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Gender Praxis in Emergencies: 20 Years after Beijing

2 Apr 2015

Gender Praxis in Emergencies: 20 Years after Beijing
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

This think piece offers a brief scan of the humanitarian response environment since the Beijing conference of 1995, within which gender practitioners have been striving to integrate gender concerns. It succinctly reviews the background against which gender mainstreaming entered the humanitarian sector, bringing with it the promise to integrate and mainstream gender concerns into the response to emergencies created by armed conflict or natural disasters. However, looking back on the past 20 years, it shows how gender mainstreaming has emerged as a strategy which is sometimes practiced in a way that is counter-productive to its goal of transforming gender inequality. It takes a look at the way that gender transformative issues of voice, choice, safety and accountability seem to be stuck in the humanitarian-development divide and how resilience is being viewed as the ‘new kid on the block’ which will bridge that divide. The author asks whether gender praxis, as the embodiment of a commitment to human well-being, could be employed to interrogate the relationship between the vision of gender equality and the strategy for its achievement, and whether gender could be flagged as the unifying factor that already straddles the humanitarian-development divide?

Anu Pillay works as a Senior Gender Advisor to the humanitarian system and is a visiting professor at UPEACE.

Gender Praxis in Emergencies—20 Years after Beijing

The integration of the principle of gender equality into responses to emergencies began with the concept of gender mainstreaming, motivated by the Beijing conference in 1995. I was fortunate enough to be there, as a representative of the South African women’s movement to end violence against women, to co-present a study on intimate femicide in six Southern African countries. We were inspired and we returned full of optimism and drive to take on the challenge of mainstreaming gender into governments and international development agencies. As a practice, gender mainstreaming was intended as a way of improving the effectiveness of established policies. It was to make visible and to clearly articulate the gendered nature of all development work from conception to implementation. Instead of working on the periphery as a separate gender theory, gender mainstreaming would bring about a clear understanding of the gendered nature of all the spaces that we inhabit as human beings (Walby, 2004). After 20 years, we have learned what the cost and gains were of trying to integrate a feminist political movement into the mainstream (Sweetman, 2012). Daly (2005) spells out these tensions in gender mainstreaming, and throws a spotlight on the conflicts between the goals of integrating gender into the mainstream and of changing the mainstream. One of the challenges she articulates is to (re)visit how “gender mainstreaming as theory conceives of and relates to gender inequality as a societal phenomenon”.

Against this background and with commitment from the highest levels of governments and the United Nations at Beijing 1995 to take gender mainstreaming on board, gender advocates within the international non-governmental system lobbied for more systematic integration of gender into emergency responses. In particular they made gender mainstreaming mandatory in humanitarian operations responding to crises brought on by armed conflicts and natural disasters. A gender capacity roster was established through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Sub-working groups (IASC SWG) and, responding to the call of the then emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, to “follow the money”, the gender marker tool was created. This innovative tool would measure and track gender-related funding allocations and their results in the humanitarian funding appeals process. It would also give the gender advisors an entry point to facilitate capacity strengthening of humanitarian teams and ensure that the distinct needs of women, girls, boys and men were efficiently targeted and addressed.

What happened?

The gender capacity advisors were sent out to crisis-affected countries to assist humanitarian systems in their efforts to mainstream gender throughout their programme cycles. Armed with the pioneering gender marker, various toolkits, tip sheets, capacity-building materials and more, these advisors engaged with the system to encourage it to pay attention to gender issues; to wear a gender lens when assessing, analyzing and programming for the response to the crisis. They attracted a special kind of “opprobrium” (Sweetman, 2012), which conjured up in the minds of the humanitarian aid workers notions of ‘gender police’ who were sent to distract them from the vital, time-bound ‘saving lives’ agenda. Struggling against these odds and in an effort to move away from the ‘policing’ perception, these gender mainstreaming practitioners found themselves adopting modes used by gender practitioners in other sectors, which appeared to provide more traction for gender mainstreaming. They began to focus their actions on providing technical support using ‘neutral’ tool kits (Walby, 2004). Commenting on this phenomenon, Mukhopadhyay (2004) maintains that gender mainstreaming has emerged as an “ahistorical, apolitical, de-contextualized technical project that leaves the prevailing and unequal power relations in tact” and which “removes the focus on women regardless of the context”. This opens up the way for all types of gender-related concerns, particularly the impact of crises on men which, of course, cannot be ignored. In an ideal world, this interpretation of gender as focusing equally on the needs of both men and women would be correct. In a gender unequal world, the blurring of the focus on women means that the transformative aspect of gender equality work is diluted.

In addition, in the humanitarian context, the transformation of gender inequality is seen to belong to the development phases which have little if any place in humanitarian action. For many practitioners this was and continues to be a huge dilemma in terms of the feminist political project of gender equality.

The humanitarian–development divide

Darcy (2008) argues that development and humanitarian actors alike are bound by a general concern for human well-being and the alleviation of human suffering. However, humanitarians are fully focused on the latter, stressing the life-saving aspect and actual or potential threats to life, livelihoods and security. In practice, he says, “humanitarian action tends to hinge on the identification of a ‘crisis’, understood as a dangerous deviation from the prevailing norm”.

Contrasting sharply with long-term development goals, humanitarian action is characterized by short-term phases and limited ‘non-aspirational’ goals. Social justice, empowerment, sustainability, equality and other such benchmarks of development thinking are contingent factors, not defining concerns, even though the links to vulnerability are very clear. Development, on the other hand, has centralized issues of gender inequality reflected in concerns with voice, choice, safety and accountability. So what should we conclude about the humanitarian–development divide? Many argue that it is artificial, and that it creates an ideological and institutional barrier to more progressive, effective programming (Darcy, 2008).

Actors working on the ground with affected populations agree that labeling different crisis stages can be reductionist and unhelpful at times. These stages sometimes do not reflect the realities on the ground which often shift and change far more rapidly from the so-called ‘response’ phase into ‘early recovery’ than is typically acknowledged. Some development actors will only enter the stage when the emergency has been declared to be over, yet the needs of the communities may require their presence after only a few days (Scott, 2013).

The buzzword to characterize bridging the divide is now ‘resilience’ which simply stated means being less vulnerable to future shocks. Actors on both sides of the humanitarian-development divide are now talking about building resilient communities during development or rethinking preparedness phases, in order to better withstand humanitarian crises. Since preparedness is an integral part of the humanitarian system, discussions and plans are now being redesigned and implemented to help systems and people be more resilient. However, since resilience cannot be achieved solely through humanitarian action, it rather requires the full spectrum of combined humanitarian and development support. Whether resilience is just another buzz word or a useful concept is still being debated. Given the different definitions of resilience and the complex coordination that it requires between sectors like poverty alleviation and climate change, there is scepticism as to whether this concept will bring clarity or confusion (Hauck, 2012 and Warner et.al, 2012).

Gender praxis in the nexus

      "All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mystics find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.... The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." (Marx 1845 Theses on Feuerbach: II, VII, XI quoted in Smith, 2011)

If resilience is to be the key to bridging the humanitarian-development divide , then it provides a bigger opportunity for gender integration. Resilience is people-focused and taps into the distinct capacities and coping mechanisms of women, girls, boys and men. Mercy Corp’s 2014 study on resilience finds that gender integration is a critical component in resilience programming but more importantly clearly states that it is “impossible to build resilience in households and communities without also addressing systemic gender inequality”. From this perspective, gender praxis1 is an opportunity to bridge the humanitarian development divide as well as go beyond the mere technical application of gender mainstreaming. Through praxis, as the “embodiment of a commitment to human well-being and the search for truth” (Smith, 2011), we can begin to interrogate the relationship between the vision of gender equality and the strategy for its achievement. Can we move beyond ‘either/or’ (zero sum thinking) to ‘both/and’ (balance and solutions)? Should we perceive the process of change as a continuum that moves from development to humanitarian to recovery to development seamlessly, focusing on the needs and aspirations of the affected communities? Does gender work not stand in that nexus, straddling all the different phases practically and strategically? Can we extend the principles of voice, choice, accountability and safety across the divide? And finally, how do we respond to the call from renowned feminists to “repoliticize” (Sweetman, 2012) gender mainstreaming, in particular in the context of humanitarian crises? All open pressing questions that need grounded, contextualized and political answers if we are to transform existing unequal gender power relations.

1 Praxis in this context is referring to using participatory methods that prioritize unsettling the settled mentalities, especially where the settled mindsets prevalent in the social world or individuals are suspected to have sustained or contributed to their suffering.

Daly, Mary. 2005. “Gender Mainstreaming in Theory and Practice.” Social Politics 12(3):433-450.

Darcy, James. 2008. “The MDGs and the Humanitarian–Development Divide”. ODI Opinion 111, September.

Warner, Jeroen and François Grünewald. 2012. “Resilience: Buzz Word or Useful Concept?” Humanitarian Aid on the Move. Group Urgence Réhabilitation Développement, 10: 14-19.

Hauck, Volker. 2012. “What Can Bridge the Divide Between Humanitarian Aid and Development?edepm Talking Points Blog, September.

Mukhopadhyay, Maitrayee. 2004. “Mainstreaming Gender or ‘Streaming’ Gender Away: Feminists Marooned in the Development Business”. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 95-103.

Scott, Anna. 2013. “10 Ways to Make Humanitarian Efforts Complement Development.” The Guardian, 9 October 2013.

Smith, Mark. 1999, 2011. “What is Praxis?The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Accessed 20 February 2015.

Sweetman, Caroline. 2012. “Beyond Gender Mainstreaming – What's Changed Since Beijing 1995?” Policy and Practice Blog, 26 February.

Walby, Sylvia. 2004. “Gender Mainstreaming: Productive Tensions in Theory and Practice”. Contribution to ESRC Gender Mainstreaming Seminars, 2003-4.

    Anu Pillay writes in her personal capacity as an international gender specialist. She works as a Senior Gender Advisor to the humanitarian system. She is also a visiting professor at UPEACE, the UN mandated university for peace. Previously she was the head of mission for Medica Mondiale in Liberia and the Peacebuilding Programme Manager for the Centre for the Study of Violence in South Africa.


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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.