Gender Politics Makes A Difference: experiences of the Heinrich Böll Foundation across the world

This is an archived article
International Women’s Day in Karachi: Pakistani students demonstrate against violence against women.


April 15, 2011
Barbara Unmüßig
By Barbara Unmüßig

Worldwide, gender relations are in flux. Radical economic and cultural change are giving rise to ever new ways of living and working. The situation could hardly be more complex and confusing: gender relations, gender politics, and forms of feminism are in a state of constant transformation. Politics, public discourse, and the economy are always influencing and altering the relations between the sexes – in all societies. Whether that is for the better or not depends very much on the region concerned.

Gender politics is as relevant as ever

Economic and cultural upheavals, especially those of the second half of the twentieth century, have drawn women out of the home and into the economy and public life. At present, 40 percent of all people in paid employment worldwide are women; even thirty years ago, the percentage was just half that. Significantly more girls are gaining access to education and, in comparison with boys, they achieve very good results. Women are still rare in senior positions, but the world has become accustomed to the idea that women can be company directors, members of the cabinet, and heads of government.

The United Nation’s World Conferences on Women (1975, 1980, 1985, 1995) have played an important role in increasing gender justice. Over the past three decades, international resolutions and agreements have set global standards. On the nationstate level, “women’s policy” has reacted with a rush of laws, ordinances, and promotion measures. The Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, brought together the energy of feminist initiative and state reform to create a “platform for action” that is regarded as a milestone. The platform took the category “gender” into international politics for the first time, acknowledging that the roles of women and men are determined by society mand therefore capable of being changed. The dynamics of gender relations brought masculine identities into focus as well.

Galvanized by the Beijing platform for action, a surge of political initiatives arose in many countries of the world, improving the legal framework for women’s struggle to attain equal rights. The institutionalization of women’s and gender policy, which had long formed the core of the political demands of international women’s movements and networks, gained momentum through the platform for action, which demanded that the world’s governments provide the institutional, financial, and human resources needed for women to implement gender mainstreaming. In the radical form that feminists call for, gender mainstreaming would cast a searching light on all political and economic decision-making processes from a gender perspective. However, in many countries the practical steps toward that objective have been simply forgotten, deliberately ignored, or emptied of political substance by an exclusive focus on technocratic formalities.

Certainly, compared with the situation of women 100 years ago, great progress can be recorded. But the new dynamics of gender has also mobilized counterforces that defend the old roles and privileges, which often cite tradition and religion. Little has changed in the sexual division of labor: women still spend twice as much time as men on unpaid caring and reproductive labor in households and communities. Women are disproportionately affected by violence: in 95 percent of cases of domestic violence worldwide it is women and girls who are the victims. The German section of Amnesty International makes a stark assessment: “Murders of women in Mexico, genital mutilation in Africa, rape in women’s own living rooms – all over the world, women are victims of male violence. […] Human rights violations against women rest on a power imbalance between the sexes, on a tradition that refuses women the same rights as men and that regards them as men’s property.”

For this reason, feminist and gender politics is as relevant and necessary as it has ever been. However, it can no longer base itself on a simple, binary division into powerful men and powerless women. New models must be developed to take account of a range of distinctions in society, for the asymmetries of power between and within the gender groups have multiplied and fractured. Acknowledging this, and acknowledging the diversity of political cultures and strategies, does not mean having to abandon values and priorities in gender policy: the guiding principle of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s gender-political work in Germany and abroad is the critique of power structures on all levels, whether in social relations, in politics and the economy, or in culture and public discourse.

Gender politics requires gender knowledge

Strategies and policies for gender democracy and gender justice must, on the one hand, constantly reestablish the complex connection of gender relations with state, economy, and society. On the other hand, it is no longer the case that gender relations can be understood and policies developed solely on the basis of “identity” and supposedly unified interests. An emancipatory feminist and gender politics means going beyond gender binaries and gender-based attributions. Despite many shared structural features (such as patriarchal oppression), distinctions like social or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual orientation have to be taken seriously in any gender-equitable and feminist politics of interests and identities. The fact that gender, and social and cultural diversity in general, interlock closely with other dimensions of society must feed into the process of building emancipatory political strategies in all sorts of political domains. That is a very ambitious starting point – one that we try to live up to in our work.

Enormous challenges are posed by our ambition to implement the principle of gender mainstreaming in economic and climate policy, in education and research, in foreign and security policy – and to bring a specific gender perspective to intervention in these domains. We lack the data and statistics that would make gender visible; models and methodologies taking account of gender relations are very rare indeed. This is where the genderblindness of existing research blocks our way, as does the general lack of interest in a nuanced investigation of the gender-specific effects of political or economic decisions. The feminist call for gender-sensitive analysis is justified, and we support it. Research studies therefore play a significant role in the repertoire of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s gender-political activities. Such studies may address the underrepresentation of women in politics and business, or trace the failure to implement agreed policies, or analyze the impact of international trade policy on gender relations and on a country’s labor market and social policy. With projects like this, the Foundation and its partners and networks are often entering uncharted methodological and political territory. The challenge is immense; the practical implementation is demanding and requires both patience and extensive resources. It is necessary to know and understand the field – for example, global trade or agricultural policy – very thoroughly, while at the same time grasping the gender-political dimensions, thinking them through, and deriving strategies from them. This is a double effort.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is not a research institute, but a political foundation that aims to intervene in the politics of gender. However, intervention has a host of preconditions. It cannot succeed without knowledge of the social, economic, political, and cultural contexts and of the local actors. One example is our engagement in the areas of religion, politics, and gender. In many of the countries where we work, religion is a political factor that cannot be ignored. We are interested in the ways that religion, politics, and gender justice intersect. Those connections are investigated in a project covering eleven country studies, which provide us with important contextual information and pointers for our political and gender-political efforts on the ground.

A further, and highly topical, example of pioneering work is the gender dimension in climate policy. Despite huge official expenditures on research, there have so far been virtually no analyses of how climate change will impact on society and social policy – and thus also on gender policy. All over the world, new funding is being allocated to programs of adaptation to climate change in developing and emerging economies: there is a great demand for gender-sensitive knowledge, yet almost no supply. For this reason, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has commissioned studies in a range of countries with the aim of integrating gender perspectives into climate adaptation strategies. In June 2009, when this brochure was written, the results of those studies were not yet available. However, we already know this much: here, again, we are stepping into uncharted territory, facing a steep learning curve and many setbacks. But our experience shows that gender knowledge does make a difference.

Gender Democracy as a key objective

It is part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s mission to take a clear stance against exploitation, exclusion, and the abuse of power, intervening to challenge them publicly and politically. That is why, together with our partner organizations, we specifically support initiatives that benefit disadvantaged groups. This could mean anything from backing women in their own organizations to standing up publicly for the rights of homosexuals. In its networks with partner individuals and organizations, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s reference points are the documents on gender equality passed by a United Nations consensus or signed and ratified by the member states, especially the Beijing platform for action and conventions like the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), as well as the UN Security Council’s Resolution 1325 (2000).

Gender policy is a central pillar of democracy and justice in the Foundation’s work worldwide. All the offices address it, with different weighting and different approaches. Systematic planning processes ensure that work with partner organizations always includes women’s and gender-political projects. To aid program planning and implementation, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has encapsulated its guidelines for gender-oriented project planning (GOPP) in a handbook. The handbook calls for indicators to measure political impact, includes means of monitoring of existing measures, and entails both self-appraisal and external evaluations. With the help of instruments like these, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s gender-political strategy is continually reappraised and tested for efficacy.

Gender politics requires gender expertise

However, the Heinrich Böll Foundation sees gender democracy not only as a policy mission, but also as an organizational principle. Similarly to the case of gender mainstreaming, introducing gender democracy into an organization is a far-reaching process of change that may trigger anxieties and resistance among people at all the organization’s levels. In a context like this, competent advice from gender experts can help to prevent conflicts and destructive situations. The Foundation’s Gunda Werner Institute, in cooperation with the trainers’ network, therefore supports the development of gender expertise by means of gender consultancy and gender training. The Institute’s model has been deployed and constantly refined since 1997 through numerous gender training programs and consultancy sessions inside and outside Germany. The Heinrich Böll Foundation also offers regular staff development courses for its own employees on the topic of gender and diversity.

Tasks and actors in Gender Democracy

Part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s basic gender-political principles in its work at home and abroad is to pursue several approaches in parallel. Classic empowerment strategies are urgently required in all the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Strengthening women and women’s rights, combating traditional and patriarchal structures – that is, and will remain, imperative.

Occasionally, men can be persuaded to join in pursuing these aims. That may involve extremely difficult balancing acts, as can be seen from the Foundation’s experiences in Afghanistan, where we have tried, to a modest extent, to work with tribal elders on women’s rights. Certainly, though, we will need a very creative range of strategies and experiments if we are to make a contribution to enhancing gender equality in highly patriarchal societies. Our gender-democratic starting point explicitly aims to bring both genders into the spotlight of political thinking on gender relations in different fields. There is much left to be done in this respect.

In parallel to the empowerment approach, we pursue gender policy as a cross-sectoral issue. I have already noted that acquiring the knowledge necessary for this approach is a difficult task. Whenever gender policy is understood as a cross-sectoral task, running through all areas of an organization’s work, it becomes far more difficult to put a realistic figure on the resources deployed and to monitor their use. How much money has flowed into a program’s gender component? Did it genuinely augment the women’s side of the balance of gender power? Are the partner organizations applying gender mainstreaming? There is a real concern that the benefits of gender mainstreaming will be counteracted by a corresponding reduction in support and funding for women’s political initiatives. To be effective, gender mainstreaming thus demands close monitoring and regular evaluation. Here, too, the Foundation is always developing and learning more – despite or because of its gender-oriented project planning.

Networks are essential

Partner organizations are crucial for effective work on gender democracy in Germany and, even more so, worldwide. The Foundation does not see itself as a “donor” but as a partner and political peer. In many countries, the Foundation organizes platforms for gender-political debates, publishing its own books and research studies. But at the heart of its efforts is support for and cooperation with partners from civil society, scholarship, and politics. For this reason, our strategies and programs are often discussed and developed jointly with partners. The process is not without its tensions and conflicting points of view. But to work through those conflicts fairly is an important principle of the Foundation. For many decades now, alliances and networks have been crossing national borders to an increasing extent. The Heinrich Böll Foundation tries especially hard to nurture the transnational exchange of strategies and experience, among other things in legal issues, globalization, or the connections between religion and women’s rights. The intensive work we have shared with partners all over the world for so many years has fostered a large network of its own – a network for the common task of gender democracy.

28 offices – 28 responses. How gender democracy can be promoted internationally

Each of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s offices worldwide is charged with implementing gender democracy as a common task. That is unique among the German political foundations, and is a trademark of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. How the management of the various offices fulfill this responsibility differs, reflecting their very different political, social, and cultural contexts and regional priorities.

Gender policy requires dialogue partners and networkers in our own organization who can drive the issues forward. Sixteen of the twenty-eight offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation outside Germany employ a total of sixteen people as gender coordinators. Five of these coordinators work on gender full-time, while another eleven usually spend between 50 percent and 60 percent of their time on gender and women’s policy issues. They take the lead on implementing plans and programs, cultivate contacts with the partner organizations, and also carry out projects of their own.

Another way of dealing with gender democracy is primarily as a cross-sectoral issue, without a specialist “slot.” In twelve of the offices, gender policy is embedded in this way, carried out equally by all the program coordinators and normally accounting for around 25–30 percent of the working week. In the Southern African regional office, for example, the proportion of working time the staff spend on issues of gender democracy varies from 20 percent in the program area “dialogue and international politics” up to 60 percent in the area “political rights and human rights.” Gender politics has to be funded. The importance given to an issue within an organization is indicated (if not exclusively) by the resources allocated to it. This varies from office to office. It is easy enough to put a figure on the specialized funds dedicated to “classic” women’s and gender programs. For example, in 2007, the regional office for South Asia (Pakistan/Afghanistan) invested 53 percent of its dedicated funds in the women’s and gender program – the highest rate of all the offices. The Moscow office put 33 percent and the Ramallah office 14 percent of its project funding into women’s and gender-political projects. Taking all the offices outside Germany together, the average rate in 2007 was 29 percent.

However, when gender is embedded cross-sectorally, and structural costs such as infrastructure and personnel have to be calculated in, it becomes more difficult to arrive at precise figures. The Heinrich Böll Foundation is still working on a reliable procedure for gathering this data, but initial observations suggest that the offices worldwide used around 19 percent of their expenditures, including structural expenditures, for gender-political work as a whole. While in Africa the total spending lay at around 35 percent, in Asia the proportion was around 13 percent. In many countries, the Heinrich Böll Foundation promotes initiatives on gender budgeting, yet within the Foundation itself this principle has not yet been fully embedded. That is an outstanding task we must take in hand.

So far there have not been any binding provisions on levels of gender spending, though the Foundation aims for at least 30 percent of resources to flow into international gender- political efforts – whether for gender as a cross-sectoral issue or as explicitly women-based projects, whether as dedicated funding or as structural expenditures.


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