Gender Mainstreaming

Changing the course of development?

Authored by: Caroline Sweetman

The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Development

Print publication date:  February  2015
Online publication date:  February  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415829083
eBook ISBN: 9780203383117
Adobe ISBN: 9781134094714




In 2011–2012, the journal Gender & Development 1 instigated a discussion between women’s rights activists and gender and development policymakers and practitioners on the progress of gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is an approach to women’s rights and gender issues, widely adopted by governments and development institutions of all sizes, shapes and hues after it acquired currency at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995.

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Gender Mainstreaming


In 2011–2012, the journal Gender & Development 1 instigated a discussion between women’s rights activists and gender and development policymakers and practitioners on the progress of gender mainstreaming. Gender mainstreaming is an approach to women’s rights and gender issues, widely adopted by governments and development institutions of all sizes, shapes and hues after it acquired currency at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995.

Today, nearly 20 years on from Beijing, ‘gender’ is spoken of all the time. It is supposed to be ‘mainstreamed’ into humanitarian responses, and in long-term development programmes; at different stages of the project cycle; and in all types of interventions – from advocacy initiatives to community-level development. But what has this meant for women and men, girls and boys, in the communities and nations that have signed up to work on challenging and changing gender inequality? In the Gender & Development Beyond Gender Mainstreaming Learning Project, a total of around 100 participants was involved to discuss these and other concerns. 2 Participants came from markedly different personal, professional and institutional locations. We pooled our thinking and expertise; challenged each other’s perspectives on the contribution gender mainstreaming has made to the pursuit of gender equality and women’s rights worldwide; and considered the future of gender mainstreaming as an approach to the feminist goals of gender equality and women’s rights.

Some of the insights gained are offered here. Gender mainstreaming has not had uniform effects, nor should we expect it to have had; yet we can make some general points to help our diagnosis of success and failure, and this chapter attempts to raise some of the most important among these. The first section gives a brief account of the coining of the concept of gender mainstreaming, recalling that this was an outcome of a process lasting 20 years, punctuated by formal UN-convened encounters between the global women’s rights movements 3 and the international development community. The chapter then goes on to discuss some of the ways in which gender mainstreaming has played out in practice. In such a discussion, it is crucial to consider how tensions around the underlying vision of development inform gender mainstreaming in international institutions, donor governments, governments in the Global South and NGOs of different types.

The origins of gender mainstreaming

To the international women’s movements in 1995, gender mainstreaming represented the most encouraging and largest step forward yet, in a struggle that had been marked by the series of UN Conferences on Women, which had run from the first one in Mexico City, in 1975, to Beijing in 1995, and had taken in the UN Decade for Women 1976–1985. Women’s rights activists from all over the world had engaged with states and international development organisations over this time. They had debated differences in dialogue with each other, honing a shared vision and priorities, and built a powerful coalition that aimed to transform the course of global development itself.

Gender mainstreaming was a response to the failure of women in development (WID) programming of the 1970s and 1980s. Evidence had proliferated of ‘project misbehaviour’ (Buvinic 1986), as women responded to ill-conceived development initiatives foisted on them by pursuing strategies to mitigate their negative effects and capture any benefits to be had. Despite varying political and economic rationales for undertaking work with women (Moser 1989), the vast majority of WID programs began with promoting women’s income-generating activities as an entry point. Feminist and women’s rights organisations from the Global South argued that WID projects designed to harness women’s productive potential to unsustainable national growth strategies needed to be jettisoned. Informed by a broadly socialist analysis of poverty as rooted in inequality, they argued for a strategy of empowerment and transformation. In this, the role of Northern-based development organisations was to support Southern women’s rights organisations to use as they saw fit in pursuit of home-grown solutions to political, economic and social marginalisation of women. Ultimately, this would change the course of development.

Perhaps the most famous articulation of an alternative vision of development informed fully by the perspectives of women in the global South is that of the DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New era) network:

For many women, problems of nationality, class, and race are inextricably linked to their specific oppression as women. Defining feminism to include the struggle against all forms of oppression is both legitimate and necessary. In many instances gender equality must be accompanied by changes on these other fronts, at the same time, the struggle against gender subordination cannot be compromised during the struggle against other forms of oppression, or be relegated to a future when they may be wiped out . . . we strongly affirm that feminism strives for the broadest and deepest development of society and human beings, free of all systems of domination.

(Sen and Grown 1987: 19)

Feminist activism at the UN Beijing Conference 1995

It is clear from the last section that feminist activists saw (and still see) dramatic change in the ways development addressed the concerns of gender equality and women’s rights as necessary not only to women, but to the whole of humanity. Development organisations needed to change their sense of what their purpose was, and who they were intended to serve, in addition to their ways of working, in order to be capable of delivering the transformative vision of development set out by international women’s movements over the two decades leading up to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing in 1995.

At Beijing, an enormous NGO forum (a gathering of civil society organisations) took place parallel to the conference proper. The vibrancy – and the diversity – of the international women’s movements were evident. Differences in identity, location and hence in priorities did not hinder powerful lobbying and advocacy to achieve a positive outcome at the conference, resulting in the UN commitment to gender mainstreaming in the Beijing Platform for Action. Yet – as is so often the case when passionate activism and radical political thinking attempts to change the course of history – the commitment given by governments at Beijing was a compromise between widely varying views from radicals and conservatives, often relying for the establishment of consensus on the use of words that can be widely interpreted according to the motive and context of the policymaker.

This was the context for the UN’s eventual definition of gender mainstreaming, with its rather mechanistic understanding of gender analysis as a means to transform development. Interpretation and implementation has been left to individual development organizations to figure out for themselves:

Mainstreaming a gender perspective is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes, in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.

(United Nations 1997: 1)

We are now almost two decades on from the Beijing Conference and the start of widespread commitments to gender mainstreaming, and ‘almost all international development organizations and governments have adopted gender mainstreaming in some form’ (Derbyshire 2012: 406).

In the next section, I draw on discussions from the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming Learning Project to examine perhaps the key concern in assessing the ‘fit’ between the radical vision of change of feminists at Beijing, and the progress made thus far.

Gender mainstreaming, policy and organisational approaches to development

It is a challenge for development and humanitarian organisations to assess the impact of their activities on the lives of women and girls, men and boys ‘on the ground’, whose lives are altered profoundly and continuously by all sorts of factors. In a review of gender mainstreaming undertaken in the early 2000s, Caroline Moser and Annalise Moser (2005) pointed out that many analyses of the impact of gender mainstreaming have tended to focus on the impact of gender mainstreaming on development organisations themselves, rather than looking at the impact on supposed ‘beneficiaries’ (and others). This focus on ‘who we are’ rather than ‘what we do’ has of course a great deal to do with the focus of feminist enquiry in the 1990s into the key role of social institutions, including the market, state and NGOs, in perpetuating or challenging gender inequality. Institutions reflect the norms and values of surrounding society – an aspect of which is ‘male bias’ (Elson 1991). Getting development institutions ‘right for women’ (Goetz 1995) has thus been a priority in the era of gender mainstreaming. Ramya Subrahmanian (2007: 113) has observed that ‘a key criticism about gender mainstreaming has been the “narrowness” of the strategy despite the complexity of gender relations and the contextual variations in the processes and outcomes related to gender inequalities’.

In her research into the initial impact of gender mainstreaming, Rounaq Jahan (1995) distinguished between integrationist and agenda-setting mainstreaming. Integrationist mainstreaming is a process whereby aspects of the Beijing agenda are taken up without organisations essentially altering their vision of development, policies or ways of working. It is seen as a technical concern – as Jahan states, work that integrates gender analysis of women’s and men’s concerns throughout policies and projects. In contrast, agenda-setting mainstreaming changes the course of the organisation’s work – in the way gender mainstreaming was intended by the women’s movement – and, as such, requires understanding of the deeply rooted normative beliefs that inform an organisation’s culture and therefore underpin all its activities, keeping existing power relations in place and unchallenged.

For many working in governments and international organisations disbursing development funding to states and NGOs in developing countries, ‘gender mainstreaming’ took a decidedly integrationist form. At worst, it has been reduced into a magic bullet solution to development, in which the North-to-South transfer of resources to women entrepreneurs is often in the form of repayable loans. The hope is that this will result in wealth creation for women, their families and society. These small injections of capital are often linked in the minds of the donors to socially desirable outcomes associated with the empowerment of women. These range from fertility reduction to investment in daughters’ education. Giving resources to women is seen as ‘smart economics’ – policymakers and practitioners in the international financial institutions in particular argue for funding for programs with gender equality aims on the basis of broader economic and social impact (Chant and Sweetman 2012).

Yet, while it focuses on women and channels resources to them, programing undertaken from a ‘smart economics’ perspective fails to challenge the complex structural inequalities shaping the realities of individual women living in poverty in the Global South. While it may benefit some women in a limited way, smart economics depoliticises the notion of gender mainstreaming by using the language of radical change, empowerment and women’s rights, while abdicating responsibility that politicians and economists should take to remove gender, race and class-based inequalities in social institutions, which shape the realities of women and constrain their ability to realise real, sustained and systemic change.

In contrast to this focus on economic prosperity as the key to development and gender inequality, ‘alternative’ development organisations – that is, those whose vision of development is founded on left-wing political ideals of equality, rights and justice – are more likely to see the need for political voice to be built for women as a constituency, through work addressing political and social dimensions of powerlessness head-on. However, experience of gender mainstreaming shows progress has been patchy. Participants in the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming project confirmed that there is still a tendency not to look beyond the economic aspects of development to focus on inequality holistically. Programmes may end up defaulting to look very much like smart economics approaches, focusing on ‘economic empowerment’ of women and leaving the dirty, dangerous work of dismantling political and social barriers to women’s rights to women themselves – just as the WID projects discussed above did in the past.

In addition, some participants highlighted the fact that – even after all this time, and the incredibly high-profile activism of feminists from the Global South – gender mainstreaming in development is still dogged by assertions that women’s human rights agendas and feminist change are cultural impositions on developing countries. There is, of course, a vast range of evidence of the thriving multiplicity of women’s rights movements in the Global South, which may or may not use the term ‘feminist’, and may or may not be wholly ‘home-grown’ (we live in an age of globalised ideas and political movements, after all), but all of which represent constituencies of women in developing countries fighting for their rights.

Research focusing on the impact of gender mainstreaming on women and girls ‘on the ground’ tends to suggest that development policymakers and practitioners need to base our mainstreaming in a more conscious analysis of how change happens, and gain a clearer – and more realistic? – awareness of the role to be played by development organisations. Gender mainstreaming strategies that prioritise the top-down North-to-South transfer of resources and see gender inequality as remedied by women earning income fail to root their analysis of change in the empowerment of women living in poverty in the Global South; yet this was the central vision of mainstreaming as originally articulated by the global women’s movements.

Institutionalising gender mainstreaming

What strategies have feminists inside and outside development organisations employed to change development organisations internally, so they are more able to deliver real change for women in the Global South? The institutional aspects of gender mainstreaming are critical to dismantle bias informed by gender, race and class-based inequalities, development institutions (from states to international financial institutions to NGOs of all types and sizes) need to be ‘right for women’ (Goetz 1995). Gender mainstreaming has thus involved attention to policies, personnel, organisational ‘architecture’ and structures, human resource recruitment and management procedures, as well as the analytical tools employed in programme planning and implementation, to ensure these support gender equality and women’s rights. Gender policies have been drafted, redrafted and ratified. Debates have been had about adopting the terminology of ‘gender’: gender analysis, gender tools and frameworks, gender equality – or equity, or justice. Decisions have been taken on how to develop organisational infrastructure to support gender mainstreaming. Methods for programme planning, implementation and evaluation have been developed, rolled out, discarded, forgotten and reinvented. Senior management comes and goes, and gender issues are sometimes championed, and occasionally seemingly almost forgotten. Consultants are asked to evaluate progress on gender issues periodically, and their findings acted on, or placed on a (literal or virtual) shelf to gather dust.

The trajectories followed by different organisations have been usefully typologised by Helen Derbyshire (2012), building on her participation in the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming Project; some of the key elements are discussed here.

The need for twin-track programming

Some success has been won by arguing for a ‘twin-track’ approach to mainstreaming (van Eerdewijk and Dubel 2012), in which the organisation integrates gender analysis into planning and implements a programme that has ‘stand-alone’ women’s rights-related aims alongside primary economic goals concerned with livelihoods, the provision of basic services or humanitarian response. Stand-alone work can take the form of advocacy or programme work addressing key concerns for women, which aims to improve their status rather than simply meeting their needs within the existing gender division of labour (Molyneux 1985). Examples are campaigning against gender-based violence, or promoting women’s reproductive and sexual rights. This kind of work has an explicit primary aim of furthering women’s rights and gender equality, and complements the work happening in other sectors, which may meet women’s practical needs rather than challenging power relations. Stand-alone work potentially acts as a catalyst to radicalise programmes, so that comparatively politically conservative projects can end up having a real impact on gender power relations. Examples of this happening were discussed in the Beyond Gender Mainstreaming project (Holt Zachariassen 2012).

The role of the gender specialist in mainstreaming

Research has shown that staff in development institutions often feel poorly equipped and informed on gender issues (see Mehra and Rao Gupta 2006), and are unsure of the right methods to employ to gain understanding of the perspectives and perceived needs of potential beneficiaries of development programmes. Yet if the emphasis in gender mainstreaming is on ensuring that all the activities of development organisations focus on gender equality, then everyone has a role to play in working towards gender equality (see, for example, van Eerdewijk and Dubel 2012).

Planning and programming in ways that support gender equality and women’s rights requires staff with the right knowledge, skills and attitudes. A key element of gender mainstreaming is the use of conceptual frameworks and ‘gender analysis tools’ that enable development and humanitarian workers to ask the right questions in their baseline research, build up a picture of women’s and men’s roles and of gender power relations in a particular context, and plan and implement a programme that responds fully to these varying realities. At the other end of the project cycle is impact assessment, so that we can see what we have actually done to improve the lives of women and men, girls and boys, from a gender perspective. All development organisations need structures and accounting procedures that enable us to see the impact of institutional gender mainstreaming, via ‘gender budgeting’ – part of mainstreaming in the case of some national governments, and equally important in development organisations.

Having staff with a specific gender job description in a department or organisation can create a ‘corporate home to guide the incorporation of gender equality considerations’ (Murison 2002), thus supporting the entire gender mainstreaming project. Such a presence can offer a ‘location’ to which other equality advocates can refer to forge important relationships and find support of different types (Wakefield 2012, in the context of Oxfam International). Gender experts within institutions, whether governments or large INGOs, can be (at their best) ‘entrepreneurial actors’ who take advantage of internal opportunities (for example, an organisa tional focus on social justice) and external opportunities (for example, global conferences such as Beijing) to facilitate the flow of information and stronger bonds between themselves and the women’s movement – between gender advisors in INGOs and women’s rights organisations, and between themselves and other similar institutions.

Once the battle is won to get organisations to accept the need for gender specialists to work in an empowering way with colleagues and project participants, the next task is to consider their role and scope. Rarely, if ever, is the presence of gender expertise an explicit part of the theory of change that underlies a programme, project or initiative, yet ‘the work [gender advocates] are involved in plays a critical direct (as well as behind the scene) role in shaping the development decisions that ultimately affect women’s and girls’ lives’ (Derbyshire 2012: 407).

It will have been obvious that different terms have been used so far: gender experts, gender advocates, gender advisor and gender focal points. The difference in terminology reflects concrete differences in the types of roles that individuals can take within development bodies, as well as existing negative or positive perceptions of such roles.

There are a range of other factors associated with the personal characteristics of gender specialists, which affect their ability to drive effective mainstreaming. They not only need the right knowledge and skills, and credibility (Wong 2012), but their substantive post needs to give them a mandate to do this work – which is not the case for most ‘focal points’ (a notoriously weak formulation). Also, evidence suggests that they need to identify to some extent as feminist (Derbyshire 2012).

However, employing gender specialists and cultivating gender expertise among other staff, while necessary, will not deliver positive outcomes in the absence of other important institutional, policy and operational steps that change structures, processes, hearts and minds. The Beyond Gender Mainstreaming debates focused, for example, on the critical point of committed leadership from senior management as integral for effective gender mainstreaming. That leadership also needs to be informed, and focused accompaniment by a gender specialist might be a strategy to follow to ensure leaders’ understanding of the very complex gender issues in different contexts is approached in the spirit of seeing transformative potential wherever this lies. While there is no denying that the words and actions of a CEO or head of department in relation to women’s rights is crucial, they can create new dilemmas, as their interpretation of issues and strategies may not necessarily match what gender advocates would promote, while at the same time carrying more weight within the organisation.

Gender mainstreaming and collaboration with women’s movements

Another key issue for transformative gender mainstreaming is working with women’s rights movements, feminist organisations and networks, as key and essential allies in mainstreaming.

In the wake of gender mainstreaming being embraced by the UN and states as a priority, what has happened to the relationship between feminists inside and outside development organisations, and to the wider relationship between the development organisations and the women’s rights movements, which hoped for so much from gender mainstreaming?

Working with feminist movements, organisations and networks is perhaps, above all others, the key to ensure gender mainstreaming is truly transformative. Alliances with such organisations promote effective gender mainstreaming for a number of reasons. At an immediate level, such organisations are intimately connected on a daily basis with the gender equality and women’s rights issues that form just one part of the work of development organisations. They are critical allies for feminists working within development organisations and, at best, this relationship results in powerful, nuanced and politically ‘savvy’ activism that advances women’s rights either nationally or internationally, and results in community development work that actually furthers the perceived interests of women on the ground, as it comes from a locally informed perspective. Feminist movements can exchange different forms of support with development practitioners as well as pool information and strategies. Organisations and movements working on women’s rights are frequently directly linked to women’s and girls’ lives (O’Connell 2012), and thus help organisations with whom they collaborate to increase their legitimacy and relevance. This throws up a very significant challenge to development organisations, of course. The ultimate challenge for these organisations is to let go of the agenda and permit Southern women to determine the agenda themselves – which may or may not resemble organisations’ ideas of the changes to be achieved in the name of gender mainstreaming.

By definition, women’s rights organisations and movements bring a much more transformative element to gender mainstreaming because of the approaches and methodology they use. They also contribute to a holistic, well-rounded approach; mainstreaming gender considerations in sectors or in specialised bodies is liable to bring with it the kind of fragmented view that can easily lead to simplistic (or even mistaken) approaches; for example, those based on the notion that working towards better income for women is the way to gender equality and women’s empowerment, rather than part of a more comprehensive and complex understanding of both.

Having stressed the importance of such alliances and collaborations, it is necessary to remind ourselves that there are – in the women’s rights community – serious concerns about the consequences of women’s rights organisations and networks working with governments and other actors in the pursuit of gender justice. Srilatha Batliwala (2012) sees the dangers of an ‘NGO-isation’ process that derails feminist activism in the Global South, distorting the agenda of local feminist and women’s organisations as international donors begin to shift priorities to a focus on anti-poverty service delivery. This line of argument is that UN agencies and international donors are turning women’s organisations into NGOs and, in the process, despoiling them of the characteristics that make them ‘social movements’ capable of representing and furthering the social changes desired by local populations. Another view is that the imposition from Northern universities and NGOs of ‘gender’ is to be blamed for work on gender issues not ‘translating into real change, either within NGOs or within communities’ (Wendoh and Wallace 2006).

’Women’s rights organizations and movements are a vital catalyst for the realisation of women’s rights’ and their partnership with donors and international NGOs has huge benefits for women’s needs and interests (Esplen 2013). While recognising that problems and pitfalls exist against which we must all guard, national governments and other international organisations have an obligation to ‘support’ women’s organisations and networks, both because it has long been established that collective action is the most powerful avenue to promoting women’s rights, and because of the constant struggle such networks have in securing sufficient financial resources. Indeed, in a recent path-breaking study on the impact of local feminist movements on violence against women in 70 countries over 40 years, Mala Htun and Laurel Weldon confirm that the existence of a strong vibrant local movement is the single most important factor in successful work to address violence against women, in part due to their role in holding governments to account on their international commitments on women’s rights and ending violence against women (Htun and Weldon 2013).

What, then, has been the impact of mainstreaming?

This chapter set out to examine a few of the most important issues that the experience of gender mainstreaming has thrown up. Twenty years after Beijing, women are still waiting for the transformation to global and national governance that they require in order to participate and demand accountability, and that would logically result in a changed world order reflecting the values and priorities of women living in poverty in the Global South.

We face complex crises globally, presenting enormous challenges to the whole of humanity. Conflicts, social turmoil owing to changes in economic and political power between regions and countries, the impact of climate change, food crises, and the continuing impact of the 2007–2008 economic crisis that began in Europe and North America, are among the factors threatening many in the Global South. Other factors challenging women’s rights include continuing struggles for citizenship in the context of globalization (see chapter by Townsend et al. in this volume); struggles for democracy in regions including the Middle East in the Arab Spring; ongoing conflicts; and failed states. Women are also facing the threat of growing social and political conservatisms in many societies, including fundamentalisms and religious extremism, in both the North and South, which particularly threatens women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. The wider picture is terrifying, but in many countries feminists – in particular, young feminists – are organising and taking action, often using new technologies to create new forms of activism.

Gender mainstreaming in most international development organisations, including the IFIs and the UN system, has fallen very far short of visions of transformative gender mainstreaming. Inequality is becoming the development issue of our times, but understandings of it tend to focus on inter-household inequality and not on the intra-household issues that are gendered and intrinsically linked to class and race inequalities throughout societies. The leadership of key development organisations that shape our world is still overwhelmingly male, white and elite. Women’s priorities and perspectives are missing from key decision-making bodies. Gender mainstreaming is a discredited concept for many feminist activists. The radical visions of Beijing have not resulted in a transformed global order; and there is widespread ‘sobering recognition of the enormous gap between feminists’ aspirations for social transformation and the limited, though important, gains that have been made’ (Cornwall et al. 2007: 1).

Nearly 20 years after Beijing and the inception of gender mainstreaming, what is its future? Perhaps the time has come to move ‘Beyond Gender Mainstreaming’ entirely. Do we need perhaps to move away from gender mainstreaming? Have we been there, done that and got the T-shirt? Is it now an outmoded and tired concept that has lost its currency? We may acknowledge the progress made in development organisations in taking on a concern for gender equality, but we also need to respond to the current backlash against these advances. Some argue that what is needed now is a shift away from gender mainstreaming, towards strategies that aim to end gender discrimination, focusing on social justice, transformation and change (Sandler and Rao 2012). Yet for others, adoption of gender mainstreaming language by states, development and humanitarian organisations is seen as a critical ‘foot in the door’. ‘Gender’ is now on the agenda of all organisations involved in development and humanitarian work. Can integrationist approaches be used as entry points for transformation and a genuine redistribution of power in development?

In the past year, there have been discussions in different quarters about the possibility of a UN Fifth Conference on Women, the need to lobby for the voices of women and girls to inform the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, and an assessment and refocusing of the UN Commission for the Status of Women, among other high-level changes to the gender equality and women’s rights agenda. Rather than adding women to recipes for poisonous, unsustainable development based on exploitation – in particular, of women in poverty in the Global South, or portraying these women as virtuous victims while failing to support their activism and demands for justice – development organisations need to take on a commitment to transformative gender mainstreaming. Development requires the perspectives and solutions of women, and women require equality, human rights and justice.


Gender & Development is an international journal published by Routledge for Oxfam. It aims to support transformative gender mainstreaming by providing a forum for the exchange of experience and analysis of development and humanitarian work. Its readers include development policymakers and practitioners, researchers, students and academics, and feminist activists. For more information, visit www.genderand

The Gender & Development Learning Project involved consultations with women’s organisations and researchers on gender issues, including a forum in Beirut, Lebanon, a two-day international online discussion hosted on the Eldis Communities website of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex; and a face-to-face learning event in London in February 2012. A special issue of Gender & Development was published in November 2012.

I use the terms ‘women’s rights’ and ‘feminist’ interchangeably to refer to organisations and movements focusing on transformative change in gender power relations. Not every women’s organisation is concerned with such change (Molyneux 1998).


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