The Gendered Politics of Development


The Anthropology of Development 101 intends to review the contributions of anthropological knowledge to development theories and practices in ‘underdeveloped‘ and ‘developing‘ societies, as well as the critique of development as a social, economic, and political phenomenon. It critically examines the major theories, strategies, institutions, and the social consequences of global development while emphasizing what development means in relation to particular places and people. By placing development theories and practices into broader historical contexts, these articles look at development as a dynamic phenomenon that is continuously shaped and reshaped by new social, economic, and political circumstances.

This 101 series is divided into six articles including:

  1. The Anthropology of Development 101: Theoretical Underpinnings and Alternative Approaches

  2. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Discourse on Development and Its Effects

  3. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Challenge of Participatory Development

  4. The Anthropology of Development 101: Neoliberal Approach to Development: Microcredits vs Unconditional Cash Transfer

  5. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Gendered Politics of Development

  6. The Anthropology of Development 101: The Development of Difference: Rethinking Indigeneity, Ethnicity, and Social Movement

Since the early 1970s, feminist scholars and activists have actively been engaged in the promotion of gender equality in development policy and practice. Starting with a critique of women’s exclusion from development activities, these actors drew attention to the consequences of socioeconomic changes for women and challenged mainstream development institutions in order to make gender equality a priority in their programs. Today, more than ever, women’s voices, representation, and resources show a crucial aspect of development policies. Yet, a gendered approach to development does not come without challenges. Firstly, this article delves into feminist approaches to development from a historical perspective before focusing on some key concepts of these approaches and their limitations. Lastly, it illustrates the challenges of gendered politics to development with a contemporary example of women’s involvement in development projects: the widespread participation of women in microcredits programs.

Women were ignored in early development approach

A Historical Approach to Feminist Engagements with Development

The beginning of the feminist critique of development is usually traced to Boserup’s (1970) book: Women’s Role in Economic Development. The author notes that although men and women have very different relationships to development, women’s voices were almost always excluded from development activities. She further observes that development models were grounded in Western conceptions of women's social roles. For instance, the introduction of modern technologies in agriculture and male biases in extension service provisioning turned rural African women into housebound housewives, resulting in the so-called housewifization process. Similarly, Caplan (1988), in his research on development in Tanzania, notices that with changed modes of agricultural production and men becoming more involved in cash crop production, women and children become more dependent “on the male control of bought food in the household,” leading to scarcity of food in the villages and the deterioration of women's health (Ibid, p. 11).

Early approach to WID focused on the category of women

Consequently, early efforts to transform development were mainly focused on integrating women into development projects and were framed in terms of what came to be known as Women in Development (WID) (Murphy, 2011). This approach, however, was soon criticized for its excessively narrow perspective on women’s lives and work. Criticisms of WID led to the emergence of a new approach, Gender and Development (GAD), which rather than focusing on women alone, emphasizes gender relations and the ways in which gender roles, responsibilities, and expectations are socially constructed (Murphy, 2011). As Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead note, even though the GAD approach “facilitated the dedication of resources, the production of policy spaces, the creation of a cadre of professionals and a body of organizations of various kinds whose work is to deal with issues of gender” (2007, p. 5), they reduced “the political project of gender and development … to a ‘technical fix’” (Ibid, p. 9). At the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the UN adopted gender mainstreaming as a strategy for promoting gender equality. This involved “assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels” (Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, 2002, p. v). Yet, the risk is for gender mainstreaming to become entangled in the technocratic workings of development organizations and, therefore, not promote social change. More recent research examines how gender mainstreaming has been used by development institutions and what its implications are for women’s struggles (Phillips, 2005).

Some Key Feminist Concepts and their Limitations

Western (white) feminist scholars have been criticized for homogenizing the social category of women (Mohanty, 1988; bell hooks, 1984). Drawing from the concept of intersectionality, black and colored feminists drew attention to the articulation of co-occurring structures of oppression (Crenshaw, 1991). Additionally, these scholars criticize all-encompassing representations of women living in the global South. The extensive body of literature on forced marriage, unwanted pregnancies, lack of contraception, exploitation in the labor market, and subordination to husbands, to name but a few, results in representing these women as being victims, devoid of any form of agency (Murphy, 2011). In contrast, feminist anthropologists call for the integration of multiple positionalities, the plurality of the category of women, and the diversity of women’s living experiences, needs, and interests.

Feminist anthropologists emphasize the plurality of women and diversity of their experiences

Gender interacts with other forms of inequality in shaping women’s lives and power imbalances (Ibid). Sen and Grown (1987) draw attention to the intersections of race, class, and nation with gender, especially for southern women, and popularize the term empowerment. Empowerment has become embedded in contemporary social and political life. As expressed by the United Nations, “women's empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society, including participation in the decision-making process and access to power, are fundamental for the achievement of equality, development and peace” (United Nation, 1995, p. 8). The concept stresses the importance of the social dimension in the development process (Freire, 1970) and the need for individuals to be responsible for their own well-being (Simon, 1994). However, the term empowerment does not exist per se but is conceptualized within international development agencies (Sharma, 2008). Consequently, it remains a vague term widely accepted and followed in theory but open to multiple interpretations in practice. Each development actor is free to interpret, translate, and instrumentalize empowerment approaches as they wish. Likewise, the individuals and communities that are the object of development projects understand and perceive empowerment initiatives in their own ways. Hence, empowerment should not be approached as a universal concept but should instead be considered through its diversity and complex nature by observing how empowerment initiatives are translated into practice and what the consequences are in people's everyday life (Khurshid, 2016).

The Example of Women and Microcredits

The prevailing view in neoliberal discourse is that gender equality would automatically benefit economic development. Development practitioners, therefore, promote women's entrepreneurialism and self-help with the conviction that increasing women’s economic opportunities is the way out of poverty for themselves, their families, and their communities. The decision to invest in women is driven by a gendered representation, according to which women have “cultural propensities to invest wisely and look after their families and communities” (Rankin, 2001, p. 20). Because women are perceived as having a natural propensity for cooperation and solidarity, microcredit programs, for example, promote “solidarity loans” (Schuster, 2014). However, by emphasizing the borrowers' social ties rather than property for collateral, this practice tends to commodify the social relationships in which women are embedded (Ibid).

Women are often the beneficiaries of microcredit programs

The idea that relations of social reproduction can be transformed is one of microcredit's primary claims of empowerment. Access to credit is supposed to give women a voice, more power, and autonomy within their families. Credit programs and self-employment would enable women to challenge traditional power relations; or, as Rankin says: “women’s associations through microfinance generate not just social and economic capital, but also collective consciousness of, and resistance to, oppression” (2002, p. 12). The reality, however, is not as straightforward. In many cases, microcredits do not result in fundamental changes in women’s position in society and, while still changing economic relationships within households, it may reinforce traditional gender relations; “credit programs that leave ideological structures intact … cannot in themselves catalyze social change” (Rankin, 2002, p. 18). These programs do not provide changes in women’s identity, nor do they produce “collective consciousness of their subordinate location” (Ibid, p. 17) that may encourage them to challenge the existing distribution of resources, power, right, and gender division of labor, for example. In focusing exclusively on providing women with economic resources, credit programs do not address structural issues of gender inequality or women's subjugated position in society. Although they have an increase in income, women are not “empowered.” While self-help and empowerment may offer new economic opportunities for women, the process of changing power relations within the family is highly contingent. Women often face conflicting identities, as they are expected to be autonomous economic actors while still fulfilling traditional gender roles within the household. In this sense, the logic of microcredit programs does not necessarily conflict with a patriarchal conception of the family.

Conclusion Feminism’s contribution to development theory and practice is now widely acknowledged; however, a growing body of literature questions the depth of transformation that has been achieved. Cornwall, Harrison & Whitehead, for example, describe how gender has “fallen from favour and has a jaded, dated feel to it. Diluted, denatured, depoliticized, [it is] included everywhere as an afterthought” (2007, p. 5-6). Molyneux further affirms that “[t]he evidence suggests a significant gap between the gender equality guidelines [of large development institutions] and the practice” (2007, p. 228). Although there have been significant steps toward the inclusion of women in development theory and practice, many development projects fail to address the central feminist critique of the continuing oppression of women within patriarchal systems.

Bibliographical References

Boserup, E. (1970). Women’s Role in Economic Development. London: Allen & Unwin. Caplan, P. (1988). “Engendering Knowledge: The Politics of Ethnography”. Anthropology Today 5(4): 8–12. Cornwall, A., Harrison, E. & Whitehead, A. (2007). “Introduction: Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges”, in Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges, (eds.) A. Cornwall, E. Harrison, and A. Whitehead, London: Zed Books: 1–17. Crenshaw, K. (1991). “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”. Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241–1299. Freire, P. 2005 (1970). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum. Hook, b. (1984). Feminist Theories: From Margin to Center. South End Press. Khurshid, A. (2016).Empowered to Contest the Terms of Empowerment? Empowerment and Development in a Transnational Women's Education Project”. Comparative Education Review 60: 619-643. Mohanty, C. T. (1988).Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”. Feminist Review 30: 61–88. Molyneux, M. (2007). “The Chimera of Success: Gender Ennui and the Changed International Policy Environment”, in Feminisms in Development: Contradictions, Contestations and Challenges, (eds.) A. Cornwall, E. Harrison and A. Whitehead, London: Zed Books, 227–240. Murphy, J. E. (2011). “Feminism and the Anthropology of 'Development': Dilemmas in Rural Mexico”. Anthropology in Action 18(1): 16-18. Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. (2002). Gender Mainstreaming: An Overview. New York, NY: UnitedNations. Phillips, L. (2005). “Gender Mainstreaming: The Global Governance of Women?” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 26, Special Issue: 651–663. Rankin, K. N. (2001).Governing development: neoliberalism, microcredit, and rational economic woman”. Economy and Society 30 (1): 18-37. Rankin, K. N. (2002). “Social Capital, Microfinance, and the Politics of Development”. Feminist Economics 8: 1-24. Sharma, A. (2008). Logics of Empowerment: Development, Gender, and Governance in Neoliberal India (NED-New edition). University of Minnesota Press. Schuster, C. (2014). The social unit of debt: Gender and creditworthiness in Paraguayan microfinance”. American Ethnologist 41 (3): 563-578. Sen, G. & Grown, C. (1987). Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives. New York: Monthly Review Press. Simon, B. L. (1994). The Empowerment Tradition in American Social Work: A History. New York: Columbia University Press. United Nations. (1995). Rapport de la quatrième conférence mondiale sur les femmes: Beijing. New York, United Nations.

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