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‘Voice is the key to real and structural change’: Anouka van Eerdewijk on two decades of working for gender equality

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Anouka van Eerdewijk, Senior Gender Advisor at KIT, has spent the last 20 years advocating for and researching gender equality around the world. Now, she’s taking a step back from the field. But before she leaves, she gives us a brief glimpse into her journey, and what has and hasn’t changed along the way.

Are there some aspects that haven’t changed since you started working in this field?

What hasn’t changed is the activism, creativity, and perseverance of activists. I find this one of the best fields to work in. There are so many engaged, inspiring and committed people. It’s an amazing space and can be a haven for women to develop and discover their strengths.

It is also still hard for policymakers, practitioners, decision-makers and even researchers not to speak for women but to talk with them. To create space for women to voice their thoughts, concerns, perspectives, realities and needs. Voice is the key to real and structural change. So, the biggest thing one can do is to create space for people who don’t have space to express their voice.

Voice is the key to real and structural change. So, the biggest thing one can do is to create space for people who don’t have a lot of space to express their voice.

What are some of the positive changes you’ve witnessed over the years ?

One of the most positive changes I’ve witnessed is the increased awareness of and the work done on what we now call gender-transformative approaches i.e. an approach that brings about deep structural change by addressing the root causes of gender inequality. The problem of gender inequality is deep, systemic. And for that to change, we need to look at the inequalities, social norms, power relations and institutional factors.

It is not a new idea, but the attention on gender-transformative approaches puts this front and centre, and it also seeks to translate it into approaches and interventions.

To clarify, when we say social norms, it often slips into the culture. But social norms are not the same as tradition or They also exist in modern societies and modern institutions, modern organisations and among modern people. Slipping into an argument that inequalities come from traditional cultures makes us blind to what is really happening.

Have gender issues moved up on the global agenda?

It was a big breakthrough when women’s empowerment came on the agenda. The idea has been widely embraced. But in a way that focuses a lot on individual women and the empowerment of individual women, without looking at the unequal relations that exist in society. These ‘empowerment-light’ approaches miss the point. They focus on ‘fixing women’. But women are not the problem; power inequalities are.

Now, with transformative approaches gaining momentum, we are redirecting our attention to structural solutions. Over the last decade or so, there have been lots of innovation and experimenting with gender-transformative approaches. And it’s not just talk, we’re also developing real approaches, testing them out, working in communities and organisations. It’s a significant step forward.

What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced in your work and how did you deal with them?

If you are a gender advisor, or worse, a feminist, people already come with their preconceptions when they speak to you. But while our role is often to challenge the status quo and to question what people take for granted, we must do it in an inviting way. At KIT, that’s often how we work with partners and clients for whom this is new territory. It’s always a journey that you embark on together. And to find the right balance between being interrogative and inviting is one of the nicest but also most challenging aspects of the work that we do.

Another thing that often comes up, is what some have labelled the ‘Yes, but’ mechanism. Yes, gender is important, but we don’t need feminists. It’s like saying, let’s do accounting, but without financial experts.

While our role is often to challenge the status quo and to question what people take for granted, we must do it in an inviting way. At KIT, that’s often how we work with partners and clients for whom this is new territory. It’s always a journey that you embark on together.

What do you think the climate crisis will mean for the overarching gender agenda?

As an optimist, I think a crisis holds potential and opportunity. The fact that there is a sense of crisis also pushes us to a point where we can change business as usual. The climate crisis is human-made, so it’s also about social relations, structures, power relations, all of that. But, it’s easily looked at from a more technical perspective, like emissions, rising carbon dioxide levels, etc. It can become so technical that the whole socio-political dimension gets lost.

Consequently, people who are affected and most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are excluded from the conversation because they don’t have the technical knowledge or speak this language. So, before the potential or opportunity that lies in a crisis can be realised, there are a lot of risks and concerns. And it is hard work to address these risks and seize the window of opportunity for sustainable change.

Who needs to do more to address these issues, and what can they do?

I’ve found it really interesting to observe the private sector and companies entering the stage of international I’ve found it really interesting to observe the private sector and companies entering the stage of international development, partly in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda.

It is a big change. In the 1990s, primarily governments, development agencies and civil society occupied this space. At the same time, I think companies can and should do more. Not only ‘do no harm’ but ‘actively do good’. This also means that they need to interrogate their core business and how they work. Some private corporations have become so big they wield a tremendous amount of power, but because they report to clients and stakeholders – rather than citizens – they’re not accountable. Some companies span so many countries that it’s difficult for even national governments to hold them accountable.

It is also a new and different experience to work with companies and to carve out space to explore different kinds of partnerships to move forward towards systemic change. We must accompany them in an open way where you can find new solutions and new opportunities together. It also means having to ask and explore uncomfortable and difficult questions.

What developments do you hope to see in the future?

Some of these things that we are now talking about, we were talking about 25 years ago as well. The only thing that has changed is this market-oriented way of thinking and the presence of the private sector. I read a quote that said: “The path isn’t a straight line, it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things that you thought you understood and see deeper through truths”.

Sometimes people feel that we’re not making progress because we’re having the same conversations. But the fact that we are still having them is the change! And especially when the conversations get more to the point. I do hope to see more accountability. I hope there is more space for all people, and the planet, to flourish.

I also hope that everybody can see what they can offer in terms of leadership, and contribute even if no one is I also hope that everybody can see what they can offer in terms of leadership and contribute even if no one is watching. We don’t need to wait for somebody else to make a change.

Sometimes people feel that we’re not making progress because we’re having the same conversations. But the fact that we are still having them is the change!

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