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Addressing Rural Gender Issues: A Framework for Leadership and Mobilisation

2. Recognising the Problem Area
Throughout the world, programmes for poverty eradication and rural development are complicated by the different social and economic position of women, relative to men. Women are typically less literate, less educated and more poverty stricken. They have less access to the factors of production - land, labour and capital. Development policies increasingly aim to take account of these differences with special strategies for women - to reach them in their more remote location, to provide them with the necessary information, to link them with appropriate information systems, and so on. More politically, development policies may be concerned with women's mobilization and collective action at the grassroots, to enable women to take action to recognize and address their own special problems and needs.

But there is a pervasive problem that development agencies and national governments exhibit a lack of political will in addressing gender policies. Instead there tends to be much vague lip-service, involving ill-defined phrases such as 'gender-sensitive' and 'gender-aware implementation' of development programmes, when in practice these programmes neither identify nor address the important gender issues which affect rural women. Instead they employ 'watering down' strategies that serve to overlook, sideline or compartmentalize gender policy imperatives. But if we do not have a clear understanding of what we mean by gender issues, and the process for properly addressing these issues in development programmes, then obviously we shall easily be deceived by 'watering down' and 'window dressing' tactics, and easily diverted by irrelevant strategies that can never address the actual underlying causes of gender issues.

Underlying this failure to properly implement gender policies is a quiet but determined patriarchal opposition to policies of gender equality that is pervasive within development agencies, and amongst the government bureaucracies of 'developing' countries. Only when we are able to recognize and analyse the obstructive strategies of patriarchal opposition, shall we be able to devise the alternative and counter strategies to deal with this sort of opposition. Otherwise we shall constantly be talking of the obstacles of poor communication, insufficient information, poor administration and organization, instead of recognizing the underlying political opposition that is the main problem that needs to be addressed.1

This is a situation where there is much need for feminist leadership and activism in the planning and implementation of rural development programmes. Equally at the grassroots level, there is need for better participation of rural women in recognizing and analyzing gender issues, as the basis for mobilization and action to overcome the many forms of gender discrimination which stand in the way of rural development. This is the context within which we need to understand strategies of information, communication and mobilization. For addressing gender issues, such strategies are relevant only insofar as they contribute to the process of women's participation and empowerment, enabling women to gain equal control to obtain their fair share of productive resources. Intervention strategies cannot be 'self-evidently' useful, but need to be justified in terms of being effective and feasible means for adressing the underlying causes of gender issues, by a process of women's empowerment. It is to these matters that this paper now turns.

  1. For an exploration of patriarchal ideology of the typical development agency, see Sara Longwe, 'The Evaporation of Policies for Women's Advancement', in Noleen Heyzer et al (Eds), 1995, A Commitment to the World's Women, UNIFEM, New York.
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