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

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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. 


Patricia Fernandes

Lead Social Development Specialist, South Asia

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