A feminist approach to development: It starts with us Insights

9 February, 2018

In this white paper, and in the context of Canada’s celebrated new Feminist International Assistance Policy, Cowater’s gender equality specialists propose that resistance to ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ approaches to development is often based on a combination of a misunderstanding of these concepts and unconscious biases that implicitly favour existing power dynamics and inequalities. In turn, they suggest that if we’re to uncover and disempower the roots of this problem, we first need to start with ourselves.

The advent of Global Affairs Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) in June 2017 promised to enhance Canada’s focus on gender equality as a key driver of both peace and social, political and economic progress. Since its announcement, the FIAP has been lauded by many in the international development community based on the belief that sustainable development cannot be achieved without the full participation of women and girls as equal partners with men and boys in the development of their societies.

Despite this recognition, however, the words ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’ and measures that place a deliberate focus on women and girls continue to provoke passive or active resistance among some circles, and not only in countries with persistently large disparities between the well-being, economic/social participation and rights of women and men. Indeed, passive or active resistance to these ideas appears in Western societies as well.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘feminism’ as “the advocacy of women’s rights based on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. Feminism, then, is the pursuit of gender equality, which most individuals living in the West would argue they support. By this definition, the same proportion of people should choose to describe themselves as feminists. Nevertheless, recent multi-country across OECD member states reveal that many women and men distance themselves from feminism even as they assert their commitment to gender equality.[i] Similar reactions are invoked when special measures, such as employment equity practices to ensure women are fairly represented in government institutions, are proposed to improve women and girls’ participation in society in the interest of advancing gender equality.

The resistance that the terms ‘feminist’, ‘feminism’ or ‘women and girls’ empowerment’ invoke suggests that the need runs deeper than more education about these concepts: also required on a personal level is an examination of our own unconscious biases and openness to the possibility that our own truths are not absolute. That is, before we can properly design, implement and promote gender transformative development initiatives through our projects overseas as practitioners, we need to first understand our own deeply ingrained biases and the ethnocentric nature of our worldview.  This can be a challenging and painful process, but only then can we sincerely begin to identify and address the obstacles to achieving true equality.

Since self-driven personal reflection is not for everyone, a range of structured opportunities exist to support the same process and build our understanding of the drivers of gender inequality. Gender training, for instance, typically begins with breaking down the concepts of gender versus sex, and with driving home the idea that gender stereotypes, roles and norms are dynamic, always evolving and differing markedly between cultures. With understanding we are better equipped to examine our own gender biases‒those that we are subject to and that we impose on ourselves–through tools such as Harvard’s online Implicit Association Test.[ii] At the organizational level, while many organizations have policies in place to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender or other social identity factors such as race or sexual orientation, seldom do they put themselves through the rigorous process of examining and uprooting deeply-ingrained beliefs in the way we demand of others.  In an effort to embrace feminist approaches to development, this kind of introspection at the organizational or project level should be encouraged. Gender-based analysis–in which we challenge our assumptions and conduct research on the diverse perspectives of women, men, girls and boys that we can then integrate into our projects – can be a starting point for the next step.

Other practical steps for becoming more feminist in our approaches as development organizations are also available. For one, we can make a deliberate effort to disempower our biases by learning or reminding ourselves to stay open to diverse viewpoints; by inhabiting the struggles of others; by being willing to let go of our own fixed ideas; and by recognizing our privileges and their arbitrary nature. Only by reflecting seriously in these ways can we begin the incremental work of breaking down our own barriers and helping others to do the same, thereby taking gender-based analysis well below the surface.

The gift of Canada’s FIAP is that instead of allowing individuals and organizations to buckle to the resistance almost always encountered with transformational change along gender lines, it has made it imperative to consider all development programming through a gender lens.

To do this authentically, we first need to undertake this process ourselves, both as individuals and organizations. In other words, we cannot simply ask that the women, men, girls and boys, communities, organizations, institutions and governments with whom we work revamp how they see the world and gender norms within it. Nor can we ask that only they go through this sometimes difficult struggle in the interest of gender transformation and the development that accompanies it. Instead, we also need to understand this process for ourselves along with all the feelings it entails, and transform right along with them as we do.




[i] The disparity is greater in surveys in which the word “feminist” is not defined, but a significant disparity exists even when the survey defines the term. For more, see:;;
[ii] Harvard University Implicit Association Test.

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