Gender Mainstreaming. How Can We Successfully Use Its Political Potential?


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The publication was elaborated within the framework of the project „Reflections on Gender Mainstreaming” supported by the Program „Globalisierung, Entwicklungsfinanzierung & Gender”, Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The fact that gender mainstreaming, or the incorporation of the issue of gender equality into mainstream politics and activities, also translated – depending on the context – as gender equality politics, has caught on in new EU member states, is largely a result of EU accession. Even though all countries signed the Beijing Platform for Action, the document ending the Fourth World Conference on Women which took place in 1995, they did not treat the obligations resulting from this document in a binding way. However – as Barbara Unmüβig[1] emphasizes, the Beijing conference was a milestone for the development of the women’s movement, because the Platform for Action, adopted by 189 countries, was a type of “historical consensus”. Representatives of governments and the civil society unanimously agreed that, firstly, women’s rights are human rights; secondly, that just relations between the sexes are a basic condition for socially and ecologically sustainable development and an inseparable element of democracy; thirdly, that all countries should systematically implement policies aiming at achieving gender equality. As it later turned out, the last item was the most difficult one to realize, especially in places where conservative forces were in power. In countries which were going through a period of political transformation (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia), and which later joined the European Community, gender equality politics had never been a priority. Gender politics lost with economic reforms, making up for delays in the economic sphere, so that these countries would be able to “catch up with Europe” as quickly as possible. It was women’s organisations, women’s rights activists, who repeatedly called upon provisions of the Platform for Action, trying to enforce on governments the realization of gender equality policies which would improve the situation of women. They pointed out that the European Union is consistently developing gender equality politics through introducing subsequent legal regulations which are supposed to ensure equal opportunities for men and women; that adjusting national legislation for acuis communitaire, but especially later enforement of legislation and taking up real activities leading to improving the situation of women, should be conditions for accessing the EU. Yet, it always turned out that there were other priorities, more important than improving women’s quality of life.

As Unmüβig points out the idea of gender mainstreaming “is a radical concept that could change gender relations since it potentially obliges all actors in a political field, an enterprise, an organisation.” Gender mainstreaming was supposed to provide a philosophical framework and, at the same time, a tool for effective change in the sphere of politics, economics, social relations and culture; a tool providing men and women with true equal treatment and full participation on equal terms in all spheres of life. Ten years after the Beijing conference we have reached a time of evaluation and critical analysis. Numerous analyses and studies concerning the realization of the principle of gender mainstreaming were published as part of preparations for the UN special session “Beijing + 10” (2005). On the one hand, achievements and successes were pointed out, but, on the other, weaknesses and limitations, which – as it seems – are inherent to this concept, were also sought. Gender mainstreaming was criticized both by supporters of this concept, who were sure that if certain corrections were made, the effectiveness of this instrument would increase, and by its opponents, found mostly among feminist theorists. They pointed out that basically the entire concept is based on a false and simplified understanding of gender equality, which does not allow for a radical critique of existing power relations and for thorough changes[2]. When evaluating the realization of gender equality politics it was pointed out that one of the main barriers is lack of political will, which causes it to remain only in the sphere of declarations, which are not followed up by any activities initiated in institutions. These weaknesses were tied mostly to the institutional character of gender mainstreaming, which, from the outset, was supposed to be a top-down policy. This caused researchers, theorists and feminist activists to question the future of gender equality politics and the justification of using gender mainstreaming as a tool for its realization. In spite of the developed EU legislation, framework strategies for gender equality adopted for periods of several years (including the newest one Road Map for Gender Equality 2006-2010) and the reports about equality of men and women in the European Union submitted annually by the European Commission, the situation is practically not changing. Specific problems still remain unsolved: lack of consciousness, lack of expertise and lack of money. [3] Additionally, in some European countries, gender equality politics is used by right-wing political forces and neoconservative governments to promote information strengthening traditional relations between the sexes and the traditional division of gender roles.

Yet, in spite of these weaknesses, gender mainstreaming still remains a key strategy of the UN, the European Union, other multilateral organisations and many countries. This can be clearly seen on the example of the European Union which, in the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, adopted provisions promoting gender equality politics, later confirmed in the Treaty establishing the European Community. Gender mainstreaming has caused significant changes on the decision-making level of politics: the belief that gender matters and that analyses of activities establishing their effects for men and women are necessary has become common. Gender mainstreaming is a tool enabling the institutionalization of gender equality politics, therefore, it is important to perform its critical analysis and reflect on reformulating the strategy in such a way which would make it possible to achieve the goals this concept was supposed to serve.

Such critical analysis of gender mainstreaming has never before taken place in new EU member states (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia) or in border states (Ukraine). Usually gender mainstreaming is promoted as a tool for realizing gender equality politics and a tool for putting pressure on governments to undertake actions in this field, by emphasizing that it is an offficial EU policy. Gender mainstreaming itself was never analysed critically during preparations for the Beijing + 10 conference, only the politics of governments in this sphere were evaluated. Studies and publications devoted to these issues which are currently being prepared as part of projects realized using EQUAL Community Initiative funds, the European Social Fund (Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia) and preaccession funds (Ukraine), promote gender mainstreaming without deeper reflection. There are not enough publications describing how to use this tool in practice. Two publications published by UNDP Poland: Gender Equality Politics in Practice and the reports created on the basis of this publication Gender Equality Politics. Poland 2007[4]. are a praiseworthy example.

Being aware of the contradictory reflection accompanying the evaluation of gender mainstreaming, it is worthwhile to ask the question regarding the strategic potential of this tool and the future of institutional gender equality politics. The study mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, Barbara Unmüßig’s Reflections on Gender Mainstreaming: Taking stock of a radical social-political concept ten years after the Beijing World Conference on Women [Nachdenken über Gender Mainstreaming. Bilanz einen radikalen geselleschaftspolitischen Konzepts zehn Jahre nach der Weltfrauenkonferenz in Peking], which was presented at the international congress “Femme Globale”, organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in September 2005 in Berlin, became a starting point for the publication which you are not holding and which was prepared as part of the project “Reflections on gender mainstreaming”. We invited experts from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Germany to cooperate with us. They have analysed the realization of gender equality politics in their countries, trying to answer, among others, the question of to what extent the application of gender mainstreaming has helped in implementing actual changes in gender relations. The experts point out both achievements and failures, at the same time formulating a number of recommendations which would make it possible to take better advantage of the potential of gender equlity politics. The English language version of the publiction contains texts by Barbara Unmüβig and Claudia Neusüβ, which provide an introduction to gender mainstreaming, and four case studies written by experts from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. It is accompaned by publications in Czech, Polish, Slovak and Ukrainian, which are slightly restricted in scope and which contain, in addition to the two introductory texts, also the case study concerning the given country.

Claudia Neusüβ’s introductory text presents the historical development of gender mainstreaming, rughtly pointing out that the nineties were the “golden age”, when the women’s movement managed to achieve the most within the European Union, which was significantly influenced by the fact that the European Union was enlarged by “women friendly” countries – Sweden, Finland and Austria. Considering the limitations of gender mainstreaming, Neusüβ points out that it is mostly the lack of a precise definition of this concept which “makes it compatible with different ideas of equal opportunity”, which means that practically every country can choose a convenient variant which best suits the local tradition of understanding gender equality. The analysis of the situation in Germany is particularly valuable, as it includes many analogies with the situations in new member states. In both cases we are dealing with a regression in the field of gender equality politics, or rather with an offensive of conservative politics, which also uses gender mainstreaming, but as an instrument to promote pro-family policies. “Gender equality politics has ceased to be a priority for the government” – writes Neusüβ – „women’s politics has been reduced to pro-family policies and gender equality initiatives have been restricted.” Financial and human resources are being limited. We can find similar observations in Czech, Polish and Slovak analyses, whose authors unanimously state that gender equality politics was never a priority for their governments, but is now – due to the influx of EU funds – being used by conservative governments to promote solutions strengthening the traditional division of gender roles.

For this reason we need to ask questions about strategies for defending gender equalilty politics from being abused by neoconservatve governments to promote ideas which contradict its basic concepts. It is difficult to treat gender mainstreaming as a miracle cure which would enable the achievement of gender equality in practice, but surely this concept can still play an important role as a complementary strategy. However, in order for that to happen the issue of gender equality needs to be repoliticised and – as Neusüβ points out – the current “deadlock” in gender equality politics needs to be broken by forming new alliances and initiating new activities by female and – very importantly! – male representatives of the world of science, politics, the civil society. At the same time, we should become aware of the fact that gender equality politics and its main tool - gender mainstreaming – should be a long-term process of transforming national politics.


Agnieszka Rochon, director of the Represenation of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Poland

Agnieszka Grzybek, coordinator of the regional program “Gender democracy/Women’s Politics”


[1] Barbara Unmüβig, Nachdenken über Gender Mainstreaming. Bilanz einen radikalen geselleschaftspolitischen Konzepts zehn Jahre nach der Weltfrauenkonferenz in Peking, HBS concept paper, 2005.

[2] Olena Hankivsky, Gender vs. Diversity Mainstreaming: A Preliminary Examination of the Role and Transformative Potential of Feminist Theory, [in:] “Canadian Journal of Political Science”, 2005, 4 (38), p. 977-1001, 2005.

[3] Teresa Rees, Gender Mainstreaming: Misappropriated and Misunderstood?, 2002.

[4] See: Polityka równości płci w praktyce [Gender Equality Politics in Practice], UNDP, Warsaw 2006 oraz Polityka równości płci. Polska 2007. [Gender Equality Politics. Poland 2007.] Report, UNDP, Warsaw 2007.

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Table of contents

Agnieszka Grzybek, Agnieszka Rochon
Gender Mainstreaming. How to Use Its Potential Effectively?  5

Barbara Unmüßig
1. Gender Mainstreaming – Possibilities and Limits of a Radical Social Concept 13

Claudia Neusüß
2. The Strategy of Gender Mainstreaming in the EU and Germany – Two Steps Forward and One Back? 27

Martina Kampichler, Katerina Machovcova
3. Gender Mainstreaming in the Czech Republic: a Critical Perspective  61

Ewa Rutkowska
4. Gender Mainstreaming in Poland – A Case Study 87

Olga Pietruchová, Paula Jójárt
5. Gender Mainstreaming in Slovakia: Rather Down than Top 121

About the Authors  151

About the Heinrich Böll Foundation Regional Office Warsaw  155