Population People

Posted February 2000

Gender and development: Why do we still have problems in population programmes after all these years?1

Marcela Villarreal
Jacques du Guerny2
Population Programme Service (SDWP)
FAO Women and Population Division

In spite of years of advocacy, awareness creation efforts, extensive training programmes and a gamut of development interventions, there continue to be problems to address gender issues and/or to apply a gender approach. This is not to say that no progress has been made: on the contrary, much has been advanced. But the gaps that still remain beg a critical look at some of the reasons behind them. Why is it, for example, that a women in development approach still prevails even in interventions labelled gender and development? Why are articles that have "gender" in their title, but that focus exclusively on women, so frequent in the literature? Why do countries that assess their advances towards gender equality report only on women's issues? Why are the gender experts overwhelmingly women?

The objective of this note is to briefly look at some of the current difficulties to address gender in development interventions and policy formulation and to suggest a few operational lines of action. As we will discuss, the road ahead is not a simple one, but it is nonetheless not insurmountable: much collective work is needed at both conceptual and operational levels, integrated across sectors and institutions. As this effort proceeds, the present work on the advancement of women needs to be continued.

The concept of gender

Many of the negative reactions against the gender approach stem from a lack of understanding or a misinterpretation of the concept. In fact, it should be acknowledged that it is not straightforward and is difficult to visualise, given:

In spite of repeated efforts to make known the difference between sex and gender, there continues to be confusion on the boundaries of the two terms: where does sex end and gender start? At the very heart of the problems to approach or to conceptualise gender is often a belief in a "natural" distinction between the genders, a sort of feminine or masculine essence. This "natural" root or essence is problematic, because it views not only the biological/ anatomical differences between men and women as determined by nature, but also tends to extend the 'naturality' to the gender roles that are attached to these differences.

If sex roles are anchored in biology, it would mean that a) they are not subject to change (except in evolutionary terms) and b) the hierarchy that societies have assigned to them3 is locked into the social structure. It would also mean that sex roles are universal, given that they stem from the same biological differences4 . Therefore, the idea of the natural order of sex roles contradicts the very notion of gender, which, by definition refers to the socially constructed, thus variable and changeable, attributes of biological differences.

Although the natural order concept contradicts the concept of gender, it continues to be popular among many development planners and has even sneaked its way into some feminist discourses, e.g. those that see women more prone to environmental conservation given that they are "closer to nature"5.

Furthermore, in many countries gender continues to be seen as an imported concept, of Western/Anglo-Saxon origin. This fact causes rejection, for foes associate it with the specific set of gender relations that promoted the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and some of its male-abating interpretations. As a result, the quest for gender equality is frequently misinterpreted as advocating for women to become literally equal to (i.e. undifferentiated from) men and women's empowerment is misinterpreted as women replacing men and taking over all power from them in a zero-sum game.

Thus, it is not just the imported nature of the concept of gender that causes rejection, but the set of gender relations that are frequently thought to be associated with it, and that are perceived as threatening an existing social order. The acceptance of "gender" would mean the acceptance of challenging the existing set of relations.

The term "gender"

In many contexts the term itself continues to be suspect: many conservative and/or religious groups voiced their resistance to adopt its use in the Fourth World Conference on Women, for they viewed it as a cover-up hiding a defence of homosexuality and homosexual rights, much in the same way as the term "reproductive health" was thought to hide the defence of abortion and raised concerns throughout the process of the International Conference on Population and Development.

The rejection of the term or the suspicion it generates may be related to its origins. Stemming from western feminism radical thought, many consider it unacceptable a priori as a matter of principle.

In some languages there is no appropriate or accepted translation of "gender" and in others, where a literal translation has been incorporated and used by women's advocates for many years (as in Spanish, "género"), language purists continue to reject its use. It is interesting to note, however, that the same purists much more readily adopt other anglicisms, such as computer and other technical terminology. Thus, the linguistic problem may be a mere reflection of a rejection of the concept and of its implications.

Its systemic nature

Gender relations are embedded in the social structure and are the outcome of a system in which all of its elements relate to one another in specific ways. These relations are affected by (and affect) economic, social, cultural, political and historical factors. They are context-specific and need to be understood holistically and in the framework of this context. Being part of a dynamic system, gender relations change according to all these factors. In order to promote changes, e.g. towards gender equality, the systemic nature has to be taken into account.

It is often pointed out that it is the women themselves who socialise their children, both male and female, into a set of male privileges or who agree that harmful traditional practices6 be practised on their daughters. Women's as well as men's behaviour is embedded in the gender system, which provides the guiding principles for the organisation of behaviour and thought, and a value scheme that supports the dominant position. In this logic, women are valued not only by others but also by themselves through their capacity to give birth to males. The system legitimises these principles through its various components and tends to perpetuate them through its different members. Interventions that seek to change gender relations by targeting only one aspect of the system are not likely to be effective. Systemic forces that tend to re-inforce and perpetuate the system should be identified and explicitly tackled.

Measurement difficulties

Another of the reasons why the gender approach has not been as widely adopted in development planning as would be desired is that there are important measurement difficulties associated with it. In the first place, measuring relations poses practical problems, which are not unsolvable, but are more easily addressed through methods, such as qualitative methods, that are not widespread among the institutions in charge of promoting development. As a consequence, few indicators are available and fewer still are currently used. This makes comparisons and trends assessment difficult. In addition, very few of the available studies are grounded on empirically sound evidence.

Evaluation of interventions is complex, not only due to the dire lack of adequate indicators, but also because they should tackle the gender system as a whole to be meaningful. Thus, a system approach is also required for evaluation.

Other measurement difficulties arise from the fact that changes in gender relations are only possible through a process, which takes place in the long term, or at the very least in the medium term, but in any case, usually longer than the span of most social development projects.

Institutional obstacles

The crosscutting nature of gender requires an organisational and institutional set up that is habitually absent from governments and non-governmental organisations as well as the UN itself. It demands mechanisms for co-ordination, co-operation, or at the very least sharing of information, which are for the most part either weak or non-existent in these entities. Women's national machineries are understaffed, underbudgeted and are frequently placed in a low hierarchical position that does not allow them to have a say in the way other governmental institutions operate. In addition, the very institutional nature of this kind of entity is more favourable to a 'women' approach than to a 'gender' one.

It feels nice to help the vulnerable

In spite of years of advocacy for a human centred development in which persons are actors of their own development instead of objects of development efforts from outside sources, the latter approach still pervades many interventions. One of the reasons is that people's empowerment is needed for them to take development in their hands and that this poses practical and other problems. Regarding women, development planners and government officials have felt more comfortable with a view in which women are vulnerable and should be provided with aid, and not with one in which women can become empowered actors of development, which would mean that the traditional balance of power between the genders is challenged. Helping the vulnerable is non-threatening to the existing social order of distribution of benefits. In short, it poses fewer problems to deal with women as individual persons who can be helped than to tackle some of the fundamental power relations of societies.

There might also be the concern that when this set of power relations is examined and modified it could lead to contesting other sets of power relations within the socio-economic and cultural system.

Poor advocacy

Another of the reasons for the reluctance to use gender is that, in order to generate awareness on the legitimate issue of making women's contribution to development more visible and on the need to take women's needs explicitly into account in policy formulation, existing data, which is scarce, has been frequently badly utilised and, when absent, has been readily made up. Thus, it is not uncommon to find statements such as "70% of the world's poor are women"7 as justifications for well-meaning initiatives that seek to legitimise interventions in women's favour. However, such statements, given that they are not supported by solid or even plausible evidence, can have the counter effect of invalidating the entire argument and making people weary of the gender issue as a whole.

In addition, the gender issue is sometimes over-stressed. Donors' and international organisations' efforts have been essential to help bring gender issues fully into the development agenda. In order to counter rejection, they sometimes resorted to authoritarian methods (such as denying funding). Many checklists were produced to "insure that gender issues are taken into account", with the unintended effect of trivialising the real issues by reducing them to a set of frequently meaningless items to be crossed out in a list. Furthermore, given that many agencies demanded "proof" of adequate incorporation in all projects or interventions, the relevance of gender relations had to be demonstrated even in aspects where it is marginal, or does not necessarily make sense. Many times indicators of program success are driven by the checklists, and end up being indicators of the checklist and not of the program's impact or success.

What to do?

Clarify what is meant by gender and what is sought through a gender approach
Greater clarity is needed regarding the term, the concept and their applications. This demands an advocacy effort that identifies the issues that generate rejection towards gender including threatening aspects and that tackle them appropriately. In addition, it requires promoting gathering and use of sound data.

It is necessary to make an effort to abolish the concept of a natural order that legitimises power relations between the genders and undermines efforts to attain gender equality. The ways in which gender is culturally constructed should be clarified and made known. In order to dissipate some frequent fears, the notion that gender equality does not mean abolishing the differences between the genders (which would amount to having only one gender), but dismantling the mechanisms by which these differences lead to discrimination should be promoted. In fact, far from pursuing to make the genders equal, it should be recognised that each gender has a different contribution to make to society and that the difference has thus an important social value. These differences should not, however result in any kind of discrimination or hierarchical value attached to them.

Promote a systemic approach
In order to adequately address gender issues, a holistic approach, which takes into account the different elements of the system in which gender relations are embedded is needed. In the first place, the system itself needs to be identified and mapped. Systemic forces, which tend to legitimise, re-inforce and perpetuate the system should be recognised and understood. It is necessary to try to identify the impacts of interventions on other components of the system before taking action, for not taking into account the system interactions can lead to results that could be detrimental to the very group of persons they were supposed to help. There is a need to think through the effects of changes throughout the entire system in order to prevent unintended negative side effects. Socio-cultural research constitutes an adequate and powerful tool for the holistic study of gender relations and its use should be promoted.

In addition, the processual nature of gender changes should be taken into account during the formulation of interventions, their implementation and their evaluation.

Link improved knowledge with advocacy and interventions
Once the gender system is identified with the systemic forces that reproduce and perpetuate it, research results should be linked with advocacy and action interventions. The question of who is to dismantle systemic impediments to gender equality needs to be raised, given that it is frequently left to those who benefit from the status quo and would be the least prone to promote their own perceived loss of privileges. Targeting these agents with convincing (research-based) arguments to show that gender equality is in their own interest is essential.

Devise better indicators and better ways of producing/applying them
More and better indicators are needed to: measure gender relations and the aspects that influence them, monitor their change, monitor interventions that seek to improve gender disparities and measure their impact. Multi-dimensional indicators which allow for a systemic approach, i.e. that take into account the system elements, the relations between them as well as the change in these relations, are needed.

Given that the more easily quantifiable aspects of gender are usually not the most revealing or interesting, much more needs to be done on the combination of qualitative and quantitative methodologies for questionnaire design, data gathering and analysis. Data producers/users who are not used to qualitative methodologies and that frequently see them as suspect should be sensitised.

An effort should be made to promote mechanisms that allow inter-institutional work to gather, analyse and apply data on gender.

Promote real gender equality and a genuine gender approach
Once the concept of gender is truly understood, gender equality can be promoted more effectively. This requires efforts to reduce gender inequities, whether they favour men or women. Although most gender inequality favours men, there are some aspects in which the gender gap is in the other direction. Interventions should seek to reduce gaps that go in both ways. For example, in some developing countries (especially in Latin America), girls' school enrolment rates are beginning to be higher than boys' in all levels, while boys' repetition and attrition rates are higher. A true gender approach would seek to eliminate this gender gap, on the basis that no gender inequality is good either for individuals or the society as a whole.

A more balanced approach will undoubtedly dissipate some of the existing fears related to the gender issue, attract more followers, convert some foes and generate more willingness to pursue the issues through policy and development interventions.

Going beyond gender equality as the objective
The objective of gender interventions should not stop at gender equality: what is really sought is the promotion of positive synergies that will act throughout the social system as generators of development, in which all actors become stakeholders and all actors benefit. Thus, gender equality should be seen within a dynamic system of relations embedded in a development process that seeks to empower its actors. This focus would aid to reduce male resistance for they would cease to feel threatened, as well as contribute to resolve the issue of women accepting the status quo out of fear of losing out in the change in other areas, such as economic security. There remains a lot of work to be done of both normative and operational nature.


1Gender equity and equality are at the core of population issues. The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) made them a centerpiece of its plan of action (PoA). At the five-year revision of its implementation (ICPD+5) in 1999, it became clear that in spite of government and NGO commitment, the operationalisation of gender equity and equality was not devoid of problems. This short note arises from the realisation that behind the operational problems there continue to be some conceptual issues that remain unclear to people working at different levels of the implementation of the PoA. We would like it to be seen as a contribution to their clarification.
2We would like to gratefully acknowledge the valuable comments provided by Yianna Lambrou, Bina Pradhan, Alain Marcoux, and Libor Stloukal, which have, no doubt improved this note. The views expressed in this note are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institution.
3The view of a natural order is associated with a hierarchy. In an attempt to explain male dominance, Bourdieu (La domination masculine. Paris: Éd. du Seuil, 1998) points out that many of the basic categories through which knowledge of the world is acquired and structured (high/low, outside/inside, full/empty, etc.) are hierarchical and are frequently gendered, and males tend to be associated with the superior category. Thus, the way people understand the world (through these basic categories) is structured around a hierarchy which favours men, and male dominance would seem "natural", for it is ingrained in the building blocks of the world view. In this way, the symbolic structure that arises from the biological differences between the sexes can be easily perceived as being part of the biological/natural order, as well as the power relations that accompany the hierarchical organisation. Inextricably linked to this structure is a value system, by which the superior category is more valued by all, including the dominated.
4There is a vast anthropological literature showing the non universality of sex roles. There is, however an ongoing debate on the universality of male domination. Authors like Ortner (Is female to male as nature is to culture? In Woman, Culture and Society, M. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1974 ) argue that males have dominated in every society, while others such as Sanday (Female Power and Male Dominance, Cambridge University Press, New York 1981) nuance this proposition by showing that women's power in many societies outweighs male dominance. Using data from 150 societies, Sanday traces scripts for male dominance and for female power and shows that even in those in which males dominate, women hold varying degrees of power.
5See G.Martine and M. Villarreal, Gender and sustainability: Re-assessing issues and links, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies Working papers, No. 97.11, 1997. Also at http://www.fao.org/sd/wpdirect/wpan0020.htm
6For example, female genital mutilation (FGM). DHS data show that as many women as men, if not more women, support the continuation of this practice. In Eritrea, 57% of women and 46% of men were in favour of it. In Egypt, Mali and Sudan more than seven out of ten women would like to see its continuation.
7For a discussion see A. Marcoux, The Feminization of Poverty: Claims, Facts and Data Needs, Population and Development Review, Vol. 24 No. 1 (March 1998), pp. 131-139.

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