Interview with Annemarie Sancar, advisor for SDC sector policy on gender equality

Article, 15.05.2013

Bern, 17.04.2013

Inequality between men and women undermines society as a whole and creates a massive obstacle to development. Over the last 10 years the SDC has integrated the question of gender into all its programmes as a transversal theme.

Annemarie Sancar was a member of the Swiss delegation for the UN Commission of the Status of Women on «Rural Women» in March 2012. She is seen here in front of the UN building in New York. (

Ms Sancar, you are a gender expert and the focal point of the SDC gender network. Can you tell us which instruments have been developed to make the issue of gender an integral part of all SDC projects?

With the introduction of the Gender Policy by the Directorate in 2003, instruments were also launched to help put the policy goals into sustainable practice. The «toolkit for gender equality» helps staff and partner organisations make gender-sensitive contextual analyses, formulate relevant gender targets, and develop indicators –  all in all a manual for top-quality gender mainstreaming. In addition, sector specific material has been developed to ensure the SDC's political intention – promoting gender equality in order to reduce poverty – is effectively implemented in water programmes, vocational training, in conflict situations and in humanitarian aid. Guidelines for workplace equality in the SDC and the Cooperation Offices have also been important. Training has been offered for several years, and today it primarily takes the form of workshops tailored to address regional and thematic needs for gender-aware development cooperation in specific contexts and with local partners.

What is the exact meaning of gender mainstreaming?

Gender Mainstreaming (GM) means that all activities are examined with regard to the effect they have on gender relations, and that gender equality should also be one of the goals of the activity. In this sense projects are to be understood as instruments to promote equality. GM encompasses specific empowerment projects in places where discrimination against women is particularly bad and structurally anchored, and finally GM also means promoting equality in organisational structures and cultures. However, to achieve this in every context in which an intervention is planned requires precise analysis in order to understand what combination of GM approaches will be appropriate and effective for promoting equality. Here it is important that the projects are systematically accompanied and evaluated to ascertain the effects they have on men and women, and this should be done at all levels and together with local actors.

The topic of equality of the sexes covers a whole raft of issues: governance, law, education, work, the economy, access to resources, violence, health, family. In your view which of these issues is most important, and where do you see the greatest chances for achieving a change in mentality?

Where people are addressed directly, i.e. as citizens, as learning, working, creative, communicative individuals, and as active members of society, then changes occur that result in certain shifts in the behaviour of those involved. This makes GM very important everywhere. Many interventions do not affect individuals directly, but rather indirectly through institutions, laws, budgets. Here too GM is important, and can even achieve decidedly more. If, for example, the ministry of health plans cuts that primarily affect small, decentralised outpatient clinics, then women are affected directly. Moreover, they also feel the indirect consequences more severely than men. Due to traditional gender roles they will to a large extent have to take on responsibility for the services no longer provided by the government, and it goes without saying that this will be unpaid. Where the goals of gender policy are taken seriously, macroeconomic processes are of central importance. This was also the reason why we made an issue of Gender Responsive Budgeting, both as a project approach and for the spending policy of the SDC.

In the field, the SDC supports local organisations that advocate equal rights for men and women. How does this cooperation work? Does the strategy change according to the context?

As I have already mentioned, contextual analyses are indispensable, otherwise we cannot understand the reasons for gender inequalities and, therefore, cannot accurately target measures to achieve a balance of power in relations between men and women, regardless of at which level. An analysis must include an assessment of where the local actors, NGOs, and women's groups stand, and cover everything from very localized initiatives up to universities. This is where we find history, experience, know-how – and also the difficulties. This is the real baseline for our work.

Have the SDC's programmes already been able to play a major role in changing attitudes in the area of gender equality? Could you give us a specific example?

The project «Women and shea butter» is a prime example of how a shift in mentality has been achieved through a joint community project of Swiss Interchurch Aid (HEKS), Bread for All and the SDC. The primary goal of this grassroots project was specifically to help women in the Nahouri region of Burkina Faso to generate income. This was done by improving and increasing both the quality and quantity of the production of shea (or karité) butter.
Although the butter is widely used in everyday life, its production is extremely arduous. In total 44 women's groups from 30 villages, around 1,300 women, were involved. The goal was to increase production by using new techniques and technologies. From the perspective of food security, the development of new local markets was a priority. Additional goals included capacity building and strengthening the organisational, management and marketing skills of women's associations.

The project was designed so that the added value created remained in the region, and the women were given access to credit. This resulted in negotiations with the local savings bank and the creation of a HEKS guarantee fund. With the help of state funds it was also possible to launch a literacy programme. The women's groups that emerged as partners for this project subsequently merged to form the umbrella organisation Lougouzena.
The project has had a significant effect in raising self-esteem and empowerment amongst the women. They described the respect and appreciation they received and spoke of the project with pride: «From the income I receive I can not only pay for food, but also for the children's school fees and books,» karité producer Mariam Idogo told us. The project has not only been a success economically, literacy programmes and capacity building have also helped to strengthen the women's self-awareness and make them conscious of the important role they have in society, and to professionalise their area of responsibility. The women have drawn up statutes for their organisation and pass on their experience to other women via networks.

And how do things look with regard to the promotion of gender equality at SDC head office?

Exchange within networks is important: mutual learning and regular participation in operations committees where decisions are made about new projects. This all functions very well. Each summer when we publish the Gender Progress Report the divisions contact us and want to discuss the relevant results and proposals for improvement. Discussions in bilateral cooperation have also been very interesting, firstly regarding the question of how gender can be better embedded in the quality assurance process, and secondly as to which core questions arise in the various fields of intervention, for example in rural development, the democratisation process, promotion of economic growth and in vocational training.

Even though as many women as men work for the SDC, the more important positions are predominantly occupied by men. What can be done to correct this situation?

Flexible working hours, home office, part-time working are all needed: the usual things an employer can do for equality. This has also been shown by an independent evaluation. However, setbacks occur again and again. It is a shame that still so few men are able to see the benefits part-time work could bring them. Although wage inequalities no longer exist, it is younger women in particular who complain of the difficulty of reconciling caring responsibilities with working for the SDC, a problem that is barely mentioned by men.
So, if equality is to be achieved, also by means of measures to reconcile work and family, then this still requires great commitment on the part of the institution. Perhaps it would make sense for the Management Committee to temporarily introduce quotas. I have an ambivalent attitude towards quotas myself, however what is clearly needed is a much more consistent implementation of gender policy with regard to delegations. We are very poorly represented here, not only in the area of conflict prevention, where a special UN resolution requires the integration of women in corps, peace negotiations and missions, but also in delegations in general, which still tend to be far too male dominated, especially where global themes are concerned.

What do you consider the greatest achievements in the area of equality over the last 10 years?

The quality of discussions and the commitment of the gender contact persons from the Cooperation Offices at the «Face2Face» meetings, which are held every two years, show that a great deal has happened, also at head office. I am also happy to see that many men understand the value of a gender-fair society, are interested in questions of gender, get involved, and promote gender awareness amongst their colleagues. Case studies and evaluations “in the field” demonstrate that things have changed there too, even if sporadically rather than systematically, and with far too much dependence on the management of the Cooperation Offices or partner organisations.

And what has been your greatest disappointment?

What I mentioned above about the top positions is, naturally, a disappointment. On the other hand I should also say that the pressure has increased worldwide, the influence of conservative currents is growing, making it all the more important that feminist NGOs, regardless of whether they are organised locally, regionally or transnationally, have the space and receive the resources to fight for the rights of women. This would greatly enhance the work undertaken by states and UN bodies with regard to gender mainstreaming. But it requires resources, good personnel and expertise.
Networks are indisputably a good form for organising, extending and capitalising on gender knowledge. However, management must be ready to draw on this knowledge, to learn from it and to represent gender policy for what it is: an important instrument to implement our legal obligation to combat poverty, even when it sometimes takes courage to support gender equality in all-male forums.

In your opinion what areas should SDC gender policy concentrate on in the next 10 years?

Continuing education, resources, prioritising thematic areas where sexual discrimination is rife; then strengthening local expertise and supporting transnational networks that have sufficient professionalism and resources to advocate sustainable and consequently gender-fair development in global debates and negotiations.