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close this bookWomen's Rights and Development (Oxfam, 1995, 50 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWomen in the new world order: Voices of workers from the Third World
View the documentA development agency as a patriarchal cooking pot the evaporation of policies for women's advancement
View the documentGender and development in European development cooperation
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentPanel session: The future agenda of the women's movement in relation to national and international structures
View the documentOverview of discussion
View the documentStrategies for achieving a women's rights policy agenda: over new of working groups
View the documentClosing remarks
View the documentParticipants
View the documentSeminar programme

Overview of discussion

Discussion following the presentations put a strong emphasis on the accountability of institutions and the changes that need to be made to them to ensure greater coherence between policy and practice. Sara Longwe's image of the patriarchal pot continued to be evocative: do we simply add different ingredients to the pot to make the existing contents taste better, or must it be smashed and replaced by a new, gender-fair pot? Some alternatives to existing institutional structures were floated; and the session ended with a wide ranging exchange of views on the question of rights.

Calling institutions to account

A common theme running through the presentations was that of accourdabili0. Taking the lid off the patriarchal pot means demythologizing the rhetoric of policy statements, demanding from policy-making and policy-implementing institutions of all kinds accountability, consistency, and a closing of the gap between promise and performance.

Many participants agreed that it is time to 'out' institutions, to allocate blame where it is due, by setting the continuing harshness of most people's lives in the South against the expressed policy commitments of governments, IFIs, and aid donors to changing those lives for the better. But to do this effectively, we need a deeper analysis of institutions. Calling institutions to account for the failure of their practice to match up with their policies is important, but it is a weak strategy if it is not based on a thorough analysis of how institutions work. How do they get away with allowing policies to evaporate in the patriarchal pot? The elements of Sara's analysis of'NORDIDA' could usefully be applied to the real-life institutions with which we have to deal in our gender and development interventions.

However, the answer does not entirely lie in the fact that most institutions are hierarchical and dominated by men. An African participant pointed out that NGOs and women's movements have also made promises without following them up. This comment prompted reflection on the fact that there is more than one level of accountability: while we, as women in development NGOs, and members of the international women's movement, demand accountability on the part of our governments, the UN, and IFIs, we must remember that others see us as accountable. The majority of women in the South (and in the North) do not belong to any movement, but these are the women to whom we must be accountable; they are our ultimate target group.

What is the alternative?

The other dimension - a vitally important one which must accompany the calling of institutions to account is alternative proposals. 'Opposition without proposition' is a sterile exercise and unlikely to be taken seriously. We can analyse and exploit the contradictions and inconsistencies between existing policy and practice and use them to call the institutions to account, but we must also come up with proposals which will bring policy and practice closer together. However, in doing this we are negotiating with bureaucrats and politicians on their own terrain, using their own language. Many participants felt that we also need to redefine the concepts and rewrite the language.

At a deeper level, however, the gap between policy and implementation is not just a question of institutional poor practice; it is inherent in a self-contradictory development model which attempts to marry good governance and respect for human rights to the unfettered operation of the free-market economy. An approach based on reforming the system on its own terms does not change existing structures. It is as if we were adding new ingredients, topping up the water that has evaporated, but continuing to cook in the same old pot.

An alternative and more radical view put forward by Devaki Jain, among others, was that the patriarchal or bureaucratic pot itself must be smashed, the structures changed. For years we have been developing our gender analysis (and institutions everywhere pay it lip service) and carrying out our policy advocacy (and we have achieved apparent changes on paper), but we see very little change in practice. We must conclude that the problem lies with bureaucracy itself.

Development agencies replicate and perpetuate governmental structures and thus throw up the same obstacles to change as governments and IFIs. It should be clear by now that male-dominated institutions will never let women in on an equal basis, so we have to create a new institutionality. This can only be done by breaking the pot and reassembling it with new institutions, institutions which are so structured as to guarantee women's participation, powersharing and leadership. Representation of women is needed at every level, from the village to the UN, and any restructuring of institutions must allow such representation.

For Devaki, the model which allows for the creation of such structures is predominantly local. Her vision was one not of reforming or remaking central structures but of shifting the locus of power and leadership to local government level, where bureaucracy can be overcome by local self-determination, making more space for women's participation on an equal basis. In contradistinction to an emphasis on good governance, which is seen by many Southern organisations as a way of shifting responsibility from the state on to NGOs, a focus on local self-government represents a shift of responsibility back to the state, but at a less centralised and thus more accountable level.

Another alternative was offered by Pam Sparr, drawing on new experiences in the United States which suggest that the best people to make policy are not policy-makers. Policymakers are bureaucrats and seldom belong to, or have a real stake in, the community or population on whose behalf the policy is being made. In some communities in the United States, stakeholders from different sectors have come together to hammer out solutions acceptable to everyone in the community. This can generate more satisfactory results than relying on bureaucrats or elected officials to make policy on the community's behalf Again, structures or processes of this kind are potentially more women-friendly.

Some other strategies for relocating power were mentioned in passing. Pam Sparr referred to new thinking about institutional restructuring in NGOs which involves a thematic rather than a geographical redistribution of work areas. It is a problematic feature of many Northern agencies that they tend to divide work along North/South lines, so that whole departments (or even whole agencies) deal only with overseas issues while others deal only with domestic issues, thus failing to explore either the common ground between women or poor people all over the world, or the true inequality between North and South. In Pam's organisation, work has been redistributed so that everyone works on thematic areas which have both domestic and international dimensions. This could be a way of resolving the tension arising from Southern perceptions of good governance, for instance, as a Northern concept developed largely for the purposes of imposing conditions on aid. Another strategy for the relocation of power could be to shift centres of research much more extensively to the South.

Rights and empowerment

Important ingredients in the new pot are the genuine recognition of rights and empowerment of people in civil society. We must not lose sight of the fact that gender is a political issue there is often a danger that gender issues will become over-technified and their political dimension will evaporate.

Several participants stressed that when we talk about rights and gender we are also talking about rights to resources and to political power. There was a feeling that although women are very ready to make political demands and demands for human rights, we are too reticent about claiming rights to economic resources. Wanjiru Kihoro pointed out that although women are the backbone of the economy, we are shy about insisting on our right to more than handouts. Yet if we do not do so, we risk remaining trapped in the discourse of aid and marginalised from debates about trade and macroeconomic issues that affect us more deeply. Pam Sparr urged the inclusion of collective rights into our strategies, citing the efforts of assembly-line workers in Mexico to force companies to be responsible not just for workers' rights, narrowly defined, but for communal rights such as clean water and acceptable housing.

This idea of collective rights prompted concern as to whether, by conceptualizing women's rights as human rights, we risk being misled by the neo liberal discourse, possibly limiting ourselves to questions of individual access, participation, and equal opportunities, and skirting issues of real, collective empowerment. Further, is the discourse of rights a discourse appropriate only to Northern women? What are the areas in which Southern women are framing their concerns in terms of rights? Are there different discourses of rights for South and North? Eugenia Piza-Lopez felt that, on the contrary, it has only been possible to insert the language of rights into the UN agenda because it is the language which best reflects and gives common expression to the experience and demands of women in both the North and the South. Women's insistence on expressing their demands in terms of rights has extended the discourse of rights to embrace literacy, economic survival, reproductive rights, and sexual pleasure. A great achievement of the women's movement has been to express in technical language what millions of women have experienced.

However, rights exist in a vacuum unless they can be enforced; and perhaps the greatest difficulty arises at this point. Naila Kabeer gave an example from India, where the government has given land rights to women, but they cannot exercise them because the people they have to deal with are the men in their own communities, and whether they are prepared to give up the land to women is entirely at the men's discretion. Again, the patriarchal pot is on the boil, and women's land rights evaporate Enforcement of women's rights means changing men's behaviour, at both the institutional and the personal level, which shifts the terrain of struggle to a different plane.

Devaki offered the model of local self government as an answer to this dilemma, using the story of a woman who, denied her right, went on to claim it through local self government, where women have some power in the structures. She elaborated on some mechanisms for empowering women to claim rights, such as mechanisms for redressal against violence, and legal literal for women.