Development Policy and Gender Mainstreaming: An Uneasy Partnership

Development Policy and Gender Mainstreaming an Uneasy Partnership Feminist Foreign Policy

Women work.  Whether it is in the home, in a field, or in a skyscraper, women are constantly working.  Women also spend money, driving 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, either for themselves or on behalf of someone else.  They influence both micro- and macroeconomic trends and so too are directly affected by economic development policy.  And since the 1990s, development policy has supposedly taken note of these patterns with the adoption of gender mainstreaming.  

Gender mainstreaming is a phrase that gets thrown about often, but one could be forgiven for being unaware as to how it is actually implemented on a development project.  Look up most any development organisation, and you are sure to find a small disclaimer along the lines of ‘we at so-and-so recognise the importance of gender perspectives and aim to mainstream gender on…’  Often, this common phrase is offered without a clear definition of what gender mainstreaming is - which begs the question: what is gender mainstreaming and why, if we ‘mainstream’ gender, do we still need a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) devoted entirely to gender equality?

UN Women defines gender mainstreaming as ‘a globally accepted strategy for promoting gender equality. Mainstreaming is not an end in itself but a strategy, an approach, a means to achieve the goal of gender equality. Mainstreaming involves ensuring that gender perspectives and attention to the goal of gender equality are central to all activities - policy development, research, advocacy/dialogue, legislation, resource allocation, and planning, implementation and monitoring of programmes and projects.’  In short, it’s a consideration of a project’s implications with a nod to gender.   

Although ideas surrounding ‘women in development,’ and ‘gender and development,’ have influenced international development projects since the 1970s, countries now largely frame their development policy around the SDGs and use gender mainstreaming as a guiding principle.  The SDGs consist of seventeen goals which 193 countries have agreed to incorporate into their policy and governance by 2030.  These goals, which range from gender equality, healthy life under the sea, and innovation and infrastructure through international partnerships, were negotiated over the course of three years and narrowed down from approximately 300 originally proposed SDGs.  Now, signatories are required to show how they are implementing these goals in their own framework, and so many institutions, programs, and states simultaneously include gender mainstreaming in this process.  

The challenges to gender mainstreaming in development policy are mainly due to a lack of conviction.  Although organisations can often quite easily demonstrate an SDG that they are targeting through their work, less effort is given into proving how they have considered gender.  Many have been reported to show that they have claimed to consider gender by simply noting something that is commonly used by women, like a bridge.  More shockingly, an organisation which wanted to build a dam that would have seriously impacted the public's way of life and caused the displacement of thousands of people from the surrounding villages, said they had indeed considered the gendered implications because 50% of the people using the water provided by the dam would be women.

However, all is not lost.  Over the last few years, many organisations have raised the bar regarding the process of mainstreaming gendered perspectives.  Development organisations operating in Pakistan have been trying to improve education by incorporating a gendered perspective, which led to them building toilets in schools.  It was noticed that while boys do not care as greatly where they use the bathroom, young girls were noted to sometimes feel more embarrassed.  This issue is amplified when a girl begins menstruating.  While attending school when menstruating should be possible, without access to toilets or sanitary products at school, girls often have little choice but to stay at home.  Of course, this has a significant impact on girls' education.  It's estimated that 1 in 10 girls in Africa will miss school when they have their periods.  Continuously missing days at school leads to higher dropout rates altogether, and puts girls at greater risk of child marriage or getting pregnant at a younger age.  By simply taking into consideration access to toilets and sanitary products, development projects can effectively improve livelihoods for boys and girls.  

The success of gender mainstreaming is still dependent on the effort that goes into implementing it. Superficial statements on an organisation's website are not enough; they must develop clear guidelines on gender mainstreaming.  It falls down when people are unwilling to champion gender mainstreaming and pursue its incorporation into effective sustainable development projects.  In taking the time to thoroughly ensure gender is at the heart of every development project, the process of policy planning through implementation means ideal conditions can indeed be met for the sincere marriage of development policy and gender mainstreaming;  a partnership that will boost the economy, help eradicate gender inequality and promote sustainability.  


Lydia Birtwistle-Sawyer recently graduated from SOAS, University of London with an MA in Gender Studies.