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Women, Voice and Power, Oxfam’s new paper on ‘transformative feminist leadership’ + a minor beef on adjectives

October 12, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Women, Voice and Power, Oxfam’s new paper on ‘transformative feminist leadership’ exemplifies why I love working for NGOs, but also why it can get a bit irksome, especially if you’re a wordsmith.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The 7 page Exec Sum (the full report weighs in at 45 pages) is stuffed full with great literature summaries, case studies, quotes, links and killer facts. Here’s a taster:

Literature summaries

A review of progress in over 120 countries over the 40 years to 2015, which demonstrates that feminist movements contribute directly to women’s economic empowerment, found that feminist mobilization is ‘associated with more expansive economic rights, better support for both paid and unpaid domestic work, and better protection from sexual harassment’.   

The same review found that feminist mobilization is associated with smaller gender wage gaps and, indirectly, is positively associated with women’s improved access to land rights and financial institutions, including access to their own bank accounts.

Women’s leadership in community forest management bodies yields positive outcomes for both forest sustainability and gender equality.

Additional evidence from Indonesia, Peru and Tanzania suggests that ‘gender quotas make interventions more effective and lead to more equal sharing of intervention benefits’.

In India, women’s equal representation in panchayat (village councils) has seen these structures respond more effectively to community demands for drinking water infrastructure, housing, schools and health services, especially where the elected women are aware of and active in championing the specific issues facing women in their communities. Research has also found that households report paying fewer bribes to panchayat with a female leader.

Analysis of 181 peace agreements signed between 1989 and 2011 found that ‘processes that included women as witnesses, signatories, mediators, and/or negotiators demonstrated a 20% increase in the probability of an agreement lasting at least two years. This increases over time, with a 35% increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years.’

Quotes

‘It has become clear and certain, after 10 years, that building bridges is key and central to any feminist movement that we are hoping to grow and nurture… we need to work on widening the movement, and spreading it as an idea, a condition, or a basis of belonging, to those who aren’t working at its center. First, intergenerational work is key to this movement. Not only does it allow for knowledge and tools to be transferred, developed and adopted, but it also helps bring in new actors to the movement, from young women to individuals from different nationalities who are at the margins.’ Sara Abou Ghazal, feminist activist and former Co-Director, the Knowledge Workshop.

‘We need political education. Otherwise, once we manage to have dialogue and they start talking to us about things like municipal budgets, it’s like jumping out of a plane with no parachute. If they are talking about infrastructure, I have to know about infrastructure. If they are talking about territorial rights, I have to know about territorial rights.’ Activist, Guatemala

Links (to practical examples of putting feminist leadership into practice)

FEMNET’s annual African Feminist Macroeconomic Academy; the Women’s Environment and Development Organization’s Climate Negotiators Delegates Fund;  Huairou Commission’s resources documenting Grassroots Women’s Innovations in Land Ownership and Property Control, Disaster Resilience and Local Governance for Poverty Eradication; an Oxfam and Women’s Budget Group Short Guide to Taxing for Gender Equality; Feminist Foreign Policy guides as well as trainings, briefings and submissions by the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development on regional and international treaties and trade agreements currently under negotiation.

Killer Facts

The global feminist movement has the same budget as one F-35 fighter plane (about $110 million).

Case Study

Garment factory workers march in the streets of Phnom Penh. They demonstrate for better wages and working conditions and and advocate for their rights as employees. Photo: Kimtong Meng/Oxfam Novib

In Egypt, researchers found that ‘women’s movements, working in tandem with a woman politician, who functioned as a “gate opener”, helped bring about a feminist conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme with “women’s entitlements as citizens at its core” that the authors characterised as one of the most progressive CCT programmes internationally. The policy, designed with input from participatory research that factored in what women said would make a difference in their lives, granted women cash transfers to make up shortfalls in household income, and to access schools for their children, information about services and opportunities, shelter and decent work.’

And the irksome bit? Two I guess. Firstly, the somewhat generic nature of the recommendations – ‘Do our research in non-extractive ways and collaborate with the feminist experts and specialists working in every region of the world and on the entire range of technical issues.’

Secondly, soooo many adjectives. There’s a lot of what I call ‘sprinkling’ going on. A few years ago, NGOs took to sprinkling ‘strategic’ over their documents, apparently at random. The two sprinkler words in this paper are ‘transformational’ and ‘intersectional’. Both important issues, but I think it works much better to deal with each in one place, say ‘this is how transformational change differs from other kinds of change, and why that matters. From now on when we say ‘change’ we mean this kind of change’. Ditto for intersectionality.

Otherwise you get big cumbersome and impenetrable sentences that drive away potential readers, where the sprinkled adjectives actually add very little. Two of George Orwell’s six rules for writing well are ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’ Wish NGOs would follow that advice a bit more.

Pedantic, moi?

And here’s a more straightforward summary from Emily Brown, the report’s author

October 12, 2021
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Duncan Green
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Comments

  1. Orwell rarely listened to his own advice. ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do. If you can cut a word out, cut it out.’

  2. Regarding needless words, I suspect the NGOs are mirroring the donors, who in turn like to absorb what they believe to be ‘corporate’ language. Hence reports presenting a ‘coherent’ theory of change, leading to a ‘robust’ strategy that ‘leverages’ something or other.

  3. Down Under we are doing a lot of ‘pivoting’ of aid programs to address the impacts of COVID. Some have suggested ‘pirouette’ as an alternative.

  4. We need political education!
    In the space of opportunities is power to choose our response, which is growth and our freedom.
    “Regarding needless words, I suspect the NGOs are mirroring the donors, who in turn like to absorb what they believe to be ‘corporate’ language” Dominic Elson

  5. Insightful report, and useful as a reference for developing other learning products. Perhaps the adjectives are less irksome in other languages…

  6. The definition of “transformational” and “intersectional” being used is not just a pedantic, stylistic point.

    The paper says up front “Oxfam understands ‘transformative feminist
    leadership’ as a process of people working together to transform systemic and intersecting oppressions against
    women, including trans women and gender non-binary people – with the ultimate goal being the realization of
    gender and social justice and women’s rights.”
    This is a substantive difference from Oxfam’s previous approach which did not consider that feminism must include some males as being “women”.

    Today we learn that Oxfam has, as a result removed a children’s game celebrating women’s achievements from its book shelves because 1) it only included female women and 2) some of those women such as JK Rowling and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have expressed views that dissent from this erasure of sex.

    Will staff members who express such views similarly be “removed from the shelf?”. What about local women’s groups receiving Oxfam support who take the old fashioned view that being female is what makes someone a woman?

    Forcing women to include males in their organisations, spaces , data and the language we use undermines women’s autonomy and safeguarding.

    Coopting “feminism” to centre males and punish and shame women for speaking up is the ultimate power grab.

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