Gender discrimination and the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

By Joern Fischer

Today I’d like to summarise the opening keynote presentation from the Development Research Conference 2016, which is currently taking place in Stockholm. The talk was presented by Andrea Cornwall, and was entitled “Addressing Discrimination on the Basis of Gender: Towards a More Just and Equal World for All.”


Source: wikimedia

Andrea addressed the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, which relates to “gender equality”. In her talk, she highlighted key strengths and recent improvements in this area, but also identified challenges where further changes are necessary. I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but in the following I do my best to convey some of her most pertinent messages.

Andrea first contrasted biological and social understandings of gender. Right now, Andrea argued that in feminism there were a number of contrasting streams, many of which recognize a softening of boundaries between men and women and between the biological and the social.

In a development context, by contrast, changes in gender discourses took a different turn. Contemporary development discourses speak of empowering women and girls, and engaging men and boys; all in the name of development. In this context, women often (inadvertently) become instrumentalised, being important tools or “targets” to achieve development. Unlike in recent feminist discourses, the strong binary views of men vs women are very much present in development discourses. Along with this understanding have come ideas that women are poorer, and care more about the environment – while men are the problem who suppress women, and destroy the environment.

Andrea argued that it thus appeared there were diverging paths. Contemporary feminism acknowledges the complexity of gender, whereas development discourses remain set back in time, often dividing the world into poor suppressed women vs bad suppressing men. Arguably, this kind of distinction fails to recognize that everyone would gain from greater equity.

Andrea continued by contrasting differences between a rise in laws against gender-based discrimination, while there was little or no change in the actual incidences of such discrimination (e.g. in domestic violence against women). Thus, it appears there is ongoing suffering on an everyday basis, despite changing laws.

Sustainable Development Goal 5, Andrea argued, was somewhat troublesome in that it failed to acknowledge the complexity underpinning the intersectionality of gender. The dynamics of gender identity, and the complexity of gendered power relationships, feature very little in SDG5. Instead, the SDG seems to primarily look at increasing the numbers of women in various contexts – more educated women, more in public office, and so on. Gender relations and gender identity, by contrast, remain outside the scope. In sum, this means that current conceptualisations of women in a development discourse, still are rooted in traditional images of men vs women; traditional views that, arguably, cannot be separated from colonialist views.

What then is needed to go forward? First of all, according to Andrea, development would need to be de-colonised. This would require a different kind of education, which recognizes the inherently colonial assumptions underpinning much of modern education. For example, the idea of a “male breadwinner” being the more natural state is a colonial idea. Similarly, the normativity implicit in ideas of who would make a good farmer, or what constitutes a virtuous woman be (or man, for that matter), would need to be questioned.

As a possible way forward, and drawing on existentialism, Andrea offered understanding gender as a “situation”. That is, situations give rise to gender roles and outcomes, and in a development context, the dynamics of such situations need to be better understood. These dynamics, in turn, are likely to be highly place-specific.

Looking at discrimination from a gender perspective – rather than gender equality perspective – thus means looking at problems more broadly. In a gender perspective, men are no more inherently the problem than women; rather, both can suffer from colonial ideas of gender stereotypes. Gender as a concept thus can even be unhelpful, and can further entrench the very stereotypes that give rise to unequal outcomes. Human rights, by contrast, are more broadly defined, and have greater potential to bring together all kinds of people (and genders).

Assuming I understood her correctly, Andrea thus argued for moving beyond focusing on discrimination in a gender context towards discrimination more broadly. Especially in a development context, there is a need to better understand the colonial roots of many of the existing dynamics that give rise to (or reinforce) discrimination. We shouldn’t ask what we can do for women, nor what women can do for development. Instead we should stop putting people into boxes (as men vs women), and focus on ending discrimination – for the benefit of everyone, regardless of their gender.


2 thoughts on “Gender discrimination and the fifth Sustainable Development Goal

  1. Interesting post, I am a bit unsure about the whole colonial angle though. It would seem to imply that all these harmful assumptions about/attitudes to gender come from a single source and that the antonym of colonialism is some form of societal perfection. I am pretty sure than many per-colonial societies were every bit as arse-like on matters of gender (and other matters) as the colonialists.

    To me raises two questions: 1) does the whole world need to be de-colonized? In which case the term does not seem very appropriate. And 2) If the colonial mindset is to be replaced who gets to decide what it is replaced with, and based on what legitimacy? Clearly such changes cannot be imposed form the outside (as this would just be a new form of colonialism) and left to their own devices why would the people who could make such decisions within a society do so when they benefit from (and therefore presumably support) the current system?

    • Yup, that is exactly the point I was going to comment on as well: it seems to me that the softening of gender boundaries (the “intersectionality”) could rather pass as a form of ideological neo-colonialism. Rather, what gender equity means within a development context should be defined by those that it’s supposed to be targeting…

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