Gender and the beast: why you should think again before labeling that program “gender-sensitive”

A guest post by Stephanie Buck, @StephanieBuck3 of Until the Lions.

Gender-sensitive. A gender component. Gender-inclusive. Gender-equitable.

These words might have a noble goal behind them in international development policy and programming. But how their use plays out in practice often tells a different story. In many cases, gender ends up becoming a last-minute, poorly thought out component of a project. It can quickly become something that gets tacked on at the end of a project only to comply with proposal requirements or to appease donors.

This can then turn into something where simply counting the number of women in a meeting fulfills the ‘gender component’ requirement (just another box to tick). Maybe the women will learn something useful at the workshop. Maybe they will gain nothing from attending. Either way, gender equity means so much more than attending a training workshop or receiving some other form of aid.

In this sense, while gender-related buzzwords are on the rise, the meaning behind the words seems to be falling into the devspeak jargon abyss.

Having a thoughtful approach to make sure that women see more opportunities in their own lives is an important aspect of reducing poverty. These approaches have the power to transform the lives of women, their families, and even their communities. But so often gender becomes an afterthought. Yet touting these efforts as gender-equitable, or empowering, or inclusive does everyone a disservice.

Language both reflects and shapes our understanding of the world. It can be a tool for apathy or action. Words can reveal or obfuscate reality.

Buzzwords5Some approaches truly do take gender into account and make sure that women’s thoughts, needs, and concerns are included from the beginning of the process. If a project or program has the power to transform communities in this way, then using a gender buzzword might be appropriate. The word choice might shed light on the subject. And that’s great.

But if that gender component is tacked on at the end of the proposal or project with relatively little thought or reflection, then we need to be careful how we describe gender-inclusive/sensitive/equitable approaches. Because if we are not careful, we can end up obscuring the real reasons why half the world’s population struggles to have the same economic, social, and political opportunities as the other half.

Claiming gender success because more than half the people who showed up to an event or training session were women does not mean that anyone actually has started to to use this information in a way that can effect change. It does not address the reasons why maybe some women could not attend in the first place. And so, it runs the risk of hiding those realities.

If we continue to use these buzzwords without reflecting on what we mean by them, we might even risk perpetuating the very inequalities gender-sensitive approaches were meant to tackle.


StephanieBuckStephanie Buck is the creator and lead writer of Until the Lions, a blog dedicated to improving the way we tell stories for and about international development. She has served with development organizations in a variety of capacities in Ecuador, Peru, and Washington, DC. She currently supports communications and fundraising for the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE). She also holds a Master’s degree in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics. Her education, experience, and passion for writing have inspired her to create a platform to discuss why communications and storytelling matter​ for development​, and how we can do these things better. She hopes you’ll join the conversation.

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