Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 4

Making Sense of Gender in Shifting Institutional Contexts: Some Reflections on Gender Mainstreaming

Published on 1 October 2004

For many speakers at the ‘Gender Myths and Feminist Fables’ conference, on which this IDS Bulletin is based, gender mainstreaming has become a hollow discourse, a generator of myths that simplifies the complexity of gender in ways that are counterproductive, and in many ways a constraint on political action by feminists.

These criticisms are not entirely new. As long as gender mainstreaming has been an aspect of the feminist engagement with development, there have been those who have warned of the dangers of political dilution, those that have opposed the takeover of feminist agendas by the state, and the dangers of co-optation. Yet, engagement with the state has been critical for furthering inclusive citizenship and commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment are ubiquitous and often genuine. How do we make sense of these diverse trends? This article offers some reflections on gender mainstreaming, arguing for reviewing its achievements both in the wider context of transformative possibilities, and also in a more modest perspective, scaling down expectations of what it can achieve.

As feminists have sought to alter the terrain of mainstream development, and as this effort has been increasingly internationalised, gender mainstreaming has been the fundamental Gender and Development (GAD) buzzword. The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 and the enormous agenda of transformation and change that was identified gave an impetus to a process that had started with the earlier conference in Nairobi. As Staudt (1997: 3) notes, the ‘explosion of women’s organizational activity and political agenda’ unleashed by the UN Decade coincided with developments over time that resulted in states seeking to ‘legitimize themselves through public policy and participation-based accountability’. Feminists have, therefore, sought out the state as a key partner for change, and gender mainstreaming has been the label associated with strategies adopted by feminists to make the state an agent of transformative change for women.

Partnership with the state has brought with it clear agendas for feminist action in development, based on reversing the “lens” through which development is analysed, and making explicit the underlying rules of social relationships that have legitimised inequality in resource allocation and redistribution. The agenda for influencing the mainstream includes altering public policies, improving implementation and delivery of policies through clear programmes for change in administrative systems, and directly benefiting women through targeted actions and programmes. This is an ambitious agenda, at the core of which is the effort to advocate for change, through training, institutional mechanisms for making gender a more explicit criterion for development programming and effectiveness, and developing “tools” that can help organisations think more deeply about gender relations, away from the earlier “add women and stir approach”. During this time, feminist analysis has also been enriched, partly as a result of greater feminist engagement with mainstream academic institutions and spaces, and has become increasingly more sophisticated, and more politically acute. This has had the effect both of creating greater expectations of state institutions and the gender feminists who occupy advocacy and implementation positions within them, as well as widening the analytical gap between differently located feminist advocates. Standing (this IDS Bulletin) links the ever-widening gulf to the supplementary effect that gender feminism has had – the development of intermediaries in this process, such as consultants, and people skilled through higher education and training programmes on gender and development. Gender mainstreaming, as a subset of the development institutional landscape, has itself begun to have implications for both feminist movements as well as development spaces.

The decade of mainstreaming experience has surfaced many lessons. Many of these are about the nature of the state and its institutions, and the kinds of spaces that are available for promoting transformative change. A key criticism about gender mainstreaming has been the “narrowness” of the strategy despite the complexity of gender relations and the contextual variations in the processes and outcomes related to gender inequalities. Most mainstreaming “machinery” looks the same irrespective of the country; most are located at the national level, rarely reaching sub-state levels where development change may be more manageable, and may more closely reflect the needs and priorities of particular sub-groups. The institutional coverage of mainstreaming actors and efforts has been narrowly within the development “industry” – largely within agencies of development cooperation and national governments, thus narrowing the field of engagement often to donor-initiated debates and programmatic interventions. Gender mainstreaming has thus imposed narrowness on what are actually very diverse processes, conflating policy reform with changes in bureaucratic practice, and confining the analytical gaze to the advancement of women’s “cause” within institutions with often little mandate and power to effect real change.

A second key criticism has been that gender mainstreaming efforts have necessitated simplifying concepts relating to gender inequality and gender relations, which have in turn fuelled unreal expectations of the ways in which social change takes place. The “implicit” models of social change that continue to hold sway, extend older, and somewhat discredited approaches, which viewed investment of resources in women as the key to their “liberation” from relations of subordination. Messages that gender inequality can be managed through adjustments in bureaucratic practice and policy have necessarily relied on discursive strategies that are “instrumental” – i.e. that suggest that investment in women has high pay-offs. By providing a few “jobs for the girls” in this enterprise, the project of emancipating women was seen to have been set in motion. Quite how this emancipatory project was expected to roll out is not clear. Yet, gender mainstreaming has legitimised this approach in its zeal to portray the achievement of gender equality as a matter of getting development cooperation, development policies and development institutions “right” for women. Mostly, this has resulted in the ‘conflation of a particular institutional strategy with processes of social change’ (Woodford Berger, this IDS Bulletin).

A third criticism has been about the way in which this implicit model of social change put forward has taken the steam out of the inherently political nature of feminist transformative visions, and has thus meant that “gender” is not seen as explicitly political (unlike, say, race or class), but more as a need to give visibility to women and their capacities and needs. Complaints about policy evaporation – the process through which gender fades out of the explicit commitments and actions that follow rhetorical claims of the importance of gender and development – and the lack of analytical clarity about what “gender” means continue to dominate assessments of gender mainstreaming. Recent literature on international instruments of policy and resource coordination emphasises both analytical weakness and policy evaporation (Whitehead 2003; see Subrahmanian 2004a for a review). The lack of attention to organisational structures is also noted to act as a constraint on following through more impressive policy statements (Kanji and Salway 2000). When the conceptual clarity within organisations attempting to mainstream gender is itself poor, the lack of translation into policy and practice is unsurprising. Gender mainstreaming itself is a hollow term, as its usage commits the user to neither a clear agenda on gender transformative action, nor a clear institutional transformative agenda. This gives rise to highly varied approaches to mainstreaming, and underdeveloped definitions and understandings of what it is that these processes and strategies are meant to achieve.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Making Sense of Gender in Shifting Institutional Contexts: Some Reflections on Gender Mainstreaming

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Subrahmanian, R. (2004) Making Sense of Gender in Shifting Institutional Contexts: Some Reflections on Gender Mainstreaming. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 89-94

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Ramya Subrahmanian

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Subrahmanian, Ramya
IDS Bulletin, volume 35, issue 4


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