Pakistan: Gender mainstreaming in a conservative society

Theme: Gender mainstreaming has to adapt to the cultural context in a conservative society.

During the last decade, IFAD has been involved with two important multi-sectoral projects in Pakistan, one in the Neelum and Jhelum Valleys, and the other in Mansehra. During implementation, both of these projects attempted a shift from the inclusion of "women's components", which were common practice at the time they were designed (late 1980s and early 1990s), to a gender mainstreaming approach. Since this was a "mid-stream" shift, it cannot be considered a comprehensive and full-scale adoption of a gender mainstreaming approach to development. Nevertheless, these efforts were a type of pilot test through which to improve gender mainstreaming in the existing projects and on which to base gender strategies in future projects. Recognizing this, a 2001 IFAD study compared the two projects in terms of these gender mainstreaming efforts in order to extract usable lessons.

The types of activities implemented under these projects included the fairly typical ones of social mobilization and community group formation (women's and men's separately), technical and vocational training, credit and savings promotion, some community infrastructure, and natural resource management. Activities were targeted on men, as well as women. The projects made attempts to deploy women staff to improve the participation of and the benefits for women. In the case of one project, women staff were only deployed at the local level and under the management of a non-governmental organization. In the other project, a more integrated and multilevel approach was used in hiring and deploying women staff and in gender sensitizing the project's men staff. These activities were somewhat ad hoc, since they had not all been included in the original project plan. But it is to the credit of both projects that they tried to improve as implementation progressed.

The IFAD study points out that both of the projects adopted a "process" rather than a "reform" approach to gender mainstreaming. A "process" approach can be defined as one that tries to work within the local culture to set in motion a process of change. It avoids aggressively imposing external values, even if these values are very worthy ones, such as women's rights and equality. Under this strategy for gender mainstreaming, both men and women are targeted and involved. The goal is to reduce opposition and minimize the social risk of change.

Seven strategic lessons from the project experience were highlighted by the study. They were to be taken into account by future projects in Pakistan. These lessons would also likely apply in many other countries that share a similar culture.

  • Project management has to understand and be committed fully to the process of gender mainstreaming, even if a non-governmental organization is in charge of the implementation of the main gender-related activities. The absence of such understanding and commitment can result in the isolation of the gender activities and a consequent lack of useful support from other components.

  • Women field staff are usually needed, together with the gender sensitization of men staff. Women staff such as social organizers are important for the provision of information to women and the recognition of any gender-related problems in implementation or errors in targeting that might otherwise be missed. But equally as important is the fact that these "progressive" and independent women staff serve as role models for local women. After a period of time, women staff may become less essential as people begin to accept interaction between outside men, such as trainers, and local women.

  • Activities are likely to take longer in more traditional areas. For instance, social mobilization in the more traditional project area took longer, and the implementation of the gender strategy generally occurred more slowly. But allowing for this extra time is essential if a sustained impact is to be achieved. Sometimes, pushing too hard can have the reverse effect and create a reaction. On the other hand, there may be certain "strategic" moments when change can be sped up, for instance, if male emigration has recently increased dramatically in the project area, and women have to manage the farm and make decisions on their own for a large part of the year.

  • Strategies will often need to be multi-stage. One reason for the slower pace is that, in a conservative sociocultural context, it may also be necessary to take a multi-step approach to the achievement of objectives. For instance, technical training had to address men first in the particularly conservative communities, and only after it had built confidence and trust among the menfolk could women also be trained. Even then, technical training had to follow strict gender lines and closely parallel women's existing roles and responsibilities. The same pattern occurred with vocational training for women. Training for non-traditional roles had to be postponed to a later stage. Where women are somewhat more educated and the general context is more progressive, men will be more supportive, and women will take advantage of opportunities more rapidly.

  • Visibility may become an issue that can, again, threaten success. Therefore, common project components, such as the construction of special women's centres, have to be carefully weighed in terms of whether they will really be used by and for the benefit of women, or whether women would be more well off meeting in each others' homes.

  • It is usually necessary to operate through the men and the community leader in order to gain the trust and credibility of the community at large. The project experience showed it to be particularly important first to obtain the trust and cooperation of the men and the religious leaders in the most traditional communities. Only after that could the women be directly targeted.

  • Women's practical needs should be addressed before one focuses on strategic gender needs. This strategy will open up opportunities for women to do other things and, additionally, establish project credibility with area people. For instance, the study found that the provision of domestic water supplies and fodder saved women livestock managers an average of about three hours per day. As a result, the women were more readily able to take up new income-generating activities such as milk production. Sometimes, the very fact of meeting practical needs will result in secondary changes in gender roles and power in a socially acceptable way, as occurred under these projects1.

Lesson: Efforts to mainstream gender in conservative societies are more likely to find an entry point and have a sustainable impact if they adapt the gender strategy to the local social context and culture. The adapted strategy will help to reduce social opposition and the social risk of change for women. In practice, this may mean a multi-step or slower pace. It would often also involve a mixture of "women in development" and "gender mainstreaming" approaches at the beginning.


1/ See also: "Pakistan: how new opportunities can affect women's social relations"


Maria Protz, October 2001, Gender Impact Analysis of the Mansehra Village Support Project and the Neelum and Jhelum Valleys Community Development Project, Rome.