What have they been?
- When I went to Bangladesh a few months ago: Visiting the Microfinance for Marginal and Small Farmers Project. Some of the women reported that they had not only contested local government elections, but were also called upon to become members and assist in resolving cases of violence against women and girls. Some of the women had acquired land under their name during the time of the project and I saw men and women receive training in gender equality.
- In the Theni district of Tamil Nadu, India: I saw women’s federations celebrate the birth of daughters and lead a grassroots campaign against sex selection. I saw these campaigns focus on clinics that disclose the sex of a foetus and bring them to book.
- In the same state, a TV talk show hosted by Ippadikum Rose - a transgender woman, highlighted issues of sex, sexuality and relationships issues faced by transgender women.
- In Nepal 2007: UNICEF formed women’s para-legal networks at district and sub district levels which supported women facing gender-based violence and helped them to access justice. Around half of the para-legal network members were single women. Another initiative of UNICEF in Nepal was to strengthen community monitoring of maternal health, immunisation, infant and child nutrition, mortality and education outcomes in a gender, caste and ethnicity disaggregated manner. Apart from women, men and village development committee leaders, health workers and teachers were in the monitoring committee. Supplementary nutrition, parental education (e.g. that boys and girls eat together), school and health centre reform and tie-ins with poverty reduction programmes followed.
What did they teach me about policies towards inspiring change?
- Foster institutional change beyond sectors: While sectoral projects and programmes are necessary, it seems absolutely essential to change institutions from a gender lens. Both the Theni community level campaign and community monitoring illustrate the importance of challenging community norms. Apart from norms is the issue of challenging power embedded in institutions. Bangladeshi women entering local governments, not as proxies but in their own right is an example of such change. So is the effort by para-legal workers in Nepal to hold the legal system accountable, or the Tamil Nadu experience of holding health markets and media to account on gender.
- Challenge those who hold patriarchal norms, and not only men: Lessons from Theni, as well as surveys in India show that both men and women hold patriarchal values like son preference, belief that men have the right to hit their wives under certain circumstances and so on. Women are sometimes victims, sometimes agents, but at times uphold patriarchy and other hierarchical systems. Feminists and development agencies have to address this complexity in their strategies. Strategies of working with men also have to deal with men as perpetrators and supporters, go beyond issues of violence against women into gender and care, health, education, economic and political participation.
- Recognise diversity amongst women and build diverse women’s movements: Women are a diverse group in terms of race, caste, class, abilities, marital status and gender orientation. Hierarchies amongst women are not recognised adequately in development policy. Further, gender is seen as a binary system, and transgender persons are not taken into account in development policy or practice. Dalit women’s movements, transgender women’s movements and so on, need to be fostered, while at the same alliances need to be forged. Gender policies need to be framed in dialogue with these movements.
- Broaden MDG indicators on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE): UN Women has advocated that the MDG indicators on GEWE should include freedom from violence against women, earning their own income, percentage of women with access to institutional credit, percentage of law enforcement professionals who are women, and house and land ownership. These indicators are indeed welcome, as well as its suggestion to integrate gender into all indicators. What could be added are indicators on attitudes such as ‘absence of son-preference’ (proxy could be sex ratio at birth). Indicators on women in decision-making roles in religious institutions and traditional councils, as well as access to safe and legal abortion could be considered There could be a guideline that all indicators need to be disaggregated across axioms of diversity amongst women. Finally, the vibrancy and independence of women’s movements could be an indicator.