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Pies in the sky feed no one: an analysis of this year's 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence

The 16 Days logo

When I first saw the theme announcement for this year’s commemorations of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I had to re-read the statement a few times until my disbelief finally subsided.

In case you have not come across it, the 2010 theme reads Structures of Violence: Defining the Intersections of Militarism and Violence Against Women.

I immediately had problems with this theme for a variety of reasons, some of which include that it is too verbose, too complicated and far too philosophical. My concerns were exacerbated when I had a look through the campaign’s official website for elaboration on the theme.

The following is what it states:
“… our working definition outlines militarism as an ideology that creates a culture of fear and supports the use of violence, aggression, or military interventions for settling disputes and enforcing economic and political interests. It is a psychology that often has grave consequences for the true safety and security of women and of society as a whole. Militarism is a distinctive way of looking at the world; it influences how we see our neighbours [sic], our families, our public life, and other people in the world.”

In academic jargon terms, I have absolutely no issue with this statement. In fact, I find it a very eloquent and mentally stimulating way of theorising a concept that could be defined far more succinctly and clearly.

But sadly, and more importantly, for many women; women for whom domestic violence is not just an academic or intellectual concept; such ‘superior’ eloquence will surely fail to meet them at their point of need.

How do such complex concepts translate into local parlance and meaning? Would it be so ineffective if we stated the simple and obvious, that domestic violence is bad and that it needs to be stopped?

You might argue that the semantics don’t really matter. After all, at country level, these international themes are often adapted to suit the environment and therefore merely serve as a guide.

But I disagree.

Be rest assured that worldwide, organisations have set aside budgets to produce banners, T-shirts, posters, stickers, caps and other memorabilia featuring this theme – all of which illiterate and semi-literate women are going to be photographed in, smiling and parading proudly to show that indeed, they were actively involved in the implementation of this year’s theme and campaign.

And I find that somewhat demeaning, condescending even.

Recently, academics and advocates in the field of gender and development have argued against the prevailing global discourse which reduces gender issues to events-driven, hollow battle cries based on generalisations and stereotypes. While such reductionism has served a purpose, bringing gender issues to the fore in a world still predominantly patriarchal and disinterested, it has also been influential in fragmenting the women’s movement and widening the rifts among women across social, cultural, political and economic divides.

And in so doing, the movement has created hierarchies of influence, whereby those with the resources to set agendas dictate the issues, and their importance, to the rest. Ironically, the big bad wolf that the women’s movement is collectively trying to overpower is a hierarchy (patriarchy) that it too is perpetuating.

My argument is not against globalisation and regionalisation of gender policy, per se.

Our world is a global community. Every day we communicate, trade and advocate across time zones and continents. In short, we lead globalised lives in which our first thought of our neighbour is not necessarily of the person who lives across the fence or road.

Globalising issues has helped to amplify them, thereby highlighting the direst situations and seeking out social justice for those who suffer most because of them. A critical global mass led to the wave of national and international commitment to address poverty, power, health and wealth - through a gendered lens - as per the specific actions articulated in the 1995 Beijing Conference Declaration and Platform for Action.

More recently, the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) have spelt out specific targets in the areas of improving maternal health, achieving gender parity as well as reversing the rampancy of HIV infection globally. And in line with trying to achieve these ambitious targets by 2015, developing nations have been capacitated to improve monitoring, evaluation, reporting and resource tracking on the MDG indicators – something which also assists national actors in contextualising their problems.

Global goals can be good. And in the donor-dependent southern hemisphere of the world, progress towards achieving these plays a significant role in ensuring extended official development assistance (ODA). As William Easterly, author of The White Man’s Burden succinctly states,” In any human endeavor [sic], the people paying the bills are the ones to keep happy.”

But there are demerits to such approaches, many of which relate to the first scenario that I began this analysis with. Globalising, and even regionalising, issues presupposes uniformity of agency and conditions across regions of the world. For instance, the MDG goal of halving 1990 levels of poverty by 2025 does not take into consideration that in some developing nations (for example the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe), levels of measurable poverty are actually continuing to rise such that channelling efforts towards reaching 50% of 1990 poverty levels might miss the point of stabilising overall poverty levels first.

Also, quantitative measures – like guaranteeing equal proportions of girls and boys in school– still do not address the core issues of qualitative experience of education. A girl who daily arrives to class hours late or falls asleep throughout lessons because she has been up all night completing household chores can still very reasonably be justified as attending school. But her benefits from this experience would certainly be debatable.

Globalised actions forget that cultural, social, economic and geopolitical factors are key to defining and addressing development issues. They disregard the fact that ‘third world’ people do not speak the same language, live in the same environment or appreciate development in the same ways. They forget the faces behind the figures, the underlying issues that impede progress.

Furthermore, national political commitment to these goals varies vastly. Putting ink to paper means nothing when not accompanied by real efforts towards implementation. Should we, for instance take Zimbabwe’s ratification of the SADC Gender and Development Protocol quite so seriously when the nation has recorded some of the worst human rights violations in the recent past? Should we really believe that by 2015, Zimbabwe’s government shall have provided universal access to post exposure prophylaxis and other rape-related services when there is only one resource-limited adult rape clinic serving the whole of the capital city, Harare, and its neighbouring areas? Where are the plans that spell out how this rhetoric will be converted into reality?

There are many things that we could be doing better. For one, we could stop trying to superimpose ideals onto the world as if it were an undifferentiated mass of human beings.

In-country, multi-sectoral, representative and accountable umbrella bodies or coalitions are always better placed to identify areas for advocacy, funding and resource allocation than external agents. Working with a harmonised national framework, monitoring and evaluation of progress becomes more coordinated, robust and sustainable. The UNAIDS ‘Three Ones’ principle for an effective national response to HIV and AIDS – one national coordinating body working to implement one national action framework to be reviewed through one agreed monitoring and evaluation system – is one that I believe works efficiently when planned and implemented well as it encourages cost-sharing and greater reach and representativeness of local knowledge.

Dependency of the periphery (the developed world) on the core (the developed world) to provide policy guidance does not encourage sustainability. Programmes end and unfulfilled objectives are put aside as new ‘sexier’ interventions are introduced as the best way to do things.

Sustainability can only be guaranteed if the people identify their own needs, understand what needs to be done and work towards achieving it.

But most importantly, we have to realise that when talk gender and development, we are talking about human beings. Not theoretical or hypothetical beings, but real women and men for whom our efforts are often the difference between life and death. Let’s talk to each other, not at one another and bring the discourse out of the clouds and back down to the ground.

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