The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies co-sponsored UNICEF-Georgetown’s 15th annual international development conference on Nov 11. The themes of this year’s conference were the achievement of global women’s empowerment and narrowing gender inequality. The panel featured four women with various work experiences in improving the welfare of women across the globe, ranging from work in NGOs, USAID, and research.
The four panelists were Agar Mbianda, an advocacy fellow at the Women Thrive Alliance, Constancia Mavodza, an analyst at Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and fellow with the Global Health Corps, Kelly Pemberton, a researcher and professor at George Washington University, and Sara Gammage, the director of gender, economic empowerment, and livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women.
Gammage said that she sees her work through the lens of a “feminist economist.” Gammage recalled that the areas that sparked her interest in economics in the first place, namely gender inequality, were overlooked in her economics classes After retreating from macroeconomic work because of the lack of academic attention given to her interests, Gammage reconciled that intellectual deprivation after exploring such issues with “brilliant anthropologists and sociologists that helped me to see the world in a bit more nuanced fashion.”
Each panelist offered different reflections on changes in current global conditions. Mbianda referred to her work experiences in Cameroon to note that aid policies are often not holistic. “When you work with girls, with one problem, you’ll have three other problems,” Mbianda said, citing the impeding effects of teenage pregnancies and rape on girls’ educational attainment levels. She urges governments to focus on multiple intersecting issues at once, not just one.
Pemberton cautioned that political groups can hijack the language of gender equality during campaigns, even if they have not traditionally supported women’s rights. Pemberton cautioned that this does not qualify as progress, and instead commended female politicians who are assertive of their right to influence legislation.
“In almost all of the cases I’ve seen, the women are slowly starting to say, ‘You know, we don’t think we want to just toe the party line. We actually have our own ideas,’ and they’ve become more confident and more assertive and very, very organized in what they do, and whether it’s educating other women to run for office, a lot of women have taken that up on their own initiative,” said Pemberton.
Gammage discussed the role of institutions in the exclusion of women, pointing to the limited benefits of increasing girls’ and women’s access to education as traditional gender norms and cultural beliefs embedded in labor markets prevent them from putting their knowledge to practice. Gammage also echoed Pemberton’s thoughts on the role of language in gender equality and offered a criticism about its current use, which she calls the “instrumentalization of gender equality.” She commented that the current use of language comes in terms of benefits gained from the economic inclusion of women, rather than a rights-based argument.
“It’s hard because you have to speak with politicians…and you have to persuade them why they want to…make a real investment…You end up making a lot of instrumental arguments often at the expense of that rights-based argument…You tweak your argument to be more persuasive to your audience that sometimes you do that at the cost of saying, ‘Isn’t it just…darn right that we have greater equality?…Isn’t it just right to not have people’s choices or opportunities constrained by some structural factors…?” Gammage proposed.
Their varying backgrounds contributed to their nuanced views on the effectiveness of current efforts by aid and advocacy organizations. For instance, Mavodza attributed the failures of current aid efforts to organizations’ lack of understanding the realities of the women in need. Because women do not receive the services they need due to misprioritized funding, they remain further away from being the most productive that they can potentially be with respect to their circumstances. “You end up spending so much money on a program that ends up having very little impact when it actually had the chance to make a very big difference,” Mavodza said.
Another topic that repeatedly surfaced during the discussion was the role of men in the achievement of gender equality. Mbianda favored a ‘work with what you have’ approach to development. Mbianda gave the example of her work in Cameroon, where she and her colleagues struggled to dismantle patriarchal power structures because of the heavy embedding of traditional gender norms. Mbianda worked around this impediment by selecting the more open-minded husbands and using them to change the patriarchal minds and raise awareness. “I think [including]those men into the the fight for gender equality is very important…we use the [seemingly]opposite way to work in rural communities… So you have to use all the material that you have in the community to tell the message that you want to tell,” Mbianda said.
Mavodza, on the other hand, expressed some reservation about the use of males as “gatekeepers” and used her personal story to convey the significance of having successful female role models that break with tradition in the community. When Mavodza scored top marks in Zimbabwe’s national exams, her father shared the news with their neighbors in their village. “The most common response was, ‘We didn’t know you had a son.’ Since a girl is not supposed to be that intelligent or get those type of results,’” she said. Such trailblazing women show younger girls that they can advocate for themselves and for their elders’ support of their receiving an education.
Arista Jhanjee (COL ‘18) saw the conference as especially relevant in 2017. “These gender issues are very interwoven, with everything that has been going on in the United States politically and locally. The issue of the role of women and the progress that has been made in terms of education and health and all these areas of their advancement have been up in the air and in question, and it seemed like a really good time to bring those questions into focus. That was the rationale that has been a long time coming,” she said.