Current challenges for women’s rights and development

Sarah Jackson | Nov 30, 2011

Women’s rights are currently high on the international development agenda. But how do we make sure our cause is being championed in the way that best delivers the change that women themselves want to see? How can we shape a gender agenda that is genuinely responsive to the challenges and complexities of women’s lives and struggles?

These questions were at the heart of discussion at aGender and Development Network (GAD) and Development Studies Association event for UK based practitioners, academics, students and activists last week, which Womankind helped to organise (as we’re a member of GAD).

Objects of rescue and magic bullets

Andrea Cornwall, Professor of Anthropology and Development in the School of Global Studies at Sussex and Director of the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment International Research Programme Consortium, began the talks with a quick history of women and development to frame the discussion of current issues.

International development grew out of colonialism and Cornwall highlighted the way that European colonialism introduced new constraints and new opportunities for women through the three Cs: Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce. Women became objects of colonial concern and rescue, and viewed as key to the development of their communities, tools through which to improve education, hygiene and sexual morality.  Even today women and girls in the developing world are often seen as either ‘objects of rescue’ or a ‘magic bullet’ to solve development problems. But as Professor Cornwall showed, this instrumental approach to women’s role in development has a long history.

Victims and heroines

She went on to outline two dominant narratives that have emerged around women in development over the years – one in which women are victims, which focuses on their helplessness and the assumed moral authority of development agencies. The other is the ‘heroine’ narrative, in which women are praised as being industrious, selfless, survivors and agents of change to an extent that gender relations and inequality are left out of the equation. Of course there is truth in both, but these narratives have become so reductive that the experiences and concerns of real women can get lost. For example there is generally silence around women’s resistance and self-mobilisation, problems between women, and women’s active sexuality.

Without keeping gender relations on the table there’s a risk that ’empowerment’ becomes just ’em-ment’ by leaving out the power. Cornwall called for the development community to ‘re-position power’ in discussions about women and development and recognise and celebrate women’s resistance. She ended her talk with a video showing the positive work of SANGRAM’s VAMP project with women working in prostitution in India, called ‘Save us from saviours’:

Save Us From Saviours from adam lavis on Vimeo.

The dangers of private sector influence

Next Tina Wallace, Research Associate in International Gender Studies at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford talked about some of the risks involved in the way that development organisations increasingly use private sector language and approaches, and the way some large corporations are even influencing the development policy agenda. She expressed her concern at PR agencies and advertisers employed by charities and NGOs using shocking or exploitative images and language and oversimplified messages in the media. Although the struggle to stay competitive but with ethical, responsible marketing is something that all charities face, Wallace highlighted the specific danger for the international development sector because our constituents are often geographically and technologically distant and unable to hold us to account.

Learning from feminists in Nicaragua

Finally Helen Dixon, a British-Canadian-Nicaraguan feminist writer, activist and artist who has just returned to the UK after 23 years of living and working in Nicaragua talked about her experiences. She explained that one of the strengths of the Latin American feminist movement is its balance of action and reflection. They too have encountered a widespread de-politicisation of the feminist agenda and felt pressure to ‘translate’ their work into institutional language.

Dixon outlined what she felt had worked well for Nicaraguan feminists: not viewing power as an object or possession, thinking of it as a verb not a noun. And seeing that empowerment is not something that is given to you, rather it is something you develop yourself. She also emphasised the importance of developing horizontal and inclusive movements which are defined as feminist but don’t work in isolation from other social change movements.

Continuing the conversation

Following the talks the attendees split into four groups to discuss the issues and questions arising. In our group we had a productive and interesting discussion about how to agree and promote a more nuanced alternative to the ‘victim’ and ‘heroine’ narratives around women and development. I am very much looking forward to reading the report from the event and continuing the conversation – these issues are too important to ignore.


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