An analysis of feminist development theories between 1970 and 1995

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 1344

This essay will analyse the three dominating approaches to gender equality in the late 20th century in order to understand the successes and failures that have led to the current feminist movement in the development sector. Women in Development, Gender and Development and Women’s Empowerment demonstrate a notable shift in feminist development theory and by analysing each approach, it becomes clear in how each shift has had a positive impact on the progress of gendered development.

 Women In Development

Women in Development (WID) was a pioneering feminist perspective where liberal feminism emerged in the early 1970s in response to the modernisation theory, which carried the assumption that women were particularly recessive in development progress (Boserup, 1970). Modernisation approaches to development believed that if the Global South was to develop like the Global North, it needed to abandon traditional agricultural societies and embrace industrialisation to achieve the necessary growth. This created an ideology of the Global North as a ‘conflict-free, classless, democratic, egalitarian arrangement’ vis-à-vis Western capitalism, which overlooked the individual cultural, societal and political factors that vary within the Global South (Greig et al., 2007). The ideology remained ignorant to women’s needs, therefore as a response, WID set out to specifically integrate women into aid policies and programmes (Koczberski, 1998).

Male dominance became a hindrance in the integration approach within development agencies, which created the narrative poverty alleviation and basic needs should be the sole focus for women. Women were continuously denied equal access to resources, which led to criticisms of WID as it seemed to do little to challenge the patriarchy when put into practice. Having a linear view on women’s priorities and needs also failed to challenge the core principles of the modernisation theory.

The integration of WID not only emphasised a divide between men and women, but also created a bias between skilled Western women who were introduced into development agencies as WID experts, and Third World women who were left to play a secondary role in the framework (Koczberski, 1998). Mohanty (2003) criticised western feminists for generalising the Third World woman as a singular, monolithic other with a believed shared oppression. Despite being the first liberal feminist movement in an otherwise welfare-dominated scope, WID approaches were to make little progress until feminist discourse removed the barrier that classified women as a homogenous group.

 Gender and Development

As a shift towards neoliberalism took place in the broader development agenda, feminists criticised the capitalist nature of the development process for having adverse impacts on the productive and reproductive lives of women due to an increased focus on the commercialisation of agriculture and industrialisation (McIlwaine & Datta, 2003). This sparked a shift from WID to Gender and Development (GAD), an approach that analysed women’s subordination as a way to address inequalities and redistribute the power between genders. Women were no longer categorised as a homogenous group and divisions such as class, caste and race were introduced to feminist development theory.

The transition in feminist thinking from ‘women’ to ‘gender’ sparked an approach that encouraged power sharing between men and women as a fundamental human right (Chant & Gutmann, 2000). The GAD framework changed the feminist perspective from needs-based to rights-based and for the first time the violation of women’s rights, such as sexual rights and gender-based violence, were now being acknowledged in the wider development forum.

Through a new differentiation between groups of women that had never before been formally identified, GAD gave feminists of the Global South a platform to champion their views, which were previously addressed by Western feminists on their behalf. Of particular significance was the assembly of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a network of scholars, researchers and activists from the Global South working towards overcoming poverty and gender injustices. That said, a divide remained between Western feminists and their Southern counterparts due to the elitist language used within the GAD framework, alienating activists on the ground in the Global South (Nagar, 2002). It became evident through GAD that the knowledge women share amongst themselves must be ‘produced and shared in theoretical languages that are simultaneously accessible and relevant to multiple audiences’ (Nagar, 2002).

GAD signified a considerable shift in the way women’s rights were being perceived, however the success of the approach remained limited. Where GAD approaches had been put into practice, they had often been depoliticised due to their potential for change that sparked wariness in the stagnant development era of male-dominance (McIlwaine & Datta, 2003).

 Women’s Empowerment

From GAD derived women’s empowerment. This approach emerged from the Global South to reverse the existing paradigm and drive feminism from the bottom-up. Third World women were accessing Microfinance and Women’s Budget initiatives to build capacity and organisations such as SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) and other grassroots groups were showing a greater willingness to challenge employers and the state for women’s rights (Kabeer, 2005).

The definition of empowerment implies that it is a journey rather than a destination, which creates ambiguity when determining its success. Kabeer (2003) explored the interrelated dimensions within the concept of empowerment, agency, resources and achievements. Each dimension carries both positive and negative connotations, making it difficult for the approach to come with a universally agreed set of priorities that hindered its potential for change. It can be argued that because of this, empowerment became more palatable to the wider development network compared to previous feminist approaches, however in relation to women’s rights this makes it an arguably empty success as its ambiguity led the approach to become largely depoliticised.

Ground-level activism that encompassed women’s empowerment promised transformation through mobilisation and collective action, however in reality it translated to a means of burdening Third World women with the power to formulate their own needs. This shifted the responsibility from States and development agencies onto the women themselves and women’s empowerment became a development buzzword with the approach being reduced to ‘a simple act of transformation bestowed by a transfer of money and/or information’ (Cornwall et al. 2007).


Women in Development, Gender and Development and Women’s Empowerment demonstrate that integrating women into the existing development framework is not a platform for change. Women’s priorities and issues need to be considered in correlation with their diversities to effectively address violations to women’s rights and diminish the one-size-fits-all pretence. Each attempt of mainstreaming gender into the development agenda thus far has demonstrated some progress from its predecessor, albeit with limited success. To succeed, power relations between men and women need to be restored to give women control over resources, not just access to them (Hlupekile, 2000), and until that is achieved gender equality will remain stagnated in a patriarchal existence.

Reference List

Boserup, E. (2015). Woman’s Role in Economic Development. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd, p.112.

Chant, S. and Gutmann, M. (2000), ‘Mainstreaming Men into Gender and Development: Debates, Reflections and Experiences’ Oxford: Oxfam Working Papers. pp.7.

Cornwall, A. and Anyidoho, N. (2010). Introduction: Women’s Empowerment: Contentions and contestations. Development, 53(2), pp.144-149.

Greig, A., Hulme, D. and Turner, M. (2007). Challenging global inequality. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hlupekile, S. (2000). ‘Towards realistic strategies for women’s political empowerment in Africa’ in Gender & Development, 8(3), pp. 24-30.

Kabeer, N. (2003). Reversed Realities. 2nd ed. London: Verso, pp.4-10.

Kabeer, N. (2005). Gender equality and women’s empowerment: A critical analysis of the third millennium development goal 1. Gender & Development, 13(1), pp.13-24.

Koczberski, G. (1998), ‘Women in Development: a critical analysis’ in Third World Quarterly, (19)3, pp. 395-409.

McIlwaine, C. and Datta, K. (2003), ‘From Feminising to Engendering Development’ in Gender, Place and Culture, 10(4), pp. 369-382.

Mohanty, C, T. (2003), ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham & London: Duke University Press, pp. 17-42.

Nagar, R. (2002) ‘Footloose Researchers, ‘travelling’ theories, and the politics on transnational feminist praxis’ in Gender, Place and Culture. pp. 179-186.

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