Women-Led Partnerships and the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals
Association for Women’s Rights in Development
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Center for Economic and Social Rights
Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era
Millennium Development Goal
Sustainable Development Goal
Women-led partnerships (WLPs) are multi-stakeholder groups that may include representatives from civil society, corporations, governments, as well as individuals and community-based groups acting in concert to achieve a common goal. Working together, this goal focuses on improving the livelihoods of women and correcting gender-based injustices, often by adopting a feminist agenda.
Key leadership roles: women hold 51% or more of key leadership positions in the partnership or organizational structures.
Voice: the partnership structures give primacy to women’s voices, particularly when involving local or grassroots level organizations.
Women’s rights organizations, per the definition of Womankind Worldwide as “women-led organizations working to advance gender equality and women’s rights” (Hunt and O’Connell 2015, 3). These may include organizations working at national, regional, and/or international levels, or between levels, such as regional institutions supporting grassroot movements. They are often composed of self-led organizations of women who band together around common concerns for their rights, such as migrants, sex workers, women farmers, women living in rural areas or in urban slums, with a disability or medical condition, etc. (Esplen 2013).
Women-led coalitions, alliances, and alliance building, which are the “networking of networks.” Recognizing the interconnectedness of economic, cultural, social, and political dynamics in gender injustices, women-led groups may connect with other NGOs to “broaden the scope of the analysis and advocacy” (Antrobus 2005, 113). Women-led collations allow women’s ideas and experiences to shape the analysis, which differs from women working within mainstream NGOs where their voices and perspectives may be marginalized (Antrobus 2005).
Women caucuses, which are institutionalized public spaces in which women as individuals or representatives of WLPs, committees, and working groups gather to share information and perspectives, discuss and negotiate strategies for lobbying government, and work to refine and test alternative texts. Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) is an example that creates space for these caucuses and links these to UN conferences, UN agencies, and government agendas (Antrobus 2005).
Women’s movements or women in movement, which are comprised substantially, although not exclusively, of women who collectively seek social change. This may include women-led organizations and women’s networks, yet women’s movements are distinct in that they organize people and groups with the goal of leveraging significant numerical strength to make an impact. These movements are “led by and mobilize women” (Beckwith 2007, 313). The women in the movements may not all identify as feminists (defined below) although they may be motivated by causes aligned with feminist politics (Rowbotham 1992; Molyneux 2003; Antrobus 2005).
Feminism, feminist movements, and organizations share similarities with women’s movements in their pursuit of social transformation through mobilizing collective action of (predominantly) women. Feminists, however, view patriarchy and its (re)production of power asymmetries as the roots of oppressions that need change (Beckwith 2007). Patriarchy, as a system that “glorifies domination, control, violence, competitiveness, and greed” (Antrobus 2005, 167), reduces agency and dehumanizes men, women, and queergenders (Connell 1987; Thompson 2001). Feminisms, feminist movements, and organizations may embody different agendas depending on the source of women’s oppression they seek to address and, pending on sociocultural contexts, may be viewed favorably or unfavorably by women-led organizations and partnerships (Antrobus 2005).
Throughout history, WLPs have worked to raise awareness of inequalities and women’s rights. As this entry demonstrates, the groundwork these partnerships performed resulted in the recognition that none of the SDGs can be accomplished without working toward gender equality and incorporating women’s voices. WLPs thus played, and continue to play, an imperative role in bringing women’s voice to light and in working toward and holding governments accountable for the achievement of gender equality (UN Women 2018).
To highlight what WLPs entail and their relation to SDG 17 (aimed at monitoring the implementation of the SDGs), alongside SDGs at large, this entry starts by providing a historical background. This allows readers to understand the breadth and depth of WLPs’ activities before providing examples. The entry then explores their contribution to SDG 17, the challenges they encountered in playing a meaningful role (e.g., funding and explicit recognition in SDG 17), and potential solutions. It concludes with some ongoing debates regarding their focus on “women,” the commercialization of their goals, and the exclusion of “men.”
History of Women-Led Partnerships
In common lexicon, much of the work of WLPs follows a typology of “waves.” However, a more appropriate description may be that of volcanic lava, as something that erupts, ebbs, and flows pending “conditions that force fissures to open” (Offen 2000, 393). Indeed, although in this entry “waves” are used to describe parts of the historical trajectory of WLPs, their emergence and ongoing work is more akin to ebbs and flows that shape and are shaped by pending contexts.
Early Heritage and Work
WLPs have existed throughout history. They have taken on the form of sisterhoods that from the middle ages advanced a “feminist consciousness”: they raised awareness of women’s subordinated positions, argued that these were unnatural and determined by societal dynamics, and developed goals and strategies to bring about social change (Morgan 1984; Lerner 1994).
In the modern-day era, WLPs are reflected in the suffragette movements that began in the late nineteenth century (Rowbotham 1992) and continue to influence women’s claims for equal rights across the globe (Molyneux 2003; Batliwala 2013). Often classified as liberal or first-wave feminists, these women organized in groups at local and then national levels to demand that women be granted equal rights under the law (Jaggar 1983; Walby 2011).
In the Global North during the 1960s, the next generation of feminist “sisterhoods” built on the work of liberal feminists, which they criticized as advancing a Western, White, heterosexual, middle-class women’s agenda that reproduced class, ethnic, and global power asymmetries. The sisterhoods sought to develop a more inclusive women’s social justice agenda (Morgan 1970; Rupp 1997) by forming grassroot movements, engaging in public protests and campaigns, and establishing women-focused institutions and spaces such as health clinics, shelters, and media (Jaggar 1983; Molyneux 2003; Enke 2007; Walby 2011). Known as second-wave feminists, these women-led groups pushed for varying and at times conflicting agendas, yet can be viewed as reflecting a common theme of “the personal is political” (Evans 1980; see Hanisch in Crow 2000). They raised awareness around what became classified as “women’s issues” in the “women’s liberation movement,” even though many of these issues stem from men, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape. Women created women-only groups, protesting for reproductive rights and choice, protection from violence and harassment, and equality at work including support for nonpaid care work (Roseneil 1995). They sought recognition of sexualities and raised awareness of the importance of racial dynamics (Morgan 1970; Crow 2000). Today many women-led organizations continue this work (Hunt and O’Connell 2015). Similar to the women’s liberation movement, while some feminist groups promote a separatist agenda, distancing women from men, others seek to involve men (Jaggar 1983; Thompson 2001).
Efforts of Women-Led Groups to Institutionalize the Rights of Women
Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
From the 1970s onward, women-led groups embedded these feminist agendas in institutional structures such as civil society groups and national, state, and international policies. This was in part motivated by the need to overcome political gridlocks that prevented country representatives from extending upon CEDAW (originally adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly). Country representatives disagreed on how to define, address, and prioritize women’s issues. In response, women activists convened conferences to discuss these issues among themselves (Weldon 2006). At first, these were largely segregated geographically, with the South forming its own conferences in Africa and Latin America and establishing the overarching feminist organization, DAWN, to advance women’s concerns in the Global South (Sen and Grown 1987; Antrobus 2005; Weldon 2006). Gradually, women in the Global South and North built bridges. Discussions at jointly convened meetings made it apparent that a “common experience” of women’s issues was not reflective of the heterogeneity of women’s lives and circumstances. This coalition building work became a defining aspect of WLPs, producing spaces in which differing perspectives, knowledge sharing, participatory communication, and a spirit of cooperation are encouraged. Rather than attempting to obtain agreement on all women’s issues, they united behind a common theme: violence against women. They created a movement to make gender violence prominent, framing it at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna as a violation of human rights that affected every country – in the Global North and South (Weldon 2006).
The Beijing Platform for Action
In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, thousands of feminist from around the world, largely organized through women-led coalitions, lobbied for the inclusion of 12 critical areas to advance women’s rights. Known as the “Beijing Platform for Action,” the 12 areas formed the basis for the 5-year progress reviews. The 12 original areas covered: the unequal burden of poverty affecting women; inequalities in quality and access to education, training, economic opportunities, assets, healthcare services, and media; violence against women and the effects of conflicts on women; inequalities in decision-making and power sharing; lack of advancement of women and respect for their human rights; and discrimination and violation against the girl child (Kabeer 2005; Walby 2011).
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
The opportunity to institutionalize women’s issues through the MDGs fell far from desired expectations as WLPs, among other groups, were excluded. Viewed as top-down diplomacy, many of the Beijing Platform topics were omitted, including violence against women. Consequentially, women groups worked together to find alternative connections, often leveraging the lexicon of the MDG 3 of gender equality and women empowerment to hold governments accountable to the Beijing commitments (Kabeer 2005; Hunt 2015, 2016). As Hunt (2015, 109) details, women’s rights organizations set “the tone and agenda nationally and locally” to monitor compliance and to develop accountability mechanisms. They worked to support “self-led, collective action” among women and ensured, through their international connections, that knowledge about governmental commitments, impactful practices, and tactics were disseminated (ibid.).
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women)
“Women” and “girls” and the work of WLPs became further institutionalized into the UN structure with the founding of UN Women in 2010. Although UN Women has a mix of genders in key leadership positions, its mandate focuses specifically on females. Its work includes disseminating knowledge about women’s and girls’ status across the UN and member states, supporting the formulation of policies and global standards, holding the UN and government institutions accountable for gender equality commitments, forging partnerships with civil society, and helping to fund gender justice initiatives. In the lead up to the SDGs, UN Women helped women-led groups to be heard and supported efforts to have issues related to women and girls appear across the SDGs. It continues to monitor progress and support women’s rights organizations in the achievement of the SDGs (UN Women 2018).
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The SDGs furthered the work and involvement of WLPs in part because of the role UN Women could play, but also because the SDGs took a more inclusive approach. The inclusive approach had the two key impacts of (i) extending the scope of who was involved in the goal setting process and (ii) expanding beyond the MDG’s narrow focus on developing countries to include all countries. As a result, women-led groups formed caucuses and working groups to develop perspectives that could inform the SDGs’ wording and indicators (Cornwall and Rivas 2015; Hunt 2015). WLPs, such as the Women’s Major Group and the Post-2015 Women’s Coalition, played an imperative role (UN Women 2018). The latter group defined an alternative feminist vision to the achievement of the SDGs in 2012. This vision centered on inclusion and participation of women in setting the agenda, accountability mechanisms, and a groundedness in human rights and gender equality. This work was brought forward through the Women’s Major Group, a coalition of over 600 women’s organizations and networks, that had direct representation in the UN process related to the SDGs. It worked to ensure the inclusion of a gender equality goal as well as the inclusion of women’s rights across all 17 goals (Wood and Austin-Evelyn 2017). The success of these women-led coalition efforts is apparent in the SDGs and continues to drive the implementation of these efforts. For example, as a UN-led, joint expert report states, fair climate policies that are “gender responsive” require “empowered women’s movements that link up the local level and shape local policies and work in solidarity with global women’s movements, national women’s machineries and United Nations agencies and bodies” (UNDESA et al. 2015, 7).
Examples of Women-Led Partnerships
WLPs involved in the implementation and measurement of the SDGs are wide and varied. Many of these partnerships center around gender equality, often working with other actors and local chapters to address multiple SDG goals. To demonstrate their span, examples are provided. This list is not exhaustive and excludes the ones mentioned throughout this entry (e.g., AWID, DAWN, Mama Cash, SIGI).
EWL (European Women’s Lobby (https://www.womenlobby.org/))
FIDA (International Federation of Women Lawyers (http://www.fidafederation.org/))
NAWO (National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (https://nawo.org.uk/))
NGO Committee on the Status of Women (https://www.ngocsw.org/)
W20 (Women’s working group within the G20 nations) (http://g20.org.tr/engagement-groups/women-20-w20/))
Gender CC: Women for Climate Justice (https://www.gendercc.net/)
GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood: https://huairou.org/network/member-networks/groots/)
ICRW (International Center for Research on Women: https://www.icrw.org/)
Women’s Budget Group (https://wbg.org.uk/)
Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (http://www.learningpartnership.org/)
Womankind Worldwide (https://www.womankind.org.uk/)
APWAPS (Asian-Pacific Women’s Alliance for Peace and Security: https://apwaps.net/)
Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (http://www.catwinternational.org/)
EVAW (End Violence Against Women Coalition: https://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/)
IWHC (International Women’s Health Coalition: https://iwhc.org/)
Women-Led Partnerships and SDG 17: Implementation and Measurement
SDG 17 aims to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” (UN DESA 2018). As the review below attests, WLPs are core to attaining SDG 17.
The Impact of Women-Led Partnerships
WLPs play an imperative role in institutionalizing women’s issues within the international lexicon, agenda, and metrics. They work to “revitalize the global partnership” through either having an international membership base or working through chapters, clubs, or other partner organizations and associations that operate at the regional, country, and local areas. They synthesize diverse views into common goals while appreciating cultural nuances (Antrobus 2005; Weldon 2006), building trust between women within women’s groups and networks, supporting grassroots movements and smaller women’s organizations, and giving voice to marginalized groups such as transgender and queergender rights (e.g., AWID; Mama Cash). WLPs advocate, lobby, collate, and disseminate information to create awareness around critical issues, producing “shadow” or alternative reporting. They hold governments and institutions across levels and sectors accountable to the SDGs (Weldon 2006; Esplen 2013; Hunt 2016; Wood and Austin-Evelyn 2017).
The widely referenced study by Htun and Weldon (2012) provides significant evidence: based on 70 countries over four decades (1975–2005), the most significant factor in whether a country adopts progressive policies on violence against women was the existence of autonomous women’s movements. This surpassed factors like female representation in the legislature, progressive political parties, and growth in countries’ national wealth. Moreover, WLPs have led the way in developing many of the consensus-building strategies that are needed to make global partnerships work and policies gender-oriented (Walby 2011) and have amassed expertise in implementing and measuring progress on gender-related issues (Carmona et al. 2017).
Challenges Faced by Women-Led Partnership
Although impactful, WLPs face challenges that limit their overall ability to implement SDG-related projects and to play a revitalizing role in global partnerships. Two core issues are (i) funding dynamics and (ii) exclusion in the lexicon of the SDG 17.
Despite funds for “women” and “girls,” data demonstrates that these are not reaching WLPs (Arutyunova and Clark 2013; Miller et al. 2014). Part of the problem is vested in structuring mechanisms and how funds are designated.
For example, in 2014, members of OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) (which included 29 countries) collectively contributed more to gender-focused aid than in previous years (at USD 35.5 billion). Yet, approximates by GENDERNET (2016) found that only 0.5% (USD 192 million) went to women’s right organizations, with those in the Global South receiving disproportionately less. Most of this funding was tied to specific short-term projects that women’s right organizations helped to implement, leaving little funding to support the actual organization.
An increasing number of actors working in the space of “empowering women and girls” are crowding out women-led organizations from meaningful partnership roles and funding opportunities. Private-public partnerships are changing the landscape as corporations choose to work with international NGOs (e.g., Oxfam, Plan International, Care International, World Vision) rather than women-led organizations directly (GENDERNET 2016; Miller et al. 2014). Other funding opportunities are often earmarked for more established women-led organizations, often leaving smaller women-led organizations reliant on “trickle-down” funds (i.e., funds to implement projects within the larger WLP’s structure). This may, paradoxically, result in an inability for smaller partners to run projects (Bishop 2017).
As Esplen (2013, 2) from Womankind Worldwide details, a lack of funding streams and multi-year funding schemes can prevent women-led organizations from “developing their organisational capacity and independent political agenda or strategy.” It can make it difficult for these organizations to “undertake the longer-term structure work essential to shifting gender power relations” as the attention of the organizations become misdirected toward “delivering short-term projects that often reflect the priorities of donors rather than constituents’ needs...which are unsustainable in the longer-term” (ibid.). Because many of the SDGs touch on gender equality, donors often allow cross-cutting issues to take precedence over stand-alone themes that are central to gender equality, such as women’s participation, voice, leadership, and violence against women (Bishop 2017). Thus, although figures suggest that a lot is happening, “much of it may not be sustainable” (GENDERNET 2016, 7).
In response, women- and feminist-led groups have advocated for and created new forms of funding to support women-led organizations and activists (Clift 2005) (e.g., the Global Fund for Women (https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/)). For instance, Mama Cash (https://www.mamacash.org/), along with other key funders, created the International Network of Women’s Funds in 2000. SIGI (Sisterhood Is Global Institution) launched the first global crowdfund to support women’s groups on the front line (https://donordirectaction.org/). The Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights (https://urgentactionfund.org/) pioneered rapid response grantmaking models to help women activists and groups quickly respond to threats or opportunities.
Lack of Inclusion in the Lexicon of the SDG 17
Part of the funding challenges are a consequence of the omission of WLPs in the metric that measures progress on SDGs: SDG 17. SDG 17 aims to strengthen implementation by putting in place targets and indicators that hold countries accountable. However, the generic calls to foster “effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships” that can “mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology and financial resources” (UN General Assembly 2015, 27) do not consider which multi-stakeholders and partners are being advanced. This is also true for the country-level assessments that, for example, count the “number of countries reporting progress in multi-stakeholder development effectiveness monitoring framework” (UN DESA 2018). Disaggregated data of multi-stakeholder partnerships and whether they are women-led or include any women-led organizations is notably absent. Critiquing SDG 17 as being a “weak voluntary process” of “‘follow-up and review’” versus “accountability” to “the people whose rights and lives are affected by...decisions” (Carmona et al. 2017, 2, 4), the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and UN Women have taken up efforts to provide deeper analyzes of the involvement of women-led organizations in the achievement of the SDGs (e.g., UN Women 2018). As they stress, and as history recounts, women’s rights organizations are essential to ensure that women’s specific situations and demands are recognized, the priorities of women are articulated and advanced, and evaluations occur from a gender perspective. Achieving and measuring progress related to gender issues and gathering “high-quality, timely, and reliable data” disaggregated by a multitude of attributes, including gender (as per SDG 17.18) (UN General Assembly 2015, 27), will require the involvement of women-led organizations and partnerships who have amassed expertise in overcoming political, technical, and social obstacles.
For SDG 17 to move toward “gender-responsive accountability” thus requires that women are “full participants in any oversight or accountability process” and be given “spaces where they can regularly advocate for gender equality commitments in the SDGs” (Carmona et al. 2017, 2, 6).
Funding and representation therefore require particular attention. GENDERNET (2016) recommends that funders build in support for women-led organizations through either earmarking percentages of funds, weighing funding criteria in their favor, or establishing separate funding windows between international NGOs and women’s right organizations. Funders should also nuance their monitoring capabilities to track whether funds go to WLPs and support the women-led organization or projects and sub-grantees (ibid). Currently no agreement by funder countries or links to SDG 17 exists that may motivate funders to undertake these changes. Thus, women-led organizations and partnerships like AWID, CESR, and the UN Women play important roles in remedying this shortfall by reporting on funding information and holding funding institutions accountable.
To improve resource mobilization within the competitive funding landscape, smaller organizations need access to networks to form collective approaches. Women-led groups that organize events in which these collaborations can be formed, along with funds that support partnership formations, are vital (Arutyunova and Clark 2013).
In ensuring representation of women-led organizations, CESR and the UN Women call for quotas of women-led organizations in review and implementation processes and support for them to conduct independent assessments. They should be given monitoring responsibility for a subset of gender equality goals or targets and be included (along with women parliamentarians/advocates and women’s rights allies) in parliamentary and national planning committees, human rights commissions, and monitoring bodies that consider the achievement and progress of the SDGs (Carmona et al. 2017).
WLPs are a central mechanism through which women-led organizations can initiate and grow their contributions to SDG 17: their ability to pool together financial and human resource, leverage interconnections to various policy spaces (e.g., political, economical, environmental), and share knowledge of how to influence policy may help them form a mass through which women’s voices can influence the implementation and measurement of the SDGs.
While the importance of having WLPs involved in the implementation and measurement of the SDGs is well established (e.g., Esplen 2013; Hunt 2015), criticisms have been raised regarding the overfocus on “women,” the potential to commercialize the goals of WLPs, and the seclusion of women’s groups from the power brokers at large, namely, men.
While a focus on “women” may build momentum to support causes specific to women and girls, it also risks universalizing one single category of “women.” Women’s experiences, positions, and conditions are, in reality, very varied, and these differences and resultant differential privileges need to be identified and addressed (Cornwall 2003; Molyneux 2004). Women, in some parts of the world, face greater threats – due to poverty, war, culturally accepted violence, unequal rights and resources, etc. – and thus require particular attention.
Added to this is the need for women and men to recognize their positions of power and privilege (such as those in leadership positions within the UN and in well-connected, funded partners) and to work toward inclusivity. Rather than perpetuating a victim/savior complex of “empowering” women, inclusivity demands that privileged actors create “conditions of mutual respect in which people cannot only give voice but also be heard” (Cornwall and Rivas 2015, 409). Moreover, privileged actors are called to share and redistribute resources. “Closing spaces” (Bishop 2017, 13), apparent in political marginalization and funding challenges, narrow the field of actors involved. This has the potential to create a cycle of exclusion in which the agendas and perspectives of larger groups dominate policies and thus funded projects, while those of smaller groups become less recognized and, in turn, given less support. Diverging voices and the heterogeneity of women’s lives risks being lost in such a process and raises what Dankelman (2012, 37) identifies as an ethical tension: the use of “local women’s struggles” by mostly “professional women…to strengthen personal arguments.”
Secondly, the focus on “women” reflects an essentializing view of gender that equates gender to two sexes (male versus female). This binary view risks marginalizing nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality unless attempts are made to move away from the dominant “gender” discourse (read men versus women) toward discrimination and social justice more broadly (Cornwall and Rivas 2015). While such an approach speaks to the essence of many feminist WLPs (e.g., AWID, Mama Cash), this can be met with resistance given the traction the gender binary view of equality has obtained in the wider development lexicon.
Thirdly, the dominance of “women and girls” in “gender equality” discourse threatens to perpetuate counterproductive gender divisions. As Kabeer (1994, xii) notes, although “gender, gender roles and gender relations” may be the widely accepted terminology, it “remains just another word for ‘women’ or ‘women’s roles’.” This can have numerous implications. It can result in ‘women’ becoming an “analytical category for addressing gender inequalities,” in which problems and solutions concern only women (ibid.). Such a women-centric view disregards the sociocultural contexts that surround the lives, such as relationships, norms, laws, and hegemonic ideologies (prevailing assumptions regarding the way things are, such as capitalism), through which inequalities are perpetuated.
Result in inappropriate policies and interventions that put responsibility on those who are often not in positions to resolve issues and enact change (e.g., women) (Chant 2016), directing attention away from those who hold and need to give up power (normally assumed to be men) (Hearn 2015). A focus on “fixing women” can thus obscure relations involved in (re)producing gender inequalities, maintain existing privileges and power positions, result in backlash against women’s “empowerment” efforts, and mute considerations of more equal power distribution (Chant and Sweetman 2012; Cornwall and Rivas 2015; Hearn 2015; Skewes et al. 2018; Steinfield et al. 2019a).
Perpetuate oversimplified representations that equate “men” with “power” and “women” with “powerlessness” and men as “victimizers” and women as “their victims” or eventually as heroines who are “more hardworking, more caring, more responsible and more mindful of the environment than men” (Cornwall and Rivas 2015, 403, 399).
Fail to collectively tackle hegemonic ideologies (e.g., patriarchy) and economic conditions (e.g., neoliberal capitalism), which (re)produce inequalities based on gender-blind definitions and valuations of work and assumptions of “productive” bodies and minds (Campbell 2014; Chant 2016). The concept of women “leaning-in” is exemplary of this problem (Steinfield et al. 2019b).
As scholars note, funders and global institutions regularly propose resolutions and interventions that center on increasing women’s dual burden as producers and carers (Chant 2016; Wallace et al. 2013). This can uncritically perpetuate a “feminization of responsibility” (Chant 2016) and a “motherhood” mantra (Steinfield et al. 2019a), disregarding how women’s existing workload could be shared more equally with men. Beyond additional responsibilities, women are held accountable (e.g., to lean-in) or even blamed for the existence of inequalities (Fitzsimons et al. 2018).
The perpetuation of gender divisions – in terms of roles, discourse, and structures – needs to be further contextualized within patriarchy and neoliberalism, which undervalues care work (Chant 2016) and often leaves intact a masculine and competitive nature of business and development (Campbell 2014). WLPs that push women to advance “up the corporate and nation-state ladder” or to achieve “financial ‘equality’ between men and women” are critiqued as “proto-capitalist” of “free-market” feminism that is symptomatic of a new form of colonialism: an “Americanization” or naturalization of US corporate culture (Mohanty 2003, 6). In turn, transformational feminist agendas of WLPs that may challenge the “patriarchal power of the development industry” become subverted and marginalized as the “women empowerment” narrative of gender equality dominates (Mama 2004, 122–123). Consequently, WLPs face challenging choices of either leveraging the well-funded gender equality agenda and perpetuating a normative view that can caricature and essentialize women and men or risk breaking away from the mainstream to develop an alternative discourse, which will likely reduce access to resources and support and thus threaten survival (Hunt 2015).
The competitive landscape and dominant “gender equality” agenda means that WLPs risk losing their autonomy and having their goals commercialized (Calkin 2017). Although entering into partnerships with large international NGOs or corporates can secure much-needed funding and resources, it can also endanger the independence of partnerships and compromise the causes that are pursued. Vested interests placed on these partnerships can all too often become commercially directed by what is palatable or fashionable, stripping the issues from political implications and debates (Miller et al. 2014). Corporate-based support is skeptically viewed. As contenders decry, corporates’ “pinkwashing” messages of “women empowerment” obscure their exploitative actions and perpetuations of violence against women and girls (Hickel 2014; Moussié 2016). “Women empowerment”-labelled projects divert the spotlight away from “market enterprises and market-oriented institutions and policies which have played a major part in entrenching and intensifying poverty in the Global South” (Chant 2016, 14).
Lastly, while women’s partnerships aim to create important “safe” spaces to “foster a sense of solidarity and collective empowerment” (McLaren 2007, 160), women-only groups can also result in the exclusion of men and place more emphasis on what divides than what unites. Men, however, are vital to debates on gender equality. It is often their exclusion that leads to the sidelining of gender issues. Men still hold proportionately more powerful positions, which can be leveraged to integrate gender issues into debates and to enact change. A focus on men also highlights how they can likewise suffer from gender inequalities and from narrow definitions of masculine gender norms (Connell 2005; Hearn 2015). While including men is important, the contending view is that adding men may move “gender” away from “women” and much-needed support away from the agenda of women-led organizations, partnerships, and activists (Antrobus 2005).
WLPs are central to the achievement of the SDGs and have made much progress in bringing women’s voices and perspectives to the fore. Yet they also face challenges. The omission of an explicit reference to WLPs in SDG 17, and indeed across other SDGs, risks entrenching their under-resourced state and may act to push women-led organizations into partnership structures that can compromise their independence. Uncritical promotion of an essentializing notion of “women” leaves WLPs open to criticism and calls into question how much can be accomplished without finding a more productive discourse that is more inclusive, goes beyond “women,” and invites men to consider their roles as important power holders and brokers.
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