Global Development and Gender Literacy
Gender and development
Baruani hails from Ijuhanyondo, a village in Tanzania. The year is 2011. She recalls that the situation for women was terrible only a decade ago, but then explains that things have begun to change for the better. She says: “Women were very behind. They used to be the only one at home doing housework, but now they are in business, they are in politics.” The 2012 World Development Report (WDR) by World Bank shares her story and her reflections to highlight the evolution of gender equality in Tanzania, and as a case study reflective of trends around the world.
As Baruani’s story illustrates, the world has made some progress towards gender equality. Women continue to make gains in rights, education, health, and have greater access to jobs and livelihoods. Most countries now have explicit constitutional guarantees for equality of all citizens.
However, there is more to be done. Despite these positive changes, women continue to face challenges such as domestic violence, and the persistence and practice of traditions over and above the law. For example, while women may inherit property legally in many countries, in reality they seldom do as their wealth, inheritance and well-being are traditionally considered to be tied to that of the families into which they marry. These patterns of persistent inequality matters. To be able to deal with them, we need to understand what we mean by gender and gender equality.
In its 2012 World Development Report, World Bank defined gender as the social, behavioural, and cultural attributes, expectations, and norms associated with being a woman or a man. Accordingly, gender equality refers to how these aspects determine how women and men relate to each other and to the resulting differences in power between them.
Some believe that gender equality is about equality of opportunities; some others believe that it is about equality of outcomes. It is difficult to measure opportunities and outcomes separately as they are closely linked. Regardless of this, most agree that gross manifestations of gender inequality should be eliminated.
Inspired by the work of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, The Scando Review sees development as a process of expanding the capabilities and freedoms of all people. From this point of view, gender equality matters in its own right. That is, it matters intrinsically.
Just as we understand development to mean reduction in absolute poverty, it should also mean fewer gaps in well-being between genders. At the same time, gender equality also matters from an instrumental point of view as it contributes to economic efficiency and the achievement of other key development outcomes. For example, improving women’s absolute and relative status can have a positive impact on the development outcomes of children. Greater equality between genders can lead to more inclusive public policies.
Given how intrinsically and instrumentally important gender equality is to the overall development of a society, education has a key role to play in reducing the gaps, especially when we consider that gender attitudes are also, in many instances, ‘learned’ through culture, social norms and expectations. While there are a lot of factors at play, the social construct of gender is also shaped by the educational contexts of students and teachers. In other words, schools, classrooms, teachers and students have much to contribute towards a more gender-equal world.
Gender education and literacy
As a social construct, gender is influenced by socially prescribed behaviours and conditioning, and failure to conform to established and prescriptive gender roles can have serious social consequences, especially during adolescence.
Gender roles and performances are played out every day in schools and classrooms around the world. As students conform to conventional gender norms, any kind of gender-expansive behaviour can often end in ridicule, exclusion, and even violence. For example, research on bullying conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has shown that heterosexual girls have a higher chance of being harassed than heterosexual boys. Research (please see a list of references at the end of this article) has also shown that gender-based bullying can lead to low self-esteem, poor academic performance, elevated levels of depression, and increased risk of suicide during adolescence. Gender-based victimisation during school years can shape the psychological development of students well into adulthood. However, conforming to rigid gender norms too can have negative consequences as students start to feel straightjacketed.
An exploitative culture is set in motion when young women are conditioned to cooperate, defer, or to maintain an attitude of ‘niceness’. Suddenly they find themselves trying to measure up in terms of how attractive they are to boys and men. Such conditioning further can lead them to believe that their natural roles are that of a caretaker, and soon such beliefs start shaping their academic and career choices, too. Similarly, when young men are taught to ‘act like a man’ and with phrases like ‘boys don’t cry’, they are conditioned from a very early age to project themselves as ‘strong’. When their behaviour does not conform to such conventional gender roles (or when they ‘act like a girl’), they risk being ridiculed by their peers, adults, and the society at large. To avoid social exclusion, they learn to hide their emotions. Inadvertently, however, playing to the ‘unemotional tough guy’ image eventually interferes with their ability to build authentic relationships. Hypermasculine gender performances repress emotions, stunt intellectual potential, and limit development.
To change such exploitative cultures, young women need to practise speaking their minds. They need opportunities to learn how to exercise their inherent power, and the importance of supporting other girls and women. Similarly, young men need to learn how to break limiting conventional gender roles and stereotypes and become more aware of their own emotions. They need to learn to communicate with empathy and understanding. It is important that students are afforded a safe place to explore these issues; a place where they can question norms and explore the cognitive contradictions and role confusions they experience in their daily lives. This is what gender literacy is about, and teachers have an instrumental role to play here.
Around the world, gender inequality and gender-based injustice persist, to a large extent, because gender identities operate below the level of conscious awareness and critical thought. The effects are not only felt at the individual level but also, more broadly, at social and global levels. When gender identity is not critically engaged with, young people fall prey to negative stereotypes, which they internalise and act out on others.
Social ills such as unequal division of labour, wage gaps, domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, and poverty are perpetuated when gender norms remain unquestioned. To foster genuine conversations around gender, teachers can shape and design interactions in ways that empower girls to not only connect deeply with their own sense of internalised oppression but also with larger social issues related to gender identity such as eating disorders, drop in self-esteem, and unrealistic standards of beauty.
Teachers, on their part, can help boys recognise the effects of emotional suppression and help them develop strategies to protect themselves from the pressures of conforming to gender norms. Teachers can guide their students to undertake deep inquiries into gender discrimination, gender stereotypes, gender-based violence, and teen sexuality. Through inquiry and reflection within an identity-safe learning environment, teachers can help students construct their identities with more awareness, compassion, and loving kindness. If this can be achieved, we can hope for a more just future.
Through this column of The Scando Review, we hope to share ideas that teachers can use to create their own paths to such a future.
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Morrow, D. F. (2004). Social work practice with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adolescents. Families in Society, 8, 91–99.
Russell, S. T., Sinclair, K. O., Poteat, P. V., & Koenig, B. W. (2012). Adolescent health and harassment based on discriminatory bias. American Journal of Public Health, 102(3), 493–495.
Williams, T., Connolly, J., Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (2005, Oct). Peer victimization, social support, and psychosocial adjustment for sexual minority adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34(5), 471–482.
Yunger, J. L., Carver, P. R., & Perry, D. G. (2004). Does gender identity influence children’s psychological well-being? Developmental Psychology, 40, 572–582.