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Lessons... learned?

21 October 2005

Apologies for the silence! For those of us working in conflict/post-conflict countries, the day-to-day tends to take precedence over the longer-term strategic thinking and reflection (the stuff that this blog is filled with!). It's hard to pick "one thing" that is important when talking about women in conflict. I sometimes get discouraged when I notice that we KNOW what we should and shouldn't do, but we often are unable to do it. Policy preferences, funding shortages, conflicting priorities... the excuses can go on. I am in the fortunate position of wearing many hats at once - I work "in the field" as a practitioner and try to observe/learn from my work as a PhD candidate. My research is centered on the effects of gender-focused international aid on women and men in post-conflict contexts, with Afghanistan as my case study. I recently had the opportunity to do a little bit of thinking along those lines for my recently-published report (http://www.fes.org.af/AFGHANISTAN0905ABIRAFEHGENDER.pdf). I have a few lessons to share from the experiences - lessons we all know and generally agree on, but none we have succeeded in applying or "learning", as we say! It is clear that conflict brings both opportunities and vulnerabilities to women. A gender analysis is essential, along with a contextualized understanding of the country/conflict in order to sustain gains. Recognizing the need between practical needs and strategic interests is crucial. It is dangerous to make strategic promises (such as the "liberation" and "empowerment" rhetoric that was used in Afghanistan) and expect these promises to be met with practical solutions. A tailoring program is not necessarily the path to social change. These promises raise expectations. Failing to deliver makes the situation worse for women, and also destroys our own credibility. Building trust in communities takes performance. If we are unable to deliver on what we promise, we cannot expect to be welcome in communities, nor can we expect to support advances in women's rights and social change. We could create greater resistance to our "advancement" agendas. In Afghanistan, we were guilty of reducing women to symbols and stereotypes, denying their agency and their diverse identities. Women in Afghanistan are more than just the bourka. And, the bourka is not the barometer for social change. I could go on about the bourka... but I will save that for another posting! Another lesson we have failed to learn is the use of the term "gender". We tend to operate with a narrow understanding of this word, and a near-denial of the fact that gender actually includes men along with women. If we are working with gender programming, let's use a robust definition of the term. And let's recognize that "gender" is contextualized and means different things in different contexts. In conflict/post-conflict, I believe that both gender and women's programming is effective. Finally, one lesson that is close to my heart is the idea that there are (negative) externalities of development interventions. It is possible to do more damage than good, in fact. Poorly designed development programs could generate a backlash and could make things worse for women. There are signs of this for some women in Afghanistan. I would love to hear more about your experiences in this regard. What do you think??

And one last thought... I'll be in Bangkok next week for the AWID forum. Will anyone else be there? Might be nice to meet up!

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