Body politics: The gender-development gap

Development Policy10 Jun 2011Deborah Eade

Deborah Eade reviews four publications in search of answers to the question why the field of development has been unable to understand human sexuality and body politics.

The international development industry formally committed itself to empowering women and mainstreaming gender equality at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. The gender-development gap looks pretty much the same fifteen years on, notwithstanding debates on how to ‘measure’ empowerment or where ‘the poorest billion’ reside.

The litany is familiar: women and girls account for 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty, and one in six children lives below the national poverty line. Women perform 66% of the world’s working hours, but they are disproportionately represented in low-paid employment in the informal economy – and almost exclusively in the unpaid care economy.

Men own 99% of the world’s property and overwhelmingly occupy the top jobs. At least 385,000 women die each year solely because of the female role in biological reproduction. Four out of five parliamentary seats worldwide are held by men, while four out of five refugees are women or children.

If that is not enough, 30% of the world’s women will be raped, beaten, sexually coerced, trafficked or otherwise abused in their lifetime, almost exclusively by men. Violence against women kills more women aged between 15 and 44 years than malaria, war, traffic deaths and cancer combined.

Victims and heroines

Two contrasting development narratives emerge from these numbers. 1 The first is of women as the downtrodden victims of patriarchy. They are underpaid, undervalued and under-represented, incapable of self-determination and defined by limitless ‘unmet needs’.

This narrative explains why the very few Millennium Development Goals (MDG) targets in which women feature explicitly include getting more girls into education, more women into paid employment, more women to survive pregnancy and childbirth, more women to use contraception and more women into parliament. More is better – with the exception of female (though not male) fertility, which needs to be slashed. 2 Women who do not have children, or are beyond reproductive age, do not much feature in the MDGs at all. And there is complete silence on male sexuality except in relation to HIV and AIDS.

The second narrative is of women already holding up more than half the sky – a collective Mother Courage, working round the clock, maintaining their families often single-handed. They are morally upright (they repay their micro-loans and put their children first), concerned with sustaining the environment and building peace, the pillar of their communities. In short, unsung heroines who deserve to be ‘lifted out of poverty’ – plus they are especially efficient at converting resources into development.

A vision of gender equality – that is, equality between women and men – underlies both ‘heroines and victims’ narratives, as the editors of the 2008 collection of essays, Gender Myths and Feminist Fables, refer to it. 3 Yet despite its early promise, the Gender and Development (GAD) project does not seem to have achieved remarkably more than the original Women in Development (WID) and Women and Development (WAD) approaches of the 1970s that it claimed to surpass. Gender inequality and gender power relations remain deeply entrenched.

Two major reasons stand out for this failure according to the authors reviewed here. The first is that GAD is essentially a bureaucratic response to an issue that requires nothing less than a radical Southern feminist politics that would transform all expressions of power and inequality. (For two eloquent visions, see DAWN and SOS-Corpo-Instituto Feminista para a Democracia)

In this view, concepts such as ‘gender’, ‘empowerment’, and in particular ‘gender mainstreaming’ are deliberately feminist-lite so as not to upset the development applecart. Perhaps the new profession of ‘gender expert’, armed with all manner of gender planning tools, mainstreaming checklists and empowerment tape measures, serves largely to satisfy the need of aid agencies to be seen to mean business, and thus to stay in business. Does anyone still remember the days when development agencies declared that their aim was to work themselves out of a job?

The second, and more significant, reason is that the exclusive focus of GAD on the women-men binary omits so much that we must now reconsider its use and usefulness. It is here that books such as Development with a Body, Body Politics in Development and the special issue of Development on sexuality and development offer important insights.

The hetero norm

At the risk of oversimplifying the richness of the contributions of some 50 writers from as far afield as Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, India, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, South Africa, Turkey and the UK, the core message is that the conventional GAD discourse of equality between heterosexual women and men is based on ‘limiting dichotomies that constrain us all,’ as Giuseppe Campuzano writes in his essay ‘Gender, Identity and Travesti Rights’ in Development with a Body. He goes on to say that ‘applying the principle of gender relativity would result in a healthier and wiser development, one in which people can claim their rights to combine genders, to transit and to choose.’ 5

The opening essay of this volume tells us that ‘efforts to institutionalize “gender” in development have sought to address the pervasive inequalities experienced by women in gender and sex orders the world over. But, paradoxically, they have often done so through the reinforcement of binary notions of gender and the substitution of one set of stereotypes for another, rather than challenging stereotyping itself’. 6

The notion that sex is a biological given (and therefore immutable) while gender is social and cultural (and therefore evolves and can be altered) has become so embedded in conventional development discourse that it may seem rash to question it.

Wendy Harcourt, however, argues in her 2009 book Body Politics in Development that it is feminism and not GAD that reveals ‘biology as a social construct like any other’. 7 Indeed, she argues that ‘rather than thinking about gender as a biologically determined division between male and female, it is more helpful to see it as a fluid construct that provides the social inscriptions that enable us to identify, learn and live as male or female in the places we inhabit.’ 8

The heteronormative assumptions that are hardwired into development policy and practice ignore or actively deny other expressions of human sexuality, according to most of the contributors to the edited volumes highlighted here. These assumptions also deny pleasure or ‘other affective dimensions of human relationships’, as the editors of Development with a Body write. 9

These assumptions and the practices that flow from them also undermine the notion that human rights are universal and inalienable, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. Amy Lind’s article ‘Challenging Heteronormativity in the Global Development Industry’ in the special issue of Development argues for research-based practice that can ‘liberate us all from repressive gendered and sexual scripts, rather than assume that heterosexuality is inevitable, omnipresent, merely “western” or an imperialist imposition’. 10 Lind also advocates placing ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and otherwise non-normative lives at the centre of rights-based development frameworks’. 11

Reproductive and non-reproductive rights

The strenuous effort required just to keep afloat the concept of ‘reproductive rights’ agreed at the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo attests to the powerful undertow that threatens to sweep sexual rights out to sea. 12 For all of the writers reviewed here, the fact that the development discourse ignores (non-reproductive) sex and sexuality is a real problem that damages real people.

The thinly-disguised disapproval of ‘the undeserving poor’ doing anything simply for their own pleasure pervades the development industry. The poor are supposed to focus on ‘lifting themselves out of poverty’, not on spending their time enjoying themselves, watching telenovelas, drinking or having sex.

It is therefore not surprising that development agencies continue to focus on the female reproductive system rather than sexual and reproductive health and rights – including the right to pleasure and emotional fulfilment – of all human beings, regardless of age, marital status, lifestyle, or sexual identity.

The focus on policing women’s role in biological reproduction safely de-links this from non-reproductive sex and sexual pleasure, as the editors of Development with a Body argue. It also provides a convenient supply of MDG-type ‘targets’ that will show how many dangers have been mitigated or averted.

How many births, for example, are attended by ‘qualified’ medical practitioners in clinics and hospitals? Forget about traditional birth attendants and home births – the World Health Organization’s (WHO) clarion call at the Alma Ata conference for basic health for all now falls on deaf ears.

How many women use modern (commercially produced and medically administered) contraception, or are sterilized? How many children survive beyond the age of five, or the age at which girls marry and give birth?
The prevalence of sexually-transmitted infections, the spread or decline of female genital cutting – these and many other things fit the current obsession with counting.

Numbers may be fine as far as they go, but they cannot explain our intimate behaviour, nor how we experience the motivating power of fear or pleasure. In the words of the notice that Albert Einstein kept on his wall: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.’

Gender relativity

Many of the contributors therefore call for an understanding of ‘gender relativity’, a continuum from female to male, with various permutations along the way. 13 This means acknowledging that human sexuality is far more varied and more fluid than the GAD discourse admits.

In fact, not everyone’s gender identity corresponds to their biological sex. Campuzano points out that the anatomy of some 4% of human beings is ambiguous – so they may decide to adopt a male or female social gender (assuming they are allowed the choice), or identify as ‘intersex’, ‘third sex’, ‘third gender’, transgender’ or ‘travesti’, or to transit back and forth across genders – even if this does mean that they get the worst of both. 14

Many cultures regard opposing gender qualities as a necessary part of an integral whole. Some Amerindian and South Asian communities accord those who embody both sexes a special spiritual or artistic status. For the development project to assume all human beings are unambiguously either male or female, and that non-heterosexual behaviour is essentially deviant – or at least requires the cordon sanitaire of a label – therefore results in its collusion in exclusionary practices in relation to gender identities and sexual behaviours.

Non-heterosexual people are routinely excluded in myriad ways. They may have to conceal their sexuality in order to avoid discrimination – for instance in finding or retaining a job, getting accommodation or taking out health insurance, becoming a parent or legal guardian. They may be unable to visit their partner in hospital, attend their funeral or grieve openly.

Concealment may take the form of entering into a ‘conventional’ relationship, ‘choosing’ celibacy over sexual or emotional fulfilment, leading a double life or living on the margins as sex workers and ‘entertainers’. Many of these human beings live in constant fear of being ‘outed’, and often face mental and physical abuse simply because of their sexual behaviour, appearance or intimate relationships.

There have been horrific cases of homophobic thugs bullying, gang raping and murdering ‘sexual dissenters’, or even people they suspect of being gay, lesbian or transgender, ‘to teach them a lesson’. Worse still, male homosexuality carries a jail sentence in 93 countries, and the death penalty in seven of them. The debilitating effects of violence, and the fear of violence, and its costs to society as a whole, should need no rehearsing.

In terms of behaviours, work on HIV and AIDS has, if nothing else, brought to light some previously concealed aspects of sexual practices – men who have sex with men but who do not identify as ‘gay’, and female sexual promiscuity, for example. It has also required a pragmatic rather than a moralistic attitude towards non-marital sex. 15

What’s normal?

The publications reviewed here argue that understanding human sexuality and body politics, and getting beyond gender binaries, would profoundly change the social and economic policies of mainstream development. This is not simply about ‘taking gender and sexual diversity into account’ as yet another add-on, a tick in a box followed by business as usual. It is about getting beyond simplistic assumptions about how human beings identify themselves and relate to each other, and therefore beyond one-dimensional labelling.

To give one example, most of us experience some form of disability in the course of our lives – this is living relativity in practice. It does not mean, however, that we wish to be defined as ‘disabled’, characterized solely by our deviation from – let alone as being inferior to – those presumed to be ‘able-bodied’.

Violence is incompatible with rights-based development, yet in most societies, people who are not unambiguously heterosexual (as well as millions of women who are) experience various types of abuse and repression. How can development agencies tackle exclusion while acting on the assumption that a ‘normal’ household revolves around reproductive heterosexual relationships, headed by a male patriarch? 16

And if an enlightened definition of poverty includes the denial of rights and freedoms, then anti-poverty efforts cannot simply opt out of WHO-defined sexual rights. Think, for example, of the right to choose a partner, to have or not to have children, to bodily integrity, to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, among others.

Henry Armas argues in his essay in Development with a Body, ‘A Democracy of Sexuality’, that ‘our work for inclusion and the realization of the rights of excluded people cannot be complete if we fail to consider sexual rights as a necessary element that affects many other domains of development work.’ 17

Integrating the sexual rights and health of all into efforts to tackle poverty, exclusion and the denial of human rights will reveal hitherto hidden and perhaps disconcerting dimensions of power and oppression. It will also assert the legitimacy of pleasure, dissolve the harmful divide between private and public, personal and political, and in so doing redefine the primary goal of development as being to enhance human rights and well-being.


Drucker, P. (2009) Changing families and communities: An LGBT contribution to an alternative development path. Development in Practice 19(7): 825-836.

Smyth, I. (1999) A rose by any other name: Feminism in development NGOs, in Porter, F. Smyth, I. and Sweetman C. (eds.) Gender Works: Oxfam Experience in Policy and Practice.Oxfam GB.

Smyth, I. (2007) Talking of gender: Words and meanings in development organisations. Development in Practice 17(4&5):582-588, reprinted in Cornwall, A. and Eade, D. (eds.) (2010) Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Practical Action.


  1. I deliberately refer to ‘numbers’ rather than ‘statistics’ because they are clearly developed to tell a story rather than being correct in every detail – not least because in many countries the detail is unobtainable. The exception is the maternal mortality rate, which several UN agencies concur has significantly declined from the longstanding ‘half a million deaths a year’.
  2. Some have observed that the MDGs are not even Minimum Development Goals in relation to women’s (or indeed human) rights or the mechanisms by which these rights are passively denied or actively violated. As though Beijing had never happened, women’s empowerment is reduced to a few quantifiable targets, and the mainstreaming of gender equality is conspicuous by its absence. Women who do not have children, or are beyond reproductive age, do not much feature in the MDGs at all. And once again, there is complete silence on male sexuality except in relation to HIV and AIDS.
  3. See Cornwall, A. Harrison, E. and Whitehead, A. (eds) (2008) Gender Myths and Feminist Fables: The Struggle for Interpretive Power in Gender and Development. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 2. For my full-length review of this work,and
    Cornwall, A., Corrêa, S. and Jolly, S. (eds)Development with a Body: Sexuality, Human Rights and Development. Zed Books, seeDevelopment in Practice 19(1):125 –127.
  4. See also Smyth, I. (1999) A rose by any other name: Feminism in development NGOs, in Porter, F. Smyth, I. and Sweetman C. (eds.) Gender Works: Oxfam Experience in Policy and Practice. Oxfam GB; and Smyth, I. (2007) Talking of gender: Words and meanings in development organisations. Development in Practice 17(4&5):582–588, reprinted in Cornwall, A. and Eade, D. (eds.) (2010) Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords. Practical Action.
  5. See Campuzano, G. (2008) Gender, Identity and Travesti Rights, in Cornwall, A., Corrêa, S. and Jolly, S. (eds) Development with a Body: Sexuality, Human Rights and Development,Zed Books, p. 144.
  6. Cornwall, A., Corrêa, S. and Jolly, S. (eds) (2008) Development with a Body: Sexuality, Human Rights and Development, Zed Books, p. 14
  7. See Harcourt, W. (2009) Body Politics in Development: Critical Debates in Gender and Development. Zed Books, p. 15.
  8. Ibid, p. 14.
  9. See Cornwall, A., Corrêa, S. and Jolly, S. (2008), p. 5.
  10. See Lind, A. (2009) Challenging heteronormativity in the global development industry.Development 52(1), March, p. 38.
  11. Ibid, p. 40. Peter Drucker emphasizes that these assumptions also spill over into civil and political rights in the form of ‘gender-normative and heteronormative definitions of who gets to participate, and definitions of citizenship that do not take enough account of social and cultural difference’. See Drucker, P. (2009) Changing families and communities: An LGBT contribution to an alternative development path. Development in Practice 19(7): 833.
  12. The concerted renewal of the commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 is necessary but not sufficient even to achieve what Harcourt refers to as the ‘reductionist’ MDGs and their de-linking of maternal mortality from the feminist lens of reproductive and sexual rights and health. The 2010 review of the MDGs found that the already painfully slow progress towards achieving ‘full and productive employment, and decent work for all, including women and children’ has been knocked off course by the job losses arising from the economic crisis. The point is not that the development industry can do no more than respond to the global economy, but that it seems to suggest that everything would have been on course had this obstacle not suddenly been thrown in its path. Tellingly, the 8th MDG on Global Partnership, which could potentially place development nearer to the centre of global economic policy, is the only one with no time-bound targets, and therefore no commitments.
  13. See Harcourt, p. 16, for example.
  14. See Campuzano, p. 142.
  15. While there is still uncertainty surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s ruling on the authorized use of condoms, the message is that, if at all, condoms may be the lesser of two evils for ‘male prostitutes’ who are at risk of HIV and AIDS. This is because although it is ‘gravely immoral’ for men to have sex with men, their use of condoms will not prevent conception. For this reason the Vatican’s prohibition on men using a condom when they have sex with women remains unchanged. It means, of course, that a woman may not protect herself against infection by requesting that her male partner use a condom.
  16. Apart from its embedded assumption that women are exclusively heterosexual, the label ‘woman-headed’ or ‘female-headed’ not only highlights this as abnormal – it defines the entire household by the absence of a man! Yet households vary across and within cultures as well as over time, and are invariably more fluid than the ‘development’ labels suggest!
  17. See Armas, H. (2008) A democracy of sexuality: Linkages and strategies for sexual rights, participation and development, in Cornwall, A., Corrêa, S. and Jolly, S. (eds)Development with a Body: Sexuality, Human Rights and Development, Zed Books, p. 223. Armas makes the important point that while participation should be considered a political right and not just a development methodology, it may represent high material and emotional costs for people who are excluded; who do not wish to make their sexuality visible to their families, communities or workmates; who are uncomfortable about making their intimate lives a vehicle for social mobilization; who find that the LGBT movement is imbued with assumptions about race and class. And where do those who are heterosexual but do not follow social gender norms fit in? For instance, fathers who stay at home to care for their small children lack the social structures available to mothers and may face ridicule, while their wives are likely to be criticized for their lack of ‘maternal instinct’.