Every Project Is a Gender Project
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, about 90 percent of the male workforce worked in South Africa, primarily in the gold mines, with few opportunities to return home to their families. One of these men was married to a neighbor of mine. She was raising their children in a one-room mud hut, never knowing when her husband might be back or when she would hear from him. They had nothing— no furniture, hardly enough food, few clothes for the children.
One day my neighbor came to me to ask what to do: a letter from her husband had arrived with cash inside. The money, he had written, was to buy a table and four chairs. She was beside herself. She was struggling to feed their children and keep clothes on their backs, and he wanted her to buy furniture. And she was terrified of his reaction if he came home and saw she hadn’t done it.
To me, the striking thing about this story is not the family’s poverty—though that is another story—but what it meant to want that table and four chairs. The husband wanted proof of his value. To him, that meant outfitting his household with something he could see when he came home. He wanted tangible proof that the hardship he faced in the mines had resulted in something solid. His wife couldn’t understand how that could be more important than feeding their children, but she felt she had to do what he asked.
That, to me, is gender. Two completely different struggles, layered with cultural norms and expectations, had created a huge gap in their perspectives. I tell this story because it’s a crucial part of what drives our work for gender equality.
Often, women are more disadvantaged than men. But the idea of defining gender as “women’s empowerment” misses the other side of the equation. Everyone—women, men, girls, and boys—embodies and enacts gender norms and dynamics based on their perceptions, beliefs, and understandings. These stem from socio-cultural factors like age, religion, ethnicity, economic status, literacy, and ability or disability. To help bridge gaps and change dynamics in any sustainable way, we need to understand and account for these factors.
And when we think this way, all projects become gender projects.
That’s why I’m excited about the Advancing the Agenda of Gender Equality (ADVANTAGE) contract USAID recently awarded to EnCompass. This multifaceted IDIQ builds on 30 years of progress, culminating in USAID’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, which outlines a vision for the full integration of gender in international development programs. USAID’s goal of ensuring gender equality in its programs worldwide is our goal, too. ADVANTAGE is an opportunity to work with champions around the world to take a close look at the factors that enable everybody to be full participants in their communities and countries.
Much remains to be done. EnCompass’ partners for ADVANTAGE are accomplished organizations that have pioneered gender-based approaches for program design and assessment, data analysis, and training that will help make sure gender roles, dynamics and norms are an integrated component in every sector of international development. We’re really excited about this work and the chance to partner with USAID and help make this vision a reality.