What is it?
Gender refers to socially constructed roles and learned behaviors and expectations associated with females and males. When talking about gender, people usually talk about gender inequality -- women and girls having fewer opportunities in life simply because they are female. The term gender, however, also refers to boys and men, who are equally defined by the rights and roles "assigned" to them. Giving equal rights and consideration to girls and women should not take the same away from males.
While women worldwide have made great strides to prove they are as smart and capable as men, in many countries they are still not treated as equals. Often, girls and women aren't given the same rights, opportunities, responsibilities and choices in life that boys and men consider their birthright.
Why should I care?
Women represent half of the world's population. This double standard for girls and women hurts everyone in society and has a negative impact on economic development. Societies in which women have equal rights are wealthier. These countries prosper more, grow faster and have better governance systems, which are important for growth and development.
Conversely, inequalities between women and men tend to be the largest among the poor, according to Engendering Development, a World Bank publication that talks about the importance of gender for development.
In some Indian villages, men are likely to spend a big portion of their income for personal use (such as smoking, drinking, gambling) while the women devote all of their income to family needs (such as food, medical treatment, school fees and children's clothing), according to an Indian study cited in Voices of the Poor, a collection of interviews of more than 60,000 poor women and men around the world.
In Africa, where most people earn a living by working in agriculture, women do at least 70% of farm work. Yet they have very little say in how their income gets spent.
If countries in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East had equally schooled boys and girls as East Asian countries did between 1960 and 1992, their income per capita would likely have grown an additional 0.5–0.9% per year, according to World Bank research.
In societies that care equally for the well-being of men, women and children, it's easier for poor people to climb out of poverty and improve their standard of living.
Lifecycle of inequality
Around the globe, there are females who will spend a lifetime being denied:
Personal Freedom: In some countries, like in Ghana, women are legally their husband's property, while in others, women cannot leave the house or get a job without a man's permission, according to Voices of the Poor.
Education: Fewer girls than boys enroll in or complete primary or secondary schooling, even though research shows investing in girls' education significantly improves a country's economic outlook.
Jobs or Equal Pay: Labor laws and regulations in several developing countries actively discourage women from working. When they get a job, women can expect to earn up to 27% less than men for the same job, regardless of experience and education.
Legal Rights: Limited legal standing impacts females in countless ways -- from the inability to borrow money because they can't legally own land and the inability to make decisions regarding how their children are cared for to the inability to decide when and how to be touched. When women are legally and therefore economically dependent upon their spouses or other male relatives, they have very little choice but to accept what is granted them in life. For example, in Ukraine, Latvia and Macedonia, where there are laws against rape, women say they don't bother to report rape because of lack of action by authorities.
Political Representation: Women are underrepresented at all levels of government in developing countries, despite being capable of representing their people. Without representation, there is very little attention drawn to laws that limit opportunities for girls and women.
Breaking barriers proves difficult
Fighting gender discrimination can be difficult because it can go against entrenched local traditions. So, while laws may be revised, people continue to live by deeply held cultural beliefs.
For example, in the 1960s India outlawed the tradition of dowry -- where a husband demands that his bride come with material possessions or he won't take her as wife. But this tradition is so entrenched in local society that most brides still provide dowry. Things are slowly changing. You may have heard in the news of cases where brides are rebelling against this practice and reporting it to the authorities.
What is the international community doing?
At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the international community agreed on a Platform for Action to improve the lives of women and girls. Conference participants realized that development and progress aren't possible if half of a country's population is not considered equal.
The World Bank and other organizations working on development have become strong advocates for gender equality in all aspects of life. Over the last five years (FY06 - FY10) more than $65 billion, or 37 percent of the World Bank's lending and grants, were allocated to gender-informed operations in education, health, access to land, financial and agricultural services, jobs, and infrastructure.
The international community has also started to look at issues that boys face. For example, in some Central European, Latin American and Caribbean countries, many boys are dropping out of school, especially secondary school. They often don't see the benefit of staying in school, and instead prefer to find work, but are often lured by jobs related to various illegal activities.
What can I do?
If you are a girl or a woman, never stop believing that your voice is valuable and your contribution is needed to improve the world around you. Stay in school and pursue your dreams no matter how hard the road to success may be. If you are a boy or a man, respect women as you respect yourself. Be conscientious of subtle inequalities.
Do you care about this issue passionately in your country and the world? There are a number of organizations working to give women and men the same opportunities in all aspects of society.
Check out these websites to learn more about gender inequality:
- The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works in 158 nations providing reproductive health and HIV/AIDS education, promoting gender equity, helping to reduce violence against women.
- Women Thrive Worldwide works to advocate international economic policies and human rights that support women worldwide in ending poverty in their lives, communities and nations.
- International Women's Health Coalition works to generate health and population policies, programs, and funding that promote and protect the rights and health of girls and women worldwide, particularly in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and countries in post-socialist transition.
More information: Gender