Confronting assumptions: gender equality

Posted on 19/12/2018
By Heather Cole

I was recently asked to provide input and expertise around ‘gender’ in a workshop for Commonwealth Foundation grant partners; the Foundation has identified this as an area of work in the 2017-2021 strategic plan and recognises the deep connections between gender inequality and the SDGs.

One participant pulled me aside before the workshop and said ‘Before we start, I have to tell you that I really don’t know anything about gender’. My immediate response was: ‘You know everything you need to know, what we need to do is make it visible’.

Their question reminded me of why it can be so hard to talk about ‘gender’ in our programme design; we all live with, and participate in, inequalities around gender, and it can be destabilising and threatening to talk about. Sometimes, it can feel as if we are supposed to ‘know’ what it means and how we want to engage with it. Thinking about how gender inequality operates in practice, and how what we do can contribute to it, as well as concrete ways to challenge it, often generates feelings of apprehension and even defensiveness.

‘Gender equality’ is a concept that most of us agree with in principle – it is hard to find anyone working in development, for example, who would suggest that women should be discriminated against. At the same time, it is also not easy to define what we mean by ‘gender equality’ or to articulate what this might look like in the everyday lives of women and men. It is also not always easy to look at the ways that we participate in and tolerate inequalities in our own lives.

‘Talking about what “should” happen as well as what happens in practice helped us to think about our own assumptions, and about the realities of the contexts we’re working in, and being honest about the realities and needs of women and girls.’

As we worked through the analysis tools in the workshop, and pulled on the threads of how gender inequality is sustained, the conversations moved to the participant’s specific programmes and contexts. We started to dig deep into the ways in which the lives of women and girls can be so different to those of men and boys. There was so much intuitive good practice informing the programme design without necessarily an articulation of the underpinning theory of change. The questions asked reflected the apprehension; is it ok to have programming for women only, or should it be 50-50? What does ‘gender equality’ look like? How do we focus on supporting women and girls without creating additional risks in their lives? How will we know whether our work has made a difference and what kind of difference it has made?

Posing these questions led us to the conclusion that women and girls need specific programming because of long-term, structural disadvantages and marginalisation. We also identified that having 50-50 programming often means that men and boys dominate, and the voices and perspectives of women and girls get lost again as patriarchal dynamics are replicated. This is especially important when we are working at the intersections; men and women with disabilities, for example, will have some experiences in common and at the same time, women will face additional issues that may not be visible or important to men in a mixed group. These might include a significantly higher chance of exposure to sexual violence, responsibility for the care of others, including children, reduced control of resources, and no potential to rely on women in their families to provide care for them. All of these issues matter a great deal to women and have a significant impact on their lives; it is critical for women and girls to have a safe space to work on these together.

‘It takes courage to confront our own assumptions and […] to design programmes that are innovative and take us into new territory.’

A significant part of our discussion revolved around outcomes and indicators, and the importance of disaggregating data so we can see clearly what change our work has made. We looked at the difference between long-term strategic changes, and the importance of not losing sight of the immediate gender needs of women and girls. We also looked at the ways that some of the most important changes and benefits are difficult to measure, and the ways in which we can capture these deep changes more creatively and representatively.

As we worked through the theories of change for each new grant project we considered targeted advocacy and engagement to open up spaces for women to represent their own interests, and the need to build solidarity for women within the public arena. We challenged some of the taken-for-granted assumptions, and looked at what programming might look like if we started from the realities of women’s lives.

Talking about what ‘should’ happen as well as what happens in practice helped us to think about our own assumptions, and about the realities of the contexts we’re working in, and being honest about the realities and needs of women and girls. For example, in contexts where care for children with disabilities is undertaken primarily by women, should we be programming to encourage greater involvement of fathers (because we have an ideal about family life that is shaping our intended outcomes), or should we recognise that the social supports and core relationships of mothers are also often with their sisters, friends and aunties, and work to strengthen these? These kinds of questions are challenging but are essential to our work, and asking them ensures we are in a better position to give women more control over their lives, more opportunity to fulfil their potential and participate in social decision-making.

It takes courage to confront our own assumptions and hopes about gender equality and more to design programmes that are innovative and take us into new territory. This as a process of learning and evolution is meant to bring depth to our analysis and bring us closer to the communities we serve. It is a step toward better programming and stronger outcomes for women and girls. The participant that had approached me with trepidation at the beginning of the workshop took me aside when it had finished: ‘I just didn’t know what I was looking at. My eyes are open and I see it’. The journey has just begun.

Heather Cole is a Gender technical consultant and Doctoral Candidate researching violence against women activism in humanitarian spaces at De Montfort University.