Gender Equality; is it about Women?

Gender refers to the socioeconomic, cultural, political and technological and environmental attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female. The attributes and opportunities are dynamic and changeable over a period of time with cultural and societal variations, and socio-political agendas of power holders. Changes in gender happen within and between cultures due to the social intersectionality. Gender while culturally valued and interprets persons’ biology, it socially and politically determines the role, status and power that persons should have.

Gender politically defines and culturally justifies what males and females should do and should not do, in their life cycle, in all spheres in the private and public life which determines the lifelong benefits of the persons and the society. Social definitions and valuations on people totally depend on two main reasons; one is the socio-political and cultural context and the agenda of the particular society, and other is the socioeconomic and cultural factors that the person or group of persons who are valued by others.

Gender is socially constructed and therefore it is changeable. As gender relies on both the parties, the society and the person or the group of persons who are valued, it is required to reshape norms, structures and practices of both – the society and the persons for gender equality.

While the question ‘is gender equality equal to equality between men and women’ is still remaining, this paper intends to answer the question of ‘is gender equality about women’.

Gender Equality refers to the fair treatment of both the assigned sexes – ‘male and female’, considering the different interests, needs, priorities and aspirations of men, women, girls and boys and the socio – cultural environment that affects each of them, so that they all can equally enjoy the benefits of development including equal access to and control of opportunities and resources.

The basic principle of gender equality is not that all are equal, but that their rights are same, and no discrimination could be done based on their assigned sex – male or female. Thus, gender equality donates the freedom of all – men and women, to develop their personal abilities, and to have the ability and means to choose their life, without the limitations set by gender roles.  Gender Equality means that women and men have equal conditions for realizing their full human rights and potential to contribute to national, political, economic, social and cultural development, and to benefit from the results. Gender equality is therefore, the equal valuing by society of both – the similarities and differences between women and men, and the varying roles that they play (UNIFEM, 2007).

The existence of socio-economic heterogeneity and gender inequality within the community institutions may indeed lead to a failure of collective action mechanisms (Adhikari, B.; Lovett, J., 2006). Gender discrimination and gender inequality is a cause for poverty, social insecurity and violence. Gender equality is not just equal treatment for women. Gender equality is a proven successful approach in development, as well as in management.

Equality is the most powerful idea in modern political thought; it underlines all major political theories, and animates the very idea of a bill of rights: individuals have rights because each individual matters, and matters equally (Rishworth et., al, 2003);  (McNamara, 2007). The word “equality” has social, political and legal definitions and is born by the noun of ‘equal’; the fact of being equal of having the same value as defined in mathematics.

Gender equality needs to be seen both as a precondition for, and indicator of, sustainable and people – centred development. The Tri-part strategy which is considered as an evidence based approach in gender equality comprises with (a) gender mainstreaming, (b) women empowerment, and (c) engaging men in accountable practices at policy and operational level as well as in private and public spheres.

Mainstreaming is a public policy concept that assesses the different implications of the policies, programmes and practices on different people or subjects areas. Mainstreaming does not narrow down to integrating or increasing of the numbers of different groups of persons or different subjects into development agendas which already is decided upon by others and for others. Mainstreaming is a strategy, an approach, and a means to achieve a goal, and thus not be just a project activity, is expected to create a transformative process.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action refers ‘gender mainstreaming’ as a public policy concept of assessing different implication for men and women of policies, programmes and practices. According to the UN Secretary General Gender mainstreaming is a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally, and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality (UNSG Report, 1997).

Empowerment involves people in assuming control or mastery over their lives and is a social action process that promotes participation of people, organizations, and communities towards the goals of increased individual and community control, political efficacy, improved quality of community life and social justice. Women’s empowerment does not imply women taking over control of those previously held by men, but rather it is the need to transform the nature of power relations. Empowerment is sometimes described as being about the ability to make choices, which is also involves in being able to shape what choices are on offer. [Wallerstein, 1992].

Women hold more responsibilities, burden family care, and are into the routine of working for more than average hours compared to men; but the work of women often go unrecognized, undervalued and unpaid.  Women are overburdened with the gendered roles, low power and low status, and with gender based violence which perpetuates gender inequality and injustice which is a cause of poverty. Injustices are in different natures and in various forms.

In some occasions, increasing employment opportunities and access to livelihoods opportunities for women, put additional burdens on their lives, as women are supposed to engage in any paid work, when at the same time they are obligated to perform the household chores without failure, and get involved in community management work.

When women hold gendered roles – reproductive, community management and productive, which are assigned by men and women for their socio, cultural and political benefits, and when women become victims of these roles, men are accountable in reversing or mitigating of the gender inequalities instituted due to the assigned roles for women.

United Nations explores three interconnected ways to narrow the gender gaps as in the following diagram.

Three interconnected ways to narrow the gender gap:

According to the diagram, it is a prerequisite for men to play constructive roles in three spheres: at home, at the society and at the work place. For this, it requires for sensitizing and raising awareness of men and engages men in accountable practices.

‘Recognizing’ does not limit to the measure, and recognize the unpaid work needs to consider what women can do and why they are significant. Recognition includes the understanding of needs, potentials and valuing of women engagement/contribution. Non-recognition is the disrespect which leads to ignorance, marginalization and exclusion. Recognizing of women is the core value of men.

Redistribution of power and roles improve engagement of women and the effectiveness through improvement of performance in the family, community and in the work place. Even if the gender equality is not women acquiring the power and privileges that men held before, redistribution requires men to volunteer to share power and roles for the progress of the family and society.

Strategic and technological interventions contribute to reduce the hardships of the work that men and women do, but do not ensure the equality until the commitment and collaboration of men are there for women in all spheres.

Thus, engagement of men in accountable practices is the key factor in gender equality. It does not happen without the commitment of men.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines the commitment as a ‘willingness to give your time and energy to something that you believe in, or a promise or firm decision to do something’. Accordingly, gender equality is about the willingness and the energy that men have to reverse the generational discrimination. Therefore, gender equality is not about women, and it is about the men who are supposed to be men.

Dr. Dissanayake DMSB | Sri Lanka