Gender and Cultural Change

Is gender and development a northern imposition on cultures of the south? Yes, in the sense that much of development, including gender and development, is dominated by northern agendas. On the other hand, cultures are changing and diverse, and within any culture some people will oppose and some will favour greater gender equality. Furthermore, the argument that gender is a northern imposition is often used to obstruct constructive action for gender equality, even when this is led by local priorities. This pack provides case studies and tools which point to practical ways forward, showing that it is possible to take action on gender and development in ways that counteract rather than reinforce the north-south power imbalances. This Cutting Edge Pack hopes to inspire thinking on this question - with an Overview Report outlining key issues on gender and cultural change in the current climate, a Supporting Resources Collection providing summaries of key texts, tools, case studies and contacts of organisations in this field, and a Gender and Development In Brief newsletter with three short articles on the theme.

Gender and Cultural Change Cutting Edge Pack - Overview Report

The Overview Report examines the connections between culture, gender and development and addresses key questions: What has gender and development got to do with culture? Is gender and development an interference in people’s cultures? How can these issues be tackled on a practical level? As a starting point, a closer look is taken at what we mean by culture. Global, national and local forces create the many conflicting ideas of what counts as 'local culture'. The 'culture' of the international development industry is created by structures of power and inequality. A call is made for people to identify and take action against oppressive practices, instead of standing back in respect of culture.

This report features gender and development thinking and initiatives which both challenge oppressive practices and counteract north-south power imbalances. Stories of cultural change are told including: a local led initiative in combating female genital mutilation in Kenya; intersex activism in Bangladesh; men organising against gender violence in Brazil. Cultural change in development organisations is also described, such as the decision by international NGO ACORD to move all key decision making positions to Africa.
Recommendations from the Overview Report

  • Charges of western imposition are often made in response to gender interventions. These accusations may be accurate, or simply a politically motivated effort to obstruct transformation of gender relations, or both! The possibility of both being true needs to be considered.
  • Development will always impact on cultures and development interventions always impact on gender. They either change things (for better or worse), or sanction and reinforce the status quo. Ignoring gender in development is just as much a cultural assumption as putting it on the agenda. Cultural impact needs to be conscious and considered, and one directed at challenging oppressive norms of gender, sex, sexuality, and north-south dynamics.
  • Culture and tradition can enable or obstruct, and be oppressive or liberating for different people at different times. There is nothing sacred about culture, and value judgements need to be made about which aspects of culture to hold on to, and which to let go of.
  • However, who makes such judgements is an important issue. ‘Outsiders’ need to be cautious about how they judge other people’s cultures. However, this does not mean standing back in ‘respect’ of ‘local culture’. Instead, developers need to make space for discussion of cultures by ‘insiders’ and enable people to identify and take action against practices they find oppressive.
  • Development thinking and practice – including GAD – are themselves laden with cultural assumptions. Individuals and organisations need to challenge their own assumptions and power dynamics. This examination should include issues of north and south, race, sex, sexuality and gender.
  • Enabling participation and leadership of previously excluded groups (eg. women, black people or southern staff members) can contribute to changing the culture of development organisations and reorienting their priorities.
Gender and Cultural Change Cutting Edge Pack - Supporting Resources Collection

This Supporting Resources Collection provides summaries and extracts on a variety of resources which address the key questions: What has gender and development got to do with culture? Is gender and development an interference in people’s cultures? How can these issues be tackled on a practical level? Featured within the collection are:

  • Key resources, including findings and recommendations for policy makers and practitioners
  • Case studies which challenge cultural norms both within societies and in the development industry
  • Examples of training manuals, guides and bibliographies useful to those wishing to implement work on cultural change in development
Gender and Development In Brief ‘Culture’ – edition 10

In Brief is a six page newsletter that aims to stimulate thinking on a priority gender theme. This edition focuses on culture, starting with an overview and recommendations followed by two distinctive case studies highlighting practical responses to key issues. The overview article discusses how 'gender and development' can be seen as an imposition on other cultures, how far this is a reality, and what we can do about it. The second article on 'whiteness' calls for examining white people's cultures in order to combat racism in development. Finally, an article on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) treaty and the reservations by Arab state signatories, shows how arguments about defending culture are mobilised to obstruct gender equality.