Gender mainstreaming still mostly an ideal for China’s NGOs

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The number of social organizations (a local umbrella term that includes NGOs) in China is about 901,900, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. However, it’s hard to obtain any official statistics on how many of those are dedicated to women’s issues, said Xu Xiaoxiao, assistant secretary-general of the China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO), during a forum that took place at the 2022 Annual Conference of China Foundation Forum (CFF).

One thing we do know is that NGOs focused on gender topics are not mainstream in China.

“If it’s always us talking about gender issues, it will never be mainstream, and it will always be regarded as an issue that only matters to a few dozens organizations specialized in this topic,” Xu added. “We need to influence the 900,000 or so organizations that don’t touch on gender equality in their day-to-day work.”

What Xu was emphasizing, gender mainstreaming, aims to incorporate a gender perspective into social development policies and practices through multiple dimensions and areas. It was  endorsed as a critical and strategic approach for achieving gender equality commitments back at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

No shortage of challenges

China’s domestic funding and resources for gender and women’s development projects are very limited. According to Xu, whose team looked at some platforms and institutions serving China’s foundation industry and found that although these platforms do not lack detailed industry reports or elaborate knowledge base categories, there are almost no such categories specifically for women or gender issues.

In addition to the lack of supportive resources externally, NGOs in China often lack gender awareness and capacity in their internal governance structures. Without gender sensitivity at the institutional level, there are very limited channels for women to move up in the non-profit sector.

In domestic social organizations, women make up more than half of the employees, but the proportion of women in management positions is low. According to a 2017 China foundation report, Xu said, less than one-third of foundation secretary-generals are women.

Moreover, the lack of gender sensitivity will impact the effectiveness of project design by social organizations. For example, the Spring Bud Project, established as a girls-only fund to reduce gender inequality in education in China, caused a huge controversy when donors discovered that a large proportion of its funding was allocated to boys. In addition, during the early stages of the Covid pandemic, female medical workers lacked protective clothing in sizes suitable for women, and disaster relief supplies and donations they received did not include feminine hygiene products.

What is being done?

CANGO’s promotion of gender mainstreaming can be dated back a decade ago when the organization launched the “China Civil Society Gender Network Project”, hosting a series of awareness raising, policy advocacy, social organization capacity building and international exchange events to “enhance the development capacity of grassroots social organizations” and “promote gender awareness”.

In 2020, CANGO cooperated with UN Women to carry out the “Promoting Gender Mainstreaming into Chinese Foundations and Social Groups” project, to provide targeted advocacy and training for policy makers and project managers of domestic social organizations — especially grant-making foundations, to help them incorporate a gender perspective into their internal management and charitable projects.

A year into the project, CANGO released a series of handbooks on gender mainstreaming in China’s charity sector at the Seminar on Gender Perspectives into Chinese Charity Assistance. The handbooks mainly cover three aspects: common knowledge on gender mainstreaming in social organizations, basic guidelines and examples of gender-related policies within organizations, and selected tools of international gender mainstreaming practice.

They also encouraged social organizations to increase gender sensitivity in institutional development, human resources, organizational culture, partnerships and communication, and called on domestic foundations, especially grant-making ones, to incorporate a gender perspective into the design, implementation, supervision and evaluation of their projects. For example, different needs brought by gender differences should be taken into account, and gender-specific data statistics should be conducted on the beneficiary groups.

However, encouragement is not enough to drive a sector-level change. Although two-thirds of the nearly 100 domestic social organizations CANGO interviewed for the gender mainstreaming project agreed that a gender perspective was relevant to their organization and their work, in reality, most of their programs — except those specifically for women or girls — have not yet included a gender perspective. Most of the projects don’t even hold gender-specific statistics on their beneficiaries, which makes it difficult to carry out any follow-up work and analysis.

During the seminar, CANGO also announced an initiative, joined by 40 domestic social organizations, to “incorporate a gender perspective in their charity projects and promote gender mainstreaming in China’s charity sector”. However, there are questions on the substance of the initiative, as a staff member from one of the participating organizations told CDB that their organization didn’t receive further material or training support after the initial announcement.

In addition, adoption of specific terms such as “gender mainstreaming” and “gender equality” in documents like the annual reports, website, and project presentations are still relatively rare, according to Xu. Some may have mentioned “women’s development”, but very few touched on gender analysis, gender-disaggregated statistics or gender discrimination in general. And the proportion of foundations that include such keywords in their documents is even lower than that of other NGOs.

The dilemma faced by gender-focused NGOs

For NGOs focusing on gender topics, their priority is often survival. For example, Yuanzhong Family and Community Development Service Center, a Beijing based organization providing legal aid and other services for gender-based violence survivors, had to register as a social enterprise facing increasing funding difficulties.

NGOs focused on LGBTQ communities tend to be even more marginalized and are often difficult to register. For these organizations, staying non-mainstream is one of their survival strategies. One organization that registered as a social enterprise told CDB that they have no interest in or time to spare for “regurgitation feeding” the sector.

For those recognized as “women’s organizations”, the dilemma facing them is how to strike a balance between their own survival and development and pushing for sector-level progress. Nevertheless, some of them have decided to give it a try.

Over the years, Yuanzhong has held nearly 200 training sessions on domestic violence and sexual harassment, mostly for social organizations but also for police, courts, individuals, and women’s federations of different levels, according to Li Ying, founder and director of Yuanzhong, who still hopes to engage more organizations across the country to form a larger alliance.

Most recently, Li joined an effort to form a “gender-friendly support group for China’s charity sector”. Still in its early stages, the support group is mainly composed of experts, academics, lawyers and heads of NGOs who are focused on or concerned with gender issues and have experience in dealing with sexual harassment/assault cases.

The support group seeks to help Chinese NGOs to build a gender-friendly working environment, including establishing mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment, raising gender awareness of team members and building practical capacity. It will also provide direct support for NGO workers, volunteers and other stakeholders who are affected by sexual harassment/assault.

But the fact that such effort is still initiated and supported largely by the few gender experts and women’s organizations suggests that gender mainstreaming in China’s NGO sector still more of a concept than a reality.

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