So much promise, so little change: The efficacy of women?s machineries

So much promise, so little change: The efficacy of women?s machineries

Date: January 1, 1970
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To shut women up, African governments have created gender or women?s ministries, departments, units or desks, which are powerless, resource-less and ideologically unsound machineries.

The last two decades since the 1985 Nairobi UN World Conference on Women held so much promise for women. From Manila to Umtata, Harare to Prague, women all over the world celebrated commitments made by their governments to eradicate gender inequalities and protect women’s rights.

One of the major strategies toward this was the creation of so-called national machineries whose broad mandate was defined as pushing the gender agenda within governments. The shape and form that these machineries took was left up to the governments to decide.

These structures were a major opportunity for the delivery of gender justice, as well as state accountability to the constituency of women. But, the first sign of trouble was in the configuration of the national machineries, some of which are hilarious. One such example is the Ministry of Gender, Children and Youth and Delinquents; and another is the Department of Social and Gender Affairs. Zimbabwe had the cumbersome Ministry of Community Development and Women’s Affairs in the early 1980s. This mutated into the Ministry of National Affairs Employment Creation and Cooperatives in which gender became a small department and eventually, a desk! Its latter day incarnation is the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Employment Creation.

Why can’t it simply be a Ministry of Gender or Women’s Affairs – full stop? Why does the ministry or department have to be lumbered with every other social issue? Why is it that to this day, governments are not committed enough to dedicate a fully fledged ministry with staff, finances and a specific mandate that focuses only on women and their rights?

The long names and contorted configurations of these machineries signify our governments’ lack of commitment to simply dedicate themselves to the needs of women. The immediate retort to this is “but governments have no money!” Governments do have money and they do have CHOICES. That is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is just that, Foreign Affairs. Health is often too simply HEALTH with no excess baggage.

This contortion goes further. Many governments and donors still cannot simply say, “women” without adding “children and other vulnerable groups”. In some big development agencies too, the tendency to lump the gender officer/desk with other causes is the norm. This conflation of women with others signifies lack of political will. It also signifies lack of conceptual clarity on the depth of women’s rights and needs.

At another level this lumping is very sinister and downright manipulative. In Zimbabwe, the very same ministry that is responsible for gender is the very same ministry training youth militia accused by dozens of women of raping and abusing them over the last three or so years! The irony of this is tragic – one the one hand this is the ministry that is supposed to promote and protect women’s rights, while on the other hand one arm of the same ministry is responsible for violating these rights without impunity!

It’s about power

To a large extent women’s machineries lack the necessary power and authority. These units are often placed so low down in the government hierarchy that they have very little clout, compared to other mainline ministries like education, defence or event sports! This is further evidenced by the little amounts of money that these machineries get compared to their counterparts.

In recent years, following criticism from the women’s movements, governments decided to extend the scope of the women’s machineries by setting up “gender focal points” in each ministry or department to vanquish the notion of “ghettoizing” gender only to the women’s ministry/units.

While this was a laudable move, again issues of power and authority have arisen. In many cases the gender focal points are staffed by junior personnel with no experience and authority who are too removed from sights of power and decision-making within their own ministries. In some instances, this junior staff has no access to ministers or permanent secretaries, no budget to work with and more distressingly – have no specific mandate/programme other than being told to vaguely “mainstream gender”.

Intentions and values

It has become apparent that in many instances these machineries were set up as a sop to the United Nations conference demands – to a large extent – and to civil society’s demands – to a lesser extent.

Commitment to gender justice and women’s rights values did not drive this process, which has become apparent in the two decades as we witnessed national machineries whittled down time and time again when governments’ priorities changed. Also in some countries these mechanisms have no “compass” to guide them as their countries are yet to adopt constitutions, laws and policies that safeguard women’s rights. What then becomes the reference point for a department or ministry of gender in a country where women are treated as minors?

From civil society’s perspective women’s machineries are meant to be about:
· Representation of the women’s voice within government
· Accountability to women
· Delivery of programmes and policies that enhance gender equality as per all the international agreements (INSTRAW 2000).

The extent to which these values and intentions were mutually shared and understood by governments is another story. Suffice to say that in many cases, women’s movements have been disappointed on all counts. Rather than women’s machineries representing women’s voices and interests, they have tended more to follow the dictates of governments or ruling parties. And in countries where ruling political parties have dictatorial tendencies, this is reflected in the ways in which the machinery relates to women.

It is on delivery that women’s machineries have been found most wanting. If the truth were told, little policy and legislative change processes have been led from women’s machineries. In many contexts it is the prerogative of line ministries to propose policy or legislative changes. Therefore on issues of the day such as HIV and AIDS, or violence against women, it is the Ministries of Health and Justice respectively who have the upper hand, with the women’s machineries functioning more as side-kicks.

Technical quick fixes

To be fair to women’s machineries, their failures are only a microcosmic reflection of the underlying structural defects of governance and politics in many African countries. Thus the machineries could not have been expected to behave radically different from the “mainstream”.

As long as the major mandate of these mechanisms was seen as gender mainstreaming – with all the political connotations of that phrase and what we now know – they could not have been expected to deliver the fundamental changes women expected from them.

Gender mainstreaming or “doing work on gender” has become one of those depoliticised mantras of our time, which women’s machineries personify so aptly. Many of our governments see gender mainstreaming as a technicalized panacea, with tick boxes, a few paragraphs and a few income-generating projects thrown at poor women. They have not yet conceptualized “doing gender” as a serious political and structural shift that has to be well planned for and resources allocated to.

For now, women’s machineries represent the paternalistic approach to governance, which is the hallmark of many an African state. The underlying message is “give them a ministry/department/unit/desk and tell them to go to it. That should shut these women up!”

Unfortunately, many in civil society have bought into this sham, continuously legitimizing structures that should be questioned and in some cases dismantled. While the rest of government goes about the fundamental business of governance, women’s groups are circling around powerless, resource-less and ideologically unsound machineries that promise a lot but deliver very little.

Everjoice J. Win is Gender Coordinator for Action Aid International. She writes in her personal capacity.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events. for more information.


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