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Re-politicising Gender Planning

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Since the 1980s, the Gender Policy and Planning Programme at The Bartlett has been on a mission to further the research and theory for achieving gender parity.

Re-politicising Gender Planning

Residents collecting water from a community managed spring in Moyiba, Freetown. The management and use of water is governed by gender norms and clearly illustrates the gender division of labour.

Credit: Julian Walker

In the 1970s, as feminist movements gained traction across the world, the term ‘women in development’ entered the global policy lexicon, promoted in international development initiatives such as the first UN Decade for Women (1975–85).

Starting from the mid-1980s, however, dissatisfaction with the marginalisation of women’s subordination as a concern, led to increasing calls for ‘gender mainstreaming’ – addressing gender inequality through mainstream development interventions (such as housing, health or economic development programming) rather than through a small and under-resourced ‘women’s sector’.

As part of this approach, colleagues at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), Caroline Moser and Caren Levy, began developing the Moser / DPU Gender Planning Framework. This set out to broaden the analytical focus from ‘women’ to ‘gender’, to draw attention to the fact that examining women in isolation was not enough to achieve equality. If the status of females was to be improved, the focus should instead be on gender – that is, on the socially constructed roles of, and relationships between, women and men.

In addition, the framework sought to provide the analytical tools to disaggregate the different gender roles that women and men undertake, highlighting the different patterns of their involvement in production (for example, producing goods for sale), reproduction (looking after children or the home), community affairs (organising collectively in the community), and political participation, as well as their unequal access to and control over resources.

Practical measures

Based on this work, the Gender Policy and Planning Programme (GPPP) was established within the DPU. It is a globally respected centre of research and theory, which places equal emphasis on practical measures for achieving gender parity.

In the late 1990s, Levy, who is now Principal Investigator for the DPU’s Knowledge in Action for Urban Equality (KNOW) project, took the programme’s work forward by developing the ‘Web of Institutionalisation’. This is a conceptual tool that emerged from her experience in supporting work on gender planning principles in a number of development agencies, including the Swedish, Norwegian and British governments, Unicef and the United Nations Development Programme.

The Web responded to Levy’s experience that it was difficult to move from rhetoric to practice in gender mainstreaming, without analysing and addressing key sites of power and resistance to gender equality in mainstream development institutions and in civil society.

More recently, the GPPP has continued to work with a range of development agencies, government institutions and civil society organisations globally towards integrating its ideas into the wider policy landscape. This has been achieved by looking at how a gender perspective re-orients our understanding of other aspects of development, including urban planning and the environment, and also how to engage practically with the intersection of gender with other axes of inequality – along lines such as race, class or disability.

Re-emphasising radical roots

At the same time, the GPP’s work engages with wider concerns among advocates of gender equality and women’s rights that the gender mainstreaming ‘project’ has been co-opted. Critics argue that efforts to embed gender equality considerations into the mainstream policy agenda has led to powerful actors and organisations adopting the language of gender equality and making gestures in its direction, while sidestepping the implementation of the large-scale social and political change required for women to be truly emancipated.

Re-politicising Gender Planning

A member of the Sierra Leone Federation of the Urban Poor interviews a fish trader in the Freetown community of Portee-Rokupa.

Credit: Julian Walker

In response, the GPPP aims to re-emphasise the fundamental radicalism of the original framework for gender planning, and the notion implicit in it that simply moving women into the mainstream is not enough without altering the context within which they operate. In other words, the solution to co-optation is not to drop the idea of gender planning, but to re-politicise it and confront the clusters of power that are preventing change.

As Levy wrote in 2009, the challenge is to construct a “development planning which incorporates gender justice along with justice for all identity groups within a wider ‘project’ for progressive and transformative social change”.

The Development Planning Unit is a world-leading research and postgraduate teaching unit that helps to build the capacity of national governments, local authorities, NGOs, aid agencies and businesses working towards socially-just and sustainable development in the Global South. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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