

It is wonderful to visit programmes across the world and feel that women have grown in confidence as a result of economic or social empowerment. My personal best moment was in Lima when I was talking to    formidable group of women who run the community kitchens on the teeming shantytown hillsides.

Their mutual solidarity had given them such confidence that they had stood outside the town hall until the corrupt local mayor had agreed to stand down. Women’s resourcefulness and women’s strength can be formidable. Gender and men

But there is one more area where we must pay serious attention, and that concerns gender and men. Gender is not only about women – it is also about gender relations and the different roles that men and women play. I am very concerned that empowering women is sometimes seen as disempowering men, as if it is a zero-sum game for poor people. It is not – it is about achieving equality and justice for the benefit of all people. Also, I am very concerned if, for example, we encourage women to build irrigation channels or roads, without changes to their existing work in the household and in the fields. Women’s empowerment is about supporting their ability to negotiate and achieve more justice and equality in their daily lives, freeing them up to take on new opportunities.

We do have to attend to the roles of men and women, and if women are to be major economic players in poor households, then men’s roles must also change. The most warming example I saw of this was in talking  to a small group in a village in the Indian Rajasthan Desert. One man shamefacedly admitted that he now collected the wood for fires because his wife had become a weaver. It was brave of him to do it, and even braver of him to confess to it in front of his male peers.

We need to applaud and encourage men to work more  widely for gender equality. We have a much greater chance of achieving women’s basic rights if we attend to the changes needed in men’s work and roles too.

And we have to ensure that all staff, especially men in our own organisations, are committed to gender equality, and feel confident and able to make their own contribution to achieving it.

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