Researching gender in development, conflict and security

On 23 April 2018, the International Development Department of the University of Birmingham held a workshop that brought together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from a range of universities across the UK with researchers and practitioners from NGOs. 

In the event, participants shared results and reflections on conducting research on gender in the fields of development, conflict and security. The presenters –who were overwhelmingly female – discussed topics ranging from gender and disasters, politically informed and gender aware development programming, gender in situations of conflict, displacement and terrorism, to gender in prisons and private security companies. The workshop also paid attention to ethical reflections about conducting research on gender: how to ‘perform’ the role of the researcher in cross-gender interviews in a Muslim setting? And how to write up research on sensitive topics such as violence against or by women, without breaching the trust of research participants?

Although extremely varied, some common threads could be found among the papers. One theme was that gender is still – or again – often used when only women are meant. This means that the underlying gender relations that cause gender inequality are insufficiently challenged. This statement made Prof Sarah Bradshaw of Middlesex University raise the question if gender still has significance- if everyone seems to be doing it, while so little changes. She calls this ineffective type of gender work ‘Laura Ashley gender’, for being flowery but having little impact. This one-sided approach to gender means that men are typically left out of ‘gender-sensitive’ policies or research. Opinions differed about whether this should be seen as positive, since addressing men risks reducing resources for women’s empowerment, or as negative, since it creates tensions by making men feel threatened and emasculated by one-sided support for women, while at the same time men’s part in maintaining gender inequality is left unaddressed.

Several other presenters shared reflections about the need to address women’s agency, beyond seeing them merely as victims of violence. Several papers discussed that women are also political actors within armed groups and movements of sex workers. Women have even robbed banks in miniskirts to fund the armed struggle during the Portuguese revolution. At the same time, a common thread was how women are often used in an instrumental way. For example, armed groups use women to send an image of progressiveness and social justice goals or in contrast use them as keepers of the ‘theatre of daily life’. Development policies often address women as part of ‘smart economics’. Kenyan sex workers in turn critique how everyone always works ‘on them’ instead of ‘with them’. This shows how gender discourse is widely used, but not always with the explicit goal of challenging and transforming gender inequality.

The workshop was closed by an insightful and thought-provoking keynote paper by Dr Polly Wilding, lecturer in Gender and International Development at the University of Leeds. She drew attention to the contradictory situation of many Latin American countries. In spite of ambitious and progressive laws to prevent and address violence against women, adopted as the result of persistent feminist lobby efforts and widespread protests, high levels of violence against women persist. The contrast between awareness of this problem and the on-going societal tolerance of violence raises questions about the role of the state and institutional machismo in maintaining violence against women. It also indicates that social attitudes on gender equality tend to lag behind political or legal changes. Although laws can have an important symbolic meaning by formally condemning violence against women, they can also act as a smokescreen: since laws are in place, it is women’s fault if they do not use them. This shows that although important progress has been made in terms of addressing gender, many challenges remain. Although a sad finding, it also means that much work is left for researchers interested in gender in the fields of development, conflict and security.