Published On: Wed, May 27th, 2015

How does Gender change the way we think about Power?

Gender and Power. Discuss.I can’t attend the next get together of the Thinking and Working Politically network in Bangkok next month because of a prior

commitment to speak at DFID’s East Kilbride office (ah, the glamour of the aid biz….). Apart from missing out on the Thai food, it’s also a shame because they are focusing on an area I’ve previously moaned about – the absence of gender from a lot of the TWP/Doing Development Differently discussions.

Ahead of Bangkok, some of the participants have fired some useful preemptive shots. Tomorrow I’ll review an ODI survey on aid programmes promoting women’s leadership. Today it’s the turn of the Developmental Leadership Program, which has just published an interesting, if tantalizing, 6 page ‘concept brief’ on Gender and Power by Diana Koester.

Koester argues that a gender lens can add a lot to the TWP’s analysis, but also vice versa – we need more thinking about power and politics in gender discussions. Some excerpts:

‘Donors have largely neglected ‘gender’ in their efforts to understand power relations in partner countries. In particular they are often blind to the ways in which power and politics in the ‘private’ sphere shape power relations at all levels of society; the ways in which gender hierarchies mark wider economic, political and social structures and institutions; and the opportunities for peace and prosperity emanating from feminized sources of power. By addressing these blindspots, a focus on gender can significantly enhance donors’ insights into power dynamics and their ability to ‘think and work politically’ overall.’

‘This paper addresses three main questions: What is power and how can a gender perspective help us understand it? What is gender and how can a power perspective help us understand it? What policy and operational messages follow from a focus on gender and power?’

There’s a nice box on how different usages of ‘gender’ translate into views of power

Koester Box 1
Koester Box 1

and some excellent short case studies. Take this from Malawi on gender, power and mining:

‘A 2012/2013 Political Economy Analysis of mining in Malawi found that women’s specific priorities were systematically neglected in relevant decision-making. This was due to the power of male traditional elders over other individuals in the community, particularly women. For example, investors asked a community affected by mining whether they would prefer to receive cash compensation for relocation or to have houses built for them. Women said they would rather have houses, fearing that men would receive the cash and misuse it on unrelated acquisitions like buying cell phones, bicycles, spending on other women etc. However, when a woman got up to voice this viewpoint during a meeting, traditional authorities immediately commanded her to sit down and declared that “no woman would speak in front of men as women had no cultural standing to give an opinion on the matter”.’

I particularly liked this on how gender even shapes the understanding of power itself:

gender and power
gender and power

‘Our understandings of power may themselves be the result of men’s power over women. This is because power has been conceptualized by, and hence from the perspective of, privileged men. Feminist scholars have argued that our concepts are therefore derived from a masculine life experience “conceived as inhabited by a number of fundamentally hostile others whom one comes to know by means of opposition (even death struggle) and yet with whom one must construct a social relation in order to survive.” This leads to the concept of power as power-over.

We may be neglecting women’s specific forms and sources of power. Some feminist scholars suggest that women’s roles as carers and mothers lead in an opposite direction from the hostile world of masculine experience. Rather than in opposition, women construct themselves in relation and continuity to others. Rather than to dominate, the purpose of women’s activity is often to build capacity in others. This suggests an alternative conception of power as a specific kind of power-to: “the capacity to transform and empower oneself and others”. While this concept may risk homogenizing and essentializing women it can shed light on forces for change that may otherwise be neglected.’

But what about the so whats – the implications of this analysis for people working in governance, and the TWP crowd? Here I don’t think the paper quite nails it. The closest to an answer comes with an excerpt from one donor (Sweden’s SIDA) guide to power analysis:

Sida’s guide to power analysis provides an extensive menu of issues that power analysis might tackle. This includes several explicitly gender-related questions:

• How does gender intersect with the distribution of formal and informal power in society in terms of the public sphere (political institutions, social institutions, rule of law, the market and economy) and the private sphere (domestic life and family, intimate relations)?

• What can be said about both the situation of women in general and about particular groups of women (such as women who do not cohabit with men, whether single mothers, widows, non-married women) as well as about particular groups of men who may be disadvantaged by dominant ideas of masculinity?

• Is legislation gender neutral, or do particular laws reinforce and sustain subordinate or discriminated gender roles?’

But hopefully, the Bangkok meeting will get a lot further into the ‘so whats’. Fingers crossed.

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