Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue
Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.
One question about women’s rights that may never go away is how to ensure that women are represented fairly in large organizations, like the United Nations. For now, work on “gender mainstreaming” may suffice by concentrating on small steps as opposed to devising wholesale solutions. As one expert has described the process, it is an “arc of transformation.”
In fact, a panel discussion on “Gender Justice in Large Development Organizations: Is Transformation Possible?” began with the goal of pinpointing successful strategies, or “disruptions,” to the usual way of pushing for equality but ended with more questions than answers. That in itself reveals the elusive nature of progress in women’s rights as push-backs must also be addressed.
“Has gender mainstreaming had its day?” Joanne Sandler, a senior associate at Gender at Work, a nonprofit group that advocates women’s equality, asked in moderating the discussion. It was held as part of the Ralph Bunche Forum series at the City University of New York Graduate Center on Oct. 7 in a roomful of — no surprise — mostly women. “Ten years ago, gender mainstreaming was declared dead.”
No one on the four-person panel even hinted that gender mainstreaming might be a goner. What the panelists — Aruna Rao, a founder of Gender at Work; Shawna Wakefield, gender justice expert at Oxfam International; Pablo Castillo Díaz, protection specialist in peace and security at UN Women; and Letitia Anderson, advocacy and women’s rights specialist from the entity UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict — did say is that change is hard to quantify.
At the UN, revelatory moments that make a difference for women may still be far more visible on paper than on the ground. Castillo Díaz, comfortable as the sole male speaker, sounded alarm bells on progress for women in peace and security situations.
He cited the story of Haziza Maiga Mint Kadra, a woman deputy mayor from Timbuktu in Mali who fled the city during the siege by jihadists in her country in 2012 after they forced her from her job, claiming her gender disqualified her from holding public office. With her children she escaped on a boat down the Niger River to Bamako, the capital, where she joined a huge influx of mostly women refugees from the north of the country. She and other leaders raised awareness about the precarious conditions for women in camps; later, she encouraged rebel groups to dialogue with Malian authorities to stabilize the country. Yet she was not invited to the actual peace talks that took place in Burkina Faso.
“Women are largely absent from conflict resolution — why?” Castillo Díaz asked. It is an area showing the least advances for women but is the most discussed aspect of women at the UN Security Council, which since 2000 has passed seven resolutions legally assuring women’s places at peace tables.
Castillo Díaz blamed the gray matter of negotiations themselves, saying, “Peacemaking is not a rule-bound world, nor is it transparent.” Secrecy and trust-building are part of mediation, and the UN “tries not to litigate” at peace tables but to make sure they happen. Getting specific information on peace talks is also cumbersome, as “teams are fluid and flexible” and “who is at the table never really recorded.”
Has anyone ever counted numbers at peace talks?, Castillo Díaz continued. “It’s probably data lost forever unless the number is zero.” Worse, efforts to end violence against women in conflict always receive the “lowest for appeal to funds, money is minuscule and always the last on the list.”
But collecting data can make a difference, he said, a message that Michelle Bachelet emphasized while she was executive director of UN Women until she left in March to run for president of Chile in November. (It is unclear whether her successor, a former politician from South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, will make data gathering a priority, Castillo Díaz said.)
UN Women saw that “success is measured by things that don’t happen,” he added, but donors look at visual images to measure change, so the agency created baseline indicators to gather data and information that could track progress on work to end violence against women in conflicts and other pertinent issues. This was an important step, Castillo Díaz said, as no data on the main points of the women, peace and security agenda had been collected.
“The only thing we saw measured systematically is the number of women in parliament,” he explained, in a follow-up phone call after the panel discussion. Although UN Women was at first skeptical of relying on statistics — they can depict too narrow a picture when looking at war and peace and do not always reveal the quality of work being done — “we still believe in the power of numbers to change in policies.”
Anderson, from the UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict group, described how incorporating gender-minded changes can appear absurd at times. Her office, based in New York, is relatively new and run by Zainab Bangura, a former politician from Sierra Leone. It gathers 13 different UN organizations to advocate and provide support to post-conflict countries, like Liberia, on peace and security and humanitarian matters.
Anderson gave an example of how first-time Cambodian peacekeepers who were being trained to go to Sudan received manuals about theories in gender differences rather than basic lessons in protecting women. Given that the peacekeepers were former military officers who had probably lived through the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, the training seemed inappropriate.
But in 2010, a page was turned at the UN and worldwide, Anderson said, when a mass rape of women in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo spurred a “new speed of international community response” that not only generated front-page news in major newspapers but also led senior UN officials to hold a debate on the issue at the Security Council. A new norm was born, allowing people to talk more openly about rape in war settings, leaving the topic no longer relegated to the “pink ghetto of gender.”
All of which has resulted in other “radical departures” on the UN’s approach to the scourge, Anderson added, like the development of an early-warning system in the peacekeeping mission in Congo (even if it doesn’t always work), intensified UN police patrolling, instituting “women protection advisers” in missions and other tools to make UN officials more attuned to the seriousness of sexual violence in conflict — and not to forget that it was categorized as a war crime in 1949 in the Geneva Conventions, even though it is rarely prosecuted.
“Now we need to sustain focus and sense of emergency,” Anderson said, admitting that there was “some backlash.”
Rao described the thorny exercise of transforming large development organizations as “analogous to asking how you make love to a porcupine — carefully and slowly.”
She described what happened when India’s welfare program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides up to 100 days of work to help tide over poor people during lean farming stretches, was made accessible to women from the country’s lowest caste, the Dalits. Using a photo of women in saris measuring a plot of land to illustrate her story, Rao explained how these women, who could barely read or write, needed the 100 days’ benefit the most.
Dalit women not only went through the program but they also made revolutionary gains in the other-world of commerce: they got job cards, bank accounts and manual labor with leadership roles, unheard of steps for such women in India.
“We trained semiliterate Dalit women to carry out technical tasks,” like measuring how much dirt they dug up in their jobs of excavating a pond or buttressing a bridge, Rao said.
Through public outreach, “sensitization” activities, protests and filing legal cases with authorities, Rao said that the women and partner organizations supporting their cause upset the norms and practices of officials, proving that Dalit women could handle supervisory tasks.
They also broke a social barrier: Dalit women, as part of their work, provided water to non-Dalit women, a taboo in India, Rao said, yet this small and hardly insignificant move acted as a “lever to a larger change, challenging basic discriminatory feature about caste.”
At Oxfam, Wakefield’s experience in gender mainstreaming occurred in the office and radiated outward. “Transformation is complex,” Wakefield said, but it “doesn’t have to be so mystifying.”
She told how a food security campaign that Oxfam staff members were working on had not taken into account the roles women perform in the global food system, so the campaign had to be reconfigured to incorporate women in the package.
“At a crucial moment,” Wakefield said, she realized the approach they were taking to include aspects of women in “food security” could not be the “usual gender police role” or “coddle people” tactic in the office but a chance to write a contract that everyone in the office had to sign, laying out a strategy and ambition for “putting women’s rights at the heart of the campaign.”
The plan hit some snags, but it succeeded in advancing women’s rights in food security, she said, enlightening such huge food companies as Nestle along the way.