Gender Mainstreaming: An Obsolete Concept? A Conversation between Two Long-Time Feminist Activists

Article excerpt

This conversation took place in Sri Lanka in August 2004 during a rare free moment when Sunila Abeysekera and Marilee Karl sat down together to reflect on concerns about gender mainstreaming in the women's movement today.

Marilee: Gender mainstreaming is an idea that has been around for a long time and there are ongoing attempts to mainstream gender into United Nations agencies, their programmes and projects, government policy-making bodies, and many other institutions. Gender mainstreaming has become a mantra.

In recent years, some donor agencies that have traditionally provided funding to women's groups, organisations, networks and projects have cut out this funding--sometimes in a very sudden way--giving as their reason that gender should now be mainstreamed into all programmes and projects and that there is no need for separate women's organisations and projects.

I would love to hear your reflections and explore with you the concept and practice of gender mainstreaming.

Sunila: In the women's human rights movement, when we first talked about mainstreaming gender concerns, we did it from the point of view that there was a need to take into consideration the differences between men and women in their ability to enjoy human rights. In the human rights movement in those days, there was no concern for what was happening specifically to women. Because of the exclusion of women as individuals and the exclusion of women's concerns and the specific rights abuses faced by women, we worked to include gender-specific information and analyses in the national and international documentation prepared for the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993.

This was a complex issue. But if you look at what passes for gender mainstreaming today, it spans the gamut of the inclusion of women's concerns in policies and government. This confuses the issue. Many people who are doing gender mainstreaming today do not even understand the concept of gender.

Marilee: It seems that "gender mainstreaming" is often used to mean greater inclusion of women. But gender actually refers to both men and women, and more specifically, to the roles that different societies, cultures and traditions assign to men and women. So it makes sense to be sensitive to gender roles and look at how institutions, laws, projects, etc. affect men and women differently. The real usefulness of raising awareness about gender has been to show that there are differences in opportunities and possibilities for men and women to exercise their rights. One size does not fit all. This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It also obscures the complexity of the issues.

Sunila: Gender mainstreaming as it is done now does not challenge the patriarchal system, so it is very attractive to governments and donors. They are putting a lot of money and resources into this because it is safe. Besides, the danger of using the concept "gender" is that it constantly allows for the dislocation of women specific concerns. While it seems to be more 'inclusive,' that is, it allows for both men and women, in fact, it leads to the neglect of women's concerns. It is a way of dislocating women from the centre of the discussion.

Marilee: It is the old, discredited "add-women-and-stir principle"--a new version of the 1970s and 1980s slogan of "integrating women in development." Our feminist critique then and now is that we do not want to integrate or mainstream women into patriarchal systems without changing them. Uncritical mainstreaming of women could mean drowning women in the "male stream." If we can enter the mainstream in sufficient numbers and with sufficient strength and a strong ability to challenge and change the mainstream, only then does it make sense to mainstream women.

Sunila: Just having physical female bodies in and of itself has its uses, but it does not challenge gender roles if there is no feminist consciousness behind it. …