A Year of Reflection: Gender and Women’s Rights in International Development Cooperation


  • Katja Svensson

Developing Partnerships: Gender, Sexuality and the Reformed World Bank by Kate Bedford . Minneapolis, MN : University of Minnesota Press , 2009 . 328 pp., £15.50 paperback, 978 0816665402

Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development by Wendy Harcourt . London : Zed Books , 2009 . 176 pp., £16.99 paperback, 978 1842779354

Women’s Human Rights by Niamh Reilly . Cambridge : Polity Press , 2009 . 224 pp., £15.99 paperback, 978 0745637006

2010 marks the anniversary of two major events relating to gender and global politics: in March the 15-year review of the Beijing Action Plan will bring together members of the international community to assess implementation since the 1995 World Conference on Women; and in October, the 10-year anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Gender, Peace and Security promises to inspire a plethora of conferences, declarations and high-level meetings. Against this background, these three texts offer a welcome and timely contribution to analysis of the role of gender in international development cooperation. They each approach the issues in refreshingly different ways, and contribute to the currently revitalised and reflective discussions on how gender is a reality to be grasped, an analytical perspective that must be applied and a means as well as an end for effective development cooperation.

Kate Bedford sets out to provide an analysis of how the World Bank is a key player in ‘the global enforcement of gender and family expectations’. Her research and insightful analysis provide a revealing account of the World Bank knowledge production processes. A recurring theme throughout the book is how World Bank texts and documents attempt to explain violence against women through poor men’s wounded masculinities and poor women’s inability to bargain. This current and pervasive assumption of income being directly related to the level of violence within partnerships is challenged in a nuanced and thought-provoking manner through Bedford’s interviews and document analysis. It is particularly interesting how the World Bank commissions challenging and heterogeneous research which eventually does not succeed in travelling up the organisational hierarchy.

While Bedford’s detailed elaboration of the World Bank at times proves somewhat lengthy and abbreviation packed for a Bank outsider, her nuanced conclusions make for mesmerising reading for all gender advocates, development practitioners and students of international relations. Bedford’s assessments of the intricate and limiting trajectories for research to travel within an organisation such as the World Bank will surely resonate with any gender consultant who has attempted to work within the confines of major international institutions, be they the European Commission, the UN agencies (those that do not have the specific mandate to be gender focused) or larger national development agencies. While supposedly strengthened and supported by strong political commitments to gender equality at the highest level of an institution, the practical reality for those that are to implement these commitments often places them on the fringes of the institution’s activities, without the mandate and resources to affect real change. These gender advisers and experts are further expected to conform to the institution ‘formula’, as failing to do so means risking their work being rendered insignificant due to ‘bad packaging’.

Wendy Harcourt has written an inspiring account of how body politics affects policy and practices on gender and development, which is made all the more acute due to her personal accounts and insights from working for decades as a practitioner and advocate in this area. It is rare to encounter such a vivid and passionate book on development policies and, quite frankly, this should be required reading for all who are even remotely involved in international cooperation. The insights presented in this book will no doubt cause the reader to pause, reflect and reconsider many of his or her perspectives on how gender influences development. Harcourt argues that by using body politics as a set of interpretative modes of analysis, we can describe and understand gender and development issues. These modes range from reproductive bodies to productive and caring bodies, violated bodies, sexualised bodies and finally techno-bodies. As someone who only came to the field as an academic and practitioner in the early 2000s, I found it particularly enlightening to accompany Harcourt to the landmarks in gender and development, including her personal journeys and accounts of the women’s conference in Beijing 1995 and the preceding International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. While working in the sphere of gender, development and security, it is often too easy to ignore the individual and collective efforts of women activists that led to and resulted in the Beijing Platform for Action and the Cairo Agenda that was the conclusion of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Harcourt takes the reader on a journey of successes and failures, inspiring progress and disillusioning setbacks.

While much credit should go to her for the colourful account of landmark events and agreements during the last two decades, her insights of how body politics influences development policies are the real merit of this book. In the chapter on reproductive bodies, she questions the foundation and validity of neo-Malthusian population science, and the view of poor women playing ‘a negative role in relation to population growth, as breeders of environmental destruction, poverty and violence. It follows that controlling their fertility becomes the magic bullet solution’. One striking insight is her juxtaposition of reproductive rights as recognised in the north, often focusing on assisting infertility and supporting women who experience difficulties in conceiving, with the view of reproductive rights in the south being predominately about controlling fertility. The latter view renders invisible the women in the south who desperately want to conceive but are not able to become pregnant. ‘The focused gaze on the reproductive body obscures those non-reproductive bodies of women, who as a result are often socially rejected, losing husband, family and sense of identity, and as a consequence having to spend their life energies as well as their savings trying to become pregnant’. It becomes clear to the reader that hidden in the apparently empowering agendas of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) there are still discriminatory views and assumptions that are intrinsically counterproductive to a human rights agenda.

Niamh Reilly attempts and succeeds in tracing the evolution of the women’s human rights movement while simultaneously accounting for how transnational female advocacy has influenced and transformed the body of international human rights. Of particular interest and value is the author’s elaboration on how women’s human rights do not constitute a western phenomenon but rather how the most recent developments in this area have their roots in advocacy from women activists in the south. Reilly makes a point of highlighting the intersectionality of different forms of oppression, thereby responding to postcolonial feminist criticism of western feminism and its focus on the middle-class white woman’s experience of patriarchal oppression.

This book provides a thought-provoking and at times inspirational account of how transnational female advocacy movements have helped to shape the context in which many of us work on a daily basis. I particularly welcome the well-balanced and nuanced elaboration on the dichotomy between a universalist account of human rights and the cultural relativism that has proven so treacherous for the advancement of women’s human rights. The most poignant argument of this book is that human rights are not a static set of legal norms, but rather a consensus that is continuously debated, developed and elaborated. In my previous career as a university lecturer, I would certainly have put this text on my undergraduate reading lists for International Relations courses.

A major theme in all three books is the issue of violence against women (VAW). All authors argue that VAW is a unifying issue, a reality for women in the north as well as women living in the south. Violence knows no geographical boundaries, it is context specific, and as such merits critical analysis to uncover common structural and unequal power relations between men and women. The old campaign slogan, ‘the personal is political’, is still valid today as it highlights how the private sphere, the domestic arena, is an area tainted by threats, danger and physical violence for women across the globe. Persistent forms of violence against women include domestic violence, sexual abuse by partners and family members, ‘honour-related’ killings and harmful traditional practices such as forced marriages and female genital mutilation. Many of these are carried out in the private sphere, within the family sanctuary and on the basic and undeniable grounds of gender. Harcourt deconstructs many of the assumptions surrounding body politics in development cooperation and shows how they do not take into account women’s agency in these situations, which is a controversial but highly relevant aspect of how women’s bodies become battlegrounds. Women’s bodies are objectified not only by men but also by other women, in sexually abusive situations such as the torture accounts from the Abu Ghraib prison and in mass rapes in the Rwandan genocide. Bedford questions the relation of women’s economic empowerment to the presumed consequence of decreased levels of domestic violence, arguing that there is evidence that would point to an increased level of violence once women are gainfully employed outside their marriage. Reilly in turn shows how violence against women may be the strongest unifying issue for transnational female advocacy, as gender-based violence is a scourge for women in the north and in the south alike.

Violence against women is one of the most important issues addressed by these three books, but their content and scope is far from limited to this theme. Practitioners, academics and students alike will find much of value within them. They are timely additions to the global politics literature in such an important year for collective reflecting, assessing and planning relating to gender and women’s rights in international development cooperation.

Katja Svenssonis an independent consultant on gender and human security, and also works as an Advocacy Officer with Amnesty International. The above essay reflects her personal views and not necessarily those of her employers.