As the calls for action issued on International Women's Day suggest, there is indeed a great need for programs that seek to understand and meet the needs of women and girls worldwide who experience the effects of poverty, armed conflict, or discrimination in different ways than men.
One of the common misconceptions about gender-related work and advocacy is that gender and "women" are synonymous, interchangeable terms. However, as Dr. Carol Cohn writes in her recently-published collection, Women & Wars, "gender is, at its heart, a structural power relation. Just as colonialism, slavery, class, race, and caste are all systems of power, so is gender."
It is, therefore, becoming critically important to complement the many efforts to serve women worldwide with an endeavor to better understand gender dynamics at large and respond to the needs to which they give rise.
Performing a nuanced gender analysis requires asking earnest questions about its value and dispelling some myths surrounding it. Simply put, there are three premises that underscore a gender analysis: First of all, "men," "women," "boys," and "girls" are not monolithic categories that can describe a universal experience shared by people who share a sex; rather, gender is a fluid, dynamic, ever-involving system of power relations that need to be examined in the context of race, class, ethnicity, and other markers of identity.
Secondly, gender as a lens affects individuals' experiences of poverty, armed conflict, civil resistance, or any form of struggle. Understanding the gender parameters of these experiences is critical for crafting effective responses to them, as Dyan Mazurana, Prisca Benelli, Huma Gupta, and Peter Walker highlight in this Feinstein Center report on sex and age-disaggregated data. Divorcing gender from the fields of international development, conflict management, humanitarian response, or policy-making is neither feasible nor desirable, as it will paint an incomplete picture of the effects of our actions and impact.
Thirdly, performing a gender analysis is a skill and, like all skills, it has to be learned. As Cynthia Enloe writes in the foreword to Women and Wars, "gender analysis is a skill. It's not a passing fancy, it's not a way to be polite. And it's not something one picks up casually, on the run. One doesn't acquire the capacity to do useful gender analysis simply because one is "modern", "loves women," "believes in equality, or "has daughters." One has to learn how to do it, practice doing it, be candidly reflective about one's shortcomings, try again."
In the spirit of developing this skill, then, here are some questions to consider when performing a gender analysis of a policy we scrutinize, an action we advocate, or a position we support:
1. Where are the women and men in the data and in the story?
"Where are the women?" is one of Enloe's favorite questions, stemming from a need to interrogate data, whether in press reports, academic papers, or policy documents, about their gender parameters. Her query can extend beyond women to motivate us to ask how the proposed policy or action may differentially affect people of all genders. Have the authors or advocates taken gender into account? What roles do men and women fulfill in the narrative? What power, if any, are they assigned? How are their strengths, needs, and vulnerabilities accounted for, if at all? And if the data is gender-blind, i.e., if the data has not been collected with an eye on gender differences and disaggregation, how can we correct that?
2. Which gender assumptions does the narrative reinforce and challenge?
In gender-related advocacy, particularly in relation to women in developing countries or conflict-affected areas, we sometimes fall into the stereotypes we seek to combat. It is of paramount importance to question our own inferences on strength, power, and vulnerability, rather than - for example - portray women and girls exclusively as victims and men and boys as perpetrators of violence. As Neil Andersson states, moving beyond the paradigm of "victims and villains" and respecting the agency of the individuals and communities we seek to serve is an integral component of gender-related work and advocacy. This requires us to be mindful of everything from our narratives and diction to our international development initiatives and fundraising campaigns.
3. Whom should we be engaging in the conversation?
A gender analysis is not the domain of "gender specialists" or "gender experts" alone; it is not only relevant to women, it does not unfold in opposition to or competition with men, and it is not exclusively applicable to those who work on gender-related issues. If it is to be a successful endeavor, a gender analysis needs to become part of the thinking and operation of sectors ranging from academia to government and journalism to advocacy. It starts with asking questions about the differential effects of policies and actions on people of all genders, and with a determination to find, collect, and highlight the data and stories that showcase these experiences. It requires engaging with critique, resistance, or lack of understanding of the value of this process or the system by which to implement it.
This International Women's Day, let's think about gender in a broader sense, as a dynamic system of power relations and as a lens through which to examine, critique, and understand the policies we advocate and systems of power of which we are a part.