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Setting Objectives for Social Change: Using Gender and Intersectionality to Improve International Development Policies in Practice

Winfred Mugwimi & Jordan Hart

The article draws attention to the need for a multi-dimensional lens to unpack ideas and approaches on gender and social change to question whether gender is still a useful category in development thinking. The article proposed intersectionality as a way to connect theoretical and conceptual insights to actual policies and practices. In this sense, the article draws on the usefulness of gender and how it can be reapplied through an intersectional lens to address wider issues such as colonization, climate justice, socio-political structures, privileges, and inequalities.

Gender in international development
What is gender? Is gender predominantly about women? The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender as the range of socially constructed roles, behaviors, and identities pertaining to femininity and masculinity and differentiating between them with reference to social, economic, political, and cultural differences rather than biological ones.

Gender has become the center for many policies from various international development organizations on how to address global inequalities. In efforts to close the gap between genders, international development organizations have focused on ‘mainstreaming gender’ through, women and development (WAD), women in development (WID) and most recently gender and development (GAD). Gender mainstreaming in international development is done so with the ambition of:

Despite efforts to integrate men and women into policy change, gender has predominantly become about ‘women’ – this is due to several worrying trends that have demonstrated that women – have been particularly disadvantaged in societies all over the world. For example, women tend to be poorer than men globally while many women continue to suffer deprivation in terms of health, education, economic participation, and basic freedoms. However, by mainstreaming gender under the lens of ‘women’ – international development organisations best efforts to address the shortcomings in gender – have simultaneously oversimplified what gender is and therefore limited the possible solutions. Hence, by narrowing down the conceptualization of gender to women, and women as change agents, the feminist knowledges that lie at the foundation of gender mainstreaming are watered down (Tine, 2022).

Intersectionality in international development
What is intersectionality?
“Intersectionality” is a concept that is increasingly finding its way into the development space. The word intersectionality comes from the word intersection which means a point where several items join. In social change, it means the interconnectedness of different social identities such as gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, age, race, nationality, religion, class, among others. Intersectionality is therefore an approach that helps connect human rights to multiple forms of discrimination.

How is intersectionality related to development?
Our different identities come with some social value and shape the way we relate with each other and with the world. Different forms of oppression stem from these identities. Intersectionality is therefore a lens that is used to uncover hidden power dynamics in people’s experiences. In practice, it has the potential to illuminate the hidden complex social relationships that bring about social, political, and economic injustices. Besides, how people respond to development challenges like climate change, food security, etc. is dependent on their different social categories and power relations. Their level of vulnerability, responsibility and decision-making power vary greatly with their social identities such as gender, ethnicity, race, physical abilities, and nationality.  

Using a gender lens in addressing climate justice
Gender is an important driver of vulnerability to climate change risks and a key factor to consider when formulating development policies. The Climate crisis is not gender-neutral. Climate change impacts men and women differently due to the inequalities caused by the different roles they play in society and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety. Women are more vulnerable because they are often poorer, have less education, have less capacity to adapt to climate change risks, and are mostly not involved in decision-making platforms that affect their life. However, they are powerful agents of change as they possess unique knowledge and skills that could play a big role in adaptation and transformative change.

Nurun Nahar has two children and lives lives in a remote part of Islampur, Jamalpur. When floods destroyed her house in Bangladesh in 2019, she had to move to a shelter.  Photo: UN Women/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan.







Climate change has a serious impact on food security. Women also play a key role in household food security in terms of providing farm labor and sourcing and preparing food for the household. However, they are mostly overburdened with unpaid labor, child care, and household chores making them less productive. They also have less access to education, information, finance & credit, and production resources and are more dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations report (2011), if women had the same access to resources as men, then this could significantly increase food productivity by 20-30% and reduce hunger by 12-17%. 

Breaking down the barriers to improve policy
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”
Audre Lorde

So how do we get beyond the symbolic gender signalling of ‘women’ and address the wider issues of gender such as masculinity, heteronormativity, and repressive socio-political power relations? Intersectionality is being used to guide policy that goes beyond the symbolism to increase agency through social categories to inform policies that are inclusive and holistic in practice. 

The way this is achieved is by breaking down the often-overlooked social categories that hinder the effectiveness of the policy. By using an intersectional lens international development organizations can address colonization, contextualization, power, privileges, and inequalities. By applying this framework international development policies can: provide a roadmap for a fair policy-analysis process; address underlying power dynamics of policies to ensure contextualized policy; humanize policy to ensure that marginalized groups are supported.

Gender and other social inequalities are fundamental human rights and hence should be mainstreamed in development policy. Governments should be encouraged to incorporate these perspectives into their national policies, action plans and measures of sustainable development.


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