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How development modernised patriarchy

By Sharmila Joshi

50% of the world's food for direct consumption is produced by women and women do two-thirds of the world's work. Yet global development projects from the 1940s onwards viewed women as little more than mothers feeding babies. As a result, the socio-economic status of women actually declined, thanks to development programmes

In 1948, the UN Declaration of Human Rights affirmed the equal rights of men and women. But global development projects initially made women invisible. Most early development models were heavily male-biased: development planners assumed men are the most productive workers Women’s productive role, because it was often not directly linked to the market or the formal economy, was ignored. Instead, their role as reproductive individuals was made ultra visible.

This became the focus of women-centred development interventions in the early phases of the development project from the 1950s. For example, programmes to control population growth, seen as a primary cause of poverty, began to spring up, with women as targets.

Until the 1970s then, women appeared in the global development apparatus almost solely asmothers feeding babies, procuring water for cooking and cleaning, dealing with children’s diseases or growing food in their tidy home gardens to supplement the family diet. Only men, in most development literature, considered to be engaged in productive activities, were the targets in target-bound programmes intended, for example, to improve agricultural production.

International training programmes supported by such agencies as the FAO and USAID followed these assumptions: agriculture for men, home economics for women. As some feminists observe, development managed to modernise patriarchy. This, when at least 50% of the world's food for direct consumption (FAO) is produced by women and women do two-thirds of the world’s work.

Often, the socio-economic status of women declined following their exclusion from agricultural development programmes. In many cases, women were relegated to subsistence activities following technical improvements in agriculture. If labour is displaced by new technologies, it is often female labour. For example, if grain mills were introduced to replace mortar and pestle, women were rendered jobless; their skill was marginalised.

In Kenya , for example, women were traditionally rice cultivators. Colonialism brought more men into this work. After World War II mechanisation for greater yields relegated women to low wage labour in non-mechanised farm activities. More intensive production for the market also displaces more women who then must look for low-paying informal work. All of this involves gradual but great restructuring of family and social relations.

Approaches to development that set in motion such processes have at times made women’s living conditions worse, and increased their workload. This “feminisation of poverty”, feminist critic Pat Simmons argues, can in fact be seen as a direct result of women's inclusion in the development process. Development, argues anthropologist Arturo Escobar, not only ignored women, but in fact had – and continues to have, in different cases -- extremely detrimental effects on women's economic position.

From the 1970s, the assumption of women as actors mainly in the reproductive sphere began to be questioned. Over the decades since, distinct positions have emerged related to gender and development. These frameworks guide development policies, research and practice. That is, theoretical perspectives have shaped ground reality.

Although all approaches have significantly altered both feminist theory and practice with regard to development, the Women in Development (WID) approach remains the dominant perspective. WID is not homogenous; conceptual differences persist. But on the whole, WID subscribes to the assumptions of modernisation theory (see article on ‘Theories of development: Modernisation vs dependency’). However, WID brings women into this picture and stresses their role as agents of social change.

In 1970, Esther Bosrup, an economist, documented women's invisible contribution in the economic sphere. She wrote about the regressive impact of ‘development’, as commonly understood at the time in official circles, on women’s lives and livelihoods. This, Nalini Visvanathan, feminist scholar, who focuses on public health and communication, writes, “signalled the start of liberal feminist advocacy of the integration of women into development, as workers and as producers.” Some feminists did note at the time that the costs of modernisation/ development were being largely borne by women and advocated changes in the approach.

However, they did not fundamentally question the premises of modernisation theory. “Modernisation theory depicts traditional societies as authoritarian and male-dominated and modern ones as democratic and egalitarian,” Visvanathan writes. The WID school of liberal feminists endorsed this worldview. Later feminist critiques pointed out how both modernisation theory and WID distort the lives of Third World women.

WID strategies first came up in USAid’s policies in 1973, and began to increase in the UN system. At the World Bank, a division for WID was established in 1987 although WID-influenced activities had begun at the Bank earlier. Many of these early policies were couched in the language of economic efficiency: “investing in human capital” or how “female labour markets” could be “rationalised” to ensure more “equitable participation” by women. Women’s productivity began to exist only in relation to its market value and how it could better be exploited.

The WID approach did not call for structural changes in the system in which it sought inclusion of women. Still, WID advocacy has contributed to several shifts in policy. Its presence at the UN helped push for social legislation which enhanced women’s civil and political rights in some countries. WID has helped mainstream gender issues in many development agencies and policies, and increased women’s visibility.

Just as critiques of modernisation theory emerged in such forms as dependency theory, initial critiques of WID consolidated to form the Women and Development (WAD) approach. This approach—Marxist in content—drew on dependency theory (see ‘Theories of Development’). It argued that WID focussed too narrowly on sexual inequality while ignoring the structural and socio-economic factors within which gender inequalities are embedded. WAD instead stresses such factors as changes in economic production, local class structure, the position of specific regions and sectors in the national and international economy.

For example, Margaret Snyder, co-founder of the African Centre for Women and a former Unifem director, and Mary Tadesse, feminist scholar, write about women in parts of West Africa who historically had greater economic and social rights until colonisation . In Nigeria , for example, women's courts determined social disputes and women fixed market prices. With colonisation, agricultural patterns changed and so did the role of women. Men migrated to the mines, village economies deteriorated. The status of women changed: technology was introduced to men; title deeds were made out in their names. After the independence movements of the 1950s and ’60s, Snyder and Tadesse argue, it’s been an uphill battle for women to re-establish their rights. Their attempt is not to glorify a ‘traditional’ past but to focus on the interlinking of historical structural processes and development interventions in the present.

The WAD approach also argued that women have always been part of the development process, therefore, ‘including’ them in development was a contradiction. It looked at how women are integrated in development in a way that sustains existing international structures of inequality. As economists Lourdes Baneria and Gita Sen write in a critique of Esther Boserup’s work, “Contrary to Boserup’s implications, the problem for women is not only the lack of participation in this process as equal partners with men; it is a system that generates and intensifies inequalities, making use of existing gender hierarchies to place women in subordinate positions at each different level of interaction between class and gender.”

The WAD in turn has been critiqued because it largely neglects the sphere of reproduction and household-level gender relations, the daily translations of patriarchy. That is, in WAD, structural and class analysis dominates at the cost of other equations of domination and subjugation. But WAD significantly extends the WID critique of mainstream development theory by bringing in a broader analysis.

Another major theoretical approach in the field, Gender and Development (GAD) emerged in the 1980s; it overlaps with WAD but the socialist feminists in this school combine lessons from the limitations of both WID and WAD. According to Kate Young, feminist scholar, GAD focuses not just on women but also on the social relations between men and women, in the workplace and in other settings. “It looks at the totality of social organisation, economic and political life, in order to understand the sharing of particular aspects of society,” she writes.

GAD looks at gender as a relational process. The approach, Young writes, views women as active agents and not passive recipients of ‘development’. While WID concentrates on women’s access to cash income (usually via the market) as the base strategy, GAD treats development as a complex process influenced by political, social and economic forces. It is “much less optimistic about the role of the market as distributor of benefit.” Unlike WID, which emphasises the need for women’s collective groupings, GAD equally emphasises the necessary role of the State in promoting women’s emancipation. In seeking progressive structural reforms, GAD shares a common base with WAD and with Marxist and dependency approaches. But it opens up new situation-specific strategies for feminist intervention in development processes.

Alongside and overlapping these approaches, the Women, Environment and Development (WED) approach also emerged. From the 1970s, eco-feminists had drawn parallels between male control over nature and over women and exposed the assault by masculinity’s scientific and industrial systems on the ecological health of the planet. In 1972, at the NGO conference held parallel to the UN Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm , local initiatives to protect forests, such as the Chipko movement in India were reported. At the Nairobi Forum in 1985, held parallel to the UN Women and Development Conference, women’s role in environmental management was presented in case studies that documented women’s involvement in forestry, agriculture, energy…based on the experiences of women living in the South. By the late-1980s, national and international events that focused on the WED theme gained momentum.

Feminist models of sustainable development have emerged over the years as alternatives to those put forward by development economists. Advocates such as sociologist Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, ecologist and activist, recommend fundamental changes in the dominant discourse of development to incorporate women’s voices and local-knowledge systems, gender relations, cultural specificity and political ecology.

Bina Agarwal, economist and feminist scholar, also develops an approach to WED that combines levels of material reality, ideological constructs of meaning in her analysis of the Indian experience of the environment crises. She argues that women are both victims of the crisis as well as important actors in resolving it. Agarwal calls for a struggle over material as well as symbolic resources through a need to grapple with groups who control resources and ways of thinking about resources (through the media, education, religious and legal institutions).

Although all approaches tend to intersect and overlap at some point, they differ in their analyses and strategies. Groups working on gender issues in India—politically-affiliated as well as those apparently independent of political leanings--usually draw on (and often extend) one or more of these conceptualisations of development and of gender.

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005