Gender in a Globalized World

Most programming on GBV seems to be based on the underlying assumption that the perpetrators in protracted crises are local. Whether it may be a husband beating up his wife, a mother selling her daughter or a rebel group recruiting boys, the perpetrators are supposed to be local. Following, this assumption is scrutinized by having a closer look on international actors and on how they shape gendered power relations in fragile countries.



The Oxfam scandal of early 2018 has shaken up the development world[i]. The disclosure of systematic sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff made clear that aid workers are not detached from local dynamics but that they can become drivers of gender inequality or even perpetrators of GBV. Without aiming to boot up the scandal into the sphere of systemic failure, the following reflections show that the positioning of aid workers in fragile countries is hard to bring together with the overarching goals of GBV programming.

 The main idea driving GBV programming is that violence is enabled by gender inequalities. Preventing GBV, therefore, means to equalize the power relations. Because of this link, activities, such as awareness raising or female livelihood support, are seen as effective instruments for mitigating the risk to GBV. The link between violence and inequality is both logical and empirically grounded. In India, for example, studies revealed that women with secured land rights are eight times less likely to suffer from domestic violence[ii]. But if we take this link seriously, then we also need to think about its implication for development organizations. Aid workers in fragile countries are typically in control over scarce resources and they are clearly affected by a GBV enabling environment. Given the power position of aid workers and a context which often allows violence to occur without prosecution, we need to assume that the Oxfam scandal may not be an extraordinary incident that can simply be explained through individual misbehaviour. Instead it also resulted from the specific relationship between aid workers and the local population. This relationship is characterized by an highly uneven distribution of power – the one big issue that is assumed to spark GBV.

There is no reason to assume that aid workers enjoy a moral high ground or that they are resistant towards a GBV enabling environment. But rather, aid workers are similarly to local men first of all people with power. Putting the problem like this has some practical implications. First of all, a code of conduct is only of value if it is accompanied by independent monitoring and a prosecution system which allows incidences to be effectively discovered and processed. As national and local institutions often lack the capacities to go after misconduct and with development actors having an intrinsic interest in avoiding bad publicity, codes of conduct run the risk of becoming mere symbolic artefacts rather then effective instruments to prevent GBV. Moreover, development related resources, such as medicines, food or money, should not be controlled by only a small number of people. With people holding unmonitored power over scarce resources, the risk for exploitation and abuses is increased. 

While the Oxfam scandal demonstrates how individuals working in development can become part of the problem, we should not forget that the basic principle of aid also affects the gender relations. The simple fact that aid is provided can inform GBV or disturb social relations to the detriment of women. External aid resources are usually highly demanded goods and people naturally use their agency to get access to these resources. If one is explicitly prioritizing GBV survivors in the allocation of aid, then one should also be aware that this can inform wrong incentives. For example, in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, a third country resettlement programme for victims of sexual violence was so demanded that women started to hurt themselves in order to become eligible for resettlements. Similarly, when the Democratic Republic of Congo became the world capital of rapein 2010, the international community prioritized assistance towards war-related rape. This substantially increased to competition of both NGO’s and beneficiaries over resources, sparked corruption and informed cheating. Research revealed that some development organizations rigged numbers to get funds and some local people started to fake traumas to get assistance[iii]. The increased inflow of financial resources by donors did not only prevented other GBV related issues to be tackled, such as the reorganization of the armed forces or the rule of law, but also turned women as a whole into a development target while community-based approaches, which could have enhanced the collective organization of women, became increasingly neglected. 

Of course, all organizations are embedded in these dynamics and cannot simply bypass them. But there are a number of practical steps that can be undertaken to mitigate the negative side effects of aid provision. For example, every proposal could have a mandatory section in which the team needs to reflect on possible implications of their services and how the inflow of external resources and opportunities may affect the gendered power-relations. Having such a obligatory section would force us to clearly think through how aid could potentially be misused and how we can ensure that the programme fulfils its purpose.


Most fragile countries are well integrated into the global market. In 2017, for example, South Sudan, exported US$ 1.3 billion of mineral fuels while the Democratic Republic of Congo earned US$ 2.7 billion by exporting Copper, a mineral that is widely used in electronical devises.[iv]Unfortunately, international businesses are often more concerned about their financial gains than about their socio-economic impact in such fragile settings. In some cases, multinational corporations reinforce gender inequalities or become perpetrators of GBV. Development organizations who are working on GBV need to be aware on the impact of globalization in general and the role of corporations in particular. However, understanding the effect of global trade upon local power relations is not easy. Whole sectors, such as the extractive industry, spare no expense to keep their activities private and resistant towards monitoring and regulations [v]. Whereas it is easy to pinpoint domestic violence, it is more difficult to determine to what extend multinational corporations inform violence that is based on gender differences. 

 This is well illustrated by the example of Aegis, a private military company who recruits mainly young men from poorer countries[vi]. Because long-lasting conflicts are expensive and public revenues have become scarce, many countries, such as the United States, have outsourced their military activities to private corporations. Aegis is one of those companies which has established itself as a key actor during the US invasion in Iraq. In recent years, the company started to recruit soldiers in developing countries as cheap labour with little negotiation power. In the case of Sierra Leone, an extensive research project by Maya Mynster Christensen, working for the Royal Danish Defence College, revealed that especially young men and former child soldiers are targeted by companies like Aegis and sent back into war zones all over the world. As the international community has worked hard on re-integrating former child soldiers into the civil life, the privatization of warfare enables companies to systematically undermine this progress for the mere purpose of profit maximization. Aegis as an enterprise that deliberately picks young men and exposes them to further violence should be understood as perpetrator of GBV. A stronger emphasis on such actors, especially when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, can make our engagement with GBV more comprehensive.

Multinational corporations are no silent stakeholders but active shapers of the development agenda. Monsanto, for instance, calls women the “most underutilised resources” [vii] and is committed to combat the institutional and cultural barriers that keep women from working in the agricultural sector. This can be a reasonable strategy to mitigate the risk to GBV. This approach is, however, based on the assumptions that participation in the labour market effectively increases the access and control over resources, the decision-making power and the freedom to make well-informed choices about one’s own body. Not only the academia but also development organizations have become increasingly critical towards these assumptions and their negative impact on women. UNICEF, for example, states that there is a “weak evidence base between economic opportunities and GBV”[viii]. To argue that empowerment lies simply in women’s access to the market is to say that subordination comes from economic exclusion alone. This view is not necessarily wrong but surely limited. GBV programming should not be limited to market exclusion but problematize the institutions and norms which enable such forms of exclusion to happen in the first place. 

What are the practical implications of this argument? To put it frankly, it shows that there is no point in giving women cows if men are drinking all the milk[ix]. Or in other words, it is crucial not to measure the inclusion of women into economic activities but the benefit such an inclusion bears. It does not make much sense to calculate the amount of resources and opportunities allocated to women but we should attempt to evaluate to what extend these actually empower women. Quantitative measurements, such as the number of cows given to women as livelihood support, can be misleading as they often exclude the actual effect upon the power relations. Participation in the labour market cannot be the goal in itself but only one possible way to empower women and mitigate the risk to GBV. Because of that, evaluation cannot be limited to measurements which are merely concerned with clear-cut variables, such as the number of resources given to women. There is no doubt that qualitative measurements are more complicated and hard to put in practise in fragile settings. However, even if we go for quantitative measurements, we should be clear about their limitations and make the assumptions explicit when we monitor or evaluate a programme.

That devastating side-effects are a real problem is well demonstrated by the effect of new medical equipment upon the rural population in India[x]. In India, the trade liberalizations since the 1990s have not only enhanced the women’s participation in the labour market but also their access to medical technologies. Both are usually considered positive as they enable women to make well-informed choices and to benefit from technological progress. However, new technologies are never neutral but can reinforce given power relations based on cultural norms. While new reproductive tools, like ultrasound, effectively have lessened the risks of pregnancy, their dissemination has also increased the number of gender-informed abortions. As India has a long-lasting history of intentional killings of girls after birth, the increased access to reproductive technologies has facilitated sex-selective abortion. Or to put it more frankly, globalization enhanced access to medical technologies also for those families who do not allow girls to exist. This example reminds us that globalization and universal access to new technologies is not only an inclusive force but also a potential driver of GBV. Development organizations working on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) need to be aware on how new technologies affect local populations and how they change the given power relations between men and women.

 Globalization is a strong force that gives raise to new forms of GBV. From human trafficking across national borders to the gendered impact of new technologies, globally acting corporations have a clear impact on the gender relations in fragile countries. Economic reforms and new technologies which have shown positive effects in the developed world do not necessarily bear the same results in fragile settings. With weak institutions, a high level of uncertainty and culturally contingent gender-relations, the local realities differ substantially from the places in which economic models and new technologies are usually developed. The value of external assistance is not given by what is offered but by how it is used. In practical terms, this means that assistance which relies on new technologies should think about how these tools impinge on the gendered power-relations. Similarly to the suggestion in chapter 3.1, it would be useful to have a section in each proposal which reflects on how aid is potentially misused and what can be done to mitigate the risk to fraud.