As long as women are treated to be a means to an end, such as a state’s resource for contributing to economic development, there will be no real gender justice. To take that policy approach in gender planning is problematic, in particular for states of the Global South, as it not only reinforces power inequalities but may even worsen a woman’s position in society relative to men’s.
But what is that position anyway? Normative questions on what is a woman’s position or role in society comes into question here and play a key factor in policy making. Underlying (or even overt!) patriarchal values place man as the authority on moral issues and become deeply embedded within social organisations. For women’s empowerment to be effective it is therefore necessary for activism to focus on long-term projects that challenge these values. Such logic only leads me to my second question though – how can I, as an individual, make claims that other women in other places need to challenge patriarchal values in their society when I have not done so in my own? Perhaps it has taken me so long because it was easier to live in my myth of equality.
Having grown up in Portugal (…where patriarchy still abounds!), I thought it was normal that all the beach lifeguards were men, and that all my teachers in kindergarten were women. I never thought it was of much importance, looking back however, it is clear how discourses of security and discourses of woman as being nurturing and caring have influenced the sexual division of labour. I give you a little anecdote to highlight my point. In my Portuguese side of the family there is a superstition that every male member of the family must study the law, if he does not then he will die before the age of 30. It is a family joke, but maybe it is not so funny when they really have all had to go study law…
Within a context of development policy, it is justified to say that gender inequality is not just a phenomenon that occurs in poverty stricken areas. It is a global phenomenon that goes beyond nation state boundaries, and yet the way in which these unequal power relations are expressed is not universal. Gender divisions crosscut other societal divisions such as class and ethnicity, whose dynamics make it more difficult to identify causes of inequalities of gender relations. In that sense, it is important not to see women or men as some homogenous entity. Perhaps a more effective approach to development policy is to first of all make sense of representations of power.
I illustrate my point of understanding different notions of power and their representations by giving an ethnographic example Javanese society in Indonesia. Brenner’s fieldwork in the city of Solo in Java, shows that by understanding women’s equal status to men in terms of financial independence is too simplistic, since Javanese notions of status are not reducible to economic factors. In fact, in Javanese society too much attention to financial matters and pursuit of wealth is understood to indicate a low status. Therefore, in a city where women dominate the marketplace in trading agricultural products and other commodities, women are seen as inferior to men no matter how much money they are making, because matters of money are seen as coarse. Additionally, the perceived danger of autonomous women makes in particular widows and divorcees the subject of gossip of sexual activities as they are seen to no longer be under the supervision or control of their fathers or husbands.
The example that I have given makes me question the effectiveness of development policy approaches such as the efficiency approach to development, which assumes that increased economic participation for women in the Global South automatically is linked with an increased equity between men and women. Most often, development policies based on this assumption place an extra obstacle to equity, since structural inequalities are not addressed and therefore result in only a thin veneer of equality.
To look at alternative approaches is the only option if development policies are to make credible, impacts on equity in people’s lives. There is an increasing tendency in social sciences research to value local knowledge, in particular in the context of empowerment. In my opinion it is a positive shift, however I also think that it is important to think about what assumptions are being held when placing greater value of authority on locally produced knowledge, and in particular how that relates to a human rights discourse.
Moser, Caroline O.N. “Gender Planning in the Third World: Meeting Practical and strategic Gender Needs.” World Development 17, no. 11 (1989): 1799 – 1825.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Women’s Capabilities and Social Justice.” Journal of Human Development 1,no.2 (2000): 219-247.
 Brenner, Suzanne. 1995. Why women rule the roost: rethinking Javanese ideologies of gender and self control. In Bewitching Women, Pious Men, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael G.Peletz, 19-50. Berkeley: University of California Press.