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Gender and Development: Critical Theories and Approaches

University of Iceland via edX


Gender equality is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Here at GRÓ GEST we understand that learning about the theoretical and practical interplay between gender and international development is of utmost importance to anyone working in or considering a career in this field.

In this course you will learn about some of the main critical theories and topics necessary for understanding a complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship between gender equality and international development initiatives.

For example, why have women not been better included in peacebuilding processes? Are women more peaceful than men? How do colonial legacies influence how we think about development and gender? How do they influence collective trauma? What role might the State play in constructing gender norms? What is the difference between women’s mobilization and women’s organization? Does gender mainstreaming really work? What about quota systems? And how do we address issues of masculinity?

In this course, a team of internationally acclaimed experts in the fields of gender studies, history, literature, psychology, and development studies will discuss these questions and many, many more.


Week 1: The State

Why are we examining the state in a course on gender and development? Well, on a theoretical and a practical level, the state plays a central role in contemporary efforts at sustainable development. States have immense power to shape institutions and impact people’s lived experiences. They are central and ambivalent sites of concentrated regulatory power. Feminists and gender activists have a complicated relationship with the state because the state is both a source of gendered harm and an actor that has great potential to reduce harm. States are not the same as nations, which are a group of people connected by a common identity, history, or sense of community. A nation-state is the fusing of regulatory, disciplinary power with this conception of community.

In the six units that comprise this module, we will be interrogating the multi-faceted relationship between gender and the state. Together we will think through the ways that gendered power relations impact both individual and group interactions with the state. We will examine how states produce gender, how states are gendered, how states produce gendered harm, and what kinds of demands feminists make of the state.

Week 2: Security

Following from an examination of the concept of the state and its relation to gender, this module turns to the concept of security. Security is an important measure taken by states and international organizations such as the United Nations, European Union, and others, to ensure safety and survival. This often includes military actions, diplomatic agreements such as treaties and conventions among others. But have you ever thought about how these measures and the way we think about international security might be different if we ask men or women? What do you think you would discover if security was seen from a woman’s perspective? In this module we examine the gender disparities in international security and ask whether women have a special role to play: Are women more peaceful than men? We also address gendered issues surrounding violent extremism and a recently emerged topic, namely children born of war.

Week 3: Peacebuilding

Closely related to the concept of security is peacebuilding. In 1992 then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published his report ‘An Agenda for Peace’, in which he tried to conceptualize the different measures or instruments the UN and the international community had at hand in preventing or managing conflicts. This was how the concept of ‘peacebuilding’ entered the international peace and security vocabulary. At the time peacebuilding was understood as a term referring to post-war activities. And it remained so until the early 2000s. When The Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations – also known as the Brahimi Report – was published in August 2000, the concept was still used to refer to post-war activities. However, the Brahimi Report became subject to criticism for applying a too chronological approach to the understanding of wars and conflicts – and not least for being totally gender-blind. In the wake of these critical debates, ‘peacebuilding’ gradually came to be understood as also encompassing pre-war preventive activities. In this module we look at how different peacebuilding measures intersect with gender in relation to civil society, youth and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes.

Week 4: Decolonization

Why is the notion of decolonization important to international development? Well, the mere existence of the term development clearly indicates that some countries are developed while others are not. And not so coincidentally, on the international stage, the countries that are considered underdeveloped are also the countries that were subjected to Western colonization and imperialism before World War II. This is not to say that all work done in the name of international development is bad or has no value. It is to say that we must always remain critical and aware of the ideological roots of international development, and especially of the power dynamics inherent in a system that divides the world into beneficiaries and benefactors. In this module, we are going to address some political and cultural themes relating to international development, that have been influenced by colonial legacies, and how people have sought to decolonize them.

Week 5: Implementation – The Case of Gender Equality in Post-Apartheid South Africa

It is one thing for a state or an organization to say it is committed to gender equality. Implementing, that is, putting that commitment into effect, is something else entirely.

If we consider Gender Equality as a journey not a destination; a process rather than a product, we have cause for optimism. But our optimism needs to be tempered with some caveats. A major material consideration is the unequal distribution of resources around the world. In poor countries, poverty is a daily reality for many people and the state is unable to act meaningfully to secure the livelihoods of citizens. In these circumstances, gender equality can seem like a grandiose and superfluous goal. In these instances, arguments for economic development often trump those for gender equality. Moreover, Gender Equality is not understood in the same way by all people. Some societies are vested in gendered understandings that have deep roots into the past and are enacted with religious, traditional, or other rationales. When these are challenged, the criticism is experienced as an attack and an attempt to impose ‘outside’ ideas and values. It is not surprising that such prescriptions are resisted.

In this module, we present a case study of debates about the implementation of Gender Equality and Development initiatives in South Africa. South Africa felt the influence of colonialism from the 17th century and in 1948 was subjected to Afrikaner Nationalist rule which developed the policy of apartheid.

Taught by

Giti Chandra, Aiko Holvikivi, Marsha Henry, Inger Skjelsbæk, Torunn L. Tryggestad and Robert Morrell


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  • Very good course. I've taken more about how one can think critically and do something extremely useful for their lifes by critical thinking. By that, so many things are happening to me that I can see without to much overthinking. I would sday thank you to thus course to change thinking completely.

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