Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 4

Demythologising Gender in Development: Feminist Studies in African Contexts

Published on 1 October 2004

Feminism – an international political and intellectual movement to challenge the subordination of women – has many roots and trajectories.

The theoretical and practical aspects of this movement draw connections between the local and the global manifestations of women’s ongoing subordination, across the various movements that seek to advance liberation and development, and across the various academic disciplines that organise social theory.

The impact of feminism on the global development industry has led to many things, only some of which are as radical and progressive as their instigators dreamed. The interaction between feminism and development has generated a series of approaches to development, a need for gender expertise – something of a travelling circus of experts – gender technocrats touting a new kind of export product, whose brand-name has shifted with the decades, from Women in Development (WID) to Women and Development (WAD) to Gender and Development (GAD) to gender mainstreaming. These new women (and some gender-expert men) service the industry, but their value to the alleged beneficiaries of development remains debatable, as conditions of ordinary women and men in the former colonies of the West continue to worsen. Developmental feminism can be understood as a product of the liaison between feminism and the development industry, and can be traced back to the initiation of the global development interest in women, and was early manifest in the UN Decade of the 1970s and 1980s.1 If one were to take a long view, one might be tempted to draw an analysis that examines developmental feminism, tracing it back to precursors in feminist internationalism and the idea of global sisterhood. These were roundly challenged for their ethnocentrism when women from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean joined North American and European women on the international stages of the UN Decade for Women (1975–85).

Nationally-based expressions of feminism took various forms, some radical, some liberal. Both state feminism and development feminism are organised around a liberal politics of entryism, i.e. getting women into existing institutions and into development, rather than transforming these. Both display very pragmatic tendencies that have taken on new import in the era of neo-liberalism. Whatever trajectory one traces, it is clear that developmental feminism has been the result of at times quite complex negotiations that reflect the rapid growth and proliferation of feminist thought and strategy on the one hand, and the long arm of much more powerful players in the development industry on the other. The unequal power and authority has ensured a dynamic of appropriation and incorporation that constantly subverts and depletes transformative feminist agendas. The only evidence I have for this assertion is the fact that in real terms, women at the post-colonial periphery have seen their prospects deteriorate further with each new development era. A few years ago I noted that:

The United Nations response to international feminism might have been a case of radical politics being incorporated and neutralised, but it nonetheless signalled the growing currency of feminist concerns within the global arena … this created … institutional needs for WID expertise, which in turn generated a bureaucratic discourse on women in development. The fact that this bureaucratic discourse developed largely within the practical exigencies of conducting rapid appraisals and developing politics and project proposals meant that it was often far removed from the liberatory concerns of the international women’s movement … (Mama 1997: 417)

African feminists have been consistently critical of the manner in which African nation-states jumped onto the WID bandwagon in ways that in the end failed to advance more radical and liberatory feminist agendas.

Today, now that the state has been rolled back, and in some instances collapsed entirely, one might want to speak less of bureaucratisation and more of marketisation. The poorly defined and even more poorly understood logic of “market forces” has largely supplanted the hegemony, and some might say the protection of, the state. That this shift has been accompanied by financial stringencies that thwart and subvert social justice agendas whenever these do not “add value” in the immediate term, only makes it harder to live with. Basically, it produces a levelling down instead of a levelling up of the various public and educational services that a tax-paying public might reasonably expect not to have to pay for.

Within the world of global development feminism has made complicated inroads, the product of complex negotiations within and across the hierarchies of power that drive the development industry. Each apparent advance has generated its own challenges and risks; each manoeuvre has been greeted with new manoeuvres. As we enter the “knowledge society”, a key concern must be the global inequalities played out in the arena of knowledge production, in which I include feminist knowledge production.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Demythologising Gender in Development: Feminist Studies in African Contexts

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Mama, A. (2004) Demythologising Gender in Development: Feminist Studies in African Contexts. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 121-124


Amina Mama

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Institute of Development Studies
Mama, Amina


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