Don't just treat the symptoms - let's get to the root of the problem.
Development interventions that address a symptomatic problem caused by gender discrimination, without addressing the norm at the root of the problem, often struggle to ensure the sustainability of their gains and in some cases can even exacerbate the problem itself. In short, we often end up dealing with the same issues, generation after generation, because the norms that produce these issues are not being targeted and transformed in a lasting way.
What do we mean when we say "gender norms"?
Gender norms are essentially what any given community or culture considers to be "normal" or correct for each gender within that space. Norms include expectations and beliefs around what men and women can wear, what they can say and do in both public and private spaces, what their role is in terms of work in the home and in public, what their social status is, how valuable their contributions are seen to be, what they should prioritize, and what they are capable of achieving. In societies that experience gender inequality, gender norms often place a low value on girls and women, and in turn champion boys and men as being more capable, more valuable and more intelligent. Driven by these ideas and beliefs, such societies typically expect girls and women to prioritize being an obedient wife and mother, focusing on laborious domestic work and childcare, and leaving nearly all issues of decision making and financial matters to men, and even boys.
If we can fundamentally shift the harmful gender norms of a society, we will start to see girls and women with higher levels of self-confidence, knowing they are equally valued and respected, and more freely contributing to social and economic development at much higher rates. We will also see men embracing more positive and non-violent ideas of masculinity, and in turn witness reductions in sexual and gender-based violence, including child sexual abuse that both boys and girls fall victim to. This would clearly be a win-win situation for all!
As one example, extensive research shows that girls often suffer from
low levels of self-confidence, especially in comparison to boys.
This is a symptom of gender norms that constantly reinforce to girls that they are not as smart, capable or valuable as boys. Programs to help girls build their confidence can be helpful - but we should also be investing significant resources in preventing this crisis of confidence in the first place, by addressing the root cause of the problem.
The Story of Gloria...
Let's take the case of Gloria. Gloria is 27 years old and married with two small children. She is interested in learning skills to improve her financial literacy and create a small income-generating project. Gloria is lucky to be asked if she would like to join an economic empowerment project being offered at no cost by a local NGO. She is excited to join the program, but lacks the autonomy and self-confidence to make the decision on her own. She must first ask her husband if she can attend the sessions for the program. Her husband is resistant but finally agrees, and Gloria joins the program. However, once she starts making money from her work, her husband demands that she hand it over to him and he will make the decisions around how it is spent. She wants to grow her small business, but she does not control how her income is spent, and she often feels overwhelmed with the amount of work expected of her at home, between domestic chores, childcare and looking after her elderly relatives nearby. Her husband is now pressing for her to have another child, and she does not feel able to refuse or to negotiate sex with him.
Gloria's story illustrates how women and girls live within systems of power that they do not have complete control over, and which have a significant impact on the quality of their lives. Focusing on individual women's agency alone, and expecting this to be a sustainable solution to the larger problem, is not only unrealistic but places a significant and unfair burden on the shoulders of those who are already marginalized.
We must address the root cause of the barriers women and girls face, if we are ever going to bring an end to gender inequality, discrimination and violence.
How does gender inequality relate to development problems?
Development problems are complex and multi-faceted and, of course, not easily solved overnight. Many brilliant interventions have been developed over the years to try to tackle some of the world's greatest challenges that deeply affect the quality of life for billions of people. Some of these problems include extreme poverty, negative health outcomes, slow economic growth and widespread sexual and gender-based violence, to name just a few. While these interventions are important and valuable for improving people's lives, less attention has been given to directly addressing some of the major fundamental causes perpetuating these problems - one of which is gender norms that devalue and diminish the role and voice of girls and women.
Beliefs about the value of girls and boys are absorbed in the minds and hearts of all people from a very young age and are passed down through generations; because of this, they continue to cause harm in families and communities and contribute to the perpetuation of major development issues, despite interventions that attempt to solve the symptomatic problems on the surface.
If we want to bring an end to gender inequality and reduce its negative influence on the most significant development problems of our time, we must fundamentally transform the gender norms that discriminate against women and girls, and also victimize men and boys in their own unique ways.
Gender inequality has a major impact on education, poverty, violence and health outcomes for men, women and young people. But don't just take our word for it! Below we have collected a series of credible and informative resources to offer even greater depth of insight into these issues.
Gender inequality and economic development
- Gender Inequality and Economic Growth (World Bank)
- Inequality, Gender Gaps and Economic Growth: Comparative Evidence for Sub-Saharan Africa (IMF)
- Gender equality boosts economic growth (European Institute for Gender Equality)
- Economic Growth and Gender Equality (IDRC)
- Facts & Figures: Economic Empowerment (UN Women)
Gender inequality and education
- Gender equality in education (UNESCO)
- Factsheet: Breaking down barriers to gender equality and girls' education (Global Partnership for Education)
Gender inequality and violence
Gender inequality and health
- Gender inequalities affect health outcomes and must be addressed accordingly (Lakshmi Puri, UN Women)
- The Impact of Gender Inequality on Health (EuroHealthNet, European Partnership for Improving Health, Equity & Wellbeing)