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Looking back and looking ahead: Reflections on three decades of gender and development

Looking back and looking ahead: Reflections on three decades of gender and development

January 2, 2024

I have working in the field of gender and development for three decades. This note reflects on what I believe has changed in this field over the three decades and some of the dilemmas I face.

Though passionate about gender equality since I was a teenager, it is only in the early 1990s that I gained clarity that gender relations were power relations, not just a product of ‘smooth’ socialization (Whitehead, 1979). I learnt that gender relations interact with social (power) relations of race, age, caste, class, religion, headship, marital status etc.  This learning synched with my experience of how in some dominant caste households in India, the women domestic helps used to enter from behind the house to work, using another entrance. I understood that institutions shape gender relations, that is how households, community, markets, and the state were shaping gendered power relations (Kabeer, 1994).  The human rights instrument, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against women, 1979, was used by women's groups then to hold government to account on gender equality. The Convention also refers to need for pro women pro poor and rights based development model.   Now, in 2020s,  it is the Sustainable Development Goal 5 which is used to assess progress on gender equality, and the indicators and targets do not adequately capture changes in power relations, institutional change and intersectionality (discussed in coming para) or development model. A human rights approach of rights holders holding duty bearers to account is missing.

The concept of intersectionality entered development discourse more recently, though the idea was put forth sharply by Allen (1991) few decades earlier in the context of black women’s experience of discrimination, which was distinct from that of white women and black men. More sharply than the concept of social relations, the concept of intersectionality brought out the “uniqueness” of experience of discrimination women at the intersections of different marginalized identities.  Yet, even today the concept of intersectionality is reduced to gender and social inclusion or gender and diversity, to say that the organizations work with women and people from a specific marginalized identity.

Bernstein (1992) observes that for lesbian and gay movements, which have always existed, goals include (but are not limited to) challenging dominant constructions of masculinity and femininity, homophobia, and the primacy of the gendered heterosexual nuclear family (heteronormativity). The term Queer is an umbrella term for people who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender, it includes lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transwomen, transmen etc.  Mainstream development discourse, still refers to sex and gender as binary. At the other end there has been a trend in social movements, to look at the queer as an undivided category, and not look at Dalit, minority or differently abled amongst queer.

When I started three decades ago, I (and many others in the movement) was rooted in socialist feminist thinking looking at interactions between patriarchy (the base on which other 'isms' followed), capitalism (and other hierarchies like casteism) etc. Today, we talk of feminism as a homogenous vision and movement. To cope with my lack of comfort with the homogeneous category “feminism,” I use the term challenging Kyriarchy, translated through gender/social relations transformative development.  The word Kyriarchy was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some “ism”  and privileged in others. Kyriarchy, encompasses, sexism, racism, capitalism, ableism, ageism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism (Kwok Puilan, 2002)

The concepts of kyriarchy and intersectionality challenges the simplistic notion that men and masculinities alone are the problem in women’s subordination or that dominant caste/race women are altruistic in their relations with women workers of color/Dalit women. It is important to examine how gender/social relations and hierarchical structures play out in real life, and build theory and action based on that, rather than other way around!


Allen, Kimberley, 1991, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color, in Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6 (Jul., 1991), pp. 1241-1299 (59 pages)

Bernstein, Mary (2002). "Identities and Politics: Toward a Historical Understanding of the Lesbian and Gay Movement". Social Science History. 26 (3): 531–581

Kabeer, N, 1994, Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought, Verso, UK

Kwok Pui-lan (2009). "Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Postcolonial Studies". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Indiana University Press. 25 (1): 191–197

Whitehead, Ann 1979, Some Preliminary Notes on the Subordination of Women, IDS Bulletin, Volume 10, Issue, 3,  April 1979, Pages 10-13


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