Has Gender Failed African Women? An Interview With Khadija Bah-Wakefield

Since the 1995 United Nations Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, the world of development has been obsessed with the idea of mainstreaming ‘gender’ throughout aid delivery programs and operations. Nowhere has this been more true than in Africa. So, almost two decades later, has gender mainstreaming succeeded? And if not, what has been the reality and how should the world move forward? The Development Roast sat down with the incredibly inspiring Khadija Bah-Wakefield to learn from her quarter century career as a senior gender and socioeconomic advisor to the World Bank, different factions of the United Nations, West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development, New Partnership for Africa’s Development and many other donor groups in over twenty African countries*.

DevRoast: Ms Bah, what first interested you in gender issues in Africa?

Ms Bah: My mother was the first feminist I knew, long before the concept became fashionable. As a girl growing up in Africa, my mother thought me that with education I can be anything that I wanted to be. Rather than pushing my brothers according to the so-called “male-bias” argument, my mother put the pressure on me to achieve academically. Years later, working at the World Bank in the mid-eighties and mid-nighties, and right around the Beijing conference all you heard was ‘women in development’ (WID), and then ‘gender, gender, gender’… Beijing brought gender equality to a mainstream new height and although I had considered a law degree following my undergraduate in rural sociology I decided instead to study the MA in Gender and Development [at the Institute of Development Studies] at the University of Sussex [UK]. Gender was very much the new thinking in development and I wanted to understand the theory and arguments around it.

I became very disappointed with the course early on. The arguments were born out of a sort of angry Western feminism at the time and were delivered as a strong Marxist critique. Instead of it being practically applicable, I was being taught by very privileged middle class Western women talking about the fact that men earn 30% more than women. While these highly economic arguments have their merits, they did not really look at historical global aspects of the world and when I thought back to the situation of real African women, the course did not address it at all… I found myself asking the question: “What does this really have to do with African women, who are constantly dealing with maternal and infant mortality, reproductive issues and HIV/AIDS?”

DevRoast: Apart from pay differences, what were some of the driving ‘gender’ issues at the time?

Ms Bah: Female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa was the biggest bandwagon – it is all that Western feminists wanted to talk about, while we [African professionals] wanted to talk about other concerns like education, health and poverty. At many conferences, when I had spoken against the repacking and re-presentation of female circumcision (I prefer not to use the politically-loaded western term of ‘FGM’) I was actually asked if I had been circumcised. To which I always replied that it had no relevance to what I am saying as an African, a woman and a development professional….

The problem is that since the Women in Development [WID] push of the 1980s the western feminist movements were presenting the issue as ‘bad men’: Look at what men are doing to women: in Africa they are cutting out their clitorises, in Asia they are marrying them off as children, and so on. They portrayed a sort of global patriarchal conspiracy against all women.

Land access was another thing – the argument went that if you give access to land to women, Africa will develop. However, this [‘economic equality’ argument] did not take into consideration local African systems of communal land ownership and often had detrimental effects on the projects by splitting community cohesion and by increasing women’s load, on an assumed elasticity of their time, which has serious consequences for the education of the next generation of women—their daughters.

Furthermore, Western feminists refused to acknowledge intersecting issues like race and gender. This was very important to non western women, especially race – the reality is that the first thing people notice is the fact that I am black, and cannot even sometimes see far enough to note that I am also a woman.

DevRoast: What were the problems with gender mainstreaming in your view? 

Ms Bah: Part of the problem became the concept itself. The term evolved at first to be a suitable non-threatening concept to move away from the very antagonistic, anti-man, angry feminist WID [Women in Development Movement], because feminism itself became a dirty word. Gender, the new concept, was seen as social relations between women and men, trying to emphasise the needs of both sexes in development. But once you start to move beyond the rhetoric of this introduction, all you heard in reality was women, women, women and it continued to villainize men, rather than seeing them as allies in promoting women’s advancement. In the end, gender mainstreaming, in my view, was just a euphemism for WID.

The other issue was that gender as a concept is very abstract, hence is very difficult to actually operationalize at both the institutional level and on the ground. What really is ‘gender’, and how do you operationalize a social relation?

As a result of these difficulties, gender mainstreaming was barely even paid a lip-service to, even within the organisations that were supposed to be leading the charge. For example, at the World Bank where I worked in the 1990s, 40% of total gender projects were in Africa. Yet, at a 1998 Conference on Sustainable Agricultural Development in Africa, I had attended, the presenters and discussants were men and a few privileged white women. This was the core of the problem: if African women were not at the table with their first hand knowledge, their interests could not be represented.

It was in Africa, while working for different factions of the UN, that my ideas had really shaped and were sealed. I saw the same lip-service at all levels of development organisations – from the fact that gender focal points entrusted with the responsibility of representing women’s needs and mainstreaming gender issues were rarely more than a secretary or a very junior staff member who had been saddled with being the ‘gender girl’. You see everyone had to do gender to be politically correct and to be able to secure donor funds, but, in the end, no real money was invested to actually implement gender equality.

Capacity was and continues to be a huge issue because many of these gender focal points have no social science background, which is what you will need to deal with social inequality and other relevant topics that affect women disproportionately. Often, even at the United Nations and the World Bank, you find gender has the least funding allocated to it.

I am not alone in thinking this as, in my experience, using the word ‘gender’ has come to be a major bone of contention due to its huge historical baggage. This is true even between the different major donors and within different factions of large organisations like the Unites Nations, because gender mainstreaming has failed to bring about social transformation, a necessary step to achieving parity between men and women. The trouble is that gender mainstreaming has become an end in itself rather than one strategy among many to promote gender equality and women’s advancement. This huge aspect has been forgotten.

DevRoast: So what would you propose instead?

Ms Bah: I say that we need to do away with gender mainstreaming. That is not to say that we should not see development differently from the stand points of men and women, quite the opposite. However, gender mainstreaming to date has failed in achieving its societal goals because it has failed to move beyond the institutional level – beyond the point of hiring ‘gender focal points and advisors’ to please donors. So far, gender mainstreaming has been the institutional end goal rather than a tool towards the ultimate goal, which is parity between men and women in development outcomes.

I have come to believe that focusing on social inclusion through a social justice lens is the way forward – that is addressing all forms of inequality, of which gender inequality is but one form, from the broader framework of social inclusion. We need to focus on social inclusion at the grass-roots, community level, because what we have so far is minor advances at the institutional level: we now have lots of gender-disaggregated data, we count how many women are involved in projects, emphasise gender awareness/sensitization training and boast of how many gender focal points we have in  donor agencies, government departments and non-government, civil society organisations. But there is no real empirical evidence of actual, qualitative change  benefitting both men and women. Rather, we have plenty of evidence of further divides and tensions between the sexes and among agencies promoting gender parity.

DevRoast: So we have spoken about the problems of operationalizing gender, but how would you operationalize a social inclusion with social justice focused approach?

Ms Bah: I guess that, in the end, a more human rights, culturally and locally appropriate approach is what I am after. When you start talking to rural African people about gender mainstreaming, the women giggle and the men feel threatened as they see it as “women wanting to take over”. When working in the field, I usually tell them to forget about ‘gender mainstreaming’ and talk about men and women instead. Farm animals are very important in the lives of rural Africans, so I tell the farmers: “you have male and female chickens right?”, “yes”, they say. “Well, if you only feed male chickens and allow them to have access to healthcare, food and space to roam and you don’t do the same for the females, what do you think will happen?” The men say that you cant do that because the male chickens will die, so your stock wont grow and you wont become rich.

Well this is the same in life, I tell them. You have to take care of the men and the women. You need the labour, education and health of both for the country to grow and start to meet the needs of every citizen. If you only focus on men then the country will suffer the same way as your chicken farm. If you only focus on women and make them compete with men in life, the same will happen again.

At the institutional level, it is vital that we start to move away from relying exclusively on economics and statistics oriented approaches. We need to work with policy think tanks that introduce social justice in other disciplines beyond the staples of organised labour and trade unions. And we need to work with anthropologists and sociologists who understand  cultures and societies. It is evident that others are starting to think this way too – the recent appointment of the anthropologist Dr. Jim Yong Kim to be the Head of World Bank is a step in the right direction.

For example, in my country, Sierra Leone, if we are going to have a paradigm shift from gender mainstreaming to development with social justice focus, I would start with developing policies oriented to look at what qualitative issues men, women, youth, able, disabled and other groups face. For instance, if infant and maternal mortality are major problems, we should begin with a policy for the provision of health  (reproductive health) and ask questions like “Who has access, who does not and is there a locational distinction? What are the implications of this?” If you live in a rural area and are penalised by lack of access to healthcare then this becomes a social justice issue. For example, in Johannesburg, if you live in certain white neighbourhoods, you hardly ever experience a black out, whilst the majority of shanties have never seen electricity and exist in darkness. Focusing purely on women or gender masks such inequalities and homogenizes women as a group, at the expense of class issues among women. Only when you break things down to their implications do you start to get down to the truly needed policies that can make a difference on the ground.

If you ask me what do Africans need, I would say education, education, education, health, health, health. If you provide these services from a human rights and social justice approach then both men and women will prosper.

However, this provision needs to be mindful of the different cultural and social needs of men and women. Both the WID and gender approaches often fail to take into consideration women’s household and reproductive duties – women’s aspirations for being mothers and women’s reality of being responsible for reproductive processes at home. Whether we like it or not women get pregnant and give birth – this is one thing a man will never have to worry about. If we are going to try to get more women into politics, business or higher education, then we need to re-structure those environments to cater to these aspects of women’s lives, like penalty-free, sufficient time off to raise children or grants that aim to cover not just tuition fees, but expenses for child care that single men may not necessarily have to worry about.

DevRoast: Many African countries are asking for greater representation of women in parliaments, higher education and business through legislated or institutional quotas. What is your opinion of this and does that fit in with the social justice perspective that you talk about?

Ms Bah: The problem with such quotas is that they may be able to get more women in numbers, but there is the question of whether or not this brings about any kind of parity or advances women’s lives? In my experience of researching and analysing women’s participation in higher education, for example, quotas or reduced entry requirements are not helpful because they re-enforce the societal view that women are not good enough to be there on their own merit. This is the same in parliaments. Today, you find many women in parliament don’t have the political savvy to actually make a difference as they are picked just to fill the gender gap. They serve their term and leave. There is little or no follow up to assess their experience, or to support them to run independently or to be role models for other women. On the other hand, those few that do have the capacity to stand on their own two feet tend to be from a selective crowd of privileged, well connected and well eucated African women from both rural and urban areas who are disconnected from the needs of the majority of African women who are poor and illiterate.

I realize that you cannot build a house from the roof up and you cannot represent women if they are absent. In this sense, getting more numbers of women is a start, but I do not believe in quotas in their own right. We need to identify qualified women who already have the background and experience in political process to support active poor, illiterate women in parliament. We need funding to help identify the women who are likely to make an impact if they go to parliament and support them to run (supporting as well their education and their reproductive duties).

You cannot bring about change through tension. If you have quotas, like Tanzania’s 33% program and the 50-50 system that is being pushed for in Sierra Leone, men are likely to feel threatened because they see someone talking about taking their piece of the pie. Supporting women to successfully compete on their own merit in an enabling environment is a lot less confrontational. This will have a far-lasting impact on promoting more women in political processes.

DevRoast: Any last words?

Ms Bah: In the end, as long as gender stays at the institutional level, and does not go down to the local level, legislation without enforcement [institutionalised gender] will not work. We need to educate and sensitise people to the need to transform society on a deeper level. Gender as a concept itself has become the problem – it is too abstract. In the end, gender and gender mainstreaming have failed African women.

If instead of gender we talk about women, youth, the abled, the disabled and inequalities they face, we can do a whole lot more. Vitally, we need to bring men into the process and look at the social exclusion and problems that men face too. When I worked in a refugee camp, for example, one man refused to expatriate back to Sierra Leone after the conflict. People were trying to encourage him without success. Being a Temne speaker, I was asked to speak to him in his native tongue. I found out why he did not want to leave. After much discomfort, he finally told me that he felt ashamed to return home because he feels he is no longer a man – he had watched his daughters and his wife raped by RUF [Revolutionary United Front] rebels during the conflict and he was powerless to do anything about it. The fact that he was held at gunpoint mattered not to him. This is a prime example of our tendency to alienate men from issues that affect them – when we look at rape as a weapon of war, we focus almost exclusively on the brutal act a woman has suffered, without any reference to the impact of the rape on the woman’s male relatives, in particular the husband, expected by society to be her protector. This goes for all of development: if we focus too much on one side, we miss a whole lot more. We have to first bring in men’s issues and, secondly, we must see them not only as perpetrators but rather allies to further the cause of women – this is my conviction and if we are going to do development, we have to do it right!

Do you think that gender mainstreaming has failed African women?

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* You can download Khadija Bah-Wakefield’s CV here.


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