Once Understood, Gender Mainstreaming Promises Better Results for All

by Marcia Greenberg on March 8, 2013

One of Hillary Clinton’s primary legacies as Secretary of State is arguably that she increased women’s visibility and elevated women’s empowerment from a moral to a strategic component of foreign policy. Yet while she promoted resources for and collaboration with women, Secretary Clinton may have inadvertently weakened approaches that promised greater resources and more sustainable results. For over a decade, the international development community has sought to go beyond isolated programs for women to include men and foster positive relationships between them. Yet many have responded to Clinton’s women-focused leadership with “gender projects” that target women alone. While there is good reason to celebrate Secretary Clinton’s accomplishments, it is time to return meaning and attention to gender mainstreaming in order to achieve greater impacts not only for women, but also for their families and communities.

From its origins as a somewhat hazy concept that made its debut in marginal and predominantly political arenas, the term gender has generated pervasive confusion and impeded the potential of its salutary impact. To strengthen the results of development work, it is time to dispel confusion by clarifying the term’s meaning and demonstrating the utility of gender analysis. Gender is not a synonym for women—though it often leads to addressing the previously overlooked needs of women and removing obstacles to their more effective participation and contributions. A “gender perspective” should focus attention on both women and men, while gender analysis and gender mainstreaming really mean much more.

A gender-focused approach involves three stages: observation, analysis, and innovation. First, observation entails purposefully considering the roles and responsibilities of women and men, girls and boys—whether within families, agricultural value-chains, schoolrooms, courtrooms, or boardrooms. But beyond observing their roles and responsibilities separately, a gender perspective means paying attention to men and women together, especially to how they relate to one another. For example, this means not only creating women’s caucuses or women’s business associations, but also strengthening how women and men relate to one another within legislatures or chambers of commerce. Social, economic, and political impacts depend on whether their relations and mutual respect enable them to communicate and collaborate effectively.

Yet observation does not suffice without analysis. Program officers of goodwill and professional integrity have noted that institutionally required collection of sex-disaggregated data has typically resulted only in paper reports and file-cabinets of data. As most knowledge management or monitoring professionals would note, data is not useful unless properly analyzed. Collecting sex-disaggregated data (based simply on the physical attributes of individuals, not on their social roles) is not a mere exercise; analyses should reveal disparities. For example, if there are more boys than girls attending school, what is happening to the girls? If more young women are graduating from university than are young men, what is happening to the young men? If ninety percent of clients for free business development services are male entrepreneurs, why are businesswomen not availing themselves of the resource? And beyond quantitative data, qualitative or empirical observations and analysis are critical for assessing relations between women and men. For example, at a maternal and child health program in Sri Lanka, most infants were brought for weighing by mothers only, with the “positive deviation” of some fathers attending as well. One group in Sri Lanka found that providing fathers with nutritional information improved their understanding, increased collaboration with the mothers, and ultimately raised infants’ weight.

Meaningful gender analysis often requires monitoring and consultation to determine whether policies or programs are reaching the full target population and achieving the expected results. For example, while a review of civic education in Angola in 1997 seemed to suggest that radio programs were reaching ninety percent of the country, further inquiry revealed that the coverage referred to geographic area rather than listeners. If demographic data established that programs were reaching fifty percent of the population and most of them were men, then gender analysis was needed to determine why radio programs were not reaching women—calling for a nuanced understanding of how the lives and practices of women and men differed. In short, gender analysis is really social analysis. It is simply good practice for policymaking, international development, or community development to ensure maximum reach and impact.

To achieve maximum impact, after observation feeds into analysis, analysis must trigger innovation. If the standard operating practices are not reaching the full target population, then it is time to do things differently. If radio programs were not reaching Angolan women, how else might they have been reached? One innovative response was to pass along civic education material to women at their weekly church gatherings.

For policy-makers and international development professionals, paying attention to gender should not be something “other” or extra. Instead, it is part and parcel of doing one’s work well—of striving to understand a target community or the challenge at hand in order to achieve the most effective results. Does it involve women’s empowerment? Yes, sometimes. Does achieving better results require promoting gender equality and gender equity? Yes, sometimes. Yet while those who promote paying attention to gender may include women’s rights advocates, the approach should both engage and benefit broader communities. Insofar as the gender approach of observation, analysis, and innovation yields better results for mainstream work, it should be regarded neither as someone else’s agenda, nor as an additional burden.

Thus “gender mainstreaming” is about employing gender analysis in everything that we do, irrespective of the subject or sector. Often it means going beyond adding small, women-only activities, to ensuring that women participate in and contribute to “mainstream” programs. Other times, it calls for recognizing reciprocal benefits: that men are needed to improve women’s lives, and women to improve men’s. The enhanced well-being of families, communities, and economies depends on engaging the skills, perspectives, and contributions of women alongside and in partnership with men.

Starting with gender analysis, gender mainstreaming can bring women and men together more effectively for social, economic, and political win-wins. Secretary Clinton used her position to shine a light on women’s needs and champion their contributions. Secretary Kerry should now build upon that legacy by restoring gender analysis and requiring gender mainstreaming within both foreign assistance and foreign policy.

 

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