|Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development|
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This chapter focuses on the womens movement and
its role in development. It describes the development activities of women at the
international, regional, national, and local levels, outlining why the overall development
scenario should include womens activism and organizing skills.
The womens movement
The global formation of the womens movement is unlike the human rights and ecological movements. There are not single large organizations with a global membership base clearly associated with the goals of the movement in the public arena. The womens movement resembles, much more, the constantly growing and shifting cobweb characteristics of new politics in the global age. In many ways, the amorphous character of the movement may reflect an earlier stage in organizing, a more effective utilization of the institutions of the United Nations, or a unique characteristic of the type of organizing that is unique to womens issues. Whether more formal linkages would be useful is an open question.
The womens movement does indeed resemble a constantly growing and shifting cobweb, one made up of thousands of large and small local, national, regional, and international womens groups and organizations, connected and unconnected to each other and involved in traditional and nontraditional activities. What all of these womens groups and organizations have in common is that for the most part they have been left out of the history of development as currently written.
The reasons for this are many. Perhaps the biggest one is that the women themselves, especially womens groups in the South, have recorded very little about their activism and their efforts to organize for their rights within their communities.
International womens organizations and networks
Women historians have made recent efforts to record the history of womens international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and much of these efforts have focused on the work of affiliated groups in the South.
As part of its centennial celebrations in 199495, the World Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA) undertook to record the history of 100 years of womens organizing and activism on womens issues and concerns. I selected this organization as an example because it holds a unique position in the history of the womens movement. Very early in this organizations history, women set up autonomous national YWCA groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and later in the Pacific. Then, with assistance and support from a world office, these groups planned and built permanent headquarters for their programs. This has given women a kind of bastion or stronghold, which they themselves control, in more than 80 countries. Each national YWCA is engaged in activities with, for, and by women in training, health, nonformal education, human rights, public affairs, energy and the environment, and other community and social work.
The YWCA trains women for jobs in the community and positions of leadership in all facets of the organization. This creates a core of women leaders who often go on to become leaders in other parts of community life. Each national YWCA has complete control over management, programs, and future directions. The world office provides a set of guiding principles and, when requested, support for fund-raising and leadership-training opportunities.
Having a central building and a staff of trained leaders gives the YWCA a head start in influencing the development of a community and providing a place for other forms of activism and organizing. Women are given the opportunity to be managers, trainers, decision-makers, and planners in an atmosphere that is women centred, nonthreatening, and safe. And remarkable achievements have come out of this safe atmosphere:
The beginnings of political movements for more democratic societies;
The introduction of appropriate technologies for women in rural and semiurban areas;
New and innovative training methods for women with little or no educational background;
Participatory forms of group organizing; and
A host of other activities that have moved women into the forefront of development, both within their countries and around the world.
For example, many women on national delegations to the United Nations gained their leadership training and experience as committee or board members of the YWCA in their respective countries.
Not much work has yet been done to record the history of international womens networks. Networks are a more recent phenomenon. More flexible than an organization and much more reliant on each individual or group to keep the web of contacts alive, a network arises to fill a need and then often disappears when the need is gone. A true network has no headquarters, main offices, or staff. However, variations on this theme are more common, usually with a group taking on the responsibility of keeping the contacts alive, using some full- or part-time staff.
During and since the United Nations International Womens Year (1975) and the subsequent Decade for Women (197685), international womens networks emerged to fill a need that womens groups had for better contact with others and for access to information and resources. Best known among these networks are Isis International (Manila and Santiago), Isis Womens International Cross Cultural Exchange, the Womens Features Service (India), and the International Womens Tribune Centre (IWTC). Neither the Isis groups nor IWTC have affiliated members such as belong to the World YWCA and other more established international NGOs (for example, the World Association of Girl Guides and Scouts, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, and the Associated Country Women of the World [ACWW]). The Womens Features Service came out of the Inter Press Service and functions as a news wire service, providing news stories by and about women for the worlds media.
The Isis groups and IWTC have constituencies of womens groups in every world region, most of which are not formally affiliated with any other group and have previously functioned in relative isolation. The main channel of communication is a journal or newsletter used to inform member groups of issues and available resources on women- or gender-and-development activities and plans and preparations for upcoming events and conferences, etc.
In the case of IWTC, the mailing list also includes government womens bureaus and ministries, United Nations departments and specialized agencies, donors, and other support groups for women- or gender-and-development activities worldwide. Both IWTC and the two Isis groups undertake training and technical-assistance activities on request, and both collaborate with national and regional groups to develop manuals, guidebooks, bibliographies, and other women- or gender-and-development resource materials. In recent years, their emphasis has been on training women to use computers for desktop publishing, for electronic networking, and for developing resource centres and databases for women involved in development activities.
Regional womens organizations and networks
As in the case of the international womens organizations and networks, very little has been written about the history of their regional counterparts. Perhaps an exception is the Women and Development Unit (WAND) of the University of the West Indies in Barbados. Several booklets and articles have been written about WANDs history, and newspaper features on various aspects of WANDs development and work are disseminated regularly.
WAND grew out of a regional conference held in Jamaica in 1977, where womens groups from across the English-speaking Caribbean gathered to draw up a plan of action for women in their region. One of the needs expressed at this conference was for a central agency to provide resources, technical assistance, and training for the womens groups and projects. This would keep isolated womens groups a little more in touch with the womens movement.
WAND has forged a path that intersects with the development of womens bureaus in the Caribbean, the regionalization of resources, and the burgeoning of womens human rights as a major focus among women activists and groups in the Caribbean. WAND epitomizes the work and dedication of regional womens organizations by providing women- or gender-and-development information from a central resource centre and database, helping to develop project proposals and search for funds for projects, and leading the way in lobbying regional governments for legislation that moves ahead on womens human-rights issues and concerns.
Regional womens networks, especially those concerned with the flow of information within regions, have grown in importance during and since the United Nations Decade for Women. Womens regional media networks can now be found in every world region (Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, and North America). They usually operate within the framework of alternative media, sending their information directly to womens groups. But increasingly these networks are crossing over into the world of mass media and mainstream media channels.
Fempress (a womens alternative media network for Latin America) began in 1981 as a clipping service. Working out of offices at the Institute for Studies of Transnationals in Latin America, two women began collecting clippings about womens activities in Latin American countries and pasting them together in a magazine format for distribution to every country in the region. Having expanded into a regular monthly magazine of original articles and clippings, Fempress is now acknowledged as one of the leading networks, linking women activists across Latin America and putting forward the cause of womens human rights and womens equality of opportunity in every country in the region.
Fempress operates on a simple but extremely effective logic it has a correspondent in each country, who notes what is happening in that country, clips relevant articles, and writes an article on a major issue concerning women each month. These are published at the Fempress headquarters in Santiago, Chile, in its monthly magazine. Fempress also prepares and distributes radio broadcasts of interviews and talks by various women in each country of the region. Fempress puts out a quarterly compilation of clippings and writings on specific subjects; this quarterly is known as Mujer Especial (Womens Space).
National womens organizations and networks
The National Councils of Women (NCWs) have been foremost among national womens organizations and networks. NCWs comprise national womens organizations (such as Maendeleo ya Wanawake of Kenya, a network of womens groups in Kenya that are affiliated with ACWW; national YWCAs, which are affiliated with the World YWCA; and national womens groups that have member groups within the country but are not affiliated with any international organization).
NCWs are usually set up to unite the efforts of national womens groups to lobby government or to improve facilities and programs for women in their country. Over the years, NCWs have had mixed reviews. Combining the efforts of national womens groups that have sometimes had long histories in a country before the inception of an NCW is not easy. But most of the member groups of an NCW come together when there is a common cause, such as the need to develop a national plan of action for women or to promote legislation on issues related to womens human rights.
Maendeleo ya Wanawake is the major national womens organization of Kenya. Maendeleo has member groups in every town and village, an impressive headquarters in Nairobi, and a full-time staff of administrators and trainers. It undertakes projects in a wide variety of areas and has been responsible for village water-pump projects, schemes for craft production and marketing, workshops for leadership training, and a multitude of other rural and urban development activities with, for, and by the women of Kenya. Increasingly, Maendeleo ya Wanawake has become involved in political and government activities, in addition to its programs for training and project implementation, and this has provoked much discussion of the roles and responsibilities of women in Kenya. Maendeleo is a member group of the Kenyan NCW.
The Friends of Women (FOW) project was set up in Thailand by women concerned about the rising numbers of young girls and women lured from villages to work as prostitutes in Bangkok. The women of FOW set themselves up in a couple of rooms in the centre of Bangkok and began to make contacts with groups and individuals across the country and region and eventually with groups in other countries around the world. Their efforts and continuing concern for the welfare of young women in Bangkok have now become a national network of people fighting against violations of womens human rights and specifically against luring girls from poor families into a life of sexual slavery.
FOW is not just a lobbying group, however. It provides counseling to young girls and their families, both in the village and in town; workshops for young leaders and helpers; resource materials, including flash cards and posters for group sessions; and a newsletter, which is published in both Thai and English. It is a network, rather than an organization, because it does not require membership, and its activities focus on needs as they arise, rather than on any set program. Anyone interested can take part in FOW activities.
Local womens organizations and networks
Because womens groups function in so many different ways and the definitions of an organization and a network become blurred, it is better to discuss examples of womens local activities than to discuss specific womens groups.
In Santiago, Chile, during the long years of dictatorship (197289), womens groups organized for the right to democratic elections and womens equality in decision-making positions in government. Beginning with a few established womens groups, protest marches were organized for each 8 March (International Womens Day). Momentum grew each year, with many thousands of women from every walk of life marching through the streets of Santiago or gathering in the sports stadium, demanding democratic rule and equality of opportunity for women. Individual women courageously approached soldiers and police in the streets and shouted Give us back our country!
When democratic rule returned to Chile, credit was given in large part to the relentless activism of womens groups, and the new government appointed women to positions of power and authority.
In Ahmedebad, India, womens work in the informal sector received little recognition and, therefore, little was done to make these womens livelihoods more economically sustainable. Within the trade-union movement, Ela Bhatt tried to push forward the cause of these women but had little success. She decided to form a breakaway union for self-employed women, those who work at home or within womens groups rather than in factories or other businesses and have a hard time making ends meet. The Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA) was the result. It now has many thousands of members and maintains a type of revolving bank: all the members donate a small amount each month, and money is available when they need it to purchase equipment or set up a small business. Women around the world often cite, and try to emulate, SEWAs example.
From a small village at the foot of Mount Meru, Kenya, generations of women traveled each day down a large hill to collect water and carry it back up the hill for use in the village. Some days, a woman would make several trips to the river below, carrying heavy pots full of water on her head as she strained up the slippery path to the village. One day, at a meeting of the village womens group, the women decided that enough was enough. They did not want their daughters to suffer as they were, with bent backs and endless pain in their old age. Offering their savings from work in nearby tea plantations, they asked the men to buy water pipes when they went to town one at a time over a period of years.
An expert from the Food and Agriculture Organization was approached to assist in setting up a simple pump at the foot of a waterfall in the river. Slowly, the women laid the pipes. Up the hill the pipes went, branching off at each womans hut. Then large plugs were made of corklike materials and inserted into the pipes, and finally the pump was started. Now every woman in that village has her own water supply, which has not only improved the health and well-being of the village but also ensures that future generations of girls and women will not have to damage their backs and live in pain from carrying heavy pots on their heads up the mountain each day.
In Suva, Fiji, the newly established YWCA decided to open multiracial kindergartens. At that time, all education in the country was segregated by language, with Fijian children attending Fijian-language schools, Indian children attending Hindi-language schools, and children of expatriates (from Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) attending English-language schools. The facilities and standard of education were vastly different in each type of school, with the English-language schools having the most advanced facilities and teaching. Although much could be said for maintaining the cultures and traditions of each linguistic group, in reality, children in the non-English schools were receiving a poorer education, diminishing their future career prospects.
In keeping with its long-time principle of ensuring
equal opportunity, the YWCA began multiracial kindergartens, open to everyone. The effect
was dramatic. Educationalists came from all over the country to observe the experiment.
There was considerable doubt about the wisdom and propriety of the project. The time came
when several Fijian and Indian parents wanted their children to attend the better equipped
and better staffed European primary school. The YWCA asked the Education
Department whether this was possible. A top-level meeting was called. Clearly, this had
been a racial and not a linguistic matter before, but now the authorities were faced with
making a precedent-setting decision. Amid much consternation, the decision came down that
any child could attend the European school if they passed an English-language test. All of
the children passed and were accepted. All schools in Fiji are now multiracial. It is the
official policy of the country. English, Fijian, and Hindi are Fijis official
languages, and all official documents and materials are printed in each one of these
Womens activism and its role in development
As discussed earlier, anthropologists have often identified the stages of modernization and progress as huntergatherer or foraging, horticultural, agricultural or agrarian, and so on (see list on p. 41). Feminist anthropologists have argued for giving greater weight to the organization of social and production relations, patterns of social stratification, family structure (monogamous or other), patterns of property ownership, and forms of work and production. To this list should be added patterns of womens organizing and activism.
Perhaps organization of social and production relations, as suggested by feminist anthropologists, would encompass some of the activities outlined here. But the activities and efforts of women worldwide are much more likely to be totally left out of the development matrix. By adding patterns of womens organizing and activism, we could write a whole new chapter in development theory.
It should be obvious by now that the activism and continuing efforts of womens groups have been responsible for a great deal of what has happened in the history of the world, and more specifically in the area of development and modernization. Each womens organization and network discussed, whether international, regional, national, or local, illustrates the extent to which women have been actively involved in the major changes taking place in their country and in the world. And yet, it is impossible to conclude this chapter without giving the following examples of how the activism and organizing skills of women have changed the course of history.
Women activists at the international level the early years
Seventeen women were among the delegates at the foundin