WDR 2012 ignores the need for fundamental change in power structures
The topic of the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development is important and marks a serious attempt to tackle gender inequalities that plague so many aspects of development in areas of health, education, political and economic participation. However, the report ultimately fails to see gender equality as an ‘end’ as well as a ‘means’.
The report hardly mentions the important role played by women’s organizations, and activists. Women’s and men’s involvement and participation in civil society is crucial for putting many gender inequalities on the policy agenda.
As my research findings from Sudan suggest, goal conflicts often occur concerning gender equality; for example one cannot presume that an inclusion of women in decision-making position will automatically put gender disparities in areas of health and education on the political agenda.
Gender equality requires a fundamental change in power structures in society. These changes cannot be reduced to smart economics.
The topic of the 2012 World Development Report on Gender Equality and Development is important and marks a serious attempt to tackle gender inequalities that plague so many aspects of development in areas of health, education, political and economic participation.
The report focuses on three key dimensions of gender equality: the accumulation of endowments (education, health, and physical assets); the use of those endowments to take up economic opportunities and generate incomes; and the application of those endowments to take actions, or agency, affecting individual and household well-being.
The main message of the report is that “gender equality is a core development objective in its own right. It is also smart economics”. The ambition of the report is novel, but I would argue that the report ultimately fails to see gender equality (even as it is narrowly defined in the report) as an ‘end’ as well as a ‘means’. This has consequences for the analysis which focuses primarily on women as an instrument of development, rather than gender and structures of unequal power relations between men and women.
Gender equality requires a change in power structures in society, not only economic growth. If that were the case, then Saudi Arabian women would not be denied political and economic participation in society and state.
The analysis conducted by WDR 2012 raises some concerns which are inspired by my own work on the Sudan, Islamic law and women’s activism. The WDR 2012 puts increasing women’s voice and agency in the household and in society as a priority area. The report states further that the ability to challenge gender inequalities and disparities depends on women’s ability to speak collectively. This requires voices that speak in favor of greater gender equality.
However, the report reduces women’s voice in society to their participation in households, the labor market, state institutions like parliaments, legal institutions, governments, and boards. The report hardly mentions the important role played by women’s organizations, and activists.
I think that women’s and men’s involvement and participation in civil society is crucial for putting many gender inequalities on the policy agenda in developing (and developed) countries. It is essential in at least two aspects:
1. Political pressure
Civil society organization are vital in putting pressure on governments, state institutions, legal institutions and governments to make gender equality a priority area of intervention. The core idea is that state laws and policy will generate changes in society (top-down approach). The report mentions this aspect in a short and insufficient manner (pp. 35-36).
Women in various civil society organizations and political parties in Sudan were instrumental in pushing for a 25% woman’s quota in the election law of 2008. It would not have been achieved without continuous pressure from (mostly) women and (some) men active in the political opposition and civil society. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, Sudan joined the 90 countries which have some women’s quota mechanisms for parliamentary representation (pp. 85).
Quotas are important tools to carve out the space necessary to allow more women to enter into political decision-making. But my research shows that simply including a critical mass of women in state institutions like parliaments is not sufficient for eradicating gendered inequalities. Instead it can reinforce gendered disparities.
The woman’s quota in Sudan was co-opted by the ruling Islamist party which has an underpinning perception of development and gender which stands in contrast to that of the WDR 2012. Islamists promote the paradigm of gender equity (insaf) within an Islamic frame, distinguishing it clearly from gender equality, which they deem a Western paradigm irrelevant to Sudanese society. The gender ideology builds on qawama (guardianship) which obliges men to support and sustain the household financially.
This stands in stark contrast to the WDR 2012 emphasis on equality within the household. I therefore think that the report insufficiently problematize and empirically investigate the relationship between women’s inclusion in decision-making bodies in authoritarian states like Sudan and the actual effects on policy outcomes with regards to gender equality in their discussion on this topic. The report leaves you with an ‘instrumentalist’ approach: if you only include women in decision-making, then they will advocate gender sensitive and women friendly perspectives.
2. Socio-cultural norms
The report acknowledges that social and cultural norms stand in the way of development and gender equality, but offer few recommendations as to how to overcome them. Religious norms, laws and practices are hardly even mentioned in the analysis.
Many women-led organizations are crucial in raising awareness and attempt to change societal, religious and customary norms and practices that reinforce gender inequalities. The core idea is that a change of state laws and policy will only take you to a certain point in terms of generating changes in attitudes and practices (bottom up approach).
A widespread practice in Sudan which reproduces gender inequalities across generations is Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). About 89% of Sudanese women in the northern part of the country are according to UNICEF circumcised, many in its most severe form. This has serious health consequences, especially at childbirth. And it is identified as one of many reasons as to why Sudan figure high on the maternal mortality statistics.
Although building more hospitals and educating health personnel is important to reduce maternal mortality, that is not sufficient. Eradicating FGM/C is also important to reduce the rates of maternal mortality. This is a long term and a complicated endeavor. Most civil society actors regard it as a customary or traditional practice, but there are religious and political actors who legitimize its continuation within the frame of Islam.
Babiker Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies was established in 1979 and is one of the most vocal and longstanding critics of FGM/C in Sudan. The organization works to combat social, religious and customary norms, attitudes and laws which inhibit women’s productive, reproductive and societal roles. To do this they help train women in rural areas in income generation skills, home economics, reproductive health, literacy, and awareness raising. They target women and men, girls and boys.
Patriarchal structures, referring both to age/generation and gender must be taken into consideration in order to understand why this practice persists and in the recommendations as to how we can change it in the future. A key to this change is supporting domestic organizations to continue their work within this arena.
The report presents a picture of the development process where all good things (health and education, labor force participation, and voice) are lumped together in perfect harmony. As my research findings from Sudan suggest, there is conflict between them: for example one cannot presume that an inclusion of women in decision-making position will automatically put gender disparities in areas of health and education on the political agenda. It becomes quite obvious that gender equality requires a fundamental change in power structures in society. These changes cannot be reduced to “smart economics”.