Why it matters: Aruna Rao on bridging the gap between theory and practice

By student contributor Asthaa Chaturvedi 

Photo courtesy of Aruna Rao.
Photo courtesy of Aruna Rao

We continue our interview series with Aruna Rao, Cofounder and Executive Director of Gender at Work. She is one of the panelists featured in today’s GGP, Oxfam, and Gender at Work event entitled,  “From Integration to Disruption – How to Transform Gender Relations?” We discussed the aims of Gender at Work and how institutional biases against women are still pervasive under the surface of many organizations.

So what exactly does Gender at Work do? Rao said, “Institutions and organizations need to be aware of internal biases and open up vistas for understanding gender built-in inequalities…. We bridge the gap between theories and practice.”

Gender at Work began its efforts with “putting ideas out there.” It is not a donor organization, and much of its efforts depend on the participation of programs and institutions. Rao has found that they want to be a part of a process that unfolds over a period of time. A set of organizations become peer learners and use each other to strategize how to move forward and become sensitive to biased frameworks.

Gender at Work works with a range of organizations – from UN agencies, to trade unions in South Africa to small NGOS, like Vanagana in UP, that serve Dalit communities.

While there have been exciting advances in both theory and practice when it comes to gender and development, Rao has found that there is a long way to go when it comes to truly improving the status quo. She said that the extent to which these organizations engage and devote resources to women’s rights and equality is limited. According to a recent AWID study, funding flows to women’s organizations have largely decreased in recent years.

Gender at Work workshop.  Photo courtesy fo Aruna Rao.
Gender at Work workshop. Photo courtesy of Aruna Rao.

Rao also said, “People don’t oppose women’s rights and equalities directly – it’s just not politically correct. The resistance is more invisible, subtle – it’s seen in how agendas are set.”

There are developments that give her hope, however. Rao talked about inspiring work on change theories, and advancements in thinking around sexual and reproductive rights.

When I asked her why focusing on gender inequalities still matters, Aruna said, “Being blind to gender has led to disastrous impacts…. Our policies and awareness should mirror the communities we work in. It ranges from this thinking on development and social change to the basic dignity you accord to people.”

For students looking to work in the gender development field, Aruna said, “Don’t follow the rules, always look to create spaces that are autonomous from structures that ‘routinize’ behavior. Build dynamic connections inside and outside institutions.”

Today’s event will bounce off the Gender and Development Journal’s project on gender mainstreaming. The panel discussion will ask whether it has been a transformative practice and discuss the new strategies and narratives of feminist movement building. “Now that we’re coming up on 20th anniversary of Beijing, when gender mainstreaming was visionary, we want to ask what do we think of it now?” said Rao. Listen to a clip of our conversation below.

Women in the Arab Gulf states: Pioneers for equality?

The April 2011 issue of Human Resource Development International contains four articles devoted to women, empowerment and human resource development in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Beverly Dawn Metcalfe, senior lecturer in the Center for Organizations and Development at the University of Manchester, wrote the guest editorial piece and one of the articles.

Source: Change.org
Video still: Saudi woman driving in defiance of a ban. Source: Change.org, via New York Times blog Motherlode.
In her editorial, she states that her aim is to “promote transformative scholarship that addresses the centrality of women, work, empowerment and development in Arab Gulf states.”

She points out that Human Resource Development (HRD) has overlooked gender concerns. She notes that the articles in the issue of HRDI on women in the Gulf region describe the challenges the women there face, highlight positive gains made and critique outsiders’ assumptions.

Intersecting themes shaping women’s identity are globalization, women’s movements, Islamic feminism, institutional development and governance.

In her article, “Women, Empowerment and Development in Arab Gulf States: A Critical Appraisal of Governance, Culture and National Human Resource Development (HRD) Frameworks,” Metcalfe makes a case for inserting gender into the discipline of HRD. She considers national HRD planning in the context first of several Gulf states and provides gender statistics on them in comparison to the U.K. and the U.S.: women holding seats in parliament, women in minister positions, labor force participation and more. Women in the Gulf states are severely disadvantaged in all these measures.

Moreover, surveys reveal that both men and women see the man as the family provider and protector of the wife. The author then compares Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. None of these countries has a dedicated women’s ministry. But beyond this shared feature, variations across the three countries appear in women’s organizations and possibilities for women’s leadership training. Metcalfe points out that a key area will be finding ways for women to balance family and work responsibilities.
Continue reading “Women in the Arab Gulf states: Pioneers for equality?”

GW event: featuring Ambassador Melanne Verveer

Implementing QDDR Recommendations on Gender and Development
Thursday, April 14
1957 E Street NW, 7th floor, City View Room
The Elliott School of International Affairs
This roundtable discussion will look at examples of how a gender perspective has been implemented in infrastructure, education, health, fragile states, and economic empowerment projects. This discussion will include panelists from a range of governmental and non-governmental organizations. The James P. Grant lecture by Ambassador Melanne Verveer will address the importance of a gender perspective to achieving the QDDR goals including health.
Roundtable Discussion
10:00 am – 12:00 pm

Ambassador Melanne Verveer

Nilufar Ahmad, Senior Gender Specialist, the World Bank
Leigh Carter, Executive Director, Fonkoze USA
Caren Grown, Senior Gender Advisor, USAID
Anju Malhotra, Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Impact, ICRW
Ritu Sharma, President and Co-Founder, Women Thrive Worldwide
Winnie Tay, Director of Program Management, Plan International USA

Moderator: Barbara Miller, Director, Global Gender Initiative
James P. Grant Lecture: Gender, Diplomacy, and Development
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Melanne Verveer
Ambassador at-large for Global Women’s Issues
Please RSVP here
Free and open to the public
Light refreshments will be available starting at 9:30 am

Sponsored by the Global Gender Initiative of the Institute for Global and International Studies and the GW Collaborating Centers for Public Health and Development

The George Washington University