I've noticed that absent in all of these panels and events is the issue of cultural difference. There certainly is discussion of culture, but it's used in a negative way to discuss the obstacles to progress. There seems to be a consensus that traditional roles are always forced on women and that it necessarily leads to their oppression. While I tend to believe that to be true myself in many circumstances, I also live in a country (Morocco) where I see traditional roles valued by both men and women for their ability to preserve families.
Even as I pursue development work myself, I sometimes wonder if we have a cultural superiority complex that looks only at the problems of poorer populations with a lens of despair. Why do we feel like we need to swoop in and save them? Are our lives that much better? When I get thinking like that, I look at the developed world and I think about the cost of individualization and self-advancement. We are often addicted to strive for success and independence, moving away from our families to "improve" our situations. We send our children off to day-care, work all day, and get very little vacation time in return. We are always working towards "bettering" ourselves, and wishing we had more time to spend with our families. Are many of our psychological and physiological problems a consequence of our "development"? Sometimes I even humor myself thinking about rural families forming international development agencies to teach first-world countries the value of communal living, sharing resources, and a solid family network.
Now I should point out that I don't necessarily think what I just said is the truth, but it is my cynical analysis when I'm in that mode of thinking. The fact is that I'm torn on the matter. My experience here in Morocco, and in particular, living in a large household complex that is made up of several nuclear families, has given me a glimpse into a living arrangement that was once the norm but that is virtually non-existent now in urban areas. What stands out to me most is that the family members with whom I live are very considerate towards each other, generous, and communally-oriented. Seeing how content they are makes me well aware of my need for privacy and my own personal space, which at times makes me feel spoiled dependent on independence.
Also, although the families function along traditional lines, the men and women show a lot of respect towards each other and seem just as happy or happier than many of the men and women in more modern arrangements in the US. I remember a conversation I had with one of our classmates with whose opinion I highly respect, and she expressed to me her belief that women make better caretakers. She suggested that some of our notions of feminism and women's rights have actually led to the breakdown of families. We can argue if that is true and if so, if that is a good sign (because it signals women standing up for themselves) or a bad sign (the implicated societal problems in that statement), but it still a very valid argument-- and one that was made by a very strong, educated women no less. I tended to disagree with her on a point by point basis, but I can see her point of view on the matter.
I know this seems like a tangent, but my point in all of this is that I think any conference that addresses rural development and women's rights has to be aware of its own cultural footprint. I am in no way denying the many obstacles and problems faced by women in the countryside, and in fact, have devoted much of my graduate work to reaching disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, including but not limited to girls and women. However, I do think we should be careful about how we approach the issue of culture and not inadvertently impose our own values on others. Development, I think, should start with access to services and extreme poverty social nets, ensuring that the basic needs of the community are met, and giving traditional women a door to new roles and opportunities for them to open if they choose to without pushing them forcefully through it.