Deepening gender and development analysis, addressing violence

11 June 2015

During May, the Sexuality, Poverty and Law programme at IDS sponsored the participation of four European grass roots activists to attend one of the world’s most respected transformative training programmes, Vishtar’s Gender, Diversity and Social Transformation in India. This is the second of four reflections from their journey.

The second week at Visthar began with a day on sexuality and minority gender and sexual identities. A male member of the group who openly identifies as gay started by telling the story of how he had come to identify as gay and the challenges, prejudices and discrimination he had faced throughout his life, answering questions from the rest of the group. This was followed by a review of different concepts, covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, and asexual. The afternoon featured a presentation and Q&A session with an external panel, consisting of homosexual, bisexual and trans activists working for the recognition and empowerment of sexual and gender minorities in India.

‘Homosexual acts’ are criminalised under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law introduced by the British, and such minorities face the kind of daily discrimination and abuse that will speak to the experiences of members of the same minorities pretty much everywhere else in the world. It was clear that among participants of the course there were varying degrees of familiarity with the concepts introduced, and some participants later stated that they had themselves held prejudicial attitudes towards people who did not conform to heterosexual, cis-gendered expectations. It is testament to the ethos of mutual respect that has been fostered in the group that all questions and comments made, whilst sometimes showing a lack of exposure to the concepts, did not cause any offence.

The rest of the week involved delving deeper into gender analysis, looking at how gendered power relations manifest themselves in differing social and domestic roles, access and control over resources, needs and how they are or are not met, and subjection to physical and psychological violence. An access vs. control over resources exercise demonstrated quite neatly how, in all of the represented countries, women’s comparable access to resources in relation to men masked their lack of control. A comprehensive list the group came up with of things women needed for empowerment were organised into ‘primary gender needs’ and ‘strategic gender needs’ – or those that if met would improve conditions, and those that would have a transformative impact on gender relations. We then looked at approaches to women and development, scrutinising the assumptions, analyses, goals and actions associated with them.

The group came to a consensus on those that reduce gender inequality and patriarchy to issues of ‘women’s welfare’, ‘anti-poverty’ approaches, or (worse) ‘wasted capacity for women’s role in production’; these really didn’t inspire much confidence from participants. Top-down ‘equality’ approaches (focusing on institutions, structures, legislations and laws) were viewed favourably by some members of the group, but by far the favoured approach was the ‘empowerment’ approach; viewing overlapping systems of oppression (caste, race, class/socio-economic, age, ability, sexuality, etc) as targets for social transformation alongside gender, grassroots mobilisation and movement building as the primary means of social transformation, consciousness-raising and targeted at dismantling gendered division of labour, meeting strategic gender needs, equalising access and control over resources and minimising/eradicating gendered violence. One can’t help but feel that the facilitators led us to the conclusions they themselves held, but from the perspective of someone committed to revolutionary politics it was great to see a diverse group of people settle on a consensus that was truly challenging and ambitious with little resistance or wavering.

Putting all of these tools and concepts together, we went round the group sharing projects from our personal experiences, ranging from activist campaigning, pushing female empowerment agendas in social and political spheres, meeting basic needs of communities to academic research and development projects. We assessed each according to the discussions and conclusions we had reached in previous days, looking at the extent to which they focused on women in reproductive, productive or community roles, addressed practical or strategic gender needs of women, assessed which (if any) of the different development approaches they fell into, and whether they were sensitive at all the gender inequality in the first place.

It was interesting to see how projects that on paper sounded unproblematic, when placed under such scrutiny showed signs of reinforcing rather than challenging gender inequalities and female disempowerment. Using role-play, we acted out a marital counselling service that one of the participants worked in, with short briefings from the facilitators. It was fascinating to see how the same project on paper could have very different outcomes depending on the underlying assumptions, attitudes and goals of the practitioners; one that totally denied the female party any avenue for self-empowerment, another that sought to affirm and enable her right to it.

The final days were on violence against women, which started with an exhibition of dolls made by Francoise Bosteel, a current resident at Visthar. Her doll exhibition drew on real-life stories, both anger-inducing and inspiring, and she spoke about how her touring exhibition draws out deep emotions from many women who themselves can relate to the something they show. “It is the dolls and the stories they represent speaking to people, not me”, Francoise explained.

We took four of the dolls back to the classroom, representing domestic violence, rape, violence in the workplace and state violence against women. It took more than a day to address these serious issues in class, and at risk of leaving us all very despondent, facilitators charged us with the task of coming up with a strategy for addressing domestic violence using techniques from theatre of the oppressed. It began slowly, as we debated each of our theatrical interventions and the difficulties and challenges being sidestepped, but somehow a set of 5 still-frames embodying the entire group’s proposed strategies escalated into a class-demonstration, involving everyone passionately chanting, “We Want Justice!” whilst marching in unison around our learning environment. (The final still-frame was a call-to-arms, a coalition of the oppressed, and an invitation for everyone to join them on a militant public demonstration of outrage). A fitting end to the week.

Dan Glass - is an award-winning activist, academic, performer and writer who was named as one of Attitude Magazine’s campaigning role models for LGBTQI youth + a Guardian ‘UK youth climate leader’. An agitator from the Training for Transformation educational programme born out of the Anti-Apartheid movement, the core of Dan's work is the development of critical consciousness and creativity to spur people 'to read their reality and write their own history'.

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