Gender talk in development organizations

As a feminist, I cringe whenever I hear the word “gender” these days.

Development aid workers are some of the most condescending groups of people I know, especially when it comes to women in developing countries.  It makes me cringe when people suggest the need to “empower women” by telling them to eat better, care for household nutrition, and cook diverse, nutritious meals.  Don’t they realize that these women are already trying their best?  That they represent a vulnerable segment of population in a bottom billion country? That some of them are having to borrow cash for drinking water?  Don’t impose your values and guilt-trip poor rural mothers.  I am pretty certain that if these women have as much wealth and income as the yuppies and hipsters I met in Brooklyn Heights and Prospect Park, they will be buying fresh, organic produce and shopping at Farmers Markets all the time too, with a snazzy pair of Dior hanging out over their cheekbones.

Women are agents of change and only they can empower themselves.  So, yes, encourage communities to open arms and create options to involve women, but don’t turn “women empowerment” and “gender equality” into some log frame numbers.  Don’t put vague “gender mainstreaming” into your contracts.  Don’t dehumanize us.

On that note, I highly recommend an article titled “Talking of gender: words and meanings in development organizations” by Ines Smyth.  She published the said article in a book called Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, downloadable here.

One thing that Smyth struck a cord in me is this.  When the idea of empowerment began, it is considered a “process” where “individuals acquiring the power to think and act freely, exercise choice, and to fulfill their potential as full and equal members of society” (DFID).  Today the term empowerment is no longer a process.  It is instead treated as a outcome, as in MDGs.  And this quick and dirty approach is particularly troubling.

2 thoughts on “Gender talk in development organizations

  1. I can’t agree with you more. I have been working in the development field since August, and i can’t help but notice how the word “gender” is used. All of us in the field advocate for it but we have no real way to measure it, there are no benchmarks and many organizations just do it for show. I think there needs to be a more holistic conversation in the field regarding truly empowering women, and searching for ways to actually measure “empowerment”. I worked with a microfinance think-tank and we advocate for “gender equity” we say giving loans to women “empowers” them but we can never really prove that!


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