EMERGE blog 8: Collective struggle and sustainable change for economic and gender justice

Nijera Kori, a non-governmental organisation in Bangladesh, works to organise poor and marginalised landless communities to claim economic justice through securing access to land set aside for their use by government (khas land). However, deeply entrenched patriarchal practices and norms restrict women from claiming direct access to land, for example being excluded from title deeds and inheritance.

Even after we get khas land the women don’t get access to it because of patriarchal norms. Even if the khas land is in her name, in divorce he may drive her from the home, and he will keep the land. If the husband dies then male relatives will take control, even when it is in her name. (Women’s landless rights group member, Gaibandha)

Nijera Kori stresses that class-based struggles for land rights cannot alone bring about gender equitable economic justice. Rather, there is a need to work with both men and women to instill egalitarian values and practices in families, citizens’ groups and communities as they struggle for both economic and gender justice.

Research taking place as part of the EMERGE project sought to learn from the strategies used by landless rights groups in Bangladesh in making demands for gender equity. With their emphasis on strengthening the collective agency of those subordinated by class, gender and other hierarchies to demand their rights as citizens, Nijera Kori provides significant lessons regarding the empowerment of the otherwise disenfranchised. These lessons provide important points of reflection for the discussions of CSW60 and how we understand the link between women’s empowerment, sustainable development and social change. The research indicates that by working to raise the consciousness of, and strengthen relationships between, men and women, Nijera Kori’s approach holds key entry points for enabling gender equitable pathways for economic justice. Key lessons emerging from the research include:

Working with men needs to challenge the patriarchal subordination of women within private and public domains. Patriarchy’s influence ranges from deeply internalised misogyny to institutional inequality. Hence Nijera Kori’s emphasis is on a group organising strategy, whose forging of intra- and inter-gender solidarities becomes the basis for changing both personal actions as well as decision-making institutions. The process of collective struggle, in which women and men come together to take action to change material circumstances to uphold their rights is crucial in terms of strengthening relationships and accountability on which progress toward gender equality depends.

Understanding gender as operating in conjunction with other inequalities can increase opportunities for men to work with women for gender equality. For Nijera Kori, forging solidarity between women and men in the struggle for gender justice rests on building an intersectional understanding of how class oppression and gender oppression operate together to constrain the lives of women and men in landless communities. The struggle for the rights and dignity of women within their communities therefore can become an integral part of landless men’s struggle for their own rights and dignity.

The solidarities built within the movement have helped to foster gender equitable expressions of masculinity and practices of gender equality. An interesting finding was the ways this has affected the lives of young people through changes in attitudes towards and practices of early marriage, girls’ education and dowry. Intergenerational change is an implicit goal of the landless rights movement, as it holds important opportunities for embedding gender equity and access to opportunity in the lives of future generations.

There are benefits in grounding work with men for gender equity within a community’s struggle for economic justice and advancement. Not least this is a powerful way to engage men in the former by emphasising its benefits for the latter. Many landless rights group members used the metaphor of the bicycle to describe the importance of greater gender equality between landless women and men in the household for the economic progress of the whole community. 

Support long term mobilisation approaches that place a priority on the strength and depth of relationships they have or can build with communities. The fact that Nijera Kori has worked for three decades or more in many communities is significant in terms of the credibility it has established as a result of the duration of these relationships. This sustained engagement has proved critical in mobilising landless communities, who over the years have grown wary of short term NGO interventions. Furthermore the dynamic nature of the situation being confronted means that sustainability means, in part, being able to be responsive to changing repressive conditions, which include widening economic inequalities and the rapidly growing influence of religious fundamentalisms.

Deepening the sustainability of development practice is critical for facilitating change that has lasting impact on women’s empowerment. These lessons therefore pose important challenges and questions for development practitioners. Strategies must be adopted that ensure a longer term and transformative perspective on empowerment. An important marker of sustainability for Nijera Kori was the linking of ‘horizontal’ change at the community level to ‘vertical’ accountability for those with power and influence. The success gained by landless rights groups organising to hold institutions of government to account through collective action emphasises the importance of a broad approach to empowerment, centred not only on the individual but working across the spectrum from personal to institutional change. 

For international actors this suggests a need to find ways to support and align around grassroots struggles for social justice that link local – national – and global frameworks to ensure inclusive processes of empowerment for all.

To find out more about Nijera Kori’s work read our EMERGE case study and related story of change

If you are at CSW60, attend the IDS side event for further discussion on these issues: When Women’s Empowerment Isn’t Enough: Provocations on Privilege and Power to Address Intersectional Inequality and to Promote Sustainable Development for All. Wednesday 23 March, 12.30pm EST. Boss Room, 8th Floor, UN Church Center, 777 UN Plaza.

March 2016

Alan Greig

As both author, editor and facilitator, I develop and apply analyses of issues of men, masculinity and power that articulate the connections between: gender and other forms of oppression; interpersonal and institutional violence; public health and public safety; and individual and social change. 

Thea Shahrokh

Research Officer

Thea has worked as a researcher in International Development for over five years, with a particular focus on issues of gender, citizenship, exclusion and violence. Her research specialises in qualitative and participatory methodologies with a critical approach and adapting these methodologies to working with people living in extreme poverty, marginalisation and on intersecting issues of inequality. She has strong facilitation experience using participatory and visual methods in trainings, policy dialogues, and research groups.