Power & limits of economic development as a pathway to gender equality

Gender gaps that disadvantage women and girls – in employment, education, health, and more – tend to be bigger in lower-income countries than in higher-income countries. This lecture discussed why economic progress often helps bring about more gender equality, and, conversely, why gender inequality slows economic progress. It also discussed some exceptions to the rule that economic development brings about gender equality – and how public policy can help alleviate this tension.

How did gender move to the center of democratic struggles?


The central objective of this talk is to analyze how the politics of gender came to occupy a central place in debates over citizenship, national belonging, and the future of democratic governance. These debates diverge widely from challenges and to the most basic rights to freedom of movement and education for women in countries like Afghanistan to demanding full recognition of LGBTQI rights in the European Union.

Is there any hope of finding a mutually intelligible language for claim-making and voice in a world where most women (and men) continue to be locked into coerced identities while feminists in the North are engaged in sometimes acrimonious debates over identities, bodies, and sexualities? The answer to this question resides in understanding the influences that have led us to the ‘anti-gender ideology’ moment which has gained momentum with the spread of authoritarian populisms across the globe.

Kandiyoti argues that a combination of both external onslaughts in the form of different types of backlash and the contradictions and dysfunctions internal to platforms claiming to have a feminist agenda have led us to this perilous moment. The challenge before us is to find the imagination and wisdom to forge a new politics of solidarity that resonates across the globe. 

Scaling the summit for women’s rights

Finding your voice and identity for many women in South Asia, including Nepal, is like climbing Mt. Everest the highest peak in the world – not an easy task with deeply embedded patriarchal values and gender norms. Violence against women particularly domestic violence is the biggest deterrent to women’s advancement and development.  However, with a vibrant women’s movement and civil society activism scaling this mountainous hurdle can be possible. It is a shared collective vision of inclusive development that is required to make gender equality a reality.

Inclusive empowerment and equality must be at the heart of all efforts to ensure sustainable development. The talk featured valuable examples of bottom-up movement building, breaking the culture of silence, harnessing the potential of the media and enhancing critical and collaborative partnership for transforming the roadmap to inclusive development. It highlighted experiences of linking efforts from local to global and global to local for scaling the hurdles of rising inequalities. The journey continues – to achieving transformative change that is fair and sustainable and building a future where no rights are trampled and no one is left behind. 

This lecture was hosted by the University of Luxembourg and Aide à l’Enfance de l’Inde et du Népal (AEIN). 

Reproductive health in a changing humanitarian climate

In her lecture, “Gender Equality and Reproductive Health in a Changing Humanitarian Climate” Sarah Costa discussed recent changes in the sexual and reproductive health of forced migrants. Before, during and after their migration trajectories, forcibly displaced people are vulnerable to harm in their sexual and reproductive health. Regardless of one’s legal status, everyone should get access to reproductive health services and information about their reproductive rights. Therefore, leading questions in this lecture were: can gendered migration dynamics have a transformative effect on people? How can institutions, aid workers and organisations collaborate on a stronger shared knowledge base regarding migration and reproductive health? And how can we create safe spaces where people can enjoy a safe and satisfying sex life?

Today, the humanitarian sector is confronted with many challenges. More than 69 million people are forced to leave their place of residence because of violence, persecution or  violation of their human rights. In addition to this growing number of displaced people,  the length of the displacement is increasing as well. Furthermore, an expanding number of people are fleeing to urban areas in search of employment opportunities and emergency services. On the other hand, wealthy nations are becoming more and more isolationist and borders are closing. Humanitarian resources are thus disproportionately overstretched and underfunded. Against the backdrop of all these challenges, Sarah Costa stressed the particular risks and vulnerabilities of women and girls. At least 25% of refugee women are of reproductive age, 14 % of these women are pregnant, and 15 % of these pregnancies will lead to life threatening complications. Nonetheless, a gender analyses is lacking in the design and implementation of most humanitarian programs. Costa pointed to the importance of  target group-oriented facilities for women and men. For example, migrant women are afraid to use latrines in refugee camps. No safe spaces are established, leaving women vulnerable and exposed to violence. Moreover, humanitarian programs should not solely focus on supplying reproductive health services, working on women’s social and economic empowerment in the humanitarian field is at least as important.

Despite these intersectional vulnerabilities of forced migrants and refugee women, transformative change is achievable. In her lecture, Sarah Costa listed eight strategies that can contribute to transformative and positive practices. First off, Costa referred to a necessary shift in our discourses about migrants and practices towards them to adapt to the changing experiences of forced migrants. Displaced people are not merely victims in need of assistance and humanitarian care. Rather, they must be regarded as survivors with strengths, skills and capacities that can be tapped and supported. Second, the social and political field should stop treating the so-called ‘migration crisis’ as  short-term problem, instead long-term programs must be supported. Sustainable capacity building programs will stimulate local economies. Third, humanitarian actors must involve women and support women’s participation. Migrant women can offer unique insights in limitations and opportunities of existing humanitarian programs. Fourth, local women’s organisations can play a powerful role in developing accurate services for women. Their contribution is too often ignored or sidelined by international aid organisations. Therefore, allocation funds need to strengthen their capacity and leadership. Fifth, along with local women, local capacity must be supported. Favourable framework guidelines have been set by humanitarian organisations, but implementation of these guidelines remains poor. Sixth, the humanitarian and development actors must improve their partnership relations. Although organisations in both fields share many common goals, they remain often separated. Seventh, it is necessary to focus on empirical data demonstrating the impact of a gendered-based approach. Without data it is impossible to demonstrate and evaluate the advantageous results of gender-based programs. Lastly, increasing accountability of humanitarian actors by donors with regards to the integration of gender perspectives in all aspects of their work. Local organizations again can play an essential role in evaluating whether their needs are being answered.

In a panel discussion after the lecture, Ines Keygnaert (Assistant professor in sexual and reproductive health an Ghent University) talked about the sexual and reproductive health context for forced migrants in Belgium. In her contribution, she emphasized that sexual and gender-based violence continues when migrants arrive in ‘host’ countries. Keygnaert pointed f.e. to the maternal mobilitiy problems women face. European rules about access to safe delivery for all migrant women is being turned back in more and more countries. Childbirth is no longer regarded as an urgent medical intervention. More generally, she underlined the importance of providing assistance regardless of legal status. This principle lay at the basis of the recently started sexual assault care centre in Belgium.

In their concluding remarks, Keygnaert and Costa stressed that both the accountability and gender-sensitivity of humanitarian organisations have to be strengthened to protect the reproductive health of refugees and migrants.

Why securitization only works in Star Wars

We live in the complex world with security becoming a more pressing issue every day. In the face of security crisis, migration challenges and health-related issues, people are often caught in the crossfire in our attempts to frame our security. The response seems to be securitization of health, migration and other humanitarian disasters.

One response for sustainability and peace is through communities. By strengthening local leaders, women in particular, we give them tools to change their communities from within.

Alaa Murabit, one of world’s leading voices for gender equality, addresses these issues, challenging the way we look at them, and frame sustainable development in light of emerging trends.

From war to development – women leading the nation

Violence is the order of our world. The « Wars in our World website listed 584 militia groups globally a few months ago. Now there are 56 countries in the world in armed conflict and 676 militias, anarchy and resurgency groups. Africa has the most countries in crisis (25 countries and 197 armed groups); there are 8 countries and more than 200 armed groups in Middle East: Mexico accounts for more than 10,000 deaths per year due to drug trafficking and related violence. The US at war with itself due to mass shootings. Is there any hope ? In West Africa, the problems are systemic. HIV, security, refugees, exploitation of natural resources and mining… these are now characteristics of West Africa. The burden of the Liberian civil war was borne by women: rape, keeping the community together, gathering food amidst a rain of bullets. But this also occurred in other countries. Women knew that despite suffering and rape, if these countries were to leave those terrible states and go from war to development then we needed to step in. Most men didn’t know why they were fighting. War started, they had guns, it was fastest route to economic gain. Women needed to intervene to stop the killing.

Three examples :

First, the Wajir in Kenya : women negotiated with different actors to start a mediation committee to end the conflict. The Wajir Peace and Development Committee was formed. Now, these women have established a Trust and University of Peace. Second, in 2000 the Somali Peace Talks were organized around clans and this excluded women from the peace process. In response, Somali women developed a sixth clan- the clan of the women- and they were given a seat at the table. This led to representation in Parliament in Somalia. Third, in 2003 Liberia was in its 14th year of civil war- one observer called the Liberian situation from bad to worse to ridiculous for 3 reasons :

1) Liberia had one of worst dictators in Africa

2) It was a police state

3) Liberia hit rock bottom in the14th year of war

Liberian women started the peace movement with 10 dollars in resources. The movement started a letter-writing campaign, spoke with foreign delegations in Liberia, and confronted perpetrators. It was able to bring peace. Women bringing Africa from war to development is not a new phenomenon, we just never stopped to write our stories so they have not been heard. In 1929, the Aba Women’s riots in Nigeria occurred. 25,000 women participated; 50 were killed ; 50 more were arrested protesting colonialism. However, the women won and showed the ruling power that they must be accounted for. These women were powerless but determined.

Moving back to modern times, in 2003 Liberian women brought peace and were told to relax. However, these women refused because they decided that they were never going back. They knew that the fight did not end with peace. For example, domestic violence is prevalent in peace-time through the objectification of women. When Ms. Gbowee began as a social worker, she worked with child soldiers- a 16 year old said that he never raped a woman because he did not understand what rape is. Now, through the work of the peace movement and through the work of women lawyers, Liberia has one of strongest rape laws in the world. It also has laws protecting indigenous wives who are commodified through property law.

This journey also needs to take advantage of moments of opportunity. Following the end of civil war and the establishment of free elections in Liberia, we began a campaign to register women to vote. People ask: How did Liberia get a female president ? It is not rocket science – more women are registered to vote than men in Liberia. We cannot separate peace from politics and development. This is an error of the development community. Now women’s issues are treated like pieces in a puzzle in development. Instead, women need to be part of the solution in war time, transition and development agendas. We now have the Sustainable Development Goals: How do we begin to implement them? In Syria, peace is considered too complicated for women. In South Sudan it is the same. If war and peace are considered too complicated for women, how do you expect them to lead development? Peace is part of transition from war to development. Women active combatants in war when they are raped and suffer, they are not observers. Why should they be limited to observers in peace processes?

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 is pathetic because all of the funding for women, peace and security is tied to counter-terrorism. However, if a women has seven children and cannot pay for their education, who do you think will be the first recruits in terrorist organizations and militias? Women need to be considered as active participants in peace and development processes. Donors, like Luxembourg, should give any development funding unless women are active parts of the solution and not simply restricted to being observers.

Development blind spots: rethinking gender inequality

„Why it is considered reasonable to intervene when the Taliban in Afghanistan organizes to stop girls from attending school? And why do we hesitate when millions of girls are prevented from attending school by the private decision of millions of individual fathers who are spread over large areas?” – asks Deepa Narayan ahead of her lecture in Budapest.

How can we address gender inequalities that still persist in rich countries and in poor countries? In the USA, with an overall ranking of 20 on the Gender Gap index (World Economic Forum), the pay gap between men and women will take a century to close.  The United Nations may have already given up.  In the current UN efforts on developing Sustainable Development Goals, gender equality is about the only goal that is not time bound, a direction without commitment. It makes gender equality more difficult to achieve than climate change, which has time bound targets. Given these difficulties, how long then will it take India with more than 500 million girls and women, and an overall ranking of 114 on the gender gap index, to achieve gender equality?

Given this context, we need to fundamentally challenge existing development policy and practice to achieve greater gender equality more quickly.

Drawing on data from the USA and new research on India, a case is made to re-consider the primacy given to economics rather than culture, the public rather than private, and the external rather than internal in our policy thinking.

Women rights in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has gone through 37 years of war, the parties to the war have changed during these years, but the violation of human rights and women’s rights continue in different levels without any type of accountability and justice for most of the time.

During conflict and war, women and children, people with disabilities and the elderly are the usual victims because it is easy to control women (half of the population), under the banner of respecting culture and traditions, honoring the family and community, religion and protection. It is even worse in countries where the majority of the people are uneducated.

Discrimination against women in Afghanistan continued during the first 25 years of the war. After 9/11 and the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan, the situation on human rights and women’s right improved a lot, but remains far away from full equality between men and women.

Women in development

The lack of trust in leaders and the urgent challenges of poverty, inequality, conflict and climate change demand a new model of leadership and development. The 21st century is the time for inclusion and women’s full and equal participation. An effective post-2015 development agenda requires a focus on promoting human rights, ensuring public participation and tackling structural inequalities.