Gender activism must be taken out of posh hotels and into the mainstream

Written by Mariz Tadros, fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex on the Guardian’s poverty matters blog

“When I think of gender and development practice, what immediately comes to mind are endless workshops, conferences, seminars, roundtables, policy briefings and media statements addressed to the converted, semi-converted and pretenders.

All these are helpful, of course. We need to challenge the structural sources of inequalities inherent in policies, laws, institutional mechanisms and thinking. However, there remains something very disconcerting about how the integration of gender into development has left it disconnected from the public.

Perhaps it is the language: mainstreaming, empowerment and gender analysis do not mean much to the average person. When translated into other languages, those terms often mean even less.

Perhaps it is the way these terms and phrases, originally designed to be radical in challenging power hierarchies, now sit comfortably with the most conservative and authoritarian of systems and regimes. A case in point: a colleague evaded a potential crackdown on a conference by the secret police by pretending the event was about “gender and development”; in fact, it was about political violence.

Perhaps it is because meetings on gender and development, held in five-star hotels, are too elitist, sanitised and contained. Perhaps it is because the professionals who “do” gender and development have a wealth of knowledge but are incapable of communicating in ways that touch the public.

Yet, outside these formal gender and development debates, people have mobilised to challenge unequal power relations. Recently published research on the informal youth-based initiatives that have sought to transform the streets of Cairo into harassment-free spaces for women points to strong evidence that they can contribute to positive social and political change.”

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