gender, girls rights, human rights, ICT4D, SDGs

First, do no harm

As a gender and development practitioner who works specifically with girls and young women who are under 18 years of age, I get asked a lot about what i take into consideration when developing or advising others on the development of a program to empower girls in living poverty. My response? there are many things to take into account, but first and foremost, consider whether your intervention might put them at risk. if the answer is yes, and ofttimes it will be especially if the program is gender transformative, i.e. challenging existing power structures, then one must honestly consider whether the risk level is acceptable and what if anything can be put in place to mitigate this risk.

When we’re working on challenging gender norms and changing social behaviors, we are actively disrupting the status quo. and this can make some people resistant, uncomfortable, fearful or even violent. especially those who are in positions of power, and who might feel like this power is being directly or indirectly challenged. for instance,  a woman finding gainful employment or joining a savings groups which gives her control over her income might experience backlash from her spouse, children or the wider community.

Working with those who are under 18 requires that we consider their evolving capacity to handle such risks and the consequences to their lives. different age groups are at different cognitive and behavioral development stages and that’s a hugely important factor to consider. for instance, sex education curricula will not be the same for early adolescents (10/11-14) and late adolescents (14-18) who are most likely already sexually active.

Children and young people are also still considered legal wards of their families and care-takers, and so any intervention that involves them necessarily involves more than just one individual. this is an important point that often differentiates working with children and youth from working with adults. Any program that involves children and youth, also requires informed consent, which depending on the program can be a huge sticking point.

After establishing the unique parameters of working with under 18’s, we come to the issue of risk. how to define what’s too great a risk, and what can conceivably be seen in the context of our work to transform relations between the sexes, as the  acceptable cost of doing business?

To paraphrase from my favorite show – when it comes to risk in programming with girls, when is a risk too risky?

The first part of this answer is philosophical and ethical. From a child protection perspective you could say that ensuring every part of a program is ‘in the best interest of the child’ is paramount. From a social change perspective you could say that empowering children to speak out and affect change trumps an (ofttimes) paternalistic child protection approach which would deny the child a chance to exercise their agency. both of these need to be taken into consideration in terms of the goals of a program. for instance, if the goal is to change social norms by organizing a group of girl advocates who will speak out against early pregnancy in their communities, then one must weigh the risk of community backlash with the real possibility that this kind of work could save lives.

There’s no easy answer, and ‘doing no harm’ is above all our main objective, though we must weigh the likelihood and severity of risks in light of the potential transformative change our project could achieve. I would also add, again, that any intervention which seeks to challenge patriarchy in all its forms carries inherent risks. For me that is a given, however, there are clear ways in which these risks can be substantially reduced through effective programming, even if not eliminated altogether.

The second part of this answer is technical. Any self respecting organization will conduct risk analyses for programs, initiatives, events or engagements involving young people. this is the best space to evaluate the risk levels and agree on mitigation steps. an example of a risk assessment (for an event) will look something like this:

RA

Even visually, color coding a risk assessment can offer a good ‘at glance’ measure for deciding whether the risk levels are too high – if half the document is red, then you should go back to the drawing board.

Finally, I would also suggest that a good way of evaluating risk to young people or children can be done by including them in program design. working with children and young people is the best way to gain insights into their lived realities and ensure any intervention is tailored to address their experiences as they perceive them. this is especially relevant when working with adolescent girls, since they will experience different social pressures depending on cultural context and are best placed to gauge the reactions of their families, communities and peers to any actions they will take to challenge the patriarchal status quo.

Keshet Bachan

 

 

 

 

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day of the girl, development, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

It’s a feminist thing

There is wall to wall support and praise for awarding Malala Yousafzai the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And yet, it seems to me that her struggle for girl’s rights has not been linked in our collective consciousness, nor in public statements, with feminism. And that’s a huge fail on all accounts.

On the eve of the International Day of the Girl I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which feminism has stayed a Western concept while the engine of development has given rise to a notion of women’s/girl’s rights that is entirely divorced from the ideas of gender justice.

So, why do we even celebrate a day for girls? there’s already a day for women, a day for children and a day for challenging violence against women. why girls? the answer is simple – because they are not women yet, but they are no longer children. for so many girls, childhood is cut short by puberty. As Helena Minchew from the International Women’s Health Coalition said yesterday at an event in the US House of Representatives: ‘what is a normal biological process, and even a joyous occasion, actually puts girls at risk, reduces their control of their bodies and their life choices’.

Of course, the fact that the UN in its infinite wisdom decided to call the 11th of October the International Day of the Girl Child (!) is precisely why this day is needed. the inaccuracy of the term ‘girl child’ when these girls are in fact no longer treated as children, is beyond ironic.

However, the intention to direct more attention, and hopefully funding and policy measures, at adolescent girls – is critical. and yet, it’s important to note that the narrative around girls who are subject to violations that occur at the onset of puberty such as child, early and forced marriage, FGM/C and others is tied to human rights, and universality, and humanism, but not to the most important term – power.

girls face increased risks and a reduced sense of agency when they hit puberty due to socio-cultural pressures, dictates, binaries, norms, stereotypes and structures. All over the world, societies function by reducing the power that women have over their bodies and their choices, submitting them to their male family members and eventually their husbands. If we don’t clearly link the struggle Malala Yousafzai led to be able to go to school, and earn an education, which in other words means knowledge and power, with the struggle of the feminist movement which has for decades demanded an equal share of the pie, then we are all going to lose out.

The development engine has worked hard to frame ‘gender equality’ in human rights terms, fearful of alienating communities that claim various forms of discrimination and abuse against females are part of their ‘culture’, but in so doing has taken much of the political sting out of the process of achieving gender equality.  In discussing the rights of girls to a life of equal opportunities, I believe we must also speak about this as a power struggle, we must couch this in terms of a movement for the liberation of women and girls from the shackles of oppression.  The objectifying representation of women in the media, our limited reproductive freedom, the pay gap – you name it – it all traces back to unequal power relations that have over the years been cemented into social, cultural and religious institutions that work 24/7 to keep women and girls in their inferior place.

Until the version of the story that is being propagated by Malala, and other human rights activists who refuse to acknowledge the feminist nature of their struggle, takes on a feminist political edge – we will never see girls freely attending school in Pakistan. because it’s not about changing a policy, or increasing investment in teacher training, it’s about shifting deeply rooted notions about the value of females.

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gender, gender gaps, girls rights, ICT4D, stereotyping, women in the labor force, Women's rights

Girls in ICT Day 2014!

To celebrate this year’s girls in ICT day, I’d like to focus on the intersection of adolescent girls (aged 10-19) and ICT4D. I recently gave a short presentation at Tulane University and you can find the presentation here.

There was quite a bit of interest in the ways in which mobile phone apps can inadvertently harm, rather than empower, girls and young women. I guess we have this notion that ‘access to tech = empowerment’. if only it were so simple! not to say that information communication technologies haven’t facilitated positive changes and will continue to do so. It’s just that treating them like some miracle cure is bound to end up in disappointment.

A while back I wrote about the ways in which mobile apps meant to protect women from violence can actually put them in harm’s way. essentially, understanding violence as ‘stranger danger’ is totally misleading, since most violence is committed by intimate partners and family members. The idea of a panic button that sends a signal to a family member if you’re harassed or attacked in the street sounds good. but it could all too easily be turned into a tool that allows for surveillance of young women, curtailing their freedom and mobility out of a misguided sense of ‘protection’. Certainly as a woman im much more interested in an app that will change attitudes, and allow me to dress and act in any way i see fit without garnering catcalls or even opening myself up to assault.

gender and girls rights

Another interesting topic that came up was control over ICTs. I made the point that so much of the technology we used is designed and engineered by men. the lack of female representation in the tech industries, and the poor number of young women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at secondary school and university levels, means women play a role as consumers of technology and little else. why is this the case? A slightly dated (but still wonderful) report from Cisco found the European girls (who, I’m sure we can all agree, are surrounded by technology all the time) tended to drop out of ICT studies around age 15.

The reasons:

  • lack of support  from role models
  • persistent stereotyped views that the sector is better suited to men
  • a lack of understanding about what ICT jobs entail
  • how easy or difficult they find the subject
  • girls don’t see ICT roles offering them chances to travel, to help others or to work independently.

the report concludes that from a business perspective this is a loss of talent. from a feminist perspective this is proof that socialization processes and entrenched forms of discrimination are keeping girls from ‘choosing’ to follow a techie career. and maybe if more women were involved in this field we would have better safety apps?

yes we can

This issue is a core part of what ‘girls in ICT’ day is about – encouraging girls to choose careers in tech. In the words of the 2014 flyer:

“The ICT sector remains a growing sector for employment and a key economic factor underpinning both national and international development in both developed and  developing countries. Many countries and regions are predicting a shortage of qualified staff with math, science, engineering and computing skills to meet the growing demand. At the same time, many companies are looking to increase the number of women in the sector. This means that highly qualified women in technical fields have significant opportunities available to them in both developed and developing countries. The need for qualified professionals in developing countries worldwide should come as no surprise, considering the rate of ICT growth in developing countries.Why don’t we try to reach even more girls and young women on International Girls in ICT Day 2014?”

there are numerous initiatives that are working to change the stereotypes around IT careers and encourage girls to pursue STEM studies. I’m optimistic about prospects, and believe more women are already making their mark. Certainly if Sheryl Sandberg’s latest book ‘Lean In’ and the foundation she opened to encourage girls to realize their potential are any indication, women are busily carving out a space at the top.

 

Keshet Bachan

 

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gender, girls rights, post 2015, Women's rights

Leaning on an open door

This is what we (in the policy and advocacy biz) used to say when we were lobbying the government to do something they had already said they intended to do. And this is how I felt yesterday during a #shebuilds digital rally on gender and international development. I took part in two tweetchats that focused on girls’ empowerment. In both cases, most if not all of the tweeters were organizations and members of organizations that are already dedicated to working on girl issues.

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I couldn’t help but wonder: were we preaching to the choir?

Of course, I couldn’t keep this observation to myself so I tweeted it at the organizers who were hosting one of the tweetchats. The @girleffect replied quickly and asked for my suggestions about fixing this. However, I only had 140 characters at my disposal, so the answer was somewhat brief.

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However, I would like to take this opportunity to delve a little deeper into this issue.

Voice vs. power

There is something slightly misleading about taking part in digital ‘activism’. In this I’m going to refer to tweets, and likes, and comments on discussions boards, and well, anything that doesn’t require moving out of your comfort zone. I’m not talking about activities like hacktivism, which can be quite the game changers (re Steubenville). Most of the actions individual users are likely to take online involve supporting a cause they already believe in and sharing this cause with others. Now, for most organizations this is an important way of gaining popular support which should ideally lead to pressure on decision makers to change whatever cause folks are supporting. In real life, this is rarely the case. Certainly the ‘occupy’ movement failed spectacularly to achieve any of the changes they were advocating for so vocally. On the other hand, it seems that the Post 2015 consultations are being quite open in their wish to engage the public and organizations from the ‘global south’ in the consultations. However, a close look at the emerging recommendations that were submitted last year by the ‘high level panel’ to the Secretary General reveal that what made the cut were the issues that had the backing of the right people, not the most people.

For instance, one of the illustrative goals that made it onto the list is about ending child marriage (more about the issue here). Despite the fact that child marriage is simply a symptom of a much larger illness, i.e. institutionalized gender based discrimination and unequal power relations, that are both exacerbated by poverty, ignorance, and the chaos of crisis and war. You might point out that it’s an easy ask – and you’d be right. it’s SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. But is it the most urgent violation of women and girls’ rights? Is it tackling the underlying cause in a systematic way? or did it make it into the short list because the right people are backing it?

rockpaper

Let’s be honest – we all know decisions are eventually made by a handful of people walking down a drab corridor on the way to the cafeteria.

My point: there’s a gap between how we, the public, perceive the importance of our voice in supporting or opposing an issue through online activism, and the real process that goes into making decisions. We think we have power when we come together, but unless we’re actually represented in the places where decisions are made, there’s no chance of changing anything. To those in the higher echelons, it all seems like a lot of white noise.

Who’s listening?

So you might say – that’s terribly cynical, I think some voices are heard even if they are powerless. ok. so we get together and organize a tweetchat to talk about girl-issues, responses, and programmatic innovations, and who shows up? 1. the people who are already working in this area, have knowledge, practice and understanding that they can contribute. 2. organizations that are using this as a platform for making noise about themselves, their ideas, work, campaigns, slogans etc. If you’re Joe Blow, has any of this reached you or engaged you? highly unlikely. you’re not listening, because this is way outside your comfort zone.

What are we actually saying?

One of my issues with the discussion was that it seemed very stale. We’ve been using the same stats and arguments since the dawn of (wo)man.

snooze

In case you were wondering – that statistic has been around since 1994, which means it’s based on data from the 80’s. yeah. It’s as old as I am. surely with the amount of money being poured into the issue of girls in development, we could have found a little bit to spend on some honest research?

also, I’m wondering why we haven’t come up with a better argument than ‘throw money at the problem, and girls will reinvest it into a flawed economic system’? we all know that the level of messaging that has been adopted by ALL the organizations working on girl-issues, has toed an instrumentalist line that sees girls’ empowerment as a route towards economic growth. We have yet to come up with a formula that treats girls rights as a universal truth and a question of social justice, completely divorced of economic, political, or any other gains that might be derived from advancing gender equality.

Then why are you still here?

stickgood question. i’m mostly here because I see it as my duty as a freelance consultant unaffiliated with any one organization to poke a stick at those I love. this blog post is my way of supporting the work and campaigning and awareness raising efforts of many organizations and individuals that i follow faithfully on twitter, who have really good intentions, and who come up with great ideas for digital events (thunderclaps and rallies!).

I expect more – so I’m asking everyone to raise the bar. I know it’s possible. we just have to try a little harder!

Keshet Bachan

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16 days, body image, gender, media, violence, Women's rights

How the media failed women

The media has never been kind towards women. They are ultimately trying to sell us something and as agents of the beauty industry have good reason to keep us dissatisfied with ourselves and obsessed with images of airbrushed women. We are stereotyped in movies, advertisements and glossy magazines, and are made to believe we can only digest the evening news if it’s presented by a very pretty woman.

We are aware of this. Men and women who find these images appalling and oppressive, speak out where possible. Yet the industry remains undisturbed; and every once in a while they come up with things like this:

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Let’s break down this image shall we? A woman is held down by force by a man while thrusting her pelvise suggestively at another three men who are standing around awaiting their turn and watching. Four men and one woman? Where have i heard this story before?

oh, that’s right. Delhi, India, December 2012. A young woman is gang raped by six men and subsequently dies from the assault. This sort of violence seems completely at odds with this glossy shot, and yet the imagery obviously suggests that dominating women en mass is cool, sexy and acceptable.

Violence against women isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s cultivated, sustained, sanctioned and disseminated in subtle ways, online and offline, through images and words.

In a video by Dove’s “campaign for real beauty” (which is just another consumer ploy, let’s be honest, from the same company which produces racist products such as Fair and Lovely. puke.) a girl is bombarded with images reminiscent of the famous scene from ‘Clockwork Orange’ and finally the words flashing across the screen advise mothers to educate their daughters before the beauty industry does.

In this instance, the self-hate propagated by these images can lead to self-harm, another form of violence, which girls inflict upon themselves in despair once they realize (at the age of 10) that they will never look like any of the young women they see on screen and in magazines. and apparently it’s your fault, mother, for not shielding your daughter from such images. hello? maybe Unilever would like to step up and take responsibility for the stick-figure, scantily clad women they use in their ads?

pot noodle unilever

Comparing a woman to pot noodle? Really Unilever?

how about this:

kate1

Turning women into objects is the first step towards justifying violence against women. In other words – they’re not really people, so it’s okay to beat the crap out of them. Kate Moss is simply a prop, much like a tripod in fact, for holding up a desirable camera.

whatever sells, right?

How else has media failed women in 2013? a short recap in this video by Miss Representation.

Just when you thought it was safe to be a conscious feminist, the media does it again. and again. and again.

Tomorrow is the last day of the 16 days of activism to end violence against women. it’s important to talk about these issues, and write about them, and nag about them, all year round. Because they are here all the time, and they are not confined to news reports of rape in third world countries. Violence is spoon fed to us all the time by those who would keep us powerless, occupied with thinking about our looks, instead of thinking about equality.

Don’t let them win.

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girls rights, United Nations

Malala day and the rise of youth

Today is the UN youth takeover day or in its alternative name ‘Malala Day’, named after Malala Yousafzai who was brutally shot in the head by religious extremists for campaigning on girl’s education in Pakistan. The UN general assembly will be taken over by 600 young people, and presided over by Malala herself. The youth delegates will then pass the first ever UN youth led resolution.

This important event is not only about the UN acknowledging the issue of global education, and girl’s right to education, as a critical topic; it is also a recognition of the importance of ‘youth’ in today’s global processes.

The world is experiencing a ‘youth bulge’, which basically means there are more young people under 30 alive in the world today that ever before. These young people are coming of age in an era plagued by political instability, but also great technological progress. They are taking part in protests, online and off-line, they are critical of centralised decision making processes and they want their voices heard. The rise of young people is being felt throughout the globe, from Brazil to Egypt, Turkey and India, where young protesters have taken to the streets in huge numbers.

The UN rightly identifies youth unemployment as one of the biggest issues facing the world today. young people in developing countries make up (especially in conflict affected states) more than 60% of the population, and they are entering labour markets that cannot offer them decent employment. this is a cause for concern and a driver of political instability. although labour markets are influenced by global systems, macro-economic processes and trading regimes, leaving us with a feeling that there is little we can do to change or expand them, there is one thing we can do to better equip young people to this changing landscape.

which brings me back to education. in order to ensure young people are equipped to face the challenge of a changing political landscape and an economic system in turmoil, we must provide them with the right skills, capabilities and knowledge. By ‘we’ i mean those of us in the business of holding governments accountable. innovative approaches to education are needed to ensure young people leave school with the ‘resilience’ they need to face shocks and rapid changes, to adapt to changing priorities and new employment opportunities especially in the knowledge economy.

there is a gender lens to all of this. as usual. girls are still facing more barriers to accessing their education than boys. this means that they are missing out in greater numbers on the chance of acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to develop resilience and adaptability, key components of being able to successfully negotiate employment opportunities. structural forms of discrimination are keeping girl’s from taking advantage of new technologies further limiting their chances of realising their aspirations.

Today is a chance to remind the decision makers that education is the most important topic on their agenda. It is also a chance to remind them that there are power imbalances that are keeping half the population from accessing the most basic right – a good quality education. I believe the global attention leveraged today will provide an important platform for strengthening the voices of those most concerned with these issues – young people, girls and boys, who are inheriting a complex net of problems. UN member states would do well to heed the young people flooding their halls today, lest they encounter them in less amicable circumstances, marching in protest.

Keshet Bachan

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Uncategorized

Gender equality as smart economics?

I was recently sent a fantastic article by Sylvia Chant (former Prof. of mine from the LSE) and Caroline Sweetman titled ‘fixing women or fixing the world? ‘smart economics’, efficiency approaches and gender equality in development’. This article can be found in the gender and development journal here. It really struck a cord, for reasons that will become obvious, and although this for me is not a new discussion, it’s worth highlighting for those who might think all ‘girl advocates’ speak with one enthusiastic voice in support of investing in girls.

Chant and Sweetman take on the ‘girl agenda’ and ask whether the new interest in investing in girls as a route towards poverty reduction is simply ‘Women in Development’ (WID) in a different guise. For those unfamiliar with the history of gender/development, here is a brief explanation:

WOMEN IN DEVELOPMENT (WID):

Dates to the early 1970’s. Height of WID was during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). Was concerned with women’s ‘predicament’ in developing regions. Fuelled by growing academic research on the ‘gender blindness’ in development. Focuses on women as a group in their own right. Women were seen as an ‘untapped’ force in economic growth. Emphasis was on integrating women into development. This provoked the creation of national machineries, bureaus, units, programs and departments within States.
PROs: 1st time resources apportioned to women’s development; more women than ever ‘infiltrating’ international development system; potential for creating awareness of gender inequality in development planning.
CONs: concentrated exclusively on women; essentialized women as a single group; sex was highlighted above all other identity categories; women’s concerns only ‘added in’ to mainstream development projects; not about changing gender relations and ideology; led to tokensim, marginalisation and ghettoisation of women’s efforts and concerns; rising resistance from women in the global South who saw WID as an imposition of neo-colonial development strategies that prioritised external interests.

GENDER AND DEVELOPMENT (GAD):

Evolved out of WID, beginning around the 1995 Beijing Conference. Basic theoretical premise is that gender identity is a dynamic and social construct shaped by time, place, age, class, ‘race,’ etc. Understands a unilateral focus on women as inappropriate and non-transformative. The focus is now on gender relations rather than women. Short term-goals are similar to WID: improved education, access to credit, legal rights. But long-term goals are very different: structural shifts in male-female power relations; empowering women through collective action; challenging gender ideologies and institutions that subordinate women.

So what happened after GAD became popular, i.e. from 1995 onward? According to Chant and Sweetman the World Bank comes out with a new report that lauds women’s ability to withstand economic crises and other emergencies (see here). In other words, the policy powers that be realize that women can act as cushions for the fallout of neoliberal restructuring. This adds to the emerging evidence of the social goods that can be gained in terms of reduced fertility and children’s health outcomes as a result of investing in women directly. The WB follows this publication up with a later Gender Action Plan and Global Monitoring Report that depict ‘gender equality itself as smart economics, in that it enables women to contribute their utmost skills and energies to the project of world economic development’. Chant and Sweetman site the Girl Effect campaign as taking these messages to a whole new level by ‘proposing that once these investments are made girls will ‘do the rest’, ‘change the course of history’ and safeguard the ‘future of humanity’.

Now look back at the WID summary.
concentrated exclusively on women (read girls) = check
essentialized women (girls) as a single group = check
sex was highlighted above all other identity categories = check
not about changing gender relations and ideology = check

Basically Chant and Sweetman argue that women and girls are working for development, again (check out an older version of this argument from the fantastic Rosalind Eyben). or in their words: ‘Smart economics seeks to use women and girls to fix the world’. I think they make another important point in this context, which relates to the last part about WID being unconcerned with changing gender relations, that there is a risk that this instrumentalist messaging will overestimate ‘what women are capable of in a global order characterized by ongoing gender bias and structural barriers to their capabilities’. Which means detaching the messaging of investing in girls from the feminist project of transforming the laws, policies and practices which have so far kept women and girls oppressed will not lead to women and girls’ empowerment.

Now that we have thoroughly taken the ‘invest in girls’ agenda out back and set it on fire, let us take a moment to put all this in perspective. Firstly, for those who decide to read the article in full, you’ll note the authors mention the ‘because i am a girl’ report series which i coordinated for a good number of years as an example of how INGO’s have taken up this call for gender equality as smart economics. And to some extent public campaign messaging has been toeing this popular line. However, research, analysis and certainly programming has stuck to GAD quite faithfully, in part due to Plan’s commitment to rights based programming which inherently means tackling gender inequality holistically to remove barriers to the realization of rights.

But this isn’t a manifesto in the defense of any one organization. In fact, the disturbingly instrumentalist, or efficiency-led, approach to girls’ empowerment has been at the forefront of my blogging endevours for a while. see here for a three year old blog post lamenting the language used at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative meetings. They quite clearly leveled the discussion at the private sector and World Bank type donors stating their sessions focused on ‘adolescent girls, the most underutilized resources in the world today’. At the time, i felt this was letting duty bearers off the hook. almost three years later, im worried it will lead to an epic fail. and if so, will the backlash and disappointment move the policy discussion away from girls altogether? when they are unable to deliver on the expectation that they ‘move their community and country’ out of poverty, will the trickle of funding dry up altogether?

Some will argue that we should engage in ‘strategic essentialism‘, which is an important concept that means strategically using a heterogenous category like ‘girls’ in a homogenous way for a political end. If donors are pouring millions into education systems to ensure girls receive basic schooling, does it really matter that they are motivated by a reductionist approach to ‘girls’, an instrumentalist argument and 20 year old data?

I can’t answer that. but I would quote Chant and Sweetman again when they say: ‘structural discrimination constrains the agency of women and girls and presents them with insurmountable obstacles, despite their best efforts to advance their own interests and meet their own needs…what is needed is a gender and development approach which recognizes inequality as a relational issue, and which recognizes the equal rights of all women and girls – regardless of age, or the extent or nature of their economic contribution’.

Keshet Bachan

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Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, United Nations, violence

57th Commission on the Status of Women – should we care?

Since joining the women’s empowerment sector, i have had the opportunity to attend and lead delegations to a couple CSW meetings in NY. I was initially quite excited by the idea of a high level summit of women’s organizations all committed to feminist ideals coming together at the United Nations to establish new policies, present innovative ideas and breath new life into stagnant discussions around age old problems. Although the side panels are always interesting, and a great place to network and meet like minded dedicated individuals, I have always felt that the CSW was more style than substance.

From an advocacy perspective these meetings are a dud. The ‘Agreed Conclusions‘ document that is adopted at the end of the two week meetings have no teeth, no accountability mechanisms and rarely (if ever) get translated into government level policies. In fact  the few General Assembly discussions i have had the misfortune to attend were dull affairs where countries of the world, in alphabetical order, regaled a dozing audience with stories of what they do to help/protect/promote/mention women. At certain points this becomes an almost comic affair as countries who are well known for their complete disregard to women’s rights and countries that have been chosen multiple times as ‘the worst place to be a woman’ or some such, stand up and give a 10 minute brief on their dedication to the issue.

So why do third sector organizations with stretched budgets keep spending good money to attend these meetings? granted, there is some press and media attention to be had. But it’s rather marginal, and I wonder who besides those that are already interested (you policy wonks know who you are!) actually follow things like #CSW57 and other hashtags?

During the two week meeting the big INGO’s get together with the UN agencies who bring an OECD mission along so they can all hug each other on a panel discussion. So the well known allies of women’s groups get together and celebrate themselves, while certain governments work in advance to create a blocking vote that derails any attempt at passing more action oriented conclusions.

the best example of CSW impotence is the fact that in my many travels to ‘the field’, no one has ever heard of this meeting. sorry, but its true. the only interested folks, are those who are attending, have attended, or might attend one of the meetings in future.

seriously though, wouldn’t it be great if women’s organizations got together (what a pipe dream huh?) and boycotted the whole thing? or held an alternative CSW, like the World Social Forum, but for women and girls? then we would spend two weeks naming and shaming governments, creating real alliances based on a feminist political consciousness that didn’t shy away from challenging the old power bases and spoke about girls rights in terms other than ‘what a great investment’ (read – more consumers for our free market systems).

I guess we’ll call that radical idea ‘Plan B’.

In the meantime, I’m taking this CSW with a grain of salt. With the lofty intention of ‘eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls’ there is more riding on the outcomes of these meetings than ever before.  Women and girls are suffering from violence and abuse right now. there has never been a more urgent call to action, nor is there a more pervasive widespread issue that touches every women and every girl in the world. So what will the CSW actually manage to achieve  Will we see a limp set of innocuous ‘agreed conclusions’ that will have no impact what so ever? or will we see funding allocations and policy changes?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not holding my breath.

Keshet

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