Gender equality must be a development priority in its own right



The UN high-level panel that meets for development talks this week cannot ignore the importance of a dedicated gender target

In the consultations about what will replace the millennium development goals (MDGs) when they expire in 2015, there is pressure on politicians and political commentators to come up with the next "new" idea.

The lack of focus on inequality was a key limitation of the MDGs and, rightly, this has become a major priority for the post-2015 agenda. But the discussion about inequality is evolving in a way that may undermine, and even reverse, the international commitment to gender balance. There are welcome efforts to define new ways of measuring income inequality, but gender and other social inequalities are invisible within these measures (pdf). And, while greater attention is finally being paid to social inequalities, there is a worrying tendency to treat gender as justone of many inequalities that generate poverty and exclusion. There is even a proposal to replace the current gender equality goal with a general and so far undefined "inequalities" goal.

 The fundamental premise behind the demand for a standalone goal is that gender is not just one of many inequalities but the most pervasive.

 First, it places women at a disadvantage at every level of income and within every disadvantaged group, including those disadvantaged by caste, race and disability.

 Second, gender is structured into the organisation of social relations of production and reproduction of every known society, in the same way class inequalities structure capitalist societies, racial inequalities structure South Africa, and caste inequalities structure India. In much of the world, there is a marked inequality in the responsibility that men and women take for the daily unpaid care work within the family and community, in their ability to mobilise resources and access opportunities to contribute to family and community on both a paid and unpaid basis, in the value and recognition given to these contributions, and in their capacity to exercise agency on their own behalf.

 Third, the structural nature of gender inequality means it is central to meeting development goals. Wide-ranging benefits accrue to society when gender equality is taken seriously – and corresponding losses when it is not. A recent review of the literature (pdf) found robust evidence that countries with greater gender equality in employment and education were likely to report higher rates of economic growth and human development. The reverse relationship – that economic growth contributes to gender equality – was far weaker and less consistent.

 For all its limitations, the MDG on gender equality and women's empowerment demonstrated the impact that a dedicated gender goal can have – as a mechanism to hold governments accountable for their responsibilities to women, as an advocacy tool for organisations concerned with gender equality and human rights, as a line of defence against forces of conservatism that threaten to reverse equality gains, and as a catalyst for funds and measurement in relation to work around gender. Any new framework that fails to include gender as a distinct goal would significantly backtrack on previous commitments (pdf), sending a clear and dangerous signal that the issue is no longer a political priority.

 While mainstreaming gender across the post-2015 framework will be vital, not all targets can be adequately slotted under other goals. For example, maternal mortality was an important element of the MDGs, but under a health goal interventions focused on service delivery (pdf) rather than on the deeper causes of gender inequality – unsafe abortion, early marriage, violence against women, male dominance in household decisions about spending on health, and so on.

 What should a standalone goal look like? This is clearly likely to be the subject of considerable debate, but we will focus on criteria that seem consistent with the discussion so far. The goal should: reflect the priorities of marginalised women and girls; address the structural causes of gender inequality; be accepted and acted upon by national governments and the international community; and address issues that cannot, or should not, be placed under other goals. Among the gender-specific injustices that do not fit neatly into other goals are ending violence against women, the single most important issue identified by women's organisations across the world; reproductive health and rights, including a continued focus on maternal health; and women's unpaid work burdens, a major factor in curtailing their participation in the public sphere.

 Among the demands most likely to have a transformative impact on structural inequalities are women's economic empowerment through ensuring fairer access to productive resources and employment opportunities; women's political empowerment through ensuring greater representation in formal and informal decision-making positions in public and private sectors at local, national and international levels; and women's social empowerment by strengthening their capacity for collective voice and action through support for organisations dedicated to women's rights and gender justice.

 The MDGs taught us that, without addressing the underlying structural causes of gender inequality, progress is likely to be uneven and prone to reversals. To abandon these lessons, backtrack on previous commitments, and remove a dedicated gender goal – while at the same time embracing the concept of inequality – would be a cruel and harmful irony.


Naila Kabeer and Jessica Woodroffe

Naila Kabeer is Professor of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She will be joining the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics in October 2013.

Jessica Woodroffe is Director of the Gender and Development Network in the UK and a freelance consultant on international development.

This article first appeared on The Guardian's Poverty Matters Blog on May 14, 2013. To read the original version click here. 

Gender equality and women’s empowerment

VSO campaigns to ensure that “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment” remains a stand-alone goal in the Post-2015 development framework with a target specifically dedicated to enhancing women’s participation in public and political life. Here, Research and Policy Intern, Kristine Albrektsen, reflects on her experience with the Post-2015 debate.


My name is Kristine Albrektsen. I graduated from Cambridge University with an MPhil in African Studies in July 2011. Before joining VSO, I spent half a year in Magburaka, Sierra Leone, working for Project-REACT, a Danish NGO seeking to build local capacity through primary education and computer training. Having experienced in person how gender inequality and gendered violence in primary schools hamper social opportunity for girls in Sierra Leone, I am excited to contribute to VSO’s efforts to make ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’ a central feature in the post-2015 Framework. At the same time, my internship with VSO allows me to expand my skill set and gain valuable hands-on experience with policy formulation and advocacy activities.

Five weeks into my internship, I am fully engaged with the post-2015 debate that will determine the framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015. During a number of stakeholder debates, I have been struck by the lack of clarity in the messages of certain debaters. Most concerning, I think, is the tendency of some to refer to ‘income inequality’ as merely ‘inequality’. This is problematic, not only because it causes confusion, but also because it seriously undermines advocacy efforts to eradicate other forms of inequality not visible from existing data on income disparities.

Proposals have been put forward aiming at the replacement of the current gender equality goal with a more general ‘inequalities’ goal. However, the inaccurate reference to ‘income inequality’ as ‘inequality’ highlights the very real danger that such proposals hold for reversing the progress made under the MDG3. Without a stand-alone goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment, these issues will be overshadowed by goals with more explicit objectives; and accordantly, the political and economic commitment that we have seen so far will fade.

Gender inequality reflects fundamental social structures that heavily distort equal social opportunity. From VSO volunteers who live and work among some of the world’s most marginalised people, we know that the disadvantage experienced by girls and women is especially pervasive, because they hold a socially inferior position in both private and public spheres. Girls and women have poorer access to health care, education and secure jobs, and in turn, they have less or no influence on decision-making within their household, their community and in national and international-level politics. The marginalisation of girls and women not only represents a grave violation of human rights, its structural nature also impairs progress in all other areas of development. For these reasons, it is pivotal that gender equality and women’s empowerment is given a central position in the post-2015 agenda.

Rumour has it that the High Level Panel Report, to be presented to the UN Secretary General by the end of this month, recommends a stand-alone gender goal in the post-2015 framework. While this of course would be a positive outcome, we must continue to recognise the damaging consequences of inaccurate terminology in development debates, especially when discussing inequality issues. Taking the post-2015 debate forward, stakeholders must therefore maintain clarity in proposals and argumentation.

To learn more about VSO’s work on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment go to their Women in Power page or read their Briefing Note:
Advancing women’s participation & influence in political & public life through the post-2015 framework.


Kristine Albreksten

This blog first appeared on the VSO's Changing Times blog. You can see the original version here.