Moving past the token 'woman' word

Does having women speakers and representation influence international events' overall focus on gender, and will having a woman at the top of UN-Habitat change how gender is considered in the agency's activities? Or do we still have further to go in integrating gender into events?

Guest blog by
7 March 2018

Caroline Moser is emeritus professor at the University of Manchester, and an urban social anthropologist and social policy specialist

The 9th session of the World Urban Forum, the world's premier conference on urban issues, took place in Malaysia in February. Like many international events, there were questions about how it addressed gender (Photo: National Housing Development Authority, via Google licence)

The recent appointment of Maimunah Mohd Sharif as executive director of UN-Habitat may be an opportunity for change. 'Women-specific' panels – where sessions fall under the theme of 'women' – at its events could no longer be how it deals with gender concerns. And it may mean that all the commitments of the 'new urban agenda' incorporate gender-focused issues. But will this opportunity be seized?

This issue was considered in a recent 'Gender commentary on the 9th World Urban Forum (WUF9)' event at IIED, when Laura Lima of Cities Alliance, David Dodman and Alexandra Norodom of IIED, and I discussed WUF9, an international conference attended by 25,000 global participants. 

Greater profile for women equals greater consideration of gender?

In reviewing evidence on WUF9, the panel questioned whether giving women greater profile at the conference increased the focus on gender issues. We answered through looking at several different aspects.

We started by examining the breakdown of speakers at the event. This showed:

  • Just over one third of the 335 speakers were women (35%) 
  • They were primarily from local or national government (40%), followed by international NGOs (33%), and 
  • There was good representation across regions of the globe (except for the Middle East), with a range of countries from each region.

Despite the presence of more than 100 women speakers, this did not lead to gender issues being integrated into the content of the thematic events (such as climate change, land and housing).

Of a total of 319 events at WUF9, 24 fell under the specific theme of 'women' where, as Laura commented, "women talk to women". Only 2 per cent of the other themed events included gender issues in their titles – such as 'new urban agenda' priorities of land, urban safety and urban design.

Yet from their titles, all of the 'women-specific' events (apart from the five women's caucuses) could easily have been integrated into the range of themes, challenging both men and women to work together to consider the gender aspects of the issue. Alexandra expressed it well when she said that she attended an event on 'women and energy' that could simply have been on 'energy' but incorporated a gender-focus.

Ways of challenging to bring about change 

IIED's event acknowledged that fundamental obstacles remain to gender integration at events such as WUF9. Resistance to change at these events comes both from the well-established and important women's networks that may be justifiably concerned at losing ground, and from leaders on urban issues who have never considered gender necessarily as part of the discussion.

That said, there are ways we can challenge agencies such as UN-Habitat and our own organisations on gender issues.

First, we can stop using the term 'women' as just one of a 'composite category' of stakeholders in UN and international development documents.  

The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Cities 2030, coming out of WUF9, represents a checklist of more than 20 overlapping stakeholder categories, one of which is 'women'. If we acknowledge that categories of stakeholders such as those listed in 'vulnerable and disadvantaged groups' – women, youth, grassroots organisations and others – are unnecessary composite designations, then we can find better ways to make sure all these voices are included in international processes.

Second, we must reiterate the differences, identified in the 'new urban agenda', between 'transformative' and other so-called 'gender-responsive' discussions at these types of international events, whether they're focused on empowerment or welfare. To clarify the differences:

  • Welfare identifies women as a vulnerable or a special interest category
  • Gender empowerment describes how individual women through their agency increase their bargaining power to participate fully in economic and political life, and
  • Gender transformation is an inherently political act, associated with structural change in gender power relations. Its emphasis is on collective action, contestation and negotiation.

Third, it's not rocket science. Women-specific panels can address both individual women's empowerment or their welfare as a vulnerable group. However, women alone cannot address the changes required to achieve gender transformation.

Panels to debate and identify practical interventions in land tenure rights, safety and security, or informal economic opportunities, all require participation by broader stakeholder groups. This may require building further capability to analyse gender issues. The analysis must then integrate gender interventions into everyday operating procedure for organisations.

Above all we need new champions to come forward with transformative agendas, which incorporate intersectionality, LGBTQ and other cultural interests. 

Transformation is possible

Clare Short, the former Secretary of State for International Development, recently told me: "I feel optimistic that the appointment of Maimunah Sharif could help to radicalise UN-Habitat. She was a creative mayor and built on the need for women's empowerment to greatly improve the governance of her city. One woman cannot do it all. Transformation requires men and women to share power at all levels, and she will need financial and political support. But she may well lead the way."

UN-Habitat has achieved tremendous success in establishing the Women's Assembly, as well as women as a thematic category. But to keep moving forward on gender we must challenge them and other institutions that still only offer 'women-specific' panels at their international events.

About the author

Caroline Moser is emeritus professor at the University of Manchester, and an urban social anthropologist and social policy specialist.

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