Gender “mainstreaming” — not (actually) lost in translation


This page in:

Available in 中文

Changes were made in the way village meetings were run so women would participate more.

Whenever and wherever the Bank supports a project, to “mainstream” gender is one of the goals. The idea is a fairly simple one. Right? Making sure that men and women benefit equally from the poverty reduction activities we support. 

There are a number of tools we produce to help us achieve this—Gender Analysis, Regional Gender Action Plans, County Gender Action Plans, Gender Disaggregated Outcome Indicators, Gender Check-Lists, Strategies and Tool-Kits, etc. So looking at the amount of guidance we seem to need one might be forgiven for thinking this is an exceedingly complex task and for wondering whether in reality (i.e. after that board approval is done and the real work of implementation begins) all of the “gender mainstreaming language” doesn’t get a little lost in translation… 

As I was getting ready to go out on my first mission to China for the Poor Rural Communities Development Project earlier this year I did wonder what the team had been able to accomplish on this front in such remote parts of rural China. The project documents say all the right things: “a gender mainstreaming strategy for each province”, “gender training”, “disaggregated data” and “supporting initiative to meet the particular needs of women”. But don’t they all?

The project is implemented in some of the poorest parts of Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces and reaches out to a very large number of ethnic minority communities. The villages it covers are almost always isolated. In a nutshell, the project provides sub-grants to villages for basic infrastructure and livelihoods improvements. Villagers decide on the activities they want to implement with project funds based on their needs and priorities.

Partly because they are remote, communities have their own ways of pooling resources and making decisions – and these don’t usually involve a great deal of participation by women. What I found though in the places we visited was that consistently, slowly, changes had been made. There were still a lot of challenges but women were given greater opportunities to speak up at village meetings and did indeed have a better chance to participate in agricultural training. 

To give women a bigger voice, it was important to first understand what was preventing them from attending village gatherings and speaking up. Was it local customs? Was it their already heavy work-loads on the farm (especially with more and more men moving to urban areas to find jobs)? The best way to understand why was to ask the women themselves. And this was exactly what the team did. After this initial homework, some simple but quite clever changes were introduced in the way village meetings were run. 

Let’s take Hongshui Township for example, where Miao (an ethnic minority group living in southern China) women don’t customarily have a big role in community affairs. The solution there was to have separate discussions with the women before the plenary village meetings. Women were more confident to speak up without the men present, to get their ideas out and because of that they then could more clearly explain what they would like to do with project funds when the whole village got together.

The other change was to get everyone to vote as individuals for sub-project ideas. This broke with the usual system of 1 household = 1 vote, where men tend to represent their families in public discussions. Not complicated but sufficient to sometimes sway the vote in favor of the women’s priorities (where they differed from the men’s) and to sometimes have schools and health posts built rather than roads or bridges.

Taking it one step further, the team made sure that a third of people in village organizations that oversee the project implementation were women. That meant that a number of women in the villages could also start benefiting from training on financial management, procurement and could supervise contractors and construction work learning valuable skills. 

And that’s what a “gender mainstreaming strategy” might look like in a poor mountain village with bad roads and no piped water. And if it works here chances are we can make it work elsewhere in China, too. 


Join the Conversation

John Strongman
August 13, 2011

Thanks for a great blog. Our work on gender issues in mining has discovered much the same. Our lessons are, first, give women a voice and they will share their needs, wishes and priorities. A mistake to avoid is to bring in an outside facilitator to try and do this for them. Find a well respected, local women’s leader who is willing to organize and lead the process. Each particular group of women knows better than us what matters most in their particular situation. Second, as you also discovered, for the most part women need their own meetings where they will be willing to express themselves without being under the shadow of men. But there are also some cultures where women are willing and able to participate equally with men – but lack the opportunity. Third, even within the women as a group, attention may be needed to make sure that the poorest and most disenfranchised women have an equal voice with the elite women. Fourth, there is often push back from the men in the village so a twin approach may be needed of both engaging with the women and engaging with the men to make the case that it is in their self enlighten interest to see women have more of a voice. As you point out, within the Bank there are a plethora of materials that risk making what is essentially a fairly straightforward grass roots approach into an overly complex task. At time it seems like TTLs are overwhelmed with all of the instructions on how to work in a machine shop with high powered electrical tools, when the starting point is just to be able to use basic tools such as a screwdriver and hammer well in a situation where there is no electricity supply to use a power tool. Interestingly one of the best and most practical gender guides is one prepared by the University of Queensland for the Rio Tinto mining company and their community staff - it is available on the Rio Tinto website and has a set of clear practical approaches and tools that stand up well in the light of the more complex and sophisticated approaches.