For over a decade, the terms 'women's empowerment' and 'gender development' have been widely brandished.
Government ministries and commissions in the South Asia region proclaim the urgency for women's development, academic institutions boast of gender units, policy makers voice concerns about the "feminine face" of poverty, trainers master lessons on gender sensitivity and smart kits are created to "empower" women.
This new visibility of women is showcased as a benchmark of success, the result of innumerable struggles of women throughout the world. But among a broad section of feminists, women's activists, academics and development practitioners, there is a sense of disappointment. They believe that 'success' in terms of gender empowerment is a somewhat mixed bag. The notions of justice and equality they had fought for over the years are now in danger of being misrepresented and misused.
This year, International Women's Day celebrated the hundredth year of its existence and activists wanted to reclaim that memorable event.
It was in 1909 that more than 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. They were women workers of garment companies, plying their needles in sweatshops under appalling conditions.
Today, the issues those faceless women raised a hundred years ago remain as relevant as ever in South Asia. The only difference is that there is now also a great deal of toasting to the spirit of the New Woman. As workers face pay cuts and retrenchments, the big corporates use Women's Day as a marketing opportunity. Simultaneously, gender issues are now pared down to "development projects", hijacked by the governments and NGOs and compartmentalized into stand-alone issues without the critical gender perspective.
Women have become a "development category", treated as passive objects of change rather than active political agents bringing about social transformation. "The State has co-opted, fragmented and corrupted our ideas. In the momentum to bring about change, gender has been reduced to mechanistic modules and kits to be imparted on women to empower them," says Shireen Huq. Huq is the founder member of a women's rights group, Nari Pokho, who for more than 30 years has been at the forefront of the women's movement in Bangladesh.
Huq was simply voicing the collective frustration of women gathered together from all over South Asia at a conference on Gender Knowledge Production and Dissemination in Development Work held in Kathmandu earlier this year.
The meeting was the third in the series of conferences organized by SAHAYOG, an organization working on gender rights and health, and the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT, Amsterdam), with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to assess the experiences of producing and communicating knowledge on gender in both research institutions and development practice over the last 20 years.
In 1995, participants at the Beijing Conference had adopted a strategy to mainstream gender so that gender equality could emerge on the centre stage of governmental and organizational agendas. The idea was to integrate gender in policies, programmes and institutions. "But from being tools for raising awareness, developing analysis and challenging power structures, gender knowledge has been marginalized in the hands of the bureaucracies," notes economist Navashran Singh of IDRC.
As a result, smart manuals, checklists, and self-help kits have become the key tools to attain gender equality rather than substantive activism. "Undoubtedly, notions on gender and feminism have created an impact in policy forums and development institutions," says Maitrayee Mukhopadhya, head of the gender unit at KIT, "But the challenges ahead are even more daunting."
While programmes on women do have positive spin-off effects, they are limited, do not challenge basic power inequalities and don't bring about deep change. There is also a growing concern that the political sharpness of gender issues has been compromised to make it comfortable and acceptable for the powers that be.
For instance, issues like child marriage are seldom viewed as the right of a girl's autonomy and choice of 'when' to marry. The focus is on how delayed marriage can bring down birth rate in a country. The education of girl children is promoted as an instrument to defer child marriage, not as a fundamental right. Similarly, reproductive rights, couched in development rhetoric, have attained importance only as a health issue and to bring down fertility rates. In the process other concerns, including those related to women's sexual needs, are marginalized. In fact, it is only when the HIV/AIDs campaign gathered momentum and when lesbian and gay groups struggled for their rights that the issue of sexuality gained prominence.
It is not just State and NGOs who have played spoilers, feminists and social activists, too, have been divided and confused in dealing with issues like sexuality. The women's movement has often seen sexuality as diversionary, trivial and elitist. Activists admit that when they did get around to addressing issues of sexuality, it was done from the limited perspective of violence against women.
Another problem is that each issue, whether of gender or caste, had been left to individual groups to be dealt with separately. There has been a general failure to link gender agendas with radical struggles in South Asia that aim to change women's lives substantively.
The good news though is that women activists in South Asia are not about to give up. Farzana Bari, from the Centre of Excellence of Gender Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, argues that radical change is possible not just by bridging the unequal gender number gap whether in Parliament or in institutions, but by resuming the struggles of challenging social and political structures and cultures that shackle women. Observes Bari, "Women activists in Pakistan succeeded in changing the Hudood Ordinance for rape and adultery against right-wing opposition only through meticulous research and sustained activism."
Among the several strategies, activists are convinced that the movement for gender equality and justice must forge links with other people's struggles such as those for peace, land rights and the rights of minorities and caste groups.
Research too will get the impetus, feel academics, when it links up again with the concerns of the women's movement. It is only then that debates in academic and development institutions on gender, at present so subdued and formal, will once again regain their vitality.
The one thing on which most academics and activists agree is that there can be no shortcuts to putting gender back on track.