Has gender mainstreaming failed to promote worldwide equality between women and men?

This was the question that Raquel Lagunas, senior advisor for gender and institutional development at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), explored during the latest Rethinking Development Policy talk, held at the Sanford School of Public Policy on Thursday, Jan. 30. The event was sponsored by the Duke Center for International Development (DCID).

Lagunas concluded that gender mainstreaming, the UNDP’s strategy for promoting gender equality in the 177 countries in which it works, has led to some positive change. However, it needs to undergo a “reality check” before meaningful achievements can be made.

“We need to demystify the concept of mainstreaming and narrow the gap that exists between the thinkers and the practitioners,” Lagunas said. “There is also an urgent need to put together what has been fragmented. We have not been able to interconnect all the aspects of mainstreaming.”

What is gender mainstreaming?

The United Nations system adopted gender mainstreaming 20 years ago as its central strategy for achieving gender equality. Mainstreaming is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies and programs, in all areas and at all levels. The idea is to ensure that all policies benefit women and men equally and that women are involved in decisions that affect their lives and communities.

“It’s about full participation of women in all spheres – economic, political, and social – not in terms of numbers, but in terms of sharing decision making and responsibilities,” Lagunas said. “It’s not about giving more resources to women; it’s about redistribution of power.”

Since that time, Lagunas emphasized, gender mainstreaming has helped many countries take significant steps toward gender equality.

“In terms of the numbers, women are better educated and healthier than they were 20 years ago,” she said.

Despite these advances, she said, the situation for women worldwide, especially in low-income countries, is unacceptable. Women comprise only 20 percent of the world’s parliament members. Seventy percent of women still experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in natural disasters.

What’s next for mainstreaming?

This does not mean, Lagunas said, that gender mainstreaming has failed or should be discarded entirely. The strategy has created “islands of success,” but much of the good work has not been standardized or institutionalized at the national level.

“After 20 years, there is still a lack of conceptual clarity, limited capacities, cultural resistance and a low level of investment,” Lagunas said.

At the same time, Lagunas said the strategy can be effective if its weaknesses are addressed and it is integrated with other efforts targeted at gender equality. You cannot say a strategy has failed, she said, when it was not implemented in the spirit in which it was intended and does not have the necessary resources to sustain it.

The UNDP is currently working with 31 UNDP country offices on the Gender Equality Seal project, which was launched last year to reward countries for their strides toward gender equality through the use of mainstreaming and other strategies. The UNDP successfully piloted the project in Kyrgyzstan, Bhutan and Argentina in 2012.

The project is designed to help the country offices fine-tune their approaches, identify and address challenges, and evaluate the impact of their efforts. Each office receives technical support for capacity building and has access to a global network of practitioners.

The UNDP aims to make the seal an internationally recognized brand that signals to partners, donors and the public that country offices are making meaningful progress in advancing women’s rights. The certification may also lead to greater resources and opportunities for the best performing countries.     

Are quotas the answer?

Since a central component of gender mainstreaming is an equal representation of women and men in decision making, quotas are often used to ensure women are taking a proportionate number of seats at the table.

During the talk, several attendees questioned whether quotas were the best way to change a culture of gender inequality. They argued that the number of parliamentary seats held by women does not necessarily mean that women are making significant contributions to the dialogue or changing cultural perceptions.

Lagunas countered that quotas, while not a perfect measure of women’s involvement in decision making, at least ensure that women have the opportunity to participate.

“Why not just talk about numbers?” she asked. “Quotas are a start.”

Reem Alfahad, a student from Kuwait, agreed. “[Quotas] do play a role in changing perceptions,” she said. “If I had not seen women in leadership positions, it would not have been a reality for me.”

Overall, Lagunas concluded, gender equality remains a high priority for UNDP and mainstreaming, despite its shortcomings, still has a place in the fight toward achieving equality for women.

“It has created a space to put these issues on the agenda,” she said. “We are trying to help countries have a better life and better future, and we cannot understand this future without gender equality and the empowerment of women.”

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