Gender what-what?

Mbabane, Swaziland | 4 Dec 2013
Bill Snaddon

For the longest time I have been confused by the term “gender mainstreaming”. The confusion seems to get worse at this time of year, during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence. A worthy and urgent cause, it must be said, that could consider increasing its campaign days by 349, rounding it out to a full year. However, this would naturally bring with it challenges of “resource mobilisation” – another term in want of interrogation, but for another time.

I have no doubt that gender mainstreaming, as a term, is well-meaning. I have little doubt that those who coined the term and those who use it regularly do so with a kind and generous heart.

But my questions are: Would it not be kinder if it were clearer? Would it not have more impact if it were better understood? Would it not achieve its goals more readily if it had a more concrete and accepted meaning?

I first heard the term back in my homeland of convicts and kangaroos, that large island across the Indian Ocean now referred to as Australia.

I attended an NGO workshop with a title along the lines of, One For All And All For One: Gender Mainstreaming in the 21st Century.

After taking a few minutes to read the title, my first thought was the Bryan Adams song All for Love from the popular movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

I then thought, Oh my, are they trying to make us all one person? Are they trying to make women become men and men become women – all swimming together in the happy water-world of Main Stream?

To get some grounding and regain a sense of sanity, I consulted the dictionary. It told me that gender means “the state of being male or female”, adding that it is “typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones”.

The dictionary suggested I compare “gender” with the word “sex”, which, among other things, means “either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions”.

In my mind, these definitions didn’t altogether clear things up. I decided to ask an academic, a middle-aged woman in delightful corporate attire, who came to my rescue to propose her own definition of gender.

Dr Academia, let’s call her, told me that her research “postulates” that gender is a “cross-cutting and dynamic societal module of interplay between mammals of intersperse origins”.

Before my head exploded, I asked one question: “Huh? But I thought gender mainstreaming meant fairness and justice for both men and women?”

At the end of the day, though, the academics didn’t want to talk about sex – they wanted to talk about gender.

During the health break at the All for Love Workshop, an NGO leader told me that gender mainstreaming was a concept “designed to coordinate and sensitise individuals, organisations, and society-at-large to ensure gender-responsive and equity-enhanced polices, plans, and strategies were considered and implemented”.

All of this from a respected NGO leader who flies to New York three times a year to discuss high level policies at high level meetings with other high level leaders. I assume their meetings take place in very tall buildings.

So here I am, still grappling with gender mainstreaming. But, if nothing else, the conversation continues – the conversation has become mainstreamed. Ultimately, this must be a good thing?

This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland

Gender what-what?

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