Talking Gender


A blog about gender, culture and organizational change

By Gender at Work Media / January 26, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Nisreen Alami

Nisreen Alami has recently completed an assignment as gender advisor to a humanitarian team in Palestine. The aim of her assignment was to work with humanitarian partners to mainstream gender in their programming and to ensure that the humanitarian response both contributes to gender equality and effectively responds to the needs of men, women, boys and girls. 

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the prevailing policies restricting mobility, freedom and security of Palestinians has had a huge toll on the whole population. More than half of the population is vulnerable to food insecurity (2.3 million), and daily restrictions on freedom of movement, construction, water and energy affect people’s livelihoods, access to education, health and basic infrastructure. Land confiscation to expand illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories exposes Palestinians to physical threats and losses. The long-standing failure to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict results in repeated cycles of violence. The last such cycle can be seen in the war on Gaza during July 2014. This resulted in large numbers of fatalities and injuries amongst civilians, the destruction of large areas of Gaza, and the displacement of almost half a million people (with 100,000 expected to remain displaced in the foreseen future). It also resulted in the destruction of public facilities including schools, hospitals, universities and water and sanitation infrastructure. The absence of state institutions (whether Palestinian or Israeli) that are mandated to protect the rights of civilians creates a legal and administrative vacuum that sanctions impunity for human rights abuses, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of the population. 

Gender inequality presents a unique set of challenges to the effectiveness of the humanitarian response, as humanitarian actors usually consider this as falling outside the scope of humanitarian efforts. Barriers to Palestinian women’s access to income, assets, property rights, and mobility remain unchallenged by humanitarian interventions. Interventions in Palestine are mostly based on the male breadwinner assumption, with little recognition of the burden this poses for men as having the sole responsibility for large households. With available data mostly highlighting formal economic participation, humanitarian interventions generally do not recognize women’s invisible economic role, including their informal and unpaid work (such as agricultural labour), or the biases that restrict their access to land and economic opportunity. While the prevailing conditions are key drivers of social problems, the dearth of protection measures and services for gender-based violence (whether legal, health, security or psychosocial), especially in Gaza, receive little attention in humanitarian programmes. Interventions on psychosocial support often overlook gender and age specific concerns, despite variance in the experiences of boys and girls at different stages of their childhood. They also overlook available evidence on the particular vulnerabilities of adolescent girls and boys. 

Budget analysis of the humanitarian response using the IASC gender marker data for the three annual programming cycles (2011-2013) confirmed those challenges. Over this period, out of the 303 humanitarian response projects implemented (with a total value of $ 873,263,761), only 10 projects, amounting to 6.34 million, had gender equality as their principle objective (0.72%). Following a similar trend, the funding mechanism for emergency response up until 2013 had not supported any projects by women’s organizations (although this has significantly changed in 2013 and 2014).

To address these challenges, my work during the 2014 programming cycle focused on: strengthening systems of planning, funding and accountability at the institutional level; building an evidence base to give visibility to gender concerns in advocacy and programming work; and providing technical support to humanitarian partners to ensure adequate response. More specifically my work included the following:

1) Strengthening institutional collaboration between UNOCHA and UNW on gender related coordination. This included facilitating regular flows of information for complementary agency roles, in order to mobilize action amongst partners. 

2) Facilitating effective participation of gender advocates in shaping the humanitarian response, including through the convening of consultations with national women’s organizations, members of the UN Gender theme group and international NGOs.

3) Building capacity of humanitarian partners operating within the cluster system (e.g. GBV, Food security sector, protection, education, health and shelter) on gaps in gender equality programming and ways to address those challenges. 

4) Integrating gender data and analysis in OCHA’s information management systems in order to improve availability of quality gender analysis and address gender-related gaps in data collection tools.

5) Advocating for women’s needs and priorities in the emergency response following the war on Gaza. 

6) Providing support to strengthen accountability mechanisms on gender-focused programming, including monitoring implementation, the use of gender sensitive performance indicators, and meaningful application of the gender marker in projects.

7) Advocating with donors for increased financing for gender equality programming, in addition to providing support to improve country funding mechanisms such as the Emergency Response Fund (ERF)

It is anticipated that this work will be continued over the course of 2015.

For more information:

By Gender at Work Media / January 20, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Ray Gordezky

I recently returned from two weeks of work with organizations and communities in Cambodia and Vietnam. This was the first of what may be additional visits to Cambodia and Vietnam to provide support to non-government organizations working primarily in the area of community-based natural resource management, that want to bring a stronger focus to gender justice in their programming.

Achieving gender justice means that women and men are able to share equally in the distribution of power and knowledge. It also means that both have equal opportunities, rights and obligations in their private and public lives.

In both countries, even in those communities that have an emphasis on matrilineal descent, women are burdened by the full force of historical traditions that put them in positions of disadvantage.  This is not a theoretical claim; rather this statement is based on the meetings I had with four communities.

In my visits, I heard variations of the same theme: though their traditions (or the way women and men participate in village/community life) are supposed to save disgrace and misunderstandings, as well as provide for the well being of community members, the minimizing of women’s rights by claims that traditions reflect the natural order of life hides the daily dehumanization women face simply because of gender.

A restrained yet noticeable anger came through in the stories women told us, built up through daily experiences of work strain, beatings, and limited education opportunities. A man in one of the communities told us that the practice of early marriage (marriage at 14, followed by the multiple births by the age of 25) in time produces profound loneliness. No amount of visibility from past gender equality efforts, concerning how women are excluded or their contributions minimized, have altered how women are treated in a sustainable way. From hearing women’s stories, I felt in what they said loneliness akin to despair, a loneliness and despair made invisible in silence and through shame.

I felt a visceral disappointment: the very help I am offering (to make visible the taken for granted injustice done to women), and the visibility this is intended to produce, may do little to alter women’s lives. And the men, for the most part, do not fully take in the injustice, as they after all have their roles.

Even in light of these challenges, I have experienced that gender justice and unequal gender power relations can and do change as a result of organizations and communities clarifying what gender concerns need to be addressed, and addressing these concerns through co-created solutions.

We are at the beginning: establishing relationships with partner organizations, gaining a shared understanding of the gender concerns as expressed and experienced by commune and village members, and building trust between those of us involved. I intend to send periodic updates on the work in South East Asia as a way to communicate with you about how we can collectively produce changes in culture, specifically in gender justice, and in what ways efforts to positively effect gender justice are particularly challenging.

This project is a collaborative initiative between Oxfam America and Gender at Work, and also involves organizations in Senegal and Ghana.

By Gender at Work Media / January 8, 2015 / Loading Disqus...

By Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler

At the 2012 Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights for Development (AWID) in Istanbul, there were heated discussions about whether to lobby for a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015. The majority of older generation feminists taking part expressed reluctance. A young Turkish feminist took the floor and challenged us, essentially saying: “It’s fine for those of you who had the chance to go to Beijing and Nairobi to decline this opportunity. But what about my generation? We never had the chance to mobilize the way that you did. We need this!” The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – including the official governmental meeting and its parallel NGO Forum – is widely hailed as a watershed. We both attended the NGO Forum, held in Huairou, a town an hour north of Beijing.  In a deeply muddy field, covered in makeshift tents to ward off the insistent rain, with hundreds of yards of garlands made of discarded plastic water bottles festooning the few hastily erected buildings in which the concrete had barely dried, 40,000 women from civil society around the world converged to make history.  And they did.  In spite of being accommodated at such a great distance from the official event, women from NGOs and networks joined their allies on official delegations to make sure that the final Platform for Action fought off attacks from the Vatican, from Iran and from a host of others who lobbied to diminish commitments to women’s equality and freedoms. We left with a sense of purpose and a roadmap to gender equality: the Beijing Platform for Action.

1995 Beijing, Women in Black demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

In 2012 the UN briefly debated a proposal to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women, as a twenty- year follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference. It would have been held in 2015, forty years after the UN’s First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City. Turkey and Qatar both offered to host. The Secretary General asked UN member states what they thought - should there be a follow-up to the Platform for Action agreed at Beijing?  It has become relatively routine to hold these international meetings to review and then advance achievements in a range of human rights or environmental protection areas. For instance, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a 20 year follow up on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Many experienced women’s rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief when UN Member States failed to pass a resolution in favour of holding a Fifth World Conference and, instead, recommended that 2015 should focus on (yet) another review of Beijing commitments. Beijing +20 follows other five-year reviews which have, at best, been lackluster, and could not replace the galvanizing force and visibility of a UN World Conference. The cautions against advocating for a new World Conference were made on the following grounds: It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights. Powerful governments and non-state actors today actively obstruct efforts to advance neglected areas of women's rights such as sexual and reproductive freedoms, and for this reason there was no 20th anniversary conference this year to advance the agreements made at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.  The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing. So many of the commitments in the Beijing Platform have yet to be implemented - for instance the commitment to increase the proportion of seats held by women in governments to a minimum of 30%, or to put an end to female genital mutilation, or to cut military expenditures. An international conference will be a distraction. Let’s just focus on national and local-level implementation. Money! Women’s organizations are starving for money as it is. An international meeting is expensive and unnecessary in the age of ‘Skype’ and other electronic meeting venues. So there will be no Fifth World Conference on Women, at least not in 2015. This decision could be exceptionally damaging in terms of its potential impact on international and domestic women’s movements. But it is not irreversible. There will be no Conference on Women in 2015. But there can be one in 2020. Or whenever the women of the world want it to happen. The 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action at the Commission on the Status of Women(CSW) in New York in March 2015 could generate a recommendation to hold a Fifth World Conference by 2020. We are making this intervention to join voices with those who want this topic back on the agenda. As one civil societystatement to the upcoming CSW points out, the UN Secretary General's request for a Fifth World Conference has not been withdrawn or acted on, so any Member State can put it on the agenda again. We agree with those who highlight the real threat of losing ground on women’s rights. But let us think beyond the usual approach to these global inter-governmental meetings. The time has come to try a different format. We do not have a blueprint to hand, but there are options worth exploring. The Fifth Conference could focus on innovation in implementation, and could generate pledges for significant national investments in gender equality.  It could focus on the growing frequency and ferocity of attacks on women human rights defenders, and on effective strategies and commitments to end such attacks. The Fifth Conference could focus on a much deeper exchange between civil society and governments than has ever happened before. Its agenda and priorities could evolve from a bottom-up, inclusive process that engages millions of women and men.

1995 Beijing NGO Forum peace demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

There is surely more to gain than to lose in holding a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2020. At the same time, we need to negotiate conditions that will help expand, not shrink, the women’s rights agenda: We are not proposing a re-run of Beijing. We need to re-think the way that UN world conferences are undertaken anyway. An international conference does not axiomatically have to arrive at a consensus document. There is no need to fetishize consensus. Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed to international agreement if that means lowering standards even further than they are. It should be possible, through global brainstorming, to come up with an agenda that builds awareness amongst even the most reactionary governments of the strength and determination of the global women’s rights constituency, and that raises the costs - both in the relations between states and in regional and international institutions - of domestic suppression of women’s rights. No United Nations Women’s World Conference has yet been held in the era of social media. In 1995 at Beijing, few had access to email, let alone the kind of instant commentary and feedback available now. Social media would expose to domestic and international scrutiny the reactionary positions of some governments. Democracies would have to think twice before refusing to support terminations for pregnancies of women raped by soldiers during conflict, or the rights of same-sex couples to inheritance, or the rights of adolescents to the kind of education that can prevent HIV infection and early pregnancy.  Young women and men have not had a chance to engage in this type of transnational feminism. This would be the chance for a new generation to take leadership. Younger feminists would have the opportunity to organize locally and connect globally and contribute to reviving women’s movements in many countries and regions. Women from countries under conservative governments need an opportunity to be heard around the world. If a world conference were to be held in countries or regions increasingly dominated by fundamentalist religious interests, it would be an opportunity for women to express their perspectives about the use of religion or culture to excuse repression and extreme violence. 2020 will mark five years from the time that the new set of globally-agreedSustainable Development Goals come into force. This could be an ideal moment for a World Women’s Conference, an opportunity for a diversity of women’s voices and views to assess how the first 5 years are going from our perspective, and whether progress is happening in ways women feel are most important. For many, an international women’s conference feels like an unwarranted extravagance. Yes, these meetings can be expensive; but the cost of gender inequality is much higher, and the benefits to democracy, development, and peace of reduced gender inequality, and increasing the strength of the women’s movement, are massive. These meetings also yield resources. They provide women’s organizations with opportunities to prove their relevance and to raise funds. You can’t put a monetary value on international solidarity. And you can’t deny its importance to women’s mobilization domestically and internationally.  At the time of Beijing +15, Sunila Abeysekera, the Sri Lankan women’s human rights champion and peace leader who died last year, pointed out in an articleon openDemocracy 50.50 that there was no mechanism for joining together “around the key challenges and demands of women from around the world, irrespective of their class, race or any other status, to combat the challenges of discrimination and violence they confront on a daily basis” and she encouraged that we move “beyond…narrow divisions to build a cohesive platform for action for women’s movements worldwide to confront and combat the common challenges…”  That is what a world conference on women’s rights can do that no other venue will allow: update and strengthen a common platform between women’s movements and networks in different countries and regions that creates opportunities for partnerships and agreements with, and between, governments and inter-governmental organizations.

Painting banners, 1995 Beijing NGO Forum. Credit: Anne Walker

Women’s human rights have no country. There is no champion state making sure that women’s human rights are advanced. The common ground that those committed to working for gender equality have is each other. And a great way to find each other is on the crowded fields - however muddy - of international meetings and the local, national and regional preparatory processes that lead to them.  We use this ground to marvel at the arguments used to dismiss our humanity, and then not only hold fast against these attacks, but keep pushing to make it the ‘new normal’ that yes, women are human, fully equal, and must live without fear, pain, and prescriptions as to who they should be and how they should behave. The starting point for any agreement to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women must be that there can be no re-opening of past agreements or looking back to question existing commitments. We all have to look forward, for there is still so much to be done.

This article was first published at Open Democracy. 



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