The West boasting Gender Equality to the developing world – throwing stones in a glass house

Gender mainstreaming has been the buzz word in the international development sphere for the past two decades, but has it actually achieved anything? Luke Humphrey questions whether the West’s boasting of their ‘gender equality’ has led to its failure in the developing world.

Over the past few decades we have seen all manner of attempts to embrace different approaches by numerous development institutions. From human rights to grass roots to participatory development, all have had their merits and failures. However now what seems to have taken the development reins is ‘gender mainstreaming’ (the institutionalisation of gender in development practices). Now it’s not to say that gender equality and feminism are not vital to development, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you do not aim to achieve gender equality, you are excluding half of the population. But the way Western institutions boast this idea of gender mainstreaming comes from a misinformed and hypocritical stance that we, the West have achieved gender equality.

Let’s start with the basics: women on average get  .  A shocking statistic, but even more so when you consider that in the developing countries, The UK is no great exception; their pay gap is in line with the rest of the developed countries – just under 20%. Surely in politics we fare better? Only 29% of our MPs are female, yet in In fact the UK is worse than many ‘third world’ countries including Bolivia, Senegal, Namibia, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Only 9% of executive directors are women, only 7% of chief directors in the FTSE100 are women and 12% of jobs in the STEM sector are held by women.


jrf_uk / Creative Commons License

jrf_uk / Creative Commons License


Dr Lata Narayanaswamy – a highly respected and one of my favourite lecturers at the University of Leeds wrote an article for the online magazine ‘Girl’s Globe’ in May 2014. In this she discussed her experiences growing up being taught that menstruation was “unclean” or “polluted” and that she was “untouchable” during it. What is perhaps most eye opening in this article is the fact that this didn’t happen in some third-world country but in Toronto in the 1980s. But this is what we are to believe isn’t it? That things like that don’t happen in Western societies and if they do its only rare, extreme cases. Yet here we have a case more common than we would care to admit, where a girl of only 11 has been taught by (educated and well respected) parents, that a normal and regular body function is unclean and shameful.

Only a few weeks ago Labour MP Jess Philipps was heavily criticised for her comments about rape culture in the UK in comparison with the Cologne sex attacks on New Year’s Eve. The Daily Mail were filled with outrage, citing “furious responses” from around 3 or 4 twitter users – the equivalent of all of Birmingham according to them. Yet the latest rape statistics show the past year to have the most reported rape and sexual assault crimes since records began in the UK. Of the 88,106 reported rape crimes, victims were most likely to be between 15 and 19, and of the total number of women raped, 30% were under the age of 16 and 25% under the age of 14. So why, in a supposedly developed country which claims the authority on gender equality to preach it to others, is rape and sexual assault on the rise – and most predominantly happening to underage people?

European Parliament / Creative Commons License. Picture of International Women Day 2012.

European Parliament / Creative Commons License. Picture of International Women Day 2012.


This is something intrinsically linked with why this approach of ‘gender mainstreaming’ is not in line with the feminist ideology which has pushed it so far into development practice. In many cases the ideas of gender equality have been reshaped and distorted to fit the neo-liberal policy which the World Bank and DfID seem intent on ramming down our throats. By approaching gender development with a neo-liberalist perspective, these organisations fail to understand the unique structure of inequality in each country. Gender mainstreaming for projects in Bolivia (the country with the 2nd highest female to male MP percentage) has arguably worsened equality in local politics. This is because previously feminized community spheres have been opened to men, leading to previously all-women organisations, to become organisations dominated by men (as argued by Suzanne Clisby). Since the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women where gender mainstreaming was introduced, gender equality in nations like India, Bolivia and Afghanistan has continued to stagnate or regress. Market-led development undeniably increases gender inequality and that is what we continue to see.

If gender equality is to be truly tackled, the developed world must first look internally to see where they are failing, understand that the structures of inequality are unique to each country and that neo-liberal gender mainstreaming will never achieve true gender equality in any country – developing or developed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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