Still searching for the gender “Ah-ha” moment: Reflections on the Busan High Level Forum, one year later

I was recently in Gaza and I asked primary school teachers whether or not girls and boys were treated equally in their communities. The answer was a resounding yes. I then asked: “Do boys and girls do the same amount of work at home?” No, they stated: girls did all the housework and boys played for the most part. As the discussion continued, it was apparent that some teachers started questioning their own notions of gender equality for the first time. It was their gender “Ah-ha” moment that enabled them to question gender roles and go beyond associating gender equality with numerical equivalence of boys and girls.
The 2011 Busan Outcome Document has a component on “gender commitments.” Paragraph 20 highlights the importance of “recognizing gender equality and women’s empowerment” to achieve development results. Broadly speaking, the commitments focus on using sex-disaggregated data to inform policies, integrating targets for gender equality in accountability mechanisms, and addressing gender equality and women’s empowerment “in all aspects of our development efforts.” This is laudable, but the reality for most organizations working in development makes these commitments unattainable aspirations.
I say this because, in the year since the Busan High Level Forum, I have seen little evidence of organizations improving the way they address gender equality and women’s empowerment. I’ve spoken to people from donor organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations (CSOs), governments, and international NGOs. With the exception of development organizations with a rich experience in ensuring gender equality and women’s empowerment, gender is still frequently inserted into development projects as an add-on with little or no thought. Sadly, whenever I provide feedback on development projects that have no gender perspective, typical responses continue to be “It doesn’t matter, we’ll add ‘with a gender perspective’ at the end of our goal and the donor will be happy,” or “Half the people affected by the project are women, so we have gender equality.” It has never been that simple.
Two women and two men! Gender equality? Sorry, not that easy.
These responses point to a challenge highlighted by the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness. In its Gender Equality and Development Effectiveness report from July 2011, the Open Forum listed a number of challenges CSOs face when putting gender equality into practice. Among the challenges is a patriarchal culture present in both the working environments of development organizations and the societies in which they operate. If people don’t believe in gender equality to begin with, how will the Busan gender commitments ever become a reality?
Apart from the patriarchal culture, I think there is an overwhelming misunderstanding of what gender equality means. To believe in and ensure gender equality I think one needs to be open to the reality that inequality exists and gender equality can bring about positive change.
I’d venture to say that the typical development worker has yet to experience their gender “Ah-ha” moment. As such it’s even unlikelier that they’ll be in a position to “address gender equality and women’s empowerment” in all aspects of their work without education, guidance and support on how to do this. This can best happen when gender equality and women’s empowerment are grounded in a normative human rights framework that recognizes women as rights holders. This isn’t stated strongly in the Busan Outcome Document, and it’s why the proposed Busan Joint Action Plan for Gender Equality and Development was not endorsed by women’s organizations.
I’d love to be proven wrong, but my sense is that the Busan gender commitments won’t amount to substantive change anytime soon. 

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