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Why intersectional feminism matters for development

By Aviva Stein, Co-founder and Strategic Development Consultant at Catalystas Consulting, an intersectional feminist consulting collective working on international development

The future is female. But it is also climate aware, energy efficient, and well-fed with nutritious and sustainably produced food. It provides equitable access to basic services, education, and economic empowerment – regardless of level of (dis)ability, socioeconomic status, or racial, ethnic, and religious background. While this future may take some time to build, intersectional feminism can play a key role in ensuring we realise the change we envision.

The term ‘intersectionality’ was first coined by American civil rights advocate and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, as a means of looking at intersecting identity traits to understand how people experience oppression and disadvantage differently. An intersectional lens allows us to understand that different aspects of an individual’s identity result in different lived experiences. It was first applied to the intersection of race and gender, as an acknowledgment and examination of how black women experience life differently due to these intersecting identity traits.

Intersectional feminism has two overarching applications in development. At the micro level, it allows us to explore individual identity, and to identify and react to the ways in which different characteristics affect people and their needs. We are able to dive deeper into the ways that gender, in particular, interacts with race, ethnicity, religion, social norms, economic status, employment, education, environmental action, (dis)ability, age, political affiliation and participation, and more.

Understanding how these elements impact and influence each other allows us to better identify and address how challenges are compounded, how needs are best met, and how communities can be effectively empowered. For example, when looking at gender pay gaps, saying women in the United States earn USD 0.82 for every dollar a man makes is a simplification; while it demonstrates the disparity that persists between men and women, it does not take into account other factors. When you break down these identities further, the pay gaps show additional hurdles when adding race into the mix. While women as a whole group consistently earn less than men, Asian and white women are the highest earners among American women, while Indigenous American and Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Black, and Hispanic women earn less than their other female counterparts.

Using an intersectional feminist lens to dig deeper into the factors that affect and hinder efforts for equality also allows us as development professionals to design programs, interventions, and support systems that aim to dismantle systems of inequality. When the roots and intersections of inequality become clear, we can treat the cause rather than the symptoms. At the macro level, applying an intersectional feminist lens to development work enables us to see how sectors themselves interact. Through our recent studies on economic empowerment for women and youth, agricultural value chain potential, access to finance for marginalised communities, and entrepreneurship culture across six countries in the Sahel region of Africa, we saw time and time again how critical it is to design development programmes that take into account the interwoven nature of life.

In Mali, for example, women face a triple burden: the expectation to do unpaid domestic care work, community management work, and productive work outside the family. On top of that, as of 2018, the ILO estimates that just 1.7% of Malian women conduct their economic activities in the formal sector; yet approximately 63% of women work in agriculture. With limited formal economic activity comes little access to formal financing and structural support. Without either of these pillars, women remain disproportionately barred from starting or growing their own businesses; nor can they access crucial forms of support like insurance. This is combined with social norms and legislation that give men preferential treatment: it was only in 2017 that the Land Tenure Law was passed, a significant step towards enabling Malian women to own their own land. However, even as women make strides in claiming their rights, they remain at the mercy of challenges driven by climate change: scarcity of resources triggers tensions between farmers and pastoralists and forces migration; unpredictable weather reduces crop yields; and women working down the production line must contend with rising prices for raw materials.

Using an intersectional feminist lens to examine such contexts, we can see that addressing the challenges of sustainable, equitable development is not a question of either/or but one of gender, climate and economic growth. Focusing on any one of these themes alone is not enough. As development professionals, we must ensure that our solutions look to capture needs and opportunities that intersect and interact, resolving root causes of inequality, injustice, and insecurity. Whether at the micro or macro level, using an intersectional feminist lens improves effectiveness, impact, sustainability, and relevance of development initiatives, and it presents a coherent approach to dismantling systems of oppression – and to building better systems before oppression has a chance to take root.