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'We are also Human': Identity and power in gender relations

Michael Drinkwater (CARE International)1

21-22 February 2005

SARPN acknowledges the University of Manchester as a source of this document.
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Introduction: Into the Heart of Gender Inequity

There are two principal strands of human rights approaches today. Traditional human rights organizations remain concerned chiefly with the relationship between the individual and the state, and the state's ability to protect, prevent abuse and fulfil the human rights of the individual. The rise, however, of rights based approaches in developmental organizations in the last half dozen years has brought a different perspective to human rights. Concerned much more with issues of social injustice and exclusion, developmental organizations use of human rights has been within a context of the perennial question of how to deal more effectively with the endemic social problems of poverty, marginalization and discrimination.

The single most important feature of the latter perspective on a rights based approach to development is that it starts from the premise laid out in Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we are all equally human. Article One states: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.' Sadly, it is one of the most remarkable and persistent aspects of human cultures that amongst the diverse peoples in every society today there are substantial numbers who inevitably regard other groups as being less human than they are. Wherever people are regarded as less human, they will be discriminated against. And globally, the largest group of all routinely regarded as less human are women. They are thus the largest category of people who experience throughout their lives a variety of forms of discrimination.

Women's movements, and attempts to promote the empowerment of women, have now been around for many decades. The debates and discourses around feminism and its interface with development interventions are diverse and intricate (see Cornwall, Harrison and Whitehead 2004). One of the challenges of all continuing efforts to focus on gender equity issues is to avoid its 'mainstreaming' to a quiet complacency. This has also tended to happen with the use of participatory methodologies - everybody does it, but after early breakthroughs, levels of challenge and change plateau out at new comfort levels that still do not necessarily tackle the underlying nature of power relations.

My argument is that adopting a rights based approach (RBA) to development can further the ability of work seeking to address the more pervasive factors that perpetuate gender inequality. Before the advent of RBAs, practical attempts to empower women often missed this simple, social justice starting point: that until men accept women as equally human, attempts to promote the empowerment of women will necessarily always be limited in the scope and longevity of what they achieve. Gender and development approaches have stressed the importance of having relational approaches to women's empowerment that require the involvement of men as well as women, but one of the consequences of the mainstreaming of gender equity initiatives has been the depoliticisation of the goals in this regard (Goetz 2004).

In moving forward with approaches that aim to further women's empowerment, questions of how to change social relations, and thus many of the basic systems, values and patterns that structurate human societies today, need to be returned to. At the heart of this lies the way in which men perceive themselves and cast their own individual and collective identities. Until men are able to construct their notions of self differently, and change the way they feel capable of achieving status and respect for themselves and their families', women's status as sub-humans will persist. Women also play a role, since as mothers and mothers in law, sisters and aunts and neighbours, they too play a major part in keeping other women stigmatized and discriminated against.

In this paper it is thus argued that a rights based approach is essential to the improvement of the situations of women and their families, especially the kind of RBA being adopted by CARE, that is, a relational approach to rights that sees us all as moral beings who possess equally rights and responsibilities. For women, especially those who experience daily conditions of poverty and vulnerability, to act to improve their own lives and those of their children, requires their ability to advance their status as citizen's who regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as having equal rights to men and other higher status social groups. This requires, in any kind of work that seeks to further the interests of women, a much sharper focus on processes of social and cultural change, and in this context, dealing with the culturally deeply embedded factors that sustain the status of women as less human subjects.

Illustration of this argument will be undertaken through the use of material drawn largely from analytical and programmatic work undertaken on issues of gender equity within CARE International. The experiences referred to are diverse and drawn from a range of African and Asian cultural contexts. In most cases, the learning generated is through reflection on programs designed to intervene in the lives of women, and to some extent the men whose power influences their lives.

For this discussion the specific projects are a backdrop, and the commentary is not one on the efficacy or otherwise of CARE's programs, but of some of the learning that is taking place in the organization as it struggles to come to grips with what an organizational strategic objective of promoting work addressing issues of gender inequity means. In 2004, CARE developed a 'unifying framework' that aims to show the interrelationship of different programmatic approaches the organization has used in its evolution of a 'good programming framework' (McCaston 2004). Like all forms of evolution, this one has been characterized by differently perceived trajectories and understandings. The unifying framework is an effort, valuable in its simplicity, to illuminate the interrelationship between different program frameworks and approaches CARE has used since the mid-1990s - a livelihoods approach, partnership and civil society, a growing emphasis on gender equity, and now a rights based approach, which has also led to an expanding focus on themes like inclusive voice and governance. In its essence the unifying framework states that all CARE's work should be seen as contributing to three outcome areas - changes in human conditions, social position, and the enabling environment - and that it is with respect to these three outcome areas the organization should be assessing the impact of its work. CARE has a wide range of programs, of a sectoral, thematic, and more or less holistic nature, that should all be demonstrating contributions to impacts in these three outcome areas. And in the way they do this, it is also envisaged programs should be addressing the brave notion of a selected core set of underlying causes of poverty, which the organization believes are critical and it is some capability of addressing. Whilst debate remains on the definition of two of these causes, one that has been commonly identified across all analyses of underlying causes undertaken to date in the organization, is that of gender inequality.2 Thus one intention of the paper is to assist CARE in its diverse forms with its own thinking on what addressing gender inequality as an underlying cause of poverty entails, and in so doing to contribute to broader debates on how gender work can still be edgy enough to make a difference.

  1. With thanks to Elisa Martinez who commented on the original draft.
  2. A second is poor or weak governance, whilst a third most commonly deals with the link between macro and micro economic factors and unequal rights of access to resources and services, and a fourth, broader forms of social exclusion.

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