In your own way

Power and Women’s Empowerment in the Context of Violence against Women

Yangchen Dolkar Dorji*


Power is crucial in understanding social science. In this article, the author discusses the shift of gender discourses on the basis of the theories of power. She argues that, violence against women cannot be addressed without analysing the layers of power that exist not only between men and women but in relation to the state, society (including other women) and themselves. By being sensitive to the intersectionality of power, it is possible for development actors and agencies to empower women through influencing more equitable and inclusive structural reforms and by providing a more conducive environment for women’s rights or rights of any marginalised group.


The work of the French philosopher and historian, Foucault was instrumental in understanding the dynamics of power. His interpretation of power, however, moved away from the conventional notion of agency, structure and using power as a mechanism for coercion and towards an idea of power as dispersed and pervasive and ‘comes from everywhere’ (Foucault, 1991). His characterization of power was difficult to integrate into previous theories of power that regarded power as concentrated, possessed, coercive and deployed by agents (Gaventa, 2003). This will be further discussed along this paper but for now, it can be established that the concept of power is one that is highly contested in the political, social and economic arena due to its dynamic nature. Consequently, this leads to differing stances on the term empowerment by development and social actors. This makes it difficult to derive a comprehensive definition for power and hence of empowerment as it takes on several forms and transforms from one moment or place to another. As Petit (2013, p. 38) suggests, using multiple perspectives and methods of understanding power rather than restricting oneself to a single definition and approach would be more beneficial to analyzing the complexities of such a fluid and ever changing concept.

Since power can be interpreted in various ways, it can also be exercised in multiple contexts including but not limited to situations of conflict and violence. Power relations are a critical underlying issue in acts of violence and have been defined by feminists as an ‘assault on a person’s physical and mental integrity [embodying] the power imbalances inherent in a patriarchal society’ (Bushra and Lopez, 1993 cited in Moser and Clark, 2001, p. 6). Moser, however, points out that the US National Academy of Sciences Research Panel did not share this perspective of violence as it defined it as ‘behaviors by individuals that intentionally threaten, attempt or inflict physical harm on others.’ Others like Galtung (1985, cited in Moser and Clark, 2001, p. 7) have described the violence as an outcome of unequal distribution of resources rather than attributing it to individual behavior. His definition stresses on the lack of human agency and is similar to Foucauldian concepts of power. Although the semantics of violence are debatable, the ways in which violence can be inflicted are essentially physically, sexually, psychologically and deprivation (World Health Organization[WHO] 2002).While recognizing that there are many forms of violence and that complex gendered representations of violent conflict exist which include men as victims and peacemakers, violence against men, homophobic violence, and violence in homosexual relationships, this paper will primarily be discussing the most common form of violence: Violence against Women (VAW) with particular attention to interpersonal violence committed by men in relation to the theories of power.

According to the WHO (no date), sex is defined as “the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women” while gender is defined as the “socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for men and women”[1]. Gender disparities occur in all spheres of life including in political, social, economic and private spaces and one of the most widespread forms of its manifestation is VAW.The United Nations General Assembly recognized the role of unequal power relations between men and women in VAW when it adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (United Nations [UN], 1993).Not only was it the first time the issue of VAW was explicitly addressed in the international arena but it provided a definition of VAW as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”(ibid).

The first section will analyze the underlying power relations that exist on the issue of Violence against Women by using a case study of the Maghreb region of North Africa that comprises of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria and exploring the factors reinforcing gender inequality in the region using Luke’s three faces of power. The next section will analyze the strategies adopted by development organizations and social change actors by using Women in Development (WID) approach and how it neglected to recognize the intersectionality of power. The last section examines the shift in discourse to Gender and Development (GAD) and uses the concepts of power to address the empowerment of women.


The Faces of Violence against Women in the Maghreb

Violence against Women (VAW) is a human rights issue that is still prevalent worldwide and transcends class, income, and ethnicity and has become one of the main focuses of development actors and international organizations only in the last thirty years. The problem of domestic violence, however, in spite of its fundamental violation of women’s and girl’s rights and being a major obstacle to development, have not been treated as seriously theoretically and by policy makers as those forms of violence taking place in the public sphere (Merry 2008). It is important to note that while this is a pervasive issue, the progress in Arab countries has been more anemic than responses in the rest of the world but perhaps not for reasons that the Western media tends to perpetuate (Hamadouche 2007). Rather, Hamadouche (p.122) points out that the status of women in North Africa is better off compared to women in many other Muslim and Arab countries. The Maghreb is a developing region undergoing political, economic and sociocultural changes due to modernization. While women’s participation in the political, economic and social sector grants them a degree of agency to advance their socioeconomic position, they still face structural and cultural obstacles to addressing the issue of VAW.

Since all forms of violence are motivated by a desire to obtain or maintain power (Moser and Clark, 2001) it is useful to explicitly identify the inherent power dynamics that determine the inclusiveness of participation within different spaces by using VeneKlasen and Miller’s simpler adaptation of Lukes’ three faces/dimensions of power; visible power, hidden power and invisible power (Lukes 1974; VeneKlasen and Miller 2002).The first dimension called visible power is essentially a pluralist approach to power that takes place in public spaces and is transparent and easily definable such as formal rules, structures, procedures of decision making and so on. In the Maghreb region, men’s formal control over women’s reproductive capacities via discriminatory regulations and patriarchal family codes, such as granting women a smaller share of family inheritance, criminalizing extramarital affairs for women and, in Morocco’s case, having no laws specifically prohibiting domestic violence (Moghadam and Roudi-Fahima 2003; Sadiqi 2010) reinforced gender inequality. The structural issues were so grave in Morocco that in 2012 it led to the notorious case of Amina Flali, a 16-year old who killed herself after being pressured to marry her rapist (BBC, 2014). In Morocco, article 475 of the penal code allowed rapists of underage girls to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims. Amina’s case drew public attention from civil society groups and led to outrage and protests for the amendment of the controversial family code which was a huge leap and historical event for women’s rights.

The issue of domestic violence was often eschewed by policies due to its private nature but as Sadiqi (2010) indicates “domestic violence may have roots that transcend the boundaries of the family”.  While family issues may reside in the private sphere and the visible power of the state in the public sphere, she recognizes the state’s role in shaping family structures and hence power hierarchies via legislation. In other words, the state’s relationship with the family lies in a fine line between private and public spaces and can also be interpreted as the second face of power, hidden power (Lukes 1974; VeneKlasen and Miller 2002). Gaventa (1980, p. 9) describes this dimension as a form of power that not only exercises decision-making authority as in the first dimension but also excludes certain actors from participating in public spaces, either explicitly or implicitly through the corridors of power. Discriminatory laws of the Maghreb countries such as having to obtain permission from a male relative or husband before applying for jobs, loans, starting a business or travelling (Moghadam and Roudi-Fahima 2003), have limited women’s agency of entering different areas in the first place and entrusted upon men the power to define what women were entitled to.

In this way, women’s access to public spaces and their relationship to the state were mediated by men. Opposition to women’s political participation seemed to arise more from politicians and scholars rather than the general public with the rationalization that the position of heads of state was similar to that of the imam and was restricted to men (Hamadouche 2007, p. 120). While religious beliefs themselves do not propagate gender inequalities, it is often used as a justification to perpetuate rigid gender roles and force people to conform to traditional norms. This will be reiterated in the last section revealing discrepancies between the Quran and the countries’ legal framework.   Additionally, traditional values such as women not being allowed to attend private meetings with males, restricted women from entering certain avenues in favor of men. This hidden power can also be ascribed to structural violence which Galtung (1969) defines as a form of violence whereby social structures or institutions cause harm to people through unequal distribution of resources and deprivation of basic needs. These wider forms of structural violence stress a lack of human agency and play an important role in how forms of violence get reproduced, institutionalized and socially tolerated.

While Maghrebi women face a lack of agency, this is not to say that they have no means to improve their socioeconomic status. They participate in various political, economic and social sectors and internal and external political pressures have led to necessary structural reforms in Morocco, Algeria and Libya (Hamadouche, 2007, p.123). However despite these changes, the influences of the invisible power or Luke’s third face of power (Lukes, 1974; VeneKlasen and Miller, 2002), is the most significant. Gaventa (2006) describes it as the internalization of powerlessness and it is the most insidious form of power that shapes not only decisions and agenda but also people’s ideology and consciousness. AfafLutfi al-SayyidMarsot (cited in Hamadouche, 2007, p.118) explains that the position of women is not determined by religious principles as much as it influenced by social practices and political constructions that eventually shape their self-worth. North African societies are characterized by a deeply patriarchal family structure and conservative mentality influenced by traditional values. Men are formally, and feel personal, entitled to have more rights- for example in relation to securing a job due to the cultural notion that Arab men must be the sole provider of the family (Bennet, 2010). This sanctioning of traditional gender roles of men as the breadwinner and authority in both the public and private sphere and reducing women’s role to child-bearing and rearing undermines both men and women’s capacities.  Such an essentialist interpretation of the family structure shapes people’s perception of their position and sense of self and normalizes uneven power hierarchies so that even women accept the status quo. According to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Sadiqi, 2010, p. 59) official data on the cases of domestic violence including, physical and psychological violence in Tunisia was scare despite it being a prevalent issue.  Cases of domestic violence were very seldom reported due to fear of shaming their families (Sadiqi, 2010) and even more disconcertingly due to the normalization of violence against women as in the case of Amina Filali.


Women’s Empowerment by Development Actors

The 1980s and 1990s saw a huge leap for women with international recognition and solidification of the term gender-based violence in UN conferences on women. In the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, feminist movements were successful in establishing Violence against Women (VAW) as a fundamental human rights violation (UN Women, no date).Since then, the issue of VAW has been addressed by the UN General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and Human Rights Council and incorporated key documents such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Actions of 1995 (UN, no date). In 2006, the UN Secretariat released a comprehensive report on VAW that led to intensified efforts to eradicate the social issue and in 2008 the Secretary General initiated a campaign to raise awareness and increase political will to prevent and end VAW (UN, no date). The Millennium Development Goals also recognize the importance of women’s empowerment in achieving sustainable development and eliminating poverty and have produced targets to address gender disparities in primary, second and tertiary education and in the economic and political arena (OECD 2012). 

Activists, international organizations and gender policy advocates take an instrumental and efficiency approach to narrowing the gender disparity; a strand of thinking that emerged in the 1970s from the Women in Development (WID) approach to making gender issues relevant. WID arguments sought to position women as active contributors to development rather than passive subservient recipients of development efforts and rejected the conventional gender role of women as wives and mothers (Razavi and Miller, 1995, p. 4). Baden and Goetz (1998, p.24) support this approach as a justifiable argument to draw attention to gender inequality issues from hard-lined bureaucrats and organizations that do not embrace social welfare and equality. In the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Algeria and Libya, legal reforms to improve the status of women came about as a result of internal and external pressures or as a strategic choice by the state (Hamadouche 2007, p. 123). Compared to other regions with similar levels of per capita income, Maghrebi countries have lower levels of women’s education and labor force participation which is attributed to the conservative culture and economic structure of the countries (Moghadam and Roudi-Fahima 2003). However, although the conservative and bureaucratic systems may have warranted the efficiency-based arguments, Goetz (1994) also identifies the risk of the emphasis on women as productive assets instead of their social welfare whereby it shifted the emphasis away from “women’s needs and interests in development, to calculating what development needs from women”. By highlighting women’s role as economic providers of the family, donor agencies and developmental projects focused on teaching women skills in nutrition and handicrafts which did not do much to overcome their economic marginalization (Razavi and Miller, 1995).  While the WID arguments were successful in having agencies and international organizations take up women’s issues it resulted in gender equality being perceived as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

Another instrument used by development agencies concerned with the economic empowerment of women is microfinance including microcredit. Although it has generally been successful in providing female entrepreneurs with startup funds and helping them broaden their choices, it has also led to the marginalisation of rural women as donors support those more likely to succeed (OECD, 2012 p. 9). Similarly, in the Maghreb countries, media focus and literature on women’s rights are targeted towards the elite and educated women while those in rural areas are sidelined due to poverty and illiteracy (Sadiqi 2010, p. 55).By catering to the upper echelon of women, even amongst their own gender, women faced differing layers of hidden and invisible power and consequently access to resources and spaces. This illustrates the intersectionality of gender identity and power through class, caste, status and educational background and not simply between two sexes.  Merry (2008, p. 13), however, argues that while the argument of intersectionality makes sense analytically and recognizes the complexities and variabilities of women’s situation, it complicates the organization of political movements which necessitates a universal shared cause. Nevertheless, acknowledging the intersectionality of gender is a prerequisite if not imperative in bridging inequalities of power and empowerment of women.

WID strategies stemmed from liberal feminism which attributed women’s subordination to lack of access to resources and patriarchal customs and expectations that become accepted and internalized by both men and women (Connell 1987, cited in Razavi and Miller, 1995, p. 3). However, as Razavi and Miller (p.12) point out this approach ignores the role of gender relations in denying women access in public spaces and also ignores the role of men and power relations between the sexes. International organizations are attempting to address this gap by involving men as agents of change in the HeForShe campaign initiated by UN Women (UN Women 2014). While the solidarity campaign makes the case of gender issues affecting not only women but men as well who are bound by their own gender stereotype, it reinforces gender binaries which will be further discussed in the next section.


Beyond Patriarchy- Empowerment using the Concepts of Power

As mentioned in the previous section, while patriarchy reinforces and justifies VAW, using it as the sole explanation oversimplifies the issue. Viewing VAW as a product of patriarchy assumes a heteronormative perspective that violence only occurs in heterosexual relationships when in fact it can take place in same sex relationships just as well (Merry 2008, p. 17). While this may not be the case for patterns of violence for Maghrebi women, it indicates that other factors account for VAW as well and necessitates reflecting on the power intersecting layers of race, class; educational background and economic status have over the subordination of women. Although clear demarcations between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘innocent’ and ‘perpetrator’, men as ‘batterers’ and women as ‘victims’ provide a straight-forward way of viewing the relationship between gender and violence (Bennet 2010, p. 1), it creates binaries and overlooks the complexities of violence which are not always one sided. As Amartya Sen stated (2006), “We have to make sure, above all, that our mind is not halved by a horizon.” Bennet (p. 12) also cautions that such essentialist interpretations of what constitutes gender, normalizes masculinity as aggressive and dominant and femininity as passive, subservience and lacking in agency. Furthermore, tackling VAW as a form of male hegemony over women runs the risk of viewing gender equality as a zero sum game (Shepherd,2010 cited in Bennet, p. 12).

The shortfalls of WID led to a shift in policy discourse from WID to Gender and Development (GAD) where the anthropology of feminism played a major role in recognizing gender identities as a social and cultural construct rather than a biological and physiological outcome (Razavi and Miller 1995, p.12). This more inclusive analysis of gender helps to understand how cultural ideologies shape and reinforce gender constructions and brings us closer to identifying the complexities of power relations that exist in situations of VAW. Violence can only be understood in the social and cultural context and the “social and cultural dimensions of violence are what give violence its power and meaning” (Scheper-Huges and Bourgois, 2004, cited in Merry, 2008, p.5).Although the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action urged governments not to allow religious and cultural beliefs hinder their responsibility against VAW, as Merry (2008, p. 16) argues, it is a challenge to impose universal standards of safety while remaining respectful of cultural identities.  Furthermore, in the context of the Maghreb countries, feminist stances that oppose the principles of Islam would not be tolerated by the rest of society. However, it is worth nothing that the governments’ discriminatory laws such as denying women inheritance and ownership of wealth, contradicts with the Quran (Hamadouche 2007, p. 119) and distinctions between traditions and religious principles need to be made. Political pressure and the rise of Islamist opposition led to Morocco, Algeria and Libya revising the old restrictive family code by making changing to portions that conflicted with Islamic law (Bennet 2010, p. 53; Hamadouche, p. 123).

Although the GAD approach addresses power structures in a social and cultural context, the ‘typologies of power’ (Csaszar 2005, p. 144); power over, power to, power with and power within can be used to examine the different expressions of power and ways in which women can be empowered. Power over is characterized as the controlling power used to dominate others and avoid others from gaining it. Since the three dimensions/faces of power are all forms of power over and strategies adopted by development agencies to empower women have been discussed in the first and second sections, we will focus on the other three concepts of power which Foucault established as ‘positive power’ (Csaszar, p. 144).

Power to is described as the capacity of individuals to have an effect and shape their own world; power with is the collaborative strength of individuals uniting to address common problems and; power within refers to an individual’s sense of self-respect and knowledge (Csaszar 2005, p. 144). In these cases, individuals can be empowered when they become aware of their own interests and collective action can multiply this effect. The invisible power of norms and socialization can be so embedded that it influences actions and disciplines behavior without any coercion from others as in the case of Maghrebi women who are just as likely as men to be carriers of patriarchal values and customs. The curriculum and media in these countries play a strong role in reinforcing traditional restrictive roles for women by shaping people’s knowledge and perception (Moghadam and Roudi-Fahima 2003, p. 7). While efforts to close gender gaps in literacy are continued to be targeted by development organizations, Lips (1994, p. 90) emphasizes on how education socially and culturally prepares women to accept powerlessness. There is a need to not only make education available to all but also improve the quality of education by encouraging students to analyze and think critically and incorporate gender sensitivity. The situation of Maghrebi women is improving gradually with educated segments challenging the status quo and becoming more active professionally (Moghadam and Roudi-Fahima 2003, p. 3). Foucault (1980) argued that power did not belong in a certain place such as government institutions but that it was always relational and existed only when exercised. By focusing on the relationship between power and consciousness as he suggested, we can approach gender inequality as a “universal but ‘unnatural’ power reality, a structural process affecting both male and female, which can be deconstructed through consciousness-raising and social change.”(Faith, 1994, p. 36).Activities such as critical reflective learning and practice carried out by grass root organizations aim to empower women intrinsically and develop power within (Csaszar, 2005). However, it is also possible to risk focusing too much on individual and less on addressing structural issues, which ultimately predetermines boundaries of power and limits women’s choices.



The idea that gender identities are constructed, not only through social practices of day-to-day life but also through institutions and regulations, has been discussed across the social sciences. While VAW has been looked at as a consequence of these constructions and unequal power relations, it is also often used as an instrument of enforcing power to coerce and influence others as in the context of rape in warfare. According to the Foucaldian school of thought, power exists only when it is put into action and does not reside in a particular place, person or entity. While his theories have made major contributions to the understanding of power, this paper has mainly relied on the works of Lukes, Gaventa and others who approached power as concentrated, possessed and transferable. As discussed using Luke’s three faces of power and as we have seen with the shift to GAD approach, the issue of VAW cannot be addressed without analyzing the layers of power that exist not only between men and women but in relation to the state, society (including other women) and themselves.

Considering the different dimensions of power, empowerment similarly can take place on different levels as illustrated using the typologies of power.  By being sensitive to the intersectionality of power, it is possible for development actors and agencies to empower women through influencing more equitable and inclusive structural reforms, underscoring the need for improving the quality of education, teaching skills to build women’s self-sufficiency and facilitating activities to raise awareness and consciousness. However as Batliwala(1994, cited in Sardenberg 2009) cautioned, empowerment is “one of the most loosely used terms in the development lexicon, meaning different things to different people- or more dangerously, all things to all people”. While development actors can do a lot to provide a conducive environment for women’s rights or rights of any marginalized group, for empowerment to be a transformative change, there must have to be some element of taking power and creating change and not just the ones with power giving change.


*Yangchen Dolkar Dorji is a Chevening Scholar from Bhutan doing her MA in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK.  



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Featured Image: Mahmudul Hoque Moni



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