Inequality keeps women poor, illiterate and unhealthy; it undermines the lives of children; in short, it places a dead hand on economic potential. The question is how to reduce inequality, if not remove it altogether.
Gender mainstreaming is one way. The aim is to address discrimination through programmes and strategies that increase the abilities of women (or men, if they are at a disadvantage) and their opportunities, as well as fostering a better understanding of their rights through information dissemination, training and education. The emphasis has to be on initiatives that help women (and men) to become the agents of their own development and empowerment. An irrigated rice project in Northern Cameroon failed to attract farmer interest because the project designers had not used any gender analysis and failed to understand the intra-household conflicts over labour allocation and compensation. Women were not assigned land, but were expected to work in their husband’s rice fields. According to traditional practices, women were entitled to a cash payment from their husbands in return for work in their rice fields. Many women felt the payment they would receive was really insufficient and therefore they reduced their time devoted to rice cultivation. The good and potentially productive land remained unused.
Development strategies are more successful at addressing women’s and men’s differing needs and opportunities when they are based on a prior analysis of the possible effects of a development initiative. This means estimating the ways in which opportunities, skills, knowledge, income or well-being may be increased or decreased because of a development activity, project or programme. The same activity may be positive for one sub-group of people in a community and negative for another. Often the activity must be adjusted so as to impact more equally on the various groups. One obvious sub-group is women.
Several countries, like the Philippines, Jamaica, and South Africa have gender mainstreaming policies in place and they seem to be bearing fruit. Literacy rates are up, if slightly, and more women are to be found working in civil services and in top business. These may be exceptions, but they are a start.
The key thing is that mainstreaming programmes can work, simply because they ensure that the perspectives of women and men become a normal part of the decision-making processes, from design to implementation and monitoring.
But mainstreaming is not that easy to put in place. In practice a number of criteria are needed. One is the explicit commitment of leaders (development ministers and heads of agencies, ministers within developing countries) to a clearly articulated policy. The establishment of women’s ministries, laws governing the use of gender analysis in policy formulation (South Africa), pro-active election statutes (India), laws for equal rights for women in labour and employment (Philippines) – all these help to institutionalise mainstreaming. They are especially constructive when accompanied by information campaigns to demonstrate the positive effects to the economy and to livelihoods of greater equality.
To make progress, it helps to have a network of concerned individuals in place who can share knowledge, information, experience and best practice, using practical instruments, such as the Internet. These networks do not grow out of thin air, but it can be surprising how quickly groups of interested bodies can come together as a partnership – government, business, NGOs – once the initial efforts are made.
Policymakers can take a lead, such as by equipping their public servants with the skills needed to identify issues and devise action. They can encourage the private sector to do the same. There has to be reporting processes, evaluation and monitoring on a continued and transparent basis. Naturally, for all this to work, financial resources have to be committed. This may be the hard part (and donors can no doubt help); the returns though would make it worth it.
©OECD Observer No 223, October 2000