Beyond Gender: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Humanitarianism and Development in Sri Lanka

By Hyndman, Jennifer; de Alwis, Malathi | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond Gender: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Humanitarianism and Development in Sri Lanka


Hyndman, Jennifer, de Alwis, Malathi, Women's Studies Quarterly


Gender has become something of a household word among development practitioners. Gender is also a buzzword in agencies and staff providing humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict, but its integration into everyday operations is less apparent. In Sri Lanka, humanitarian agencies and development organizations work side by side in a country affected by war since 1981. Most people working in these organizations at senior levels know well that gender does not simply refer to women. They have come to understand that gender is a relational concept that juxtaposes femininity and masculinity, women's work and men's work, and that the concept varies across cultures. In efforts to integrate a gender analysis into humanitarian assistance, however, the ways in which gender relations and identities change in conjunction with the war economy and with competing Sinhalese and Tamil nationalisms are rarely mentioned. The centres of prostitution that are generated around new army bases at the frontlines of the war and the mothers' movements that emerge as soldiers' lives are endangered by the war do not fit inside the "gender box"; hence they are often ignored. Gender is treated as a portable tool of analysis and empowerment that can be carried around in the back pockets of both international humanitarian and development staff. It has become part of the development and humanitarian lexicon to be employed when preparing proposals and evaluating programs. Our objective in this paper is to move beyond gender in this context and reintroduce an analytical approach that engages disparate power relations inherent in both humanitarian and development work.

We are not interested in highlighting the shortcomings of specific policies or staff in the fields of development and humanitarianism. Rather we contend that the root of the problem lies in the way in which gender has been conceived and disseminated within these fields. Accordingly, we oudine a more comprehensive, and still portable, feminist analytic that provides a more sophisticated approach to understanding the production of gender identities and relations. The idea that gender identities and relations are generated differently across space and time, and have no essential pre-established qualities, is critical to changing them. This feminist analytic, then, is at once a tool for understanding social, economic, and political relations and a tool for changing them. We define feminist for the purpose of this article as reflecting analyses and political interventions that address the unequal and often violent relationships among people based on real or perceived social, economic, political, cultural, and sexual differences. The analysis and elimination of patriarchal relations of power within each of these fields is a primary focus. We recognize that there is more than one kind of feminism, and we do not wish to fix the category "feminist" in any singular manner nor to create a typology of feminisms. We contend that gender analysis has fallen prey to such rigidities, and has thus limited its analytical strength.

Gender remains a central concern of feminist politics and thought. However, its primacy over other social, economic, cultural, and political locations is not fixed across time and place. Daiva Stasiulis (1999) elaborates on the importance of relationality, positionality, and "relational positionality" to feminist politics: "They refer to the multiple relations of power that intersect in complex ways to position individuals and collectivities in shifting and often contradictory locations within geopolitical spaces, historical narratives, and movement politics" (194). Stasiulus continues, "Central to my interpretation of relational positionality is also a rejection of postructuralist deconstructions that deny the material bases for power relations, however complicated their discursive representations" (196). We agree with Stasiulus to an extent, although we argue that poststructuralist analyses do not categorically deny the material bases of power relations. …

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Beyond Gender: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Humanitarianism and Development in Sri Lanka
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