How to build a gender-just social movement


Amy HallAmy Hall photo

‘Social change is not possible without changing power relations, and power relations don’t change if you don’t address gender and racial relations, (Atila Roque, BRIDGE e-discussion October 2011).

Women’s rights and gender justice are ‘on paper’ supported by most movements for social justice, but none are immune to the risk of discrimination and inequality.

The new Cutting Edge Pack on Gender and Social Movements, from the BRIDGE team at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) seeks to explore the dynamics which can leave gender justice behind in movements. The report also highlights the challenges faced by activists who dare to speak out and try to change gendered politics and practices within movements.

Gendered attitudes, behaviour and stereotypes can be ingrained while intersectional barriers within and between movements can make progress slow and difficult. The report highlights that integrating gender perspectives is about much more than just ‘including’ women or ‘thinking about’ women and gender minorities.screenshot of homepage Gender and Social Movements

The pack contains case studies, comparative analysis and reflections of those involved in social movements, developed as part of the BRIDGE Cutting Edge Programme on Gender and Social Movements. The three year collaborative research period involved over 150 activists, practitioners, scholars and supporters from around world. The pack was authored by feminist activist and writer Jessica Horn and the online version goes live today.

For those wanting to inject some gender justice into their cause, the report has suggestions on how to create and sustain gender-just social movements.

Support internal activism for change
Sticking a head above the parapet can be a frightening thing. It is important to support those who do try and address the politics of their fellow activists. Just because women or gender minorities are present it does not mean that discrimination is not happening.

Turn the spotlight inwards
While fighting for others to take justice seriously, the most uncomfortable scrutiny for activists can be exploring their own actions. Examining privilege can make visible the ways in which systems of oppression interact with each other, such as gender, race, class, sexuality and disability. This works to strengthen solidarity with other movements and contributes to pushing progressive politics forward.

young women demonstrating in Tunis

young woman participating in Tunis march – photo by Jessica Horn

Build inclusive alliances
It cannot be a matter of choosing between different issues if full justice is to beachieved. Intersectional analysis can help movements to identify how different axes of power intersect and to define areas of common struggle between social movements. Building a dialogue between different movements can help to identify these.

Change all the way through
Many movements have some kind of organisational base or core group who are influential in thinking and action. Commitment needs to come from these people as much as the broader support base. It can be useful to track progress on women’s rights and gender justice and learn from experiences along the way.

Perfect the politics
Even when campaigners support gender justice in theory, the practice can be a different story. Developing the gender politics of a movement may include agreeing to make women’s rights and gender justice clearly visible in movements’ external agendas and creating spaces for open discussion on what this means.

Expose gendered power
Recognise and transform culture, power dynamics and hierarchies within movements by making visible the way that gendered power is understood and practised in the ‘deep structure’ of movements. This includes exploring the gendered division of labour, rethinking masculinities and consciousness raising.

Hold members to account
Drawing the line on impunity for gender-based violence is essential. This includes challenging domestic violence, harassment or abuse from those within the movement, but also challenging failures within leadership and key members who do not take a stand and wash their hands of discrimination or violence within movements.

Keep an eye on relationships with organisations
The power relations between movements and organisations are multifaceted and can bring opportunities as well as tensions. Organisations and institutions dedicated to movement-building and support should consider how they can encourage and support movements to tackle all forms of oppression.

Stick at it
The ultimate test is sustaining the positive ways in which social movements engage with gender and integrating them into all practices; as mainstream power shifts, there can be a backlash against success. When another issue becomes topical or ‘the revolution’ is over the transformation must remain.

Amy Hall is an Editorial Assistant with the Knowledge Services department at IDS.

BRIDGE supports gender advocacy and mainstreaming efforts by bridging the gaps between theory, policy and practice. The Cutting Edge Programme on Gender and Social Movements is part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme, which is administered by the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Read more recent blogs relating to gender issues:

‘Sex and the Marketplace: What’s Love got to do with it?’ – reflections from a recent conference


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

This year’s International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture and Society (IASSCS) conference took place in the beautiful city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. I was lucky enough to go along and hear some fascinating papers which responded to the conference theme ‘Sex and the Marketplace: What’s Love got to do with it?’ The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme were well represented at the conference: organising trainings, as a discussant in one of the plenaries, running a stall handing out publications and in their own parallel sessions. These biennial conferences helped to create and strengthen sexuality networks and coalitions across disciplines, professions and regions.

It would be difficult to do justice to the richness of the conversations at IASSCS or to communicate the happiness that I felt in meeting up with friends, old and new. So to give you a flavour of proceedings I have put together a list of my top three moments. Those who want more detail should check out the conference website.

Poetry by alok vaid-menon
Quite by accident I stumbled upon a performance by alok vaid-menon which wasn’t on the formal conference agenda but which had a powerful impact on me. This spoken word artist was able to touch me in a way that no other presentation did. I was moved to tears by his poem about his aunt’s breast cancer, I was not alone. He reminded me of the importance of performance and art as a form of research but also to bring issues alive and provoke an emotional response in the listener. Luckily for us his poetry is available on the blog Return the Gayze. I strongly suggest that you read it all! But if you are pressed for time check out ‘my summer in cape town: or, i am sorry for using you’ which is an eloquent exploration of research ethics and how formal processes fail to do justice to the complexity of the power dynamics and relationships between researchers and their ‘subjects’

Conversations with Professor Pei Yuxin (Sun Yat-sen University)
I have met Prof Pei before, at a meeting in Beijing organised by the Ford Foundation, and it was a delight to catch up with her on the other side of the world. I was impressed by how charming, energetic and sparkling she was considering her 32 hour journey to get there! Prof Pei and I talked about a project she has been running which is soliciting young people’s views on masturbation by encouraging them to create artistic representations of their observations and experiences. The research aims to dispel myths about masturbation and provide evidence based advice on sexual health and wellbeing. It is hoped that frank discussion about masturbation will help break taboos and foster more acceptance. Prof Pei started the project by soliciting opinions through Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter). Interest in the project has grown to the extent that she has received private messages from more than 10,000 people and received more than 100 videos, paintings and cartoons on the issue. The competition has attracted media attention and been covered in newspapers and magazines. Some reporting has been positive but others have sensationalised the issue. People have criticised, cursed her and called her a ‘slut’. On the positive-side some people said that she saved their lives because they masturbated and thought it was abnormal or wrong. It’s a brave and fun project, I wonder if it could be replicated elsewhere and what we might learn. We hope that Prof Pei will submit a paper to our upcoming special issue on pleasure and women’s empowerment – so watch this space.

Read more: Gender, self and pleasure: young women’s discourse on masturbation in contemporary Shanghai

Hearing about how sexuality relates to other development policies
I am already pretty immersed in the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme on this theme. The purpose of the project is to understand the links between sexuality, gender plurality and poverty with the aim of improving economic policy and programming to support people marginalised because of their sexuality. It was great to see final presentations from the Philippines (on social protection policies), from China (on disability policy), from Brazil (on homophobia in education policy and programmes) and from India (on sexuality and schooling).

The links between sexuality and broader public policy were well made elsewhere in the conference. It was interesting to hear more about migration policy and its effects on Mexican migrants in the plenary by Jennifer Hirsh. She explained how the erosion of social safety nets, poor health and safety practices, under-investments in transportation infrastructure, and the impoverishment of non-commercial public spaces created sexual health risks for migrant men living in the US. Lack of health insurance limits their access to health care; the significant levels of risk that they experience when travelling to and working in the US make them less concerned with the risks involved in unsafe sex and; ‘recreation-deserts’ and poor public transport make sex one of the few diversions available to migrant men. Hirsh suggested that consumers in the global North should be encouraged to consider the sexual vulnerabilities created by the products that they consume which are created on the back of migrant labour. It is an interesting way of counting the cost of public policy which does not take sexuality into account and may provide new avenues for looking at a whole host of other sexuality and poverty related issues.

The ISASSCS conference provided a fantastic opportunity to hear more about state of the art sexuality research from around the world. Check out their website for further information.

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.

Read previous blog posts by Kate Hawkins:

Why do I want to undress patriarchy? Reflections from the ‘Undressing Patriarchy’ symposium


Alexandra Wanjiku KelbertA Kelbert photo

The symposium was organised as part of the Gender, Power and Sexuality Programme from 9– 12 September in Hove. At the start of the week, we were asked to answer the question ‘Why do I want to undress patriarchy?’ as a means to introduce ourselves. Some participants gave accounts of how they encountered patriarchy in their lives, while others chose to relate experiences of dealing with patriarchy through their work, and of course a few unavoidable jokes flew around.

For me, the reason I wanted to take part in these conversations was a lot to do with the use of the word ‘patriarchy’ itself. Indeed, as soon as I received my invitation to participate in the symposium I couldn’t stop myself from telling my housemates about my fantastic week ahead. Yet, what I found is that as soon as I uttered the word ‘patriarchy’, I could sense from people’s body language that they felt as if I had attacked them. The word ‘patriarchy’ sometimes reeks of aggression and often frightens people, particularly outside of feminist spaces.

In ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, fully dressed and adorned, the Emperor frightens. Naked, his power crumbles, his subjects have seen the truth underneath the layers and overcome the fear.

Maybe by undressing patriarchy one layer after the other, we can make it less frightening and start understanding, challenging and dismantling it.

Participants Undressing Patriarchy Symposium

Participants at the symposium in discussion

Of course, part of the discussion is to understand what it is about the word that frightens and puts people off. For many of us in the room, this comes from the association that is made with radical feminism and organisations like SCUM – Society for Cutting Up Men – who framed their struggles as a fight against men as oppressors. Thus, the term patriarchy as used by old-school radical feminists suggests that all men are patriarchs in cohort with the system. At the symposium, many of us have come to see patriarchy not as embodied by all men, but rather as an oppressive system operating through internal social structures, oppressing people in differentiated way regardless of gender.

Over the course of the four days, many new questions emerged, such as:

  • How many clothes does the patriarch wear?– pointing to the different structures of power relations, through race, class, caste, sexuality, age etc. and the intersectionalities of those structures of power
  • How do we make (the word) patriarchy more sexy? – here opinions were divided as to whether the word itself should be abandoned, with the concept of kyriarchy coming to the fore as a potential contestant for replacement (read more on why patriarchy is dead and on kyriarchy and privilege)
  • If patriarchy is like a prison, who are the prisoners? Who are the wardens?

The symposium brought together a wide range of academics, development practitioners, lawyers, people working for women’s rights, and others working with men and boys, filmmakers etc. Some very rich discussions were had, notably around sex work, privileges and vulnerabilities.

Masculinities versus Feminism?
Anyone familiar with the evolution of feminism and the emergence of the Men & Boys agenda knows that sometimes having both feminists from women’s rights backgrounds and people doing Masculinities work in one room can generate sparks. At the start of the symposium comments were made by some participants about the ‘highjacking’ of the feminist agenda, while other expressed discomfort in the face of what they saw as the ‘diversion’ of resources away from women’s groups towards projects focusing on men and boys. For me, as a young feminist growing up when the Masculinities agenda was already around, it is difficult to relate to such conflicts. As such, it was great to see that by Day 4, some of the participants who acknowledged that they had entered the symposium with great doubts about the Masculinities approach purposefully chose to engage with men from Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice and Men For Gender Equality Now. The atmosphere had shifted from confrontation to curiosity and finally to dialogue and mutual learning. Together in a small working group -, we came up with the first draft of a blueprint for what a political approach to masculinities work should entail. Similarly, lots of other groups were formed around exciting projects that I look forward to see take shape.

So did we manage to Undress Patriarchy? Well, we certainly started taking off some of the layers. But most importantly we learnt from one another how some of us go about undressing or challenging patriarchy in our daily lives both at the personal and the professional level. Now the symposium is over, whether or not the Emperor is fully naked by now or not, a process has started. So watch this space!

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is an MA graduate in Development Studies at IDS. She is currently working with Naomi Hossain on the ‘Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility’ project, a collaborative project between the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS and Oxfam.

Read other blogs by Alex Kelbert:

The Good Wife of Development


Naomi HossainNaomi Hossain

After a long day slaving over a warm laptop, Rosalind Eyben’s, Fellow Travellers in Development published in Third World Quarterly, dropped into my inbox. It is both charming and appalling. Read it as a specimen of aid industry history and you will see why.

Fellow Travellers in Development follows a group of Western women now reaching retirement age through their careers in ‘development’. Most didn’t think ‘development’ was what they were doing, and didn’t ‘career’ so much as tumble through an unwelcoming profession (then a job for white men only – Rosalind gets her career break ghost-writing a report for a dyslexic aid agency head). It gives an account of the macho early aid industry, filtered through the official end of white rule and the rise of ‘women’s lib’. It traces genealogies of contemporary aid thinking and practice into the present day, showing how social development ideas – progressive thinking on poverty, gender and participation – owed partly to the recognition by women (otherwise privileged by their race or class) that there was more than one way to look at a problem.

Beneath the charmingly personal account, Fellow Travellers in Development cuts a steely slice into the continuities in the sociology of aid. Rosalind’s formative development experiences are as WFP wife; the ‘careers’ of the rest of the cast – Amy, Carol, Mary, and Pam – were equally shaped by how / whether they fit in with their husbands’. To a World Bank Wife like myself (and many other expat aid wives I know), these were familiar scenes: aid often seems to depend on men travelling around the world dispensing expertise, while their wives drop, stall or refashion careers to support their partners. There are also ’trailing spouse’ husbands and the occasional same-sex partner in the industry. Yet few seem to devote themselves exclusively to the unacknowledged and onerous work that transient families depend on to stay well and productive as the wives of these men (the Editor of the special issue featuring Fellow Travellers, Anne-Meike Fechter, has written lots of interesting stuff about this). The aid business still assumes a Good Wife at home, easing the way of the busy aid bureaucrat. There may be more examples of how this works out, but some of my faves are:

  • an international aid agency that spends billions on Early Childhood Care & Development but excludes pre-school fees from the benefits its staff receive
  • another that promotes 6 months’ exclusive breastfeeding in its programmes but offers only three months maternity leave for its staff
  • best of all, as one World Bank Wife explained to me recently, the aid agencies then often hire back these highly qualified professional wives at cut-rate consultancy rates in-country – so they subsidize the aid agencies twice over.

Some things have changed in aidland. International aid bureaucrats are no longer always European post-colonials. And the Expat Wife of Aidland, with her PhD and her household domestic staff and her comfortable lifestyle is hardly the stuff of feminist victimhood. But the reliance on the Good Wife at home continues to be silently formative of the aid experience. Hardly surprising then that unpaid care work remains so firmly off the development agenda : it remains off the domestic agenda for aid professionals abroad.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blog posts by Naomi Hossain:

Making states care for rights – my dream for a world post-2015


Maria Cascant SempereMaria Cascant Sempere

Last May, the UN High Level Panel published its Post-2015 report (pdf). Annexe 1 (p.30-31) presents the 12 goals and 54 indicators that may potentially become the new development agenda. Annexe 1 is also what the Nigerian chapter of the UN Millennium Campaign recently shared with national organisations as part of its consultation initiative.

While doing my PhD fieldwork in Nigeria, I was lucky to be part of the Post-2015 discussions at the NGO hosting me. These included a check on rights and accountability agents suh as states and corporations. In this blog I want to share the idea during those discussions that the new agenda needs to be bolder in holding states and other power holders to account on rights.

Rights and States
States have three rights functions. They must be the main providers of rights (i.e. paying for police, judges, teachers, nurses), refrain from violating rights themselves and prevent rights’ violations from third parties.

In the new Agenda, 2 out of 12 goals monitor governance at state and international levels (goals 10 and 12). This is positive as compared to the current Millenium Developmen Goals (MDGs) which only have a global governance goal (MDG 8). Yet Goal 10 still speaks of states’ obligations timidly. Its indicators ranging from legal identity to freedom of speech[i] cover political and civil rights but leave out social, economic, cultural and environmental ones.

No reference to states is made either in other goals like education, health, food and water. None of the 12 goals covers issues of public investment and budget commitments as agreed by states themselves in UN Conferences. As a result, one is left with the doubt of who the main provider of rights is.

Black Monday image

Black Monday Initiative in Nigeria: every Monday people dress in black to demand accountability on budgets and corruption

Monitoring budgets is vital to make rights real and to avoid having a second unachieved MDG story. This is key not only to country patterns like Nigeria where public investment is scant despite GDP growth but to countries like mine, Spain, where public spending is being drastically cut under the present crisis[ii].

Rights and the Private Sector
The Agenda mentions the private sector’s role in creating growth and investment, but not in respecting rights. Experience shows that growth does not necessarily bring rights. In fact, growth often happens as a result of rights violations. Multinational corporations in particular have forged themselves a reputation on labour, collective and environmental abuses.

The private sector can and should respect rights while contributing to growth and equality, but state and international regulation and monitoring are needed. This also includes some international agencies.

The Need to Monitor Power-Holders to Make Rights Real
Monitoring both rights and obligations is indispensable because one side cannot work without the other if we are to make rights real. For instance:

  • No quality primary education (indicator 3b) and disease reduction (4e) will take place if we do not monitor states following the UNESCO-Fast Track Initiative benchmark (6%-20% of GDP to education) or the Abuja Declaration target (15% of GDP to health) amongst others applicable to each country.
  • No sustainable agriculture and fishing will take place (5d) if we do not monitor those most unsustainable, such as the extractive industries.

We need more indicators overtly monitoring obligations by states and corporations. Those on corruption (Goal 10) and tax evasion (Goal 12) can be read as going in this direction. But we need more, since governance is as much about illegal issues (i.e. corruption) as it is about legal but unethical practices (i.e. unfair budget allocations):

  • Goal 10 should be explicit on monitoring public investment to fulfil rights. This should include political and civil rights as well as social, economic, cultural and environmental rights.
  • Goal 10 should be open on monitoring state rights violations not only of political and civil rights but also of social, economic, cultural and environmental ones.
  • Goal 12 should be clear on the role of corporations (and international agencies) in respecting rights, by monitoring the increase of national and international regulatory efforts on them.

Dreaming 2015?
The Post-2015 Agenda invites us to dream, and so we dream. A dream already present in many Civil Society and UN initiatives such as the Participate and Beyond 2015 consultations with those suffering rights violations, the UN Millennium Campaign state-targeted mobilisations and public financing and corporate accountability projects that identify, name and shame rights violators. A stronger accent on rights and accountability in the new framework can only reinforce more work of this kind on the ground.

In my dream Post-2015, I see a UN that puts in its MDG shop window what it already does in many of its programmes, reports and conferences; a UN that is bold and dreams of a bold world in which people will enjoy rights because those responsible to provide for them will be watched, crystal clear, on the top UN Agenda.

[i] 1) free and universal legal identity such as birth registrations; 2) public’s right to information; 3) freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and independent media; 4) public participation in political processes; and 5) reduction of bribery and corruption.

[ii] The Abuja and Maputo Declarations ask for the 15% and 10% of GDP for health and agriculture while the 2013 Nigerian budget allocates 5.7% and 1.7% respectively. The Spanish government reduced the education and health budgets in 14.4% and 22,6% respectively for 2013 as compared to 2012.

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate within the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change research team. She is interested in development activism with a focus on the links between popular education and economic (tax) justice campaigning in Nigeria and the UK.

Read other blogs by Maria Cascant