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Gender Justice in Development: UNRISD’s Contribution to the Global Project of Gender Equality

16 Dec 2020

Gender Justice in Development: UNRISD’s Contribution to the Global Project of Gender Equality
UNRISD is pleased to announce the relaunch of its gender research programme with a new name—Gender Justice and Development—and new thinking under the leadership of Francisco Cos-Montiel, who recently joined UNRISD. In this blog Francisco sets out what directions the programme will be taking, and you can learn more about Francisco himself in our short interview: watch the video, or read the news item.

UNRISD launches its new Gender Justice and Development research programme in the same year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the historic 4th UN World Conference on Women. Nobody could foresee that 25 years later humankind would be experiencing a global pandemic, one of the greatest challenges in modern times.

2020 has highlighted longstanding fractures and inequalities across societies, including gender inequality. Despite past experiences, such as the well-documented gender impacts of structural adjustment, current policy responses and support have been gender neutral at best, particularly where they have not recognized underlying structural inequalities.

The gendered effects of Covid-19

I believe that work and care are the most powerful examples of the gendered effects of Covid-19. The pandemic has forced a great number of people to work virtually, transforming the way we collaborate, communicate and produce. Most industries have been hit hard by the slowdown in global demand for goods and services, but those that do not depend on physical contact have been able to adapt to the pandemic with relative ease. This is not the case for many other fields of work. For example, the care people provide to others, which is mostly given by women, has proven to be a critical challenge where neither the state nor society has been able to offer a fair and coordinated response.

Women have invested long hours in care during the Covid-19 crisis and those who are subject to intimate partner violence face additional risks when self-isolating, often including precarious lodging and lack of income and food, as Kabeer has warned us. Those whose work—paid or unpaid—involves human contact, including doctors, nurses and caregivers, are the ones more at risk of being infected by Covid-19. But this is also the case for those in unregulated work such as domestic and sex workers, as well as frontline workers, whose continued work during the height of the pandemic helped sustain the economy and our everyday lives.

In our gender-inflected societies, the greatest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be the providers of intellectual and physical capital who typically are men. This explains the rising gap in wealth between those who are dependent on capital versus those who depend on manual labour. But men working in the field of innovation can only be sustained on the condition that somebody else looks after tasks such as cooking, washing, cleaning; tasks that are widely identified with women.

I believe that some very basic questions are still as relevant as ever: who works on what, who cares for whom and in exchange for what, and how does culture determine the roles, relations, aspirations, hopes, desires and satisfaction of human beings. Advances towards a more equal distribution of labour, care, power and well-being between men and women have been made in the past, but the pandemic has shown us that these gender equality gains that we perhaps had taken for granted can be lost very quickly.

The new programme

UNRISD’s relaunched gender research programme aims to deepen our understanding of the structural causes of these issues and to propose political and policy options to UN member states and the development community more generally. The new programme name reflects a focus on the concept of gender justice which includes the question of redress for past injustices within the current discussions of empowerment. A recognition that the lives of men and women are intersected by other inequalities, such as class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and age among others, will guide our work.

As a man shaped by the ideas and work of feminist scholars, I will be leading the new Gender Justice and Development Programme at UNRISD. We will develop a portfolio of research and activities in three priority areas: (i) the backlash against women; (ii) gender, technologies and digital economies; and (iii) feminist perspectives on climate change.

Backlash against women
There is growing concern over a steady pushback against some painstakingly achieved gains in the field of women’s rights. A worrying phenomenon in both the global North and South, this backlash reinforces and promotes the traditional cultural norms of masculinity and femininity. Understanding how institutions work, and how women can overcome the obstacles that limit their ability to make choices, is crucial if we are to successfully secure and advance the overarching project of gender equality. UNRISD will explore the challenge of anti-genderism and threats to women’s rights as an experimental field for the broader reform of values.

Technology and digital economies
The programme will undertake research on the gendered dimensions and consequences of technology, ICTs and digital economies, to feed into the academic sphere and to inform policy making in the UN and beyond. One gendered consequence of increasing technologization of work and society is the question of who does which jobs. Economic injustice has always been an obstacle for women across the world. In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal issue associated with the fourth industrial revolution, as the World Economic Forum terms it. Technology is one of the main reasons why incomes have stagnated or even decreased for the majority of the population in high-income countries. The demand for highly skilled workers has increased while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. However, a key part of the economy that can be expected to avoid displacement is the feminized sector of care work, as it is dependent on human interaction and emotional intelligence. While this work can be done by both men and women, given that women are losing opportunities as jobs become more technologically intensive, it is possible that women will be forced to once again take jobs identified with the bodily and emotional sphere, which would increase the gendered division of labour.

Climate change
With the impacts of climate change becoming ever more visible and devastating, and only 10 years left to achieve the 2030 Agenda, the need to respond to climate change is more pressing than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the interconnectedness of the planet and humankind, and how we share vulnerabilities and strengths. Given women’s role at the crossroads of production and reproduction, it is important to investigate development and its intimate links with climate change through feminist eyes. A reconfigured feminist environmental policy should act as a catalyst for broader social innovation.

My experience has shown me that research has a critical role to play in identifying, analysing and proposing solutions to emerging challenges that we could not have imagined when we celebrated the Beijing Platform for Action. With the launch of the Gender Justice and Development Programme, UNRISD continues its high-quality research on gender equality and social development. This research—initiated in the 1990s by Shahra Razavi—has had significant influence on academic debates in the field, and has been widely used within the UN, policy making, women’s organizations and advocacy communities. The issues that will be explored under the new programme are more relevant than ever for the global project of gender equality.

I believe that in this way, and in conjunction with the other research programmes at UNRISD, the Gender Justice and Development Programme can hope to make a useful and coherent contribution to the new UNRISD Institutional Strategy to be unveiled in the new year.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.