Saturday, May 10, 2014

Week 9: Gender and Development

Why is the color pink associated with femininity and being a woman while blue is associated with masculinity?

Why have women historically been viewed as caregivers and nurturers while men are thought of as hunters and breadwinners?

What is the real difference between men and women?

The truth is that when considering issues like these, it is important to differentiate between GENDER and SEX.

Sex pertains to the biological characteristics of being a man or a woman.  It does not change from one society to another, it is universal.  While surgeries, medication and procedures can help to change the physical traits and appearances associated with being a man or a woman, there is nothing that can change the sex that is coded in our DNA.

Gender refers to the learned behaviors, roles and responsibilities ascribed to the concepts of femininity and masculinity by societies and cultures. It's an idea or belief about how men and women should act and/or be treated that can differ between communities and change over time.

Someone may identify with one gender over another irrespective of their sex.  For example, someone who was born as a biological male may identify more with the female gender and prefer to live life as a woman.  This is referred to as transgendered.

To be honest, I had never really thought about how gender and sex are different, but it definitely made sense to me the minute we started talking about it in class.

I have however, often pondered why men and women have been treated so differently throughout history and even now.  Despite all of the progress that has been made in the developing world towards equality (equal treatment in laws, policies and the access to resources and services) and equity (fair and just distribution of responsibilities and benefits between men and women), women still find themselves not quite on equal footing.  

Many wealthy countries still see a large pay gap between genders including Australia, which reported in November of 2013 that on average, men earned 17.1% more than women (Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014).  This statistic from Australia actually shows an increase in the gap of approximately 1 percentage point over the course of 19 years, which is quite troubling when the goal is to reduce inequities (Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014).  Some point to the fact that women leave the workforce, even if only for a short period, to have children and may miss out on experience that would lead to a raise and/or promotion during that time.  Others claim that it is due to the fact that women and men tend to prefer doing different jobs, for example, women are often under-represented in mining and construction, which may pay better wages than the professions that they do choose.  However, since a considerable proportion of the gap has no real explanation, it is almost certain that discrimination is a contributing factor (Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014).

The circumstances regarding equality and equity are generally far worse in developing countries, most of which still operate under the guise of very traditional values regarding the roles of men and women.  For women in these settings, it's more than just a matter of equal pay or the right to vote and go to so school, it's about their right to simply live without being the subject of violence and having that right protected.  A report recently released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in March of this year (2014), found that 869 women were killed for allegedly bringing shame onto their families in 2013.  These are typically referred to as "honor killings" and since the report was based solely on those cases found in newspaper articles, the belief is that the true number of women killed is higher.  Usually, the legal system does very little to hold the families accountable or punish them for the woman's murder because of the tradition of "karo-kari", a custom that allows family members to stone to death anyone suspected of adulterous behavior (HRCP 2014).  The Commission also found that 56 women had been killed for giving birth to daughters instead of sons (HRCP 2014).

The preference for sons is well-documented in several cultures and societies, daughters are often seen as a burden that families have to pay men a dowry to marry and take off their hands.  As much as developed societies may believe that they have moved beyond that to truly value girls as much as boys, there is evidence to the contrary. 

I have long-believed that couples with sons are more likely to stay together.  Looking at my own family, every couple that has only had girls (with the exception of distant relatives) has divorced, my parents included.  This amounts to 5 divorces for families with only daughters, compared to only 1 divorced couple with only sons and no divorced couples with both sons and daughters.  This trend does not change when I stretch the sample pool to include friends and acquaintances.  It would appear that this observation is not simply due to chance.  A research paper analyzing the census data for American families from 1960 to 2000 revealed some pretty shocking data indicating a general preference for boys (Dahl & Moretti 2004).  Families in which the firstborn child is a girl are 3.1% less likely to have the fathers living in the household.  Over 10 years, this translated to an estimated 50 000 families (Dahl & Moretti 2004).  Couples were less likely to get married before the birth of their first child if they knew ahead of time that they were having a girl (Dahl & Moretti 2004).  In fact, women whose eldest children were daughters were less likely to have ever been married (2.2%, which increased to 4.9% if first two children were girls and 4.7% if first three were girls compared to boys) (Dahl & Moretti 2004).  Finally, couples with only girls were also more likely to try having another child than those with boys (perhaps to try for that elusive male offspring).

This has significant implications for women and girls as single-mother households are more at risk of experiencing poverty than families with both parents or ones headed by single fathers (West Coast Poverty Center 2009).  Growing up in poverty without the emotional stability provided by a family that is intact could explain why there is evidence to argue that children with divorced parents are more likely to leave high school without graduating, become teenage parents and face unemployment (Dahl & Moretti 2004).  As a result, both the present and future health and productivity levels of these female individuals could be compromised, thereby impacting on the overall economic growth, development and well-being of entire communities.

The truth is that men and women are different in regards to their physicality as well as the way that they are viewed and treated in society.  It is important that these differences be acknowledged in development because it means that men and women have different practical and strategic needs that must be met in order to help improve their circumstances and ultimately increase equality.  We went through several examples during class but I wanted to look at another one that I thought of: the effects of menstruation on female education and future employment in developing countries. 

Young girls in developing countries often struggle to attend school while they are menstruating.  In fact, one study found that over 60% of primary schoolgirls questioned in Uganda missed at least some school every month because of their menstruation (Prestwich 2013).  Most women in developing countries do not have access to disposable sanitary pads and tampons, but rather have to use bulky reusable cloths or towels that must be washed.  They also often have to share latrines, which may not have doors, with male students (WaterAid 2014).  The topic of menstruation tends to be considered taboo and the actual process itself can carry with it social and cultural stigma (WaterAid 2014)s.  Some cultures believe that during menstruation, a woman is unclean and may pollute others around her and therefore should be shunned.  In other cases, young girls are simply teased by their peers for having their period, possibly in addition to experiencing painful cramps (WaterAid 2014).  Without access to the pain management, private toilet facilities and sanitation products that have helped make dealing with menstruation easier and more convenient in wealthy countries, many girls simply prefer to stay at home rather than try to cope with cloths at school and risk potential criticism and humiliation (WaterAid 2014).  Being absent from school due to menstruation impacts on education and future employment prospects as these girls are regularly missing out on learning opportunities that would help them to reach their full potential and put them on a more even playing ground with their male counterparts.

So what are the needs of these young girls?  How can we help them miss less school so that they can learn more, gain more experience and be more productive?

First there are the practical needs.  These involve the short-term, tangible necessities that serve very specific purposes in accomplishing tasks on a daily basis (for example, a water pump).  In this case they include:
  • Improved access to private, clean latrines at school where girls can change their cloths without fear of embarrassment.
  • Access to sanitary napkins and hygiene products to make dealing with menstruation at school more convenient.
  • Water and soap so that girls can wash their hands after going to the latrine.
  • Access to pain management and knowledge about how to use it to help with cramps.
 Then, there are the strategic needs.  These are are more long-term, broad and systemic, they refer more to overall positions of disadvantage or socially held views and women may not even recognize them as an issue (for example, lack of confidence in women to pursue careers in politics).  The strategic needs for this particular issue include:
  • Removing the stigma and taboo of menstruation so that people are willing and able to discuss it without shame, criticism or embarrassment.
  • Increasing the self-confidence of girls so that they are more comfortable attending school during their period.
  • Encouraging acceptance and education regarding menstruation between women and girls and the society at large so that girls have the right information and myths are no longer perpetuated.
  • Political interest and willingness to at least begin discussing the issue.
In this case, a physiological process unique to one sex has resulted in differences in accessing resources that can help to raise the status of women in society.  Therefore, in order to improve equality in education, employment and health in the long run, these particular needs will have to be addressed for women, but obviously are not necessary for men.  Of course there are situations in which men are marginalized and of course development affects them in different ways that require attention as well.

Addressing issues like these in communities through projects and programs will require the following:

1.  Establishing the "What"
  • Forming an idea of what will be looked at, what are we concerned with?
  • What information will we need?
  • What are the entities that have a vested interest in this issue? (i.e. who are the stakeholders)
  • What are the local cultural customs, traditions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors?
  • What is the local language?
  • What are the health issues of the community?
  • What are the socioeconomic and health profiles of the community? (i.e. how much money do people make on average?  what is the standard of living?)
2.  Figuring out "When"
  • When should data be collected?  At what point before, during and after implementation?
  • When will subjects be available to participate?
  • When will the costs of the running the project (i.e. performing data collection) be minimized to maximize funds?
3.  Sorting out the "Who"
  •  Who should participate in data collection?  (any language barriers that require a translator should be factored in)
  • Who will the data be collected from?  (i.e. the sample should be include a diverse population of subjects and be representative of the larger community, care should be taken to ensure that minorities are not left out).
Hopefully, one day I'll get to apply these steps in the development and implementation of a project on the ground myself.



Dahl GB & Moretti E 2004, The Demand for Sons: Evidence from Divorce, Fertility, and Shotgun Marriage. Working Paper 10281, National Bureau of Economic Research.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) 2014, State of Human Rights in 2013.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

Prestwich G (2013), An exploratory study into Menstrual Hygiene Management amongstrural, primary schoolgirls in Uganda: what implications does menstrual related absenteeism have for future interventions?.  Irise International.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

WaterAid 2014, Time to talk periods: Coalition declares first-ever Menstruation Hygiene Day.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

West Coast Poverty Center 2009, Poverty and the American Family.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2014, Gender pay gap statistics, Government of Australia.  Available from: <>. [9 May 2014].

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