What is Gender Mainstreaming?
by Isabelle Solon Helal and Sandra Le Courtois
The term gender refers to a set of variable and socially constructed characteristics that determine the roles of men and women as well as the relationships between them in a given society. Gender constructions are not fixed; they can and do evolve across cultures and history while also interacting with class, race and ethnicity. While gender cannot be reduced to the biological differences between men and women, it has the capacity to increase (or decrease) the possibilities available to men and women in society. Indeed, one cannot talk about gender relations without talking about power relations. The social differences between men and women (different roles in society, different behaviour, mental and emotional structures, etc.) give rise to an asymmetrical balance of power that favours the domination and superiority of men and the subordination and inferiority of women.
The notion of gender mainstreaming was first introduced at the UN World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. It was officially endorsed at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, which culminated with the adoption of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security on October 31, 2000 (S/RES/1325). The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) defines gender mainstreaming as: “the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in any area and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and social spheres, such that inequality between men and women is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality” (A/52/3/Rev.1).
The goal, then, is to bring gender into the mainstream by making it a consideration at all levels, in all activities and in all programmes. The World Conference on Women held in Beijing advocated gender mainstreaming as a strategy to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in 12 priority areas of concern: poverty reduction, education and training for women, health, violence against women, armed conflicts, women in economic activity, women in decision-making, institutional mechanisms responsible for promoting women’s rights, human rights, media, environment, the girl-child. It is important to keep in mind that gender mainstreaming “is not a Western concept based on Western experiences and culture. This often-heard argument constitutes a gross misrepresentation of reality in Western countries and is an insult to women’s actions and organizations in the rest of the world” (Agnès Callarmard, A Methodology for Gender-Sensitive Research. Rights & Democracy, 1999, p. 17).
The greatest strength of a gender mainstreaming approach lies in its seemingly practical and concrete dimension, which likely explains, at least in part, the unanimous support this concept has received from the United Nations, the World Bank, bilateral aid agencies, governments and development and human rights organizations. Nonetheless, 15 years after Beijing, the approach has clearly yielded mixed results. On the one hand, many activists regard gender mainstreaming as the best strategy to ensure that women’s rights are taken into account. This approach also has the advantage of allowing the needs of women to be addressed in areas that do not on the surface seem to directly affect women, such as the economy and the environment.
On the other hand, gender mainstreaming has been the subject of numerous criticisms. One of the main accusations is that the concept is so broad as to be virtually impossible to apply. There is no clear method and, too often, implementation is dependent on the good will of individuals who hold decision-making power. Moreover, this approach is often interpreted in terms of a need to increase the visibility of women within existing structures by making their social, economic and political roles more explicit. As such, several critics describe gender mainstreaming as an “add-women-and-stir” approach that doesn’t address the root causes of the discrimination faced by women. Based on their realization of the major limits of gender mainstreaming, many groups thus believe that it is imperative to preserve programmes targeted specifically at women. Finally, it is important to mention the pernicious effect that gender mainstreaming has had on the funding of women’s rights groups, many of which have found themselves financially disadvantaged compared to organizations with a broader mandate of action.
Several Deployment for Democratic Development (DDD) projects incorporate a gender mainstreaming approach, either directly or indirectly. Two initiatives in particular can be seen to integrate such an approach. The first is the project to reform the Ethiopian criminal justice system in order to make it more accessible, transparent and equitable for all Ethiopians. Despite the fact that the initial objectives of this reform did not specifically include greater gender equality, this project led to questions being raised about the potential implications of the criminal justice system reform on women and to possible solutions being proposed for overcoming these inequalities. It was pointed out, for instance, that gender inequalities permeate Ethiopia’s entire criminal justice system. To cite just one example, crimes affecting women specifically, such as domestic violence, are underreported and the investigations of those incidents that are reported tend to be ineffective or botched. Given this reality and given the fact that one aspect of the reform calls for a more effective and equitable criminal justice system, it was recommended that the implementation of the reform emphasize the development of policies aimed at improving the quality of criminal investigations in cases involving violence against women. It was also recommended that these policies address gender-based discrimination, for example by reminding prosecutors that all forms of vi olence against women constitute serious crimes that must be dealt with diligently.
Second, DDD was asked to coordinate an initiative aimed at improving the National State Budget of the Secretariat of the President of Ukraine. Despite the fact that this project was initially tasked with strengthening the capacity of the Secretariat of the President to analyze the social and economic impact of the national budget, the emphasis gradually shifted to the gender gap in the budgetary process. Whereas economists generally tend to consider budgets as gender neutral and equitable for men and women, the objective of this DDD initiative in Ukraine was to highlight the existence of legal and institutional constraints that influence budgetary decisions and to show that budget measures can have a very different impact on men and women. The analysis that resulted from this project represents an important innovation not only in Ukraine, but also globally, given that most industrialized countries have yet to carry out similar analyses.