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. 

Quebec Student Protests: It’s about Everyone – A Citizen’s Changing Views

Didn’t someone famous once say If you don’t change your mind, it’s a sign you haven’t got one? I don’t know, at this time of night I can’t find it on Google but I’m sure someone at some point said something to this affect. Whoever may have said it, it’s applicable to me in the case of the student protests that have consumed my city for months.

When the protests began a few months ago, my first thoughts were probably not dissimilar from many others my age who went to university twenty-odd years ago here in Quebec: tuition has not increased since then, it’s perfectly normal for the cost to go up, students today can spend their money on iPhones, iPods, and iEverything else, live at home and barely pay any taxes, drive fancier cars than I ever drove… so why not, jack up the tuition. “In my day” – oh how many of us my age started their arguments this way? – I worked and got student loans to get through my education and I’m fine. Spoiled brats, get off the streets, stop messing up traffic, get your damn education so you can buy a house, raise a family, put yourself in debt for a quarter century and sit at home and watch the news only to complain about young people who have the huevos to speak up and say This isn’t right.
Photograph by Dario Ayala, The Gazette.
At this point the spoiled brat argument utterly fails, and it’s where much of the media coverage has remained in other parts of Canada outside Quebec (here’s a great article worth reading on the subject). Students were right to say the tuition increase was unfair. Even though university tuition in Quebec is the lowest in Canada and has been the same for the past twenty years, that’s no excuse to raise the cost. Low tuition is not a privilege; it is a human right. Art. 13 par. 2(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ratified by Canada in 1976 is unambiguous: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education…” Progressive realization of the right to education means that the Quebec government must take gradual, concrete steps to ensure the full realization of that right. If it can’t do that, it has some serious explaining to do. The government must work towards free education, not charge students more for it. In this respect, the government has failed its citizens. This is nothing new, but often times when they screw adults like me, I shrug my shoulders and take it. They increase my municipal taxes, I take it. My public services get lousier every year, I take it. The roads I drive on get worse every year, I take it. I wait four hours in a hospital emergency room to see a doctor for five minutes, I take it. The government tries to screw young people, they don’t take it. They go to the streets.
As a result of their movement, mistakes have been committed. And this is where my view on the protests wavered from Spoiled brats to They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid. With student protests reaching in the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Montreal, it’s only normal to assume that there may be a little bit of chaos on the fringes and that violence ensues. These are huge crowds, and we Montrealers are known for making much bigger messes of our streets after a hockey game. So the occasional broken window is regrettable, but not uncontrollable and, most importantly, not in any way indicative of the actions and sentiments of the vast majority of those protesting peacefully. But, as noted in the Huffington Post article mentioned earlier, “When students forcibly attempted to prevent non-striking students from entering their classes, they temporarily lost me. You can’t rally on the streets in defense of your rights, and then turn around and deny others theirs.” No you can’t. But the repercussions of the demonstrations extend beyond students being prevented from attending their classes. Montreal’s economy will take a severe beating as tourists question whether or not they should spend their money here. When it comes down to it, those suffering the most in this case will be merchants who depend on tourist revenue at this time of year to keep them going.
My mind changed again thanks to the government’s response to the protests. I went from Spoiled bratsto They’ve got a point to Don’t mess it up and act stupid to The government is really clueless and finally This is bigger than tuition. However inept the Quebec government has been at handling the protests over the last few months, in many ways I have welcomed its creation of Bill 78 because it so fantastically breaches our country’s international human rights obligations, it is so un-Québécois, it is so Kossé-ça-on-est-au-Quebec-ostie (apologies to non-Quebecers for my vernacular), that it is bound to blow up in the government’s face. And it looks well poised to do just that, with the bill being challenged by student groups in court. The outcry around the draconian measures alluded to in the bill have only served to galvanize other segments of the Quebec population who are saying Enough. The casseroles banging away every night in Montreal and other suburbs are not clanged solely by students. There are plenty of other people who have taken to the streets including, I am sure, ones who thought the students protesting were spoiled brats a few months ago. The protests have taken root in Quebec’s culture, our demands for an accountable and fair government, our call for social justice, and fundamentally our need to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. The movement is a movement québécois and as such has taken on a momentum that seems to surpass the Occupy one that eventually fizzled out last year as the cold seeped in.
I admit I’d probably go bonkers if I lived downtown and had to be subjected to night after night of pot banging. I hate noise; I’d get annoyed, my kids wouldn’t be able to sleep be cranky every morning, and life would be generally miserable. I’d probably lose my mind just enough to start having a phobia of pots and spend a few years cooking exclusively in microwave-safe dishes. But the pots are banging for a reason, and that reason is not only a tuition fee that will continue to increase well after most of the student protesters have graduated. The pots are banging because le peuple québécois has had enough with the current government. A people’s participation has to extend well beyond banging pots and walking in protests; it needs to vote, it needs to be consulted, and all the voices, young and old alike, need to be heard. The government has got to stop thinking that measures like Bill 78 are a means of protecting its citizens. The only true revelations of Bill 78 have been to further distinguish the Quebec government as inept and to rouse a people who’ve tolerated this ineptitude for far too long. And the protests have gone on long enough for people like me to realize that this is so much more than higher tuition in universities. If an average citizen like me can change his mind over these protests and the underlying reasons behind them, is it too much to ask a government to do the same? Isn’t it supposed to act in my best interests?

Why don’t people care more?

Upon the completion of a two-year stint in Malawi as a math teacher a very long time ago, I attended a debriefing for Canadians returning from overseas postings. The facilitator asked how many of us had gone through their first posting; most raised our hands. He continued, “I’m sure you’re filled with wonderful stories of having met tremendous hard-working, resilient, beautiful people who have led unimaginably difficult lives but have nonetheless held their heads up high despite the horrible conditions they live in. You’ll want to tell all your friends and families about all of these people and how they’ve affected you and ultimately made you a better person and more appreciative of what you’ve got. You have so much to tell people!” As he was speaking I thought Yes, this guy totally understands me.

“No one cares,” he said.
He was a downer, but for the most part he was right. My mother cared (in part because it was her default response to do so) and some of my best friends cared. No one else really gave a shit. My experiences in Malawi, and more precisely the people who changed my life, were of little importance to the people back home. They wanted to hear more about my stories of roadside mice snacks than the struggles of the poor living there.
It was a harsh but important lesson that repeated itself when I returned to Africa two years later and lived in Ghana. Life was so utterly different, poverty was so utterly everywhere, it was impossible to remain unaffected. And still, upon my return to Canada, it was a challenge to convey to others the importance of helping people elsewhere whose pathetic standard of living prevented them from living in dignity.
It begs a fundamental question: why is it so hard to care about strangers who live less fortunate lives? Here, I use “care” in a very broad sense. There are many ways to show you care. Of course you can give money. You can also become a slacktivist for your favourite cause, you can volunteer, you can Tweet your solidarity to those in need, you can learn about their lives and their struggles, you can raise awareness in your community, you can change your own habits, the list goes on. However one defines “care for others”, I believe there’s a tremendous shortage of it. No wait, that does sound pessimistic. Then let me say this: there should a whole lot more caring.
To focus on giving, and in particular giving money: giving is easy, especially now when you can go online and click away your cash in seconds. Giving leaves the giver with a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment, however it does little to strengthen their understanding of where their money is going and the change it is meant to make. While lots of people do give, again I say: there can be a whole lot more.
Maybe we’re just too selfish. Maybe our own problems, however trivial they may seem to others, effectively block out anyone else’s and don’t leave us room to care. Maybe our lives are too hectic to care. Maybe it’s too easy to change channels from the latest massacre in Syria to the next round of American Idol. Maybe the sheer enormity of the help required is too overwhelming for any one person to think they can make a difference. Nearly ten million children under the age of five die every year from preventable diseases, over a billion people live in slums, more than a billion live on less than 1,25$ a day. Millions of people are forcibly displaced every year from their homes due to conflict or environmental disasters, hundreds of thousands of women and girls die every year before, during, or just after childbirth. Around seventy million children worldwide are without access to basic education. It’s enough for the average person eager to help wonder, “Whatever I do won’t make a difference.”
This is not so: giving can make a difference in people’s lives. The language around giving has changed considerably since my stay in Malawi nearly twenty years ago. As such, the actions taken to make sure that giving is effective have changed as well. It’s much less about meeting needs as it is about realizing human rights; it’s less about giving and receiving and more about sharing and enabling (for everyone). It’s less about pity and gratitude and more about respect and dignity.
Twenty-odd years ago, the realities of the poor were not always well understood and often not accurately conveyed to those more fortunate. If you lived in a rich country, you saw images of poor Africans with distended bellies looking sorrowfully at the camera with a pseudo-celebrity (why do I keep thinking Sally Struthers?) asking for your help. Nowadays, messages like this and others are at times labeled as poverty porn, a term that gets its point across but with a regrettably vulgar choice of words. Effective nonprofit organizations have moved well beyond this oversimplified and misrepresentative vision of aid. Those organizations need to raise their profiles and share their good practices of using funds wisely and transparently while enabling people to claim and enjoy their rights. I think – I hope – people will give to something they know will make a difference.
Ultimately, someone wanting to help will have the empathy, the desire, the kind-heartedness and the will to find a way to give. Asking Why don’t people care more? I realize that the question could be phrased differently. I recently came across another way of asking this question from an unlikely source: my children’s comic books. DC Comics unveiled a new campaign where members of the Justice League (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the other usual superheroes) are “spokespersons” asking to help dying families in the Horn of Africa. It’s a fundraising campaign called We Can Be Heroes, in which DC Comics matches your donation to one of three partner organizations. OK, the use of the term “heroes” to designate people giving money to help others is patronizing to the extreme, but I’ll let it slide because these are comic book characters. At any rate, an awareness-raising video from the website asks the question, What do you do when someone needs help?It’s direct, it gets to the point, and it leaves room for only one answer as far as I can tell: “I help.” Doesn’t matter who needs help, where they live, or what they do: just help.