By Manuel Acevedo
Editors’ note: In our previous blog in this series, Mario Chávez Claros told of his journey towards understanding gender analysis as a valuable research tool. In this blog, Manuel Acevedo describes his own “ah ha” moment, nearly 25 years ago, of gender inequality as a development problem. He offers his reflections on the pitfalls (and successes) over the past decades along with thoughts on what it will take to shift the needle on gender equality. Manuel’s story is yet another powerful example of Why International Development Needs Storytelling, as Shannon Sutton argued in the first blog of our series.
It was 1995. I had just started working in the United Nations system, as a junior professional officer in the Havana office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). One evening I was reading the latest UNDP Human Development Report (HDR), whose special topic that year was gender. The report painted a bleak picture of gender inequality around the world, and it provided plenty of evidence. The problem happened in every country, with more extreme differences in some countries than in others.
Then I got to a vivid example of the consequences of this inequality. The report explained that when a man marries his female housekeeper, the GDP of their country falls. This is because when a housekeeper changes her status to become his wife, she’ll probably carry on with the same work but from this point on she will not be paid for it. Her labor becomes ‘free’ work.
At that precise moment I realized I suddenly understood the essence of the problem: it was all about invisibility, whether in not accounting for the role of women in development, in lacking gender data, or even in obscuring the imbalances in the welfare of women and men. The revelation hooked me into learning more about gender injustice and disparities among men and women.
I thought that everyone in my office should learn about what the report said. Plus, sharing the findings would be a good opportunity for me to do something visible and valuable for my colleagues, all of them my senior.
For some days I read, analyzed and summarized the HDR in order to give a presentation to my colleagues. With my wife Sandra, luckily a graphic designer, we worked hard preparing the long PowerPoint. Not only did we feel gender injustice was an important topic, but also my colleagues would be dedicating two half-mornings to these meetings — a lot of time to ask of UN staff. Before the first session, Sandra and I pulled an all–nighter. Twice during those long hours we came across ‘the blue screen of death’, the old dreaded signal that our computer had crashed. Fortunately, we got everything ready just as the warm morning sunlight was bathing our lush UNDP courtyard in Havana.
That first session went well. The conference room, to my surprise, was packed. I could feel that the women present were glad this topic was acknowledged as important enough to bring the whole office together. And since I was friends with most of the men, they didn´t seem to display any resistance to the issues presented and were active participants too. Good vibes were felt amongst us. I certainly felt energized, and glad for the personal recognition obtained. As we finished the session, I turned to Sandra in the corner, who had volunteered her time, and winked at her. We did it! The second session was also successful, but with less people in the room. At any rate, my objective was achieved: increased awareness in that office on gender inequality as a first-order development problem.
After those gender-focused meetings, my work turned back to the office’s bread-and-butter projects, most of them with their standard gender paragraph, bland and meaningless, but enough to satisfy the project approval committees. Little change there. Though a bit disappointed, I reasoned that it’d just take time and effort to go from theory to practice. After all, everyone in the office now knew more about gender inequality as a major development problem.
A couple of years later, Sandra and I moved to New York, were I landed a job at UNDP headquarters. There I joined the Gender Task Force, and observed that despite the success of the 1995 HDR in putting Gender at center stage in world development, UNDP, like many others, was finding challenges in moving the bar forward on advancing gender equality in its work.
In the task force we discussed the importance of data and evidence to convince our colleagues; the urgency of actions to satisfy glaring needs and gender imbalances; how to get past a reactive culture into a proactive one; the barriers of inertia and the reluctance to change; the lack of concrete tools to improve gender integration in project and strategies; gender specialists who couldn´t transmit notions of gender analysis; and the eternal dilemma of mainstreaming gender across the organization or specific gender projects/units. Most of the projects I was coming across didn´t seem to noticeably move the gender equality needle.
Jump forward to 2019, quite a long jump to be sure. Huge marches on 8 March, International Women’s Day, around the world and also in Buenos Aires, where I now live. The #MeToo Movement has shaken societies all over in just over two years. In Argentina, many young women (and a few men), even adolescents still in high school, are coming out to unequivocally express that they are not about to put up with gender-related injustices.
Gender has become a hot political issue, as was evident during the extensive debates on abortion in Argentina the previous year. In the midst of this slow-boiling explosion, most of these young women (and many older politicians and journalists) appear to discover feminism anew while ignoring the rich thread of thought and actions aimed at gender equality and women’s empowerment building up to this moment.
My 17 year old son, with female friends who go to the marches and are growing up in this fresh new time, explains feminism to me (his version, anyway…) and how its goals can be accomplished, for instance without the ‘interference’ of men. For example, that it wasn’t cool for him to go to the marches, because it’d appear that women need men next to them to be heard. Or that men cannot be a part of fixing the patriarchal society that they have built. I smile for many reasons, but most importantly because it feels like this latest tide finally seems to be pushing past the point of no-return.
I’m still restless at the slow pace of progress in development circles, however. Almost 25 years after those presentations in Havana, at times we seem to be rolling around in a big, familiar circle that keeps us busy but leads nowhere. But I’m also more hopeful. Because the wind is finally and solidly pushing from behind, and young women are firmly, confidently riding the wave of change. Because we have more tools at our disposal. Because the voices are multiplied, not least thanks to the Internet. Because the powerful and the decision-makers are coming to realize that gender equality is not only the right thing, but the smart and effective thing to do.
There is so much to do still. Some of us will agitate and shake the scene. Some of us will work quietly from within the system. But together in many countries we will certainly push the boundaries of gender justice past the point of no return. We’ll meet confrontation with collaboration. Reactivity with constructivism. Noise with evidence. Exclusion with inclusion. And we will prevail over those who reject the notion of gender equality as well as over those who believe that men shouldn´t be part of the solution. So that it will become all too visible to society that the contributions to GDP of the ‘housekeeper-turned-into-wife’ are real and will be recognized, registered and quantified, just like any contributions of any person to a country’s well-being. Just like my son ponders, soon the question to answer will not be, “Who is a feminist?” but instead, “How come you aren’t a feminist?”
These are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Gender at Work or IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative.
Manuel Acevedo is an international development consultant and researcher in ICT for Development, Knowledge Management and Development Networks. He is also a member of Centre of Technology and Innovation for Human Development, Univ. Politécnica Madrid – www.itd.upm.es