Gender, Development and the Global

By Sreerekha Sathi and Rosalba Icaza

What kind of questions are asked about development from a feminist perspective? Moreover, what kind of questions are asked about development from across the colonial difference? How do we understand the fact that women constitute half of the world’s population and contribute equally to the world’s total production? For some, the meaning of development for women then should also lead to the question of women’s ownership and control of capital, labour and production in the world. However, the developmental model based on capitalism and modernity seems to have shown its own failure in addressing the needs and aspirations of the majority of the world’s population. 

In response to this reality, important feminist critiques of development were produced by scholars in the 1980s from a “underdeveloped third world” perspective along with others (Sen and Grown 1988). These early critiques revealed how during the colonial period, development, modernity and patriarchy together contributed in a major way to increasing poverty, debt and disease for the majority of the population. However, what these early critiques didn’t reveal was the underside of development/modernity/patriarchy, in other words, the coloniality of power, capitalism, knowledge, being and gender.

Capitalism, Gender and Development

Escobar, a well-known critic of the development project (1992) asserted that the economy of development stemmed from the post-World War II growth of capitalism while the idea of development evolved around a capitalist version of economic development. Further, feminist scholars of development debated that the very idea around development and modernity and the economy of labour and capital is fundamentally linked to and is built upon a sexual/gender division of labour which mostly negated women’s active role in the project of development. This has been made possible historically through growth of a capitalist economy which is based on making a clear distinction between production and reproduction and also between paid, unpaid and less paid labour of women (Rubin 1975, Mies 1986). In this process, all labour related to human reproduction is made unpaid and considered unproductive. Women’s labour is thus specifically defined within the creation of the category labelled ‘social reproduction’ which is made possible only using the ‘natural’ skills of women (Oakley, 1974, Edgell, 2006). 

Interestingly, most critical research on capitalism and development does include consistent referencing based on the defining of the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’ in this manner, restricting contribution of women’s labour through production and reproduction in a fundamentalist and essentialist way. This phenomenon has been analysed and discussed in detail in the works of Marxist and socialist feminist scholars (Beechey, 1977, Hartsock 1987). Looking into the history of this process of restricting and limiting women’s labour defining within the idea of the ‘natural and thus linked to the ‘social’ feminist scholar Ann Oakley’s work (1974) explore in detail the specific laws and polices during the Western industrialisation period which contributed to marginalisation, exclusion and devaluation of women’s work and their role on capitalist production and profit. In response to Frederick Engels earlier work on the concept of reserve army of labour (1845), extending this phenomenon to the feminisation of labour and feminisation of poverty, socialist feminists like Beechey (1977) explored the relationship between capitalist patriarchy and women’s labour as fundamental. Further, feminist critiques of development also revealed the creation of a dichotomous relationship between feminism, labour and the modern welfare state were the notion of the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ labour is used by the state and its development projects towards the expansion of capitalist development and its economy (Sreerekha, M.S, 2017).

Gender and the Global

The entry of both the concept of gender and the global has helped the process of integration and mainstreaming of development interestingly in similar ways. Feminists like Boserup (1970) who looked at development within a liberal welfare state framework supported the process of ‘recognition’ and ‘integration’ of women’s labour in to development. However, there are important feminist writings which critically analysed the conceptualisation and integration of women in to development followed by the problematic homogenisation of third world women as a category (Kabeer 1994). Further, the introduction of the concept of gender followed by its mainstreaming is critically analysed by some feminists as a process which took away a focus on the subject of women, replacing it with gender without much a meaningful or useful impact in the field (Hirschman 1995). However, women’s movements, sexuality rights and queer movements working together brought forth a different space for discourses on genders and sexualities emphasising on their plurality and the need for historicising and politicising these plural identities and in their locations. Further, there has also been a stress on the fundamental relationship between genders, sexualities and capitalist patriarchy as reflected in the project of modernity and development (Jolly 2000). The entry of the term gender also seems to have had a deeper impact on the ways in which women’s struggles and resistance has been understood or analysed both in the academia and among various social movements (Icaza and Vazquez, 2018).

Global Capitalism and Development

The interpretation and understanding of a capitalist model of development as an economic and political process dividing the world as developed versus underdeveloped or first versus third world has been well researched through the schools of dependency and world systems theories (Frank, 1967, Wallerstein 1979). This perspective in its continuum however has now changed its direction more towards an understanding of global capitalism in the contemporary phase of globalised development. The term global has in the recent times replaced terms like international or universal and the contemporary processes of globalisation made it easy for the term to become more acceptable (Robinson 2004). New attempts in the propagation of the idea of the global and the impact of globalisation has together helped change the focus of development from being just a localized phenomena, a nationally bounded or state centric process to understanding as transnational and translocal, revealing the global integration of the economy through global competitiveness using transnational capital and trade. 

The term universal was earlier criticised for its abstract definition and interpretations and toothless existence through institutions like the United Nations. This has been true of most women’s empowerment projects too. In the case of women’s empowerment projects, there has been umpteen number of UNIFEM documents a critical reading of which by institutions like the DAWN and the works of feminist scholars like Kabeer, 1999 reflects this position. This also shows an interesting comparison between the two, the term global or universal and the term gender, remained less problematic or political, strategically keeping the abstractness and lack of focus in a particular factor through its language and definitions to some extent. However, what is relevant is the importance of the global understood as supra-territorial (Scholte, 2000) in the contemporary context, while the increasing power of global capital in real terms beyond national borders and its outcomes is analyzed.

Decolonial thinking on Gender, Development and the Global

A relationship between development and modernity and its relationship with contemporary capitalism and colonialism is analysed deeply in decolonisation theories and more recently in decolonial thinking. While an alternative to development itself has already been discussed by scholars like Esteva (1987), writings on the coloniality of development has conceptualized it as a mediation between the global north and the global south and functional to the representation and articulation of the modern/colonial divide, in other words,  to the division between the human and the savage, between civilization and nature that lingers behind the notion of development (Icaza and Vazquez 2017). Furthermore, from the perspective of the coloniality of gender, development is also understood as a reality making process that has had effects not only in institutional arrangements and productive processes but also as power that access bodies and forms subjectivities (Icaza and Vazquez 2017).

A decolonial perspective on development and gender has been important and useful not only in moving beyond (de-centering) liberal individualism and modernity, but in revealing the existence of a plurality of other-than-modern/colonial standpoints and perspectives including that of gender (Icaza 2018). A decolonial feminist critique is thus contributing to a more meaningful and deeper understanding and analysis of contemporary global capitalism and its processes through globalisation.

Sreerekha Sathi is an Indian feminist scholar who taught formerly at the University of Virginia and is now an Assistant Professor in the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands. 

Rosalba Icaza is a Mexican feminist academic-activist who conducts research and teaches on social movements, epistemic justice, and indigenous people resistance and autonomy. She is Senior Lecturer in Governance and International Political Economy at the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University of Rotterdam.


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