Male allies sought for battle against female discrimination

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In international development, focusing on eliminating discrimination against women and girls has never been more popular. We’re told that the recipe for development is simple: empower women and girls.

UN Women promotes female empowerment as “essential to build stronger economies, achieve internationally agreed goals for development and sustainability and improve the quality of life for women, men, families and communities”. The World Bank sees empowering women as a path to achieving economic stability. The Nike Foundation’s Girl Effect, a movement about “leveraging the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves, their families, their communities, their countries and the world”, describes them as playing “a crucial role in solving the most persistent development problems facing the world today”.

This identification of girls and women as the key to development work was progressive when it evolved during the 1970s.

At the forefront of this shift was economist Ester Boserup, who pointed out that the majority of unpaid agricultural work in developing countries was done by women.

Given this, she argued that the lack of attention paid to women’s issues was not only an issue of gender inequality but also a hindrance to economic development. In 1995 participants at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing declared “the advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women’s issue”.

The enunciation of the role of girls in development is more recent. It became visible in the mid-1990s with increased campaigning around gender equality in access to education. But rather than solely an issue of social justice, investment in girls – and women – came to be seen as producing high returns on family, community and national well-being.

Unfair burden

That greater attention has been paid to the situation of women and girls, as well as their contributions, is certainly something to be celebrated.

But by now it’s time to question if the pendulum has swung too far. And to ask whether it might be unfair to place the burden of development on just one half of the population – what about more male allies?

The idea that men and boys should figure in to discussions about gender inequality is not new.

The White Ribbon Campaign, which began in 1991 in Canada, is the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls and promote gender equity. Recognising that acts of violence against women are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, the now global campaign sees men as a necessary part of the solution.

Other organisations – Promundo, NOMAS, Men Can Stop Rape and MenEngage, to mention just a few – have been working to engage men and boys.

UN Women’s He for She Campaign, launched in March of this year, is another more recent and noteworthy initiative. Using Twitter and YouTube as platforms, the campaign asks men to speak up for gender equality by posting messages of solidarity to the cause. Hollywood heartthrobs such as Matt Damon and Patrick Stewart, humanitarian luminary Desmond Tutu and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon are among the campaign’s supporters.

Any single one of these efforts isn’t a panacea, but they all play an important part in achieving a common goal.

Men missing in UN debate

While these groups seem to be gaining steam, their messages still need more amplification.

Men are largely missing from a major part of the debate around the Post-2015 United Nations Development Agenda. The set of priorities laid out in this agenda will eventually replace the UN Millennium Development Goals, known as the MDGs, a shared framework for global action and cooperation.

This framework is highly influential. International development actors push initiatives that reflect the priorities of the eight MDGs. Variants of micro-finance and conditional cash transfers – popular with all of the aforementioned crowds – are examples of widespread programmes that are used to achieve any combination of MDGs No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, which target, respectively, poverty, universal primary education, gender equality, child mortality and maternal mortality.

In line with the belief in women as the engine of development, low-income women are usually the targeted beneficiaries of these programmes. In the case of conditional cash transfers, for instance, women receive cash stipends that require them to take advantage of prenatal exams and classes on nutrition and hygiene, and for their children school attendance and regular health checks. Evidence for the success of micro-financeand conditional cash transfers in empowering women is at best mixed.

And one thing we do know at this point is this: MDG No. 3, the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women, isn’t going to be met.

Two changes

To address this, we can’t keep doing the same things. We need to make two changes. First, end the relative absence of men when we talk about and structure initiatives around “gender and development.” Second, acknowledge – and learn from – the organised efforts of men who are already committed to gender equality.

Because we currently fail to sufficiently do these two things men remain largely absent from crucial debates such as the one around the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda.

That men are missing from these conversations has at least three major ramifications. First, we disproportionately burden women with responsibility for development and the reduction of inequality. Second, we foreclose opportunity for men to express that they care about their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Third, we’re missing out on the power of half of the population.

We might be several months away from ringing in the new year, but crucial conversations about the post-2015 development agenda are happening now.

This month, at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, UN Women will be pushing for the inclusion of women’s rights and gender equality. Discussions happening there, as in conference halls and meeting spaces across the globe, could be highly influential.

We are currently at a pivot point – an opportunity to shift the conversation around the achievement of gender equality and who bears responsibility for it.

Some might worry that if men join this conversation women will once again be drowned out. This is valid. Men’s voices often take over and are the loudest in policy circles, upper level management of non-governmental organisations and government everywhere in the world. But disproportionately burdening women isn’t right – nor is excusing male absenteeism.

The male-driven or male-inclusive efforts underway embrace a hard-line assumption that gender equality is not a project for half the population, but for the whole one. If we give them more attention and support that can only boost the flagging global efforts to protect, educate and empower girls and women.

*Tara Cookson [2011] is doing a PhD in Geography. She researches women’s rights and development. She has worked as a project developer with marginalised communities in Canada and Latin America. Find out more about here at This blog was first published on Picture courtesy of


The politics of uneven development


With the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, the post-2015 agenda is generating a lot of commentary. In the media and among policy makers and civil society organisations,  there are a multitude of ideas about what the agenda should look like – what it lacked before, and where we need to focus our attention now. The MDGs constitute an important framework used to guide the development priorities of national and global bodies. They remind policy makers, heads of State and civil society that things like maternal health, gender equality and universal education are imperative to development. In other words, they highlight the link between people and development, and the importance of maintaining a focus that is not solely on the economic.

One country that has taken development discourse and action to heart is Peru. With its rumbo al desarrollo  or ‘course of development’ platform, the current government under Ollanta Humala has seen Peru positioned in the global spotlight. One of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, Peru’s course of development is grounded largely in the exploitation and exportation of natural resources like copper, silver and gold, and is heavily dependant on foreign investment. In a time of global economic instability, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)  commended Peru on its spectacular economic growth. Bill Gates even referred to it as ‘middle income’, suggesting that it doesn’t need aid the way that some other countries do. Most recently, Peru hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Latin America, where the WEF Senior Director and Head of Latin America proposed that as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Peru sets an example of the potential inherent to other Latin American nations.


At the same time that Peru’s economic growth has been celebrated, the country has born witness to a series of ongoing social conflicts, many of which are located in regions rich in minerals. No small issue, as of August 2012 the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman cited 149 social conflicts related to extractive industries dispersed throughout the country. The majority of these conflicts involve indigenous and campesino (farm worker) communities, who have lived on and worked the lands in question for centuries. These communities don’t necessarily share their national government’s conception of development, instead generally envisioning a course based on promoting local agriculture and tourism.

The northern Andean region of Cajamarca is perhaps the most well known example of these social conflicts.  Starting in late 2011, the region gained international media coverage for the  violent and finally fatal clashes between police and the thousands of local citizens who stand in opposition to the proposed Conga gold mine – a reported $4.8 billion dollar project. Cajamarca is already home to the world’s second largest gold mine, Yanacocha, which was founded in the mid-nineties and is owned by the same company currently proposing Conga. Among other reasons, the largely agriculturist locals opposing the new project cite depleted and contaminated water sources due to existing extractive activity, and insist that water is more valuable than gold. Much of the national media voices concern that these social conflicts – and often their originating communities – are ‘holding the country back’ in its rumbo al desarrollo. State level politicians have been explicit in their interpretation of leaders of the Conga opposition as being against regional and national development – no small accusation given the international weight placed on achieving ‘developed country’ status.

Uneven development

What is most apparent to me in these debates is a lack of understanding. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with an engineer who has worked in the local mining industry for nearly 20 years. He asked me, as a social scientist, to explain to him why locals oppose the Conga project with the determination that they do. He confessed that he really couldn’t imagine what their reasons would be – didn’t they understand that development was good for them?  In response, I cited what locals had mentioned to me, and what I thought was rather obvious. Home to the world’s second largest gold mine, Cajamarca lacks a modern and sanitary central market (a widespread complaint), suffers from water shortages, has roads in desperate need of paving, has a hospital that doesn’t treat cancer, and is constantly suffering a scarcity of teachers in public schools.  Less obviously apparent are the persistence of gendered violence, high rates of maternal mortality and rising childhood malnutrition.

In contrast, the capital city Lima is home to world-class private health clinics and international schools, multi-million dollar homes and offices and immaculately manicured green spaces. In the rural Andes and jungle regions, these things are harder to come by. Twenty years after the Yanacocha gold mine began production, the region of Cajamarca is still one of the poorest in the country, belonging to a group of departments that has a total poverty rate of over 75%. Quite simply, it doesn’t look like what one would imagine a top producer of gold to look like. And the vast majority of locals recognise this, noting the paradoxical nature of their reality.

These glaring contrasts are indicative of an uneven pattern of development and an unequal redistribution of wealth – or otherwise put, the benefits of development. While Peru may be rising the ranks of economically stable countries, this is not the case in measurements of equality. The Humala government has placed greater priority on boosting what it terms ‘social inclusion’. Traditionally marginalised groups are increasingly folded into large state programmes revolving around childhood nutrition and education and the provision of old-age pensions for those in the poorest national quintiles. Despite these investments, in 2012 researchers found that while overall poverty had decreased, inequality – particularly between rural and urban regions – remained the same or even increased. This means that rural communities, like those in Cajamarca, experience unequal – in this case poorer – access to quality health and education services, employment and infrastructure than urban centres like Lima. Social conflicts like those I refer to here arise from the recognition that this situation is unjust.

People first

The combination of sustained social conflict and statistics like the aforementioned should be taken to heart. Development cannot be just about economics – how many millions or billions of US dollars in foreign investment an opportunity is worth, what it might do for GDP. It can’t even be mostly about economics. It has to be first and foremost about people. About how people live, about their access to services, their ability to exercise agency on their own behalf, about their quality of life.  And it has to be matched by a commitment to equality, to a wilful desire to see all people benefit from a given economic project or process.

The current debates around the post-2015 development agenda represent an excellent opportunity for all national governments, corporations, organisations and agencies with stakes in development processes at home or abroad to stop and reflect. Where do their development related priorities lie and how does the course they’ve chosen to achieve it measure up in terms of delivering on equality? Are the concerns and issues of all communities, regions and populations similarly represented and attended to? Are issues of a social nature given the same weight as economic growth? The Millennium Development Goals are not perfect, and it is unlikely that what comes out of the post-2015 agenda will be either. However, they are an excellent place to start.

*Tara Cookson [2011] is doing a PhD in Geography. Picture credit: and digitalart.