In the past 25 years - from the First World Conference on Women (1975), throughout the Decade for Women (1976 - 1985), and continuing until now - there has been a great deal of debate about what constitutes the most effective strategies and approaches for supporting gender equality. In the period since the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), there has been a particular focus on two approaches: women's empowerment and gender mainstreaming. Another important area of focus has been capacity-building for institutions in order to enable them to incorporate a gender equality perspective in their work. This collection of Good Practices contains examples to illustrate each of these areas. This page provides conceptual information as well as practical examples to help users learn more about these strategies.
Women's Empowerment
Gender Mainstreaming
Institutional Capacity-Building

Database Examples

A women's empowerment strategy emphasizes the importance of addressing years of discrimination against women by devising programmes and strategies that increase women's skills, capacities, rights, and opportunities. It addresses ways in which development cooperation initiatives help create the conditions whereby women can become the agents of their own development and empowerment. It thus emphasizes the transformatory potential of development initiatives - in terms of sustainability as well as ensuring that women feel that they have been the agents of the transformation, that they have won this new space for action themselves. The increased popularity of the empowerment concept "mirrors the shift away for top-down planning towards more participatory forms of development and moves by donor agencies to embrace NGOs as partners in development" (Oxaal and Baden, 1997).

If empowerment is the ability to exercise power, then everyday forms of women's empowerment are the ability of women to exercise power in the social institutions that govern their daily lives: the household and extended family; local community councils and associations; local elite; local markets and local government (Carr et al, 1996). Women's advocates have emphasized that empowerment cannot be done from the outside, "it is something women need to do for themselves" (Sen and Batliwala, 1997). Thus, it is misleading to assume that governments or other external agents can empower women.

One aspect of empowerment is women's participation in formal political structures. This was recognized in one of the critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, 'women in power and decision-making.' However, it seeks "to identify power less in terms of domination over others (with its implicit assumption that a gain for women implies a loss for men), and more in terms of the capacity of women to increase their own self-reliance and internal strength."

As both a process and a goal, women's empowerment is fundamentally connected to democratization, human rights and the self determination of women and men.

Excerpted and adapted from: DAC Sourcebook on Concepts and Approaches Linked To Gender Equality (Schalkwyk and Woroniuk, 1997)

Women's Empowerment Revisited (Elson and Bisnath)

Gender Mainstreaming
A gender mainstreaming strategy emphasizes the importance of addressing the different impacts and opportunities that a particular programme or policy may have on women and men. The strategy focuses on making gender equality concerns central to policy formulation, legislation, resource allocations, and planning and monitoring of programmes. Using a gender mainstreaming strategy to achieve gender equality requires changes in awareness and capacity of all personnel, and implies strong management commitment. A knowledge base on the linkages between gender equality and the substantive issues and processes in organizational programmes needs to be developed, and practical analytical skills fostered. Methodologies and tools need to be developed and resource bases of more in-depth expertise in relevant areas established.

Given the high priority granted mainstreaming strategies in the Beijing Platform for Action, it is important to understand the challenges and the benefits of this approach.

Distinguishing means and ends: One way of understanding mainstreaming is to distinguish three different targets or areas for action. Support to gender mainstreaming can take place at the level of: (i) the country, e.g. through mainstreaming gender into its institutions, laws, and government policies; (ii) the development cooperation programme -- either with partner governments or multilateral organizations; and (iii) the agency itself -- its procedures and structures.

Challenging the development agenda: Effective gender mainstreaming calls for a complete transformation of the development agenda, so that the participation of women as decision makers influences development priorities and activities.

Specific initiatives to support equality objectives: A mainstreaming strategy does not rule out funding specific projects that empower women to work toward equality. The crucial prerequisite is that they are based on an analysis of the different situations of men and women and support gender equality.

Excerpted and adapted from: DAC Sourcebook on Concepts and Approaches Linked To Gender Equality (Schalkwyk and Woroniuk, 1997)

Institutional Capacity-building Strategies
The capacity of institutions (ministries, parastatals, NGOs, etc.) to incorporate an understanding of gender and women's empowerment in their work is a fundamental cornerstone of a gender equality strategy. Many multilateral, bilateral, government and non-governmental organizations have invested in training to increase staff skills in gender analysis over the past 10 years. Guidelines, checklists and gender action plans have been developed to assist staff in programming. Yet, experience has demonstrated that institutionalizing a commitment to and competence in programmes and policies that support gender equality remains a critical challenge.

Both women's empowerment and gender mainstreaming strategies are relevant to efforts to build internal institutional capacity to support gender equality. Empowerment strategies may focus on providing leadership and skill training to ensure that women can take advantage of opportunities to rise to senior positions. Gender mainstreaming strategies may involve analyzing differential impacts of organizational policies on women staff members or ensuring that gender concerns are taken into account in programmes.

It is critical to recognize, however, that no single strategy can be used to build institutional capacity to support gender equality. Often, institutional leaders might think that simply achieving parity (50/50) between women and men in decision-making positions, or having an equality policy is enough. In fact, building institutional capacity for gender equality encompasses a wide range of initiatives, involving training, review of policies and programmes, incorporating gender-accountable procedures into recruitment and performance evaluation procedures, issuing guidelines and checklists, and many other activities.

Many experts in gender and organizational change (for example, Goetz (1995a) and Calás and Smircich (1996) and Rao, Stuart and Kelleher (1999)) have raised questions about how gender relations influence the very constitution of institutions and how institutions continue to produce policies and programmes that fail to recognize the needs of women. As Rao, Kelleher and Stuart (1999) assert, "gender equality can be achieved by organizations only (through)…changing inequitable power relations…" This implies a capacity-building approach that is comprehensive and attentive to both the overt (programmes and policies) and covert (culture and human relations) processes in organizations.

Capacity-building strategies can include any of the following, as well as others:

  • Building institutional capacity to assess programmes, policies, performance, and procedures from a gender perspective;
  • Providing general and thematic gender analysis training for programme staff;
  • Undertaking organizational gender 'audits' to identify areas of good practice and obstacles to equality initiatives;
  • Organizing dialogues, roundtables and briefings for staff on gender issues that are relevant to their work;
  • Developing resource material collections, websites, and/or 'hotlines' that assist staff to access needed background material on gender and women's empowerment;
  • Developing guidelines and checklists that assist staff to determine if they are supporting women's empowerment and/or gender mainstreaming strategies;
  • Assisting those specifically assigned to advocate for gender equality - e.g., gender units and focal points - to develop skills in advocacy, negotiation and other necessary 'change agent' qualities;
  • Developing gender equality action plans at the departmental and organizational levels.

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