Yesterday I read this great post by Siobhan Foran (UNICEF) lamenting two things:
- That when folks use the word gender, they mean girls.
- That they tick the gender box in their program proposals by using cryptic sentences like ‘with special attention to girls’.
I have to say it really gets my goat when people casually replace the word women or girls with gender. And not just because this effectively ignores the needs of boys and men. But because it strips the word gender of all its political power.
Some basics (and if this is ‘duh’ to you, skip it):
Sex is: the biological differences between males and females.
Gender is: the social and cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities. In other words gender represents assumptions about what men and boys should do and what women and girls should do in society. Moreover, gender is about the relationships between women and men, girls and boys and the way these relationships are socially constructed.
The word ‘Gender’ allows us to see power differences. If our lens of analysis is not comparing two groups, but only looking at women/girls as a distinct group, then we lose our ability to uncover unjust imbalances.
More importantly, gender allows us to take action. If attitudes and expectations are socially constructed, then surely they change from place to place, they change over time, and they can be changed if we try very hard.
The second point Siobhan Foran made regarding programmatic responses that have supposedly mainstreamed gender by claiming to put in place ‘special considerations for girls’ is indeed an annoying habit. I would hope donors would simply stop handing out funds to organizations that submit proposals using sentences of that ilk.
I would like to take a moment though and focus on what I perceive to be the root cause of these “badaid” proposals – gender blindness.
A bit of feminist theory (no, you can’t skip this bit):
Ruth Frankenburg is an American feminist well-known for theorizing ‘whiteness’. By making being ‘white’ visible one can see and thus undermine the power of whiteness as a “location of structural advantage” that sustains racism. Being aware of ones privilege (this can be a privilege of location ‘global north’/‘global south’, or a privilege of race or of gender etc.) is important because our ‘privilege’ informs our knowledge, our opinions, our attitudes and our actions. Frankenburg argues that we must understand the subject position of the oppressor if we are to understand that of the oppressed.
So, by being gender blind and aiming an aid program at ‘children’ or ‘youth’ we are ignoring that not all the people in that category face the same challenges or have the same privileges (which we might want to capitalize on). We also ignore the group power dynamics which could seriously affect the success of our project.
Frakenburg also argues that whiteness has always been visible for most non-white people. “Color-blindness” stems from racial privilege and is a primary tool of racial domination.
This is important. When people say ‘I don’t care if someone is yellow, purple, pink or grey. Color doesn’t matter to me’ they are speaking from a place of privilege. Because ‘whiteness’ is socially viewed as a non-color, they can allow themselves to claim that they do not see color. The same is true for any majority, or privileged group, claiming they do not ‘see’ less privileged groups.
Now, we can all sense where this is going. If you do not see discrimination and oppression – how can you counter it? And more to the point, by claiming we are all ‘the same’ you are in effect claiming we operate on a level playing field where inequalities do not exist. This is not useful. Especially in the realm of human rights which is predicated on the understanding that some groups need to be protected from those who don’t see them.
All this to say, that those who are creating programs that claim to address ‘gender inequalities’ by virtue of using that term once or twice in their proposal should take a long hard look in the mirror. What do you see?