Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gender matters

"I know of no industrial society where women are the economic equal of men. Of everything economics measures, women get less...To me, the pursuit of a non-sexist "economy" is as absurd as a sexist one is abhorrent. Here I shall expose the intrinsically sexist nature of economics as such and clarify the sexist nature of the most basic postulates on which economics, 'the science of values under the assumption of scarcity' is built.

I shall explain how all economic growth entails the destruction of vernacular gender and thrives on the exploitation of economic sex. I want to examine the economic apartheid and subordination of women and yet avoid the socio-biological and structuralist traps that explain this discrimination as 'naturally' and 'culturally' inevitable, respectively."

The above passages are from Ivan Illich's 1982 book entitled "Gender" (no longer in print). (GW)

Protecting Women's Rights for Sustainable Development

The New Times (Kigali)
March 12, 2007

By Dr. Istifanus A. Joshua

It is said that the test of civilization in any society is the measure of consideration and care which it gives to its weaker members. The relationship between men and women are central to all societies. Men and women are not identical but they are created equal.

Many women were and many are still unable to take advantage of available resources because of the obstacles placed in their way by traditional beliefs and practices, most of which are gender based.

Women are respected in many societies only to the extent that they bring up healthy male children; and they are accustomed to poor services and treatment even in performing that role.

They are at risk because they suffer routinely from discrimination; also more likely to be illiterate, work for long hours and earn less money than men. Legal systems give them nominal protection and equality and in many developed and developing countries, older gender based customs still play important role.

Women in many parts of the world suffer sexual abuse in the hands of the very authorities whose duty is to protect them. There is also the perception that women needed to be educated only to be good housewives.

The slogan 'woman's rights are Human rights', adopted at the world conference on Human Rights I Vienna in 1993, as well as the Declaration on the elimination of violence against Women, adopted by the General Assembly the same year, captured the reality of the status accorded to women.

This article discusses gender, gender roles, gender socialisation and stereotyping as it relates to gender based issues, Women's rights and Sustainable development as we celebrate International Women's day today, 8th March.


Gender refers to roles, attitudes, behaviour and values ascribed by the society to males and females as defined by a school of thought. However, sex refers to the biological differences between individual that make them male and / or female. It is biologically determined while gender is socially and culturally constructed and transmitted during the process of socialisation and differentiation. Thus, sex is inborn while gender is learned. Sex and its associated biological functions are programmed genetically while gender and power relations are learned, changeable over time and have wide variations within and between cultures. Gender unlike sex, determines to a large extent women's differential access to resources and power and these are reflected in the political, economic and social structure of a society.

Gender roles

Gender role refers to society's evaluation of behaviours, as masculine or feminine. Gagnon and Simon (1973) said, "Gender role has everything to do with the society in which one lives and may or may not have much to do with biology."

Michael Foucault argued that gender unlike sex should be recognised and accepted as a fluid variable that shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times.

Gender socialisation can occur at different levels such as by peers, by family, by religion, in work place, in the military, by charity, in education, in the media, by recreation and gender stratification in politics and government.

Sex and gender socialisation is deeply integrated into the fabric of most cultures as described by UNFPA, 2001. Gender stereotyping plays an important role in gender based issues and it can be defined as the rigidly held and oversimplified beliefs that males and females possess distinct psychological traits and characteristics as those outlined below:

Males should always be in control, never show emotions, must dominate or control the partner in a relationship, must be the head of the home and make decisions, must never accept infertility as his fault as it is never the man's fault if a woman fails to conceive and must never take 'No' for an answer from a sexual partner.

On the other hand, female must be emotional and sensitive, must always yield to partner's sexual demand, must accept infertility as her fault as a man cannot be infertile, must have as many children as society demands regardless of her health needs and must never complain about sexual harassment.

The above characteristics, as onerous as they are far fetched, imply that gender stereotypes do not usually reflect the true situation. While some may be positive, a lot more are negative in their outlook.

Examples of gender based issues include-

Society expects women to give birth and rear children irrespective of their fertility status. Half a million women die worldwide in childbirth every year leaving millions of motherless children. This has been described by Maine (1986) as the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every 4 hours, every day, whose passengers are all women in the prime of their lives!

Men are traditionally decision makers regarding the number of children women should bear and whether or not she can use family planning. Access to family planning can be difficult for a woman because of her restricted mobility.

Women are often excluded from making decisions that affect the way society is organised or even decisions over their own bodies. Today, population and development has several strands; and attention to population is important for sustainable development.

Society infringes on reproductive health rights of women. The practice of inheriting a woman following her husband's death as if she was part of the deceased's estate is not uncommon in African societies.

Women should have the rights to accept or reject marriage proposals. They should also enjoy rights to health care and health protection, which include rights to be free from all harmful practices such as early marriages, negative widowhood practices, trafficking in women and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) among others. The health consequences of such include psychological trauma, infertility, temporary or permanent disability, sexual dysfunction, recto and vesico-vaginal fistulae, etc. Agencies Reports showed that FGM is practiced in more than 25 African countries; and approximately 6000 girls every day worldwide undergo FGM in the name of making them "more attractive for marriage".

Preference for the male child (i.e. male children are valued more than female children). In some cases this has led to female feticide and infanticide. There is need to protect the girl children so that they grow up safe, healthy and equal.

Girls do not have the same opportunities for education as boys do. Agency Report showed that at the beginning of this century women make up 2/3 of the world one billion illiterate population.

Sexual harassment in various forms e.g. rape. In some countries, the process of bringing rape victims to court are degrading and humiliating to women and without regards to their rights and privacy.

Judges still subscribe to myths surrounding rape; victims are treated with suspicion as the societal attitudes and insinuations believe that the woman must have 'asked for it'. A rape victim who becomes pregnant is not lawfully entitled to have an abortion. This is really restrictive and an infringement on the rights of the victim.

Women are not expected to express themselves sexually and wife battering is the norm in some societies.

It is usually men that start war without consulting women mainly for selfish power and to gain control over resources and trade. But unfortunately it is women, handicapped, children and the elderly that suffer most during such periods. Report showed that between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped in Bangladesh in 1971 during a nine month conflict. It is their right to be protected from rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Economic needs sometimes force women into situations where their health can be compromised. e.g. exchanging sex for money; thereby exposing them to a high incidence of STIs /HIV/Aids.

Today 50 per cent more women are living in poverty than 30yrs ago as shown by agencies reports. This is tragic since the well being of children depends more on the income available to mothers than to fathers. Women earn 1/10th of the world's income yet own less than 1/100th of the world's property.

Food taboos often times predispose them to poor nutrition. Women are the ones that prepare food, after which they serve the best part to their husbands, followed by the children, and then they eat the left over.

Pregnant women are not usually allowed to eat eggs in some communities for so many wrong superstitious reasons. They have right to adequate nutrition to ensure positive pregnancy outcome.

Nutritional taboos also have far-reaching implications for women in the field of work, where their level of productivity can be affected.

Women's achievements usually go unrecorded, and women have nearly always been dominated by men and regarded as men's personal property.

The above and many more such issues gave rise to disparities and gaps in the role men and women are expected to play in the society. These gaps and disparities are identified and enumerated below.

Inequality resulting from the systematic bias against women in:

a) access to social services such as health, education, water and sanitation.

b) access to economic resources as capital, land etc. For example women and girls make up half of the world's population, yet they do 2/3 of the world's work as shown by agency report.

c) from institutional rigidities that lead to failure to recognize and respond to their particular needs.

Discriminatory employment opportunities against women.

A widely held point of view is that men are naturally better suited to hold positions of power. Men have wielded the power, shaped the values and controlled the wealth; and throughout history, men have treated women as second class citizens. Therefore there is a highly asymmetrical gender division of labour, which while it has evolved, has done so largely to the detriment of women; thus leading to imbalances in the rights and responsibilities of men and women.

Discriminatory laws and practices often in the name of religion, tradition or culture preserve the idea that women are inferior to men and do not deserve equal rights and protection. Women are 'caregivers', they also protect the elderly, the young and the sick but they can expect little protection.

The legal system inherited from the colonial era placed many obstacles on the way of women's self-advancement and participation in sustainable development. Until recently, women were not allowed to stand bail for a suspect in some countries. Studies also showed that some colonial policies and statuses to be sexist and biased against women.

There is immobility of women in both spatial and socio-cultural dimensions. Women are supposed to be indoors managing the homes while men are outdoors managing the economy and the Nations.

Gone are the days that women just existed as full time house wives for cooking, cleaning and 'production' of children.

Today women have prove their worth in various sphere of life; as captains of companies, industries, pilots, engineers, astronauts, vice chancellors among others. God help Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and others alike to prove to the world women's potential to manage the economy and Nations in addition to their other responsibilities!

Related to the precariousness of the socioeconomic status of women are the lack of autonomy in decision making and lack of control over economic resources. These later factors have indeed worsened the situation.

In addition to the diversity of households and to critical issues of intra-household resource allocation and decision making as well as lack of attention to the implications of these factors for economic outcomes.

Poor educational opportunities for the girl child. She is usually the first to be deprived of an educational opportunity in the face of scarce resources. It is high time we remember that 'when you educate a woman you educate a nation but when you educate a man, you educate an individual'. Lack of effective/non implementation of girl-child education policy in most countries is also detrimental to achieving the aspirations of the girl child.

Negative socialisation process of both the girl and the boy child. Jobs that some years back were considered to be male jobs are done today by females too.

Non-implementation of national/international instruments on women's fundamental rights including their reproductive health rights e.g. maternity leave.

Invisibility of women in economic analysis and policy making. Most often there is non-attribution of economic value or cost to household work thereby leading to an optimistic but unrealistic assumption of zero opportunity cost, thus undervaluing and ignoring women's contributions.

The role of women in any society is very crucial. Women play pivotal role in family life, family health as 'primary health care providers', educational, cultural, welfare programmes, inter-sectoral development, among others.

There is need to correct the social prejudices, the low status of women ,lack of educational opportunities, discriminatory laws and practices among others that interact as major constraints to women's development thereby hampering their contribution to sustainable national, regional and global development. This substantially requires reorientation of men!

In the words of Wendy Harcourt, "the time is past when a women's movement had to exclude men in the fight 'against' patriarchy. The time has come rather for women's vision to restructure and redefine work in order to fashion a new society for women and men based on women's experience and skills as caregivers and reproducers..."

The writer is a Nigerian Technical Aid Corp Volunteer in Rwanda.


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