I've spent the last week in a training workshop with some pretty bright, experienced, knowledgeable aid and development colleagues. One of the issues to came out of the workshop has been a concern around gender in project design. I like my colleagues and I like my organisation - and they are definitely open to hearing these concerns - so I won't focus any more on that, but the it has made me think more critically about gender. I am privileged to live and work in educated, liberal South African circles where any tendency towards patriarchal attitudes is fairly easily snubbed with a little derision and some well-timed snark. I often forget how different it is in the rest of my continent and sometimes my country. There are many, many places where women are still treated second class citizens, where women are systematically denied power. There is a moment in one of my favourite TV series, The West Wing, when a female character compares the life of women in a fictional Islamist state unfavourably to the lives of black people under Apartheid. On days like these, I feel the same kind of frustration.
How is it possible that we still live in a world where it's not okay for women to head their households? Where women cannot own land? Where women cannot own livestock? How can it be acceptable to anyone that a woman should have to accept her husband's decision on whether or not she is allowed to plant food for her children? How can I still live in a world where the president of a democratic, relatively developed country can nominate a Chief Justice to the Constitutional Court who appears not to oppose marital rape and to believe that the general abuse of women is a matter or relatively little consequence?
Gender relations and the rights of women aren't small issues. To their credit, international donor institutions are taking them seriously and forcing those they fund to take them seriously, too. Some people oppose the move. I still hear, in spite of all the stats and the reality, laments that programmes in Africa that are focused on women are prejudicial towards men. Women, where I come from, face a far higher risk of violent assualt than men. We learn to be hypervigilant all the time, not because we are afraid of being robbed, but because we know the stats - we know the risk of rape. Women shouldn't have to live like this. Do aid agencies and NGOs take this seriously enough? Are there organisations (including general development orgs not specifically focused on gender only) who take it so seriously that programme staff would be fired if they didn't openly, clearly, regularly, especially in the professional sphere of programme design and implementation, acknowledge the rights of women to equal access and control of resources, the rights of women not to be arbitrarily violated simply because they are women, the rights of women not to be treated as second-class citizens?
I've never considered myself a feminist - I've never felt the need. But more and more I'm feeling like the NGO world, the NGO world where more than any other I should be treated as an equal because of the fundamental concern these people supposedly have for human rights might be letting down half the population. And I find myself wondering if the industry is truly concerned about the rights and well-being of half the population or if the real players will always be just men and the rest of us are indefinitely supposed to keep quiet and wait for the next instruction?