This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women. As we prepare to review progress since Beijing, one area deserves special attention: making sure that multilateral and bilateral development organisations give more than lip service to promoting gender equality—that they take gender mainstreaming seriously.

© UN Women
© UN Women

Time for renewed commitment

While the world has made progress in closing some of the most yawning gender gaps, the record is patchy on gender mainstreaming. “Gender-policy evaporation”—the gradual ebbing of commitment to gender—has beset most development organisations around the world.

To be fair, mainstreaming gender is challenging—and particularly for organisations that are engaged in the complex endeavour of promoting economic and social prosperity. Does this mean, however, that mainstreaming is on a road to nowhere? As we think back to the hopes and commitments of Beijing, there can only be one answer to this question: Mainstreaming gender equality is not optional, and development organisations need to make it an integral part of their mandate.


Principles for change

This requires real change. Organisational cultures must break with old ways of thinking and acting, and accept and act on new concepts. In making these changes, development organisations need to be guided by three principles.

  • Gender equality has to be seen as a central part of the organisation’s development strategies, not a competing policy priority. Economies grow faster when both women and men have a voice in the development of their communities and countries and can benefit equally from the new opportunities created by development.
  • As the African Development Bank’s President, Donald Kaberuka, has said, “Gender equality is not an annex to our work.” It needs to be hard-wired into organisations’ normal operational rules, procedures and practices, part of the organisational DNA. Senior management must demonstrate leadership and commitment to gender mainstreaming, and they must support this commitment with resources, incentives, and accountability systems.
  • Gender mainstreaming requires human and financial resources.


Gender-mainstreaming actions

Taken together, these three principles lay out the broad parameters for a set of actions that, if effectively implemented, can not only lead to better integrating gender into development organisations’ operations, but can also help those same institutions to be more gender-sensitive:

  1. Create a cadre of gender experts. Gender mainstreaming requires individuals with expert analytic skills for seeing, identifying, analysing and understanding equality gaps between males and females. Establishing a cadre of gender experts will bring greater attention to gender among all staff, while better assigning operational responsibilities for gender mainstreaming and building gender knowledge and expertise over time. To be effective, gender experts will need to be sufficiently empowered to fully exercise their responsibilities.
  2. Build gender mainstreaming capacity. Gender mainstreaming requires dedicated skills and knowledge: skilled personnel are needed to deliver appropriate knowledge, conduct analysis, and monitor the design and implementation of operations. While consultants can carry out some of these functions, it is vital to build internal capacity for gender mainstreaming by equipping staff with the fundamental knowledge and skills they need to successfully perform gender-related activities.
  3. Integrate gender into operational business processes. Development organisations need to map gender into their normal operational business cycle and country strategies, codifying existing practices and identifying clear entry points to strengthen provisions that are already in place. Introducing a system for gender-marking can help increase attention to operations with high gender impacts.
  4. Leverage existing and additional financial resources. All gender-related activities need to be fully funded by the organisation’s normal administrative budget. During the transition to full funding, to make sure that lack of resources does not prevent operations from undertaking important actions (or become an excuse for their not doing so), organisations should consider mobilising additional resources (for example, through a dedicated trust fund).

Despite years of practice, gender mainstreaming is still a work in progress. While the ideas outlined here will doubtless take development organisations in the right direction, they are basically technical solutions and not a panacea. At the end of the day, nothing can substitute for genuine political commitment and leadership. The twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women provides a unique opportunity to test leaders’ resolve to promote gender equality, and to hold them accountable for their promises.


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