The debate on development has shifted somewhat. The approach that was perceived and promoted during the 1960s and 1970s as the best way to achieve human progress is no longer seen in the same light. During these "development decades" declared by the United Nations, the main conceptual framework of development was economic growth through investment. Indicators to measure economic growth did not consider the centrality of people. Rather, people were a labour resource to be tapped for the sake of economic growth. Further, it was strongly argued that industrialization was the engine of development, and hence the rural sector was merely a reservoir of labour. In addition, issues of environment were hardly considered, especially since no limits to growth were recognized.
It was not until the late 1980s that the dominant concept of development was questioned. Issues of environment took centre stage, particularly after the publication of the Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. Soon development was seen not only as economic growth but as sustainable growth and sustainable development. And within this perspective it was argued that people's cultures and religious beliefs are critical in the process of development.
An even more critical addition to the new perspective on development is the dimension of gender. The UN Development Program (UNDP) has introduced gender equity in development as a sustainable human development goal. What are the implications of this broadened conception of development that takes culture and religion seriously?
To begin with, sustainable growth and sustainable development are supposed to include the development of human resources, in addition to guaranteeing all human rights including the right to development. Thus, implicit in sustainable development is particular attention to the socioeconomic improvement of the poor and women--especially since women generally tend to be the poorest of the poor but at the same time key actors in the development process. To improve the socioeconomic conditions of these women requires the elimination of sociocultural, political and economic discrimination, for only then can poverty be eradicated.
Furthermore, as we close the twentieth century, the biggest revolution that has been attained--and attained without violence--is the change in the status and position of women in church and society. But this does not mean that there are no more hurdles to climb. Quite the contrary: the inclusion of culture and religion in development has its strengths and weaknesses as far as women are concerned. While there is an accepted view that gender analysis in development planning and implementation is a prerequisite to sustainable human development, national development plans and programs are still largely male-geared and women are not afforded the same opportunities as men.
Religious communities have for centuries been instrumental in constructing and prescribing gender relations in a way that have been discriminatory to women. Furthermore, the structures--even religious structures--and traditional cultural values of many a society are extremely oppressive to women. Thus, the inclusion of religion and culture only helps broaden the frontiers of struggle that women have to cope with.
When it comes to community participation and decision-making, for example, Pauline theology, and especially Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, literally subjugates women to the control of men. In Kenya, this theology reinforces a local cultural value that the baraza or meeting place is a male domain and women have input only through informal consultation. This hampers women's effective participation in public life and makes them believe that only men can lead. As a result, they go ahead and vote men into office even if these men are ineffectual leaders.
Another religious and cultural value that inhibits development is the understanding--biblical as well as cultural--that reproduction and child-rearing are not only dirty but also the exclusive domain of women, and men assist only when they wish to. This results in women being overburdened. Development projects may even exacerbate this problem. Here in Africa, for example, "zero grazing" projects involve the family keeping its cows confined instead of having them graze at large. The idea is to increase the productivity of the cow by reducing its energy expenditure. The cow's manure can also be collected and saved. However, the culture dictates that once the herd animals are back in the home compound they are women's responsibility. So the women end up both raising the family and looking after the cows.
There are also moments when African traditions and Christian values collide and women are left in a confused state as to what their role should be. Some African religions have no problem with women assuming leadership, while Christianity confines areas of leadership. Women ultimately have to abide by the dominant value.
Culture and religion are the nerve centres for discrimination against and oppression of women. They have also been critical factors in the inhibition of genuine sustainable development at microlevels of communities. Religious institutions and cultural values must begin to affirm the vital contribution of women and free themselves from sexist teachings and practices. The ultimate goal is to enable these institutions to be in solidarity with women. Attaining this goal is an ongoing struggle.
The essence of healthy development is the development of people towards a change in their attitudes leading to a change in their habits. At the moment, change is only partial, as prevailing religious teachings and practices suppress women: right-wing Christian groups and Islamic fundamentalists would want to turn back the clock and return women to the nineteenth century. But as we move towards the twenty-first century, we should affirm the capacity for all people to have equal access, equal respect, equal rights and equal wellbeing.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld