Through a Feminist Lens

It’s time for a feminist lens to show us what justice for women looks like.This past week, the Canadian government published its long awaited International Assistance Policy. As the leader of an organization that has good links with Global Affairs Canada, the department responsible for funding and carrying this policy out, I and many colleagues were curious to know what it would contain. What would the Canadian posture be towards the poor and marginalized around the world? How would it seek to bring help and promote good development? How would we care for those in desperate situations who need assistance?

The answer? We would have a ‘feminist lens.’

At first look, this may be a controversial statement for some if it is interpreted as both marginalizing males and underlining a word that has been politicized and divisive in many quarters. But personally, I think it’s an impressive and inspired idea.

As the introduction to the policy states “Canada is adopting a feminist international assistance policy to promote gender equality and help empower all women and girls. For Canada, this is the most effective approach to reducing poverty and building a more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous world.” I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

It has six action areas, all of which will be seen through this feminist lens, with the crosscutting theme of promoting gender equality.

  1. Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls (the major theme)
  2. Human Dignity (health and nutrition, education, humanitarian action)
  3. Growth That Works for Everyone
  4. Environment and Climate Action
  5. Inclusive Governance
  6. Peace and Security

As someone who has been active for a number of years in both the marginalized youth and development field, I have seen a very male dominated development philosophy that has constantly been at play. Call it a ‘masculine lens’ if you like. Yet we haven’t reacted to it in the way many are reacting to this new phrase, for the simple reason that we have been blind to it. It is, quite literally, the hidden lens we see through and male domination in most spheres is just the way things are. Yet at the same time, we have to understand that there are linkages to this fact and to the failure of many of the targets that have been set out for development in various agendas, such as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

It’s time for a feminist lens to show us what #justice for women looks like. Click To Tweet

For example, according the recent Poverty is Sexist report, 130,000,000 girls remained out of school in 2016.1 That is a far higher proportion than boys and a long way from the goal of universal education that was set for 2015. I’m sure if it was boys at such a bad disadvantage, we would have thrown resources at that years ago. Or perhaps we could look at the atrocious fact that rape is now used as a weapon of warfare and intimidation, as exemplified by the recent statement by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who gave permission for soldiers to rape women up to three times as part of a military campaign to fight terrorism.2 Is it any wonder that peace and security as defined under action area six above are crucial issues for women.

Poverty IS sexist. Women bear the brunt of it and anyone who works in the majority world, or the inner cities or indeed, pretty much anywhere, will tell you that. Furthermore, it’s been shown time and again that development projects that empower women have a far-reaching influence, so it’s not only just and fair to promote and work for gender equality, it’s philosophically sensible.

Yet I have heard a number of people recently complaining about this phraseology, largely because the new policy seems at first sight, to marginalize males. In fact, it doesn’t. Even a brief read shows the Canadian governments understanding that to empower women, to combat gender violence, to promote dignity and worth for all and to end sexual exploitation, you must enfold men and boys in this effort too. Just looking at education for example, systems won’t work if we tell all the boys to leave the classroom and we just educate the girls. Instead we need to give the girls as much of a chance as the boys by providing the environment and opportunities for them to thrive and to promote education that benefits all. That means changing worldviews about the role of women, educating parents about why a girl should receive the same opportunities as a boy. Working with communities to explore ways to end gender based violence and human trafficking, which has way more female than male victims. And so much more besides that involves equal participation.

So rather than reacting to the phrase, we need to understand what a feminist lens means. To take time, to think and look. Yes, there are parts of the policy that are problematic for some, especially in the area of sexual and reproductive health rights. And yes, it is disappointing that as yet, the government has not increased the budget for its development activity. However, there is a lot to celebrate and be thankful for and we shouldn’t lose sight of the very laudable thing the Canadian government is trying to promote.

Perhaps it’s time we all changed our focus and realized that, especially us men. So, I’m proud that Canada is taking a lead in gender equality. It’s time for a feminist lens to show us what justice for women looks like, to reveal the true nature of what is going on in the world. It’s time to use it to help us empower women and girls across the globe. It’s for the good of us all.

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